You would never know by my name or my accent that I am from Iran. I “get over” easily on the phone and in writing. I first realized the consequences of this at a conference 15 years ago.
As I was having a drink in the hotel bar on the first night of the conference, my colleague told me that one of the senior managers was looking for me.
As a transportation lawyer with over a decade of experience, I already felt quite confident in my field, but having this senior executive interested in meeting with me boosted my confidence. I wondered if he had heard of my work. The prospect of meeting him and finding out the source of his interest was exciting.
Being a lawyer in a male-dominated field comes with challenges. But being an Iranian-American woman adds more complexities. So having this respected senior executive asking about me was satisfying.
My friend and I stood at the only open door to the huge ballroom watching attendees rush to the conference’s glitzy final event.
“Rebecca! To see! There’s the guy I told you about earlier today. His last name is also Morrison, ”she said, impressed that this executive wanted to meet her friend. “He’s right there, standing by the bar. Do you see it?”
“I see it,” I said, straightening up a bit.
Dressed in my overpriced milk chocolate pantsuit, I prepared to meet him. I’d gone the extra mile to get ready for the banquet, painstakingly plucking my thick brows to accentuate their arches and conditioning my long, curly black hair with salon-bought cream to resist frizz.
Mr Morrison was having a lively conversation with another attendee in the crowded group of people waiting to sneak into the ballroom. I focused on them and saw the participant pointing at me through the crowd.
When Mr. Morrison approached me, his carefree smile turned into an annoyed grimace.
“Oh, you are not a real Morrison, he said inspecting me. “You just married one.”
He then entered the ballroom without waiting for an answer.
He was right―my last name was newly acquired when I married my husband. This man was looking for a white American woman with that name. My Iranian identity, my appearance, my otherness, were not only a disappointment to him but also an affront – as if I had taken something precious that did not belong to me.
Frozen, speechless, I tried to assimilate what had just happened. A fire rushed to my face and tears welled up in my eyes. My friend was talking to another attendee and didn’t notice my pained expression. I wanted the floor to swallow me whole. Instead, I went to dinner with a forced smile on my face.
My father has an Iranian first name par excellence, Ghassem. Shortly after World War II, when he was 9 years old, his parents sent him to a European boarding school where he was cruelly teased about his name. He named me Rebecca because he wanted to protect me from the racism he experienced during those formative years.
“My Iranianness, my appearance, my otherness, were not only a disappointment to him but also an affront – as if I had taken something precious that did not belong to me.”
When I was 8 years old, my family left Iran. My parents moved us from town to town and country to country, trying to find the right home. Growing up in a constant state of otherness weighed heavily on me and created a desperate desire to belong.
When I arrived in America, a place I saw through the eyes of this little girl in Iran watching American movies, I felt like I was finally home. It was the land I had dreamed of where I could live free, prosper, succeed and, above all, belong.
This senior executive believed that someone with his last name – a name that came from Scotland hundreds of years ago to America and was shared by more than 120,000 Americans – should look like him.
By saying that I was not a “real” Morrison and rejecting me, I felt like he was saying that I was not entitled to his Americanness in the same way as he was. He implied that not only was I not a “real” Morrison, but also that I would never be a real American. And at the time, I had adhered to his idea. I felt guilty and embarrassed for having cheated on him, as if I had fraudulently coveted my husband’s American identity.
When my friends asked me what happened when I met Mr. Morrison, I lied. I told them he said hello and introduced himself. I was embarrassed at the way he had treated me, but also ashamed of my own reaction.
Over the years, I have changed. I became a mother and realized who I wanted to be for my children: someone who is proud of her American identity and her Iranian heritage without having to sacrifice either. I wanted to show them that the 4th of July meant as much to me as Nowruz, the Iranian New Year.
Teaching my children about Nowruz, a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition where Iranians gather with family and friends to celebrate the first day of spring, became an important start in helping us appreciate and value my cultural heritage.
The 4th of July also means a lot to me. It’s a time every year when we celebrate not only our country’s independence, but how much America meant to me as an immigrant who came here with dreams of freedom and prosperity.
During those same years, my country also changed. We’ve elected more state and federal leaders of different ethnicities and had more books, movies, and TV shows that celebrate diverse cultures than ever before.
I began to transform the way I saw myself and my home, and came to believe that Americans not only deserve but also have the right to call home without sacrificing where they come from. or the celebrations of the cultures that made them who they are. .
I am American and my husband is American. We have different lineages and ethnicities and stories of how our families traveled in America, but no matter how we became Americans, whether by birth or by oath of allegiance, we are also Americans.
And while Mr Morrison may not have seen it that way, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will. Because no matter what the old guard of Americanness wants or believes, America is moving closer and closer to a fully realized multicultural nation. People like me: Rebecca Morrison, Iranian-American.
Rebecca Morrison is a lawyer, writer and painter. She lives with her husband and two sons in the Washington, DC area. She is writing a memoir about leaving Iran and pursuing her American dream. You can follow her on Twitter @contactrebecca and read her work at www.rebeccakmorrison.com.
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