Nowruz: Tradition and the Cultural Divide

Haftsin table of Nowruz, Iranian tradition of ...
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Happy Nowruz one day late! This long and beloved Persian festival would have escaped my attention had it not been for an opinion piece that my brother sent me from the New York Times. The holiday, observed after a long winter and coinciding with spring equinox, celebrates the Iranian New Year along with spring and life. Iranians world-wide hold to the same traditions with visiting the elderly, special foods and the famous “Haft Sin” table of Seven. (sprouts (sabzeh),garlic (sir), apples (sib), pudding or custard made of wheat (samanu), dried oleaster (senjed), vinegar (serkeh) and sumac berries(sumac). These seven items, symbolic of seven creations,  is a beautiful and elaborate traditional table display for the holiday.

The article my brother sent me was a poignant look at an immigrant family from Iran as told by the daughter. The daughter speaks of coming to the United States from Iran in the early eighties, her parents awkward and misplaced with only occasional phone calls and the blessed, yearly Nowruz to keep them grounded and connected to the country and culture they so deeply loved. She, on the other hand, was in love with the world of “strawberries and wienershnitzel” that Los Angeles of the eighties offered her and therein is a unique description of the all too familiar cultural divide that occurs between and among families in the immigration process.

The elder members of the family, homesick for the old and dissatisfied with the new, are desperate to keep faith and culture alive in a country where they see threats to both. The young fully present in their current reality, soaking in all that is new, easily dismiss all that is from their past as old and irrelevant whether it be eating habits, dress, or faith traditions. In the words of the author of the opinion piece they realize these traditions are safest kept to the house”. Parents in their hurt and confusion often drive their children farther away through guilt-inducing statements and passive aggressive behavior.  The kids respond in kind, moving farther away, whether emotionally or geographically, and try and dismiss the feelings that occasionally rise to the surface that symbolize their deep need for belonging and their perhaps ineffective ways of trying to achieve this in the “new country”.

The infamous “they” say that time heals all wounds. Perhaps time also heals those cultural divides. Certainly in this case the author comes around to a place of seeing Nowruz “more about a call of the new… than the pull of the old” finding recipes and driving long distances for a “real” Persian meal as she comes to a greater understanding and appreciation for the event in her life.

Children are rarely aware of the significance and/or severity of events that bring their parents to a point of “no return” to the country they have left. To be sure they are aware of upheaval, loss, and change but the big events are not understandable. I believe it is those just below the surface of their conscious feelings of loss and disconnection that make them unable to connect old with new, forcing them into a choice between curry and hotdogs, or Nowruz and the 4th of July,  until they are adults and can work through these feelings and know it’s okay to live between worlds and appreciate both. Where they can come to a point of understanding and embracing both events without feeling disloyal or dishonest, but instead richer and more complex adding to their one-of-a-kind cultural heritage.

So to all those immigrants and hidden immigrants – Happy Nowruz or Sham el Nessim or Spring Equinox. You have a past and a history no one can take away from you. Embrace it and use it to build bridges on both sides of the globe.

“With barely any cognizance of the revolution that brought us here 30 years ago, I was ready to be a card-carrying member of this world of hot dogs and strawberries; but by the time I got that card — citizenship, 20 years later — I found that I had joined my parents in the clumsy yet hopeful adulthood of immigrants. And in this moment of upheaval and transformation, in yet another season of renewal and rebirth, I finally understand that existing in the temporary and embracing impermanence might not be a dishonest way to accept life.” Porochista KhakpourNYTimes Op-ed piece, printed March 20,2011

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