SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Sepideh Sefidvash-Hockley
The Pathos of My Diaspora

The first time I felt that I was different was on my first day of school in Ireland.  My family and I lived in the city of Gorgan in northern Iran, until I was six years old.  In October 1968, my family decided to immigrate to Ireland.  I was six years old and my brother, Siavash, was nine and a half, and neither of us spoke any English whatsoever.  I remember arriving at school dressed in a mustard-yellow and brown plaid kilt with beige-colored tights, a brown sweater and a heavy, red and green plaid overcoat, my long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail.  I was so overdressed I looked like the Michelin tire man I had seen on television commercials.  I clearly recall the teacher, Miss Driver, introducing me to the first grade class and hearing the snickers and seeing the finger pointing as I removed my coat and the children noticed that I was still wearing my pajama bottoms under my tights.  Little did they know that I was also wearing my pajama top under my sweater.  They didn’t know that I had come from a hot climate, and my mother, concerned that I would catch a cold in Ireland’s cold, damp, weather, had bundled me up in all these layers of clothing.  From then on, the badgering and bickering never seemed to end.

My name is Fiona Kelly.  One day in October, the strangest thing happened.  Miss Driver brought a new girl into our first grade class.  I had never seen anyone dressed like her before.  She was actually wearing pajama bottoms under her tights and layers upon layers of clothing.  Where did she think she was the North Pole?  The whole class started giggling the minute she took off her coat.  But that wasn’t all that was different about her.  For one thing, she didn’t look anything like the rest of us in class.  She had long, dark hair and dark brown eyes and her skin was a yellowish tan color.  I can’t even remember her name now, but it was not like anything I had ever heard before.  At recess I talked to my best friend, Patricia, to see if she wanted to play with the new girl on the playground.  But Patricia said, “she doesn’t even understand English, what would we do with her?”  So, we left her alone, all the while staring at her from a distance.  She looked like she was about ready to cry at any minute.  Miss Driver had said the new girl came from I-r-a-n, or some such place, I don’t know but I had never heard of it.  I told my mom about it later and she said she had never heard of it either, but it definitely wasn’t anywhere in Ireland.  My mom also reminded me that we were Catholics and the new girl was probably a heathen who hadn’t been baptized, and we all know where people who haven’t been baptized go after they die.  She told me I should be careful around her because people from far away countries were known to have some strange customs and behaviors.  I figured the way she was dressed was indication enough of that.  Patricia and I decided she was too weird to be in our den!

For the first several months, I was kept in class during recess so Miss Driver could teach me enough English to enable me to get past miming everything I wanted to say in class.  After that, I would go out and try to play with my classmates but I was rarely included in their ‘dens.’  Occasionally, an inquisitive child would ask me where I came from and I would say “Iran” to which they would respond with a blank stare.  So, I would say “Persia”, the old name for Iran, and they would say “Peru?”  In frustration, I would simply resort to saying the “Middle East.”  All of this information, of course, would get reported back to the parents and several days later I would hear that some child’s mother knew all about my country: the Shah (King) was on his third marriage, and his first wife had been a beautiful Egyptian Princess. That was the extent of their knowledge about my country.  Living in a country where divorce was illegal, it didn’t help my case that I came from a country where the King had been married so many times.  It was the first of many black marks to be placed against my country of origin.

 I desperately wanted to belong.  I wanted to be the same and look the same as all the other children in my neighborhood, all of whom were Irish.  One day, I took a brown marker-pen and went up to my room in our rented house and drew freckles all over my face.  Feeling much better about my appearance, I came downstairs several hours later and went outside to play with the children in the neighborhood.  I remember feeling so broken-hearted when my efforts to look like all the other Irish kids were confronted with even more jeering than usual.  I couldn’t understand why no matter what I did I could not fit in and be accepted.  When I came into the house sobbing, my parents laughed at my antics and this became a story that was told and retold among friends and family for years to come.  It was many years before I could see any humor in what was to me, a very traumatic experience.  Finding my ‘niche’, fitting in with my peers, became a dilemma that I would ponder long into my adulthood.

My name is Deirdre O'Riordan.  I lived across the street from the foreign family that moved into our neighborhood in the autumn of 1968.  They had two children, a boy and a girl, with very strange names.  There were eight of us in my family.  My mom told us to play with the children across the street and try to show them what it meant to be Irish Catholics.  The trouble was they didn't speak a word of English and they didn't even look like they were happy to be here.  The girl's name was Sepideh.  One day she came out to play with my friends and I in the neighborhood, and she had painted brown spots all over her face.  I wondered what she thought she was doing.  Was she trying to make fun of me and my family because we had freckles?  I thought she had some nerve trying to mock us like that, it certainly didn't win her any popularity points with me!
My first birthday party in Ireland.  I was seven years old.  I am the first girl on the right, and my brother is standing second from the left.

