Growing up in between cultures

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People have asked me what it was about my upbringing that made me so worldly curious. And I always say that it has been the fact that I was raised multi-culturally (even multi-religiously).

Sure, you might say this was inevitable in my case. Parents from Iran, born and raised in Germany. “More than one culture” was already my starting point. But believe me, it’s not a given. I have seen plenty of immigrant families where the default attitude was full assimilation, and not the wholehearted celebration of both home and host cultures.

With deep-felt gratitude, however, I am able to thank my parents for going the extra mile in my upbringing. They could have made my childhood all about “fitting in” by renouncing our Iranian heritage, but they didn’t. They could have also lived a life all about preserving our Iranian culture by way of fending off the German culture as much as possible, but they didn’t do that either. 

For them, it was all about finding a healthy middle ground. And I don’t think anything shows that better than the way how they dealt with the aspect of religion. While not religiously Muslim, we are certainly culturally Muslim – growing up in rural and Christian Bavaria (it’s so Christian compared to other States, it has its own Christian Democratic Party, the CDU). But that didn’t prevent my parents from encouraging me to attend Christian religion classes in Middle School. Or sending me to the local YMCA where I – no joke – ended up playing biblical characters in musicals and plays that were aired on TV (Moses and co. were Middle Easterners, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch after all).

And next to religion, they were always there to help me walk this very fine and ambiguous line of cherishing my Iranian heritage – for example by way of learning Farsi, visiting Iran, building strong ties with relatives back home, or learning the customs. Yet at the same time adopting the culture of the country we called our new home, namely many of the things that immigrant (Muslim) families struggle with: eating pork, drinking alcohol, dating, what have you. 

But there were also moments I remember where walking that line was not so easy. I have this memory of sitting in the back of the car, I must have been 10 years old, while we were driving to Italy for vacation. And I remember how I was looking at the beautiful landscape and expressing my liking with the word “geil.” Now geil is colloquial for “cool/awesome,” but it’s literal translation is “horny.” And while my parents knew that it was being used colloquially, they didn’t like it. So they forbade us to use it. Everyone was allowed to use it, but we were not. 

Adopting these seemingly minuscule elements of a culture might seem insignificant to some, but the degree to which you play along – culturally speaking – matters. At the end of the day, even if you adopt 95% of what your host culture has to offer, you are probably going to get judged on those 5% that you don’t. Especially if you already don’t look like the rest. 

I am not sure how aware my parents were about the way how they raised me. If all these efforts were intentional or accidental, but it’s those very efforts that allowed me to be aware of my heritage, appreciative of my host culture, and curious about all the other cultures foreign to me. The question of whether I am Iranian or German actually never really came up until much later in my life when I left Germany and found myself in positions in which I had to talk more explicitly about my upbringing. 

Looking forward, the challenge I’m facing is that I am already someone who is in between two cultures. Culturally speaking, I am neither fully Iranian, nor fully German. So I have always wondered what part of my identity I will be passing down to my children. A question that is likely going to be compounded by two additional factors: one, the country in which I will raise children, and two, the person with whom I will raise those children with. My future partner could easily be someone who brings another (or even two other) cultures into the relationship.

It’s a whole different level of complexity, but it’s also a massive opportunity to raise a new generation that has a very multifaceted identity and unprecedented levels of cultural fluency. 

Mom and dad, while you will likely not read this, I thank you wholeheartedly for everything you’ve given me and for raising me the way you did. Super geil of you. 

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