Comments 20

No Time For Goodbyes

Illustration for Denizen by Elaina Natario

I was 17 – about to start my senior year at Tehran American School. Forty-eight hours later, I was in a small Kansas farm town. My culture shock was not Iran, it was Kansas.

My mother, sister and I left Tehran in 1978 as the Shah’s reign unraveled. My father stayed behind hoping things would improve. When they didn’t, he took one of the last American evacuation flights out of the country.

I was devastated, coming from a large, metropolitan city back to a small town in Kansas. This was not my home. Yes, I was born there, but I grew up in Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was my parents home – not mine. What did I have in common with these kids who had spent their whole lives together? Kids who couldn’t even find Iran or Saudi Arabia on a map, let alone understand my situation? I never felt more isolated or different than our first year ‘home.’

The greatest sadness of leaving Iran in 1978 was its speed. Our departures were so fast that there was no time for goodbyes. All of my closest high school friends scattered to the winds. Tens of thousands of Americans lived in Tehran when I was there, and by the end of 1979 there were only 52 left – the American hostages.

When we arrived back in the States, we had to pick up the pieces and move on with our lives. As expatriate kids we were the kings and queens of adaptation. Why should this be any different? In fact, it should be easier. We were ‘home,’ right? So why did I feel there was such a huge hole inside of me?

It’s not that the kids in Kansas were mean or cruel to me – they weren’t – but it was clear I wasn’t one of them. I was the only kid in my class who didn’t know how to drive when everyone else had cars. I couldn’t name primetime TV shows, I didn