I reflect back on those early days of my life in Ireland with pain and sadness for the lost child that I was, and also with great empathy for my parents who must have often questioned the wisdom of their decision to emigrate from their homeland.  A friend of my parents, and the only other Iranian we knew in Ireland advised them that the fastest way Siavash and I were going to learn English was by purchasing a television and being promptly placed in school, an advice my parents chose to follow.  We learned English by watching “I Love Lucy” and “Hawaii Five-O” on television, and going to school.

I remember waking up every morning to the sound of incessant rain and howling, cold wind outside my bedroom window.  The days were short, dark and gloomy, and the nights were never-ending.  It never seemed to get to full daylight before the evening set in again.  It was a depressing climate that seemed to reflect my sadness and compound my feelings of alienation.  Although my mother, brother and I were sad and homesick most of the time, my father acted as if he was on the greatest adventure of his life.  He was often out meeting new people, exploring his new environment, while the rest of us huddled around the storage heaters in our rented house to keep warm and dry.  On reflection, Ireland's unforgiving winter climate was part and parcel of its overall beauty.  As the years went on, we learned to accept the dark and bitter winter months.  We looked forward to the long, lazy summer days when the sun didn't set until 9:00 p.m., late evening walks along the beach were common-place, everyone was dressed in their cool summer clothes, and we were allowed play with our friends in the neighborhood until dark.

 After my parents were married, and before I was born, my mother was forced to leave her friends and family in Mashad and move to Gorgan to live with my father's family.  She was 20 years old and miserably unhappy.  She felt unwelcomed by her interfering in-laws and totally isolated from her own family.  The roads between Mashad and Gorgan were unpaved and hard to travel, so she rarely saw her parents.  Shortly after her marriage, her brother immigrated to Austria to pursue his career in music with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  I think my mother envied her brother's ability to escape his environment and pursue his own freedom.  Her own attempts to escape her domineering, status-seeking mother had resulted in an 'imprisonment' of a different kind.

My father was an attorney in Gorgan and his work was very stressful.  Gorgan's climate was hot and humid; as a result he developed health problems.  His doctor recommended a change of environment and possible relocation to a city such as Tehran.  My mother saw this as an opportunity to escape her self-induced 'prison' and suggested they move overseas as other family members had done.  My father agreed, especially since his brother's family had already immigrated to Italy.  He wanted his children to grow up learning English, so he ruled out all non-English speaking countries.  My father traveled all over Europe and finally chose Ireland.  He fell in love with the Emerald Isle surrounded by ocean.  He returned to Iran and told my mother about it and she welcomed the opportunity to start her life over someplace else.

My family's immigration to Ireland was primarily spurred on by my mother's desire to gain some kind of control over her life.  She was 30 years old and my father was 39.  It is hard to know what my mother expected when she arrived in Ireland, but clearly she suffered a major culture shock.  Irish society in the late 1960's was secluded and provincial.  Foreigners were considered intruders on the Irish way of life.  We were transmigrants living in a diaspora.  We maintained all our connections with business and family in Iran until the revolution in the summer of 1978.  At which time, my family's property was confiscated and all our assets frozen by the Islamic Republic of Iran because of our membership in the Bahá'í Faith, the largest minority religion in Iran.

It was not until 1973 when Ireland joined the European Economic Community (E.E.C), now known as the European Union (E.U.), that we saw an influx of people from other countries and the emergence of a cosmopolitan society, particularly in Dublin city.  Ireland had suffered an economic depression as inflation and unemployment rates soared.  Membership in the E.E.C. promised to bolster the failing economy and increase tourism, but that meant the Irish people had to accept the integration of 'foreigners' into their midst.  Thus, the practice of transnationalism, which had been a reality for my family since 1968, became more commonplace in Irish society.

When I reflect upon my own experiences of cultural and ethnic "borderlands," I reach several conclusions.  Undoubtedly, I was 'othered' by a society that was not accustomed to the presence of 'others.'  The ethnic and cultural prejudice I experienced in Ireland was due to ignorance and fear of a culture that was unknown and misunderstood.  Finally, I realize that although Ireland has become a more cosmopolitan society than it was in the late 1960's, it continues to be challenged with issues of racism and ethnocentricity as does the rest of the world.  Although, these accounts are my earliest experiences with being othered, as an adult living in the United States, I continue to define and reshape my identity in an attempt to find my niche, both among my peers and in society.

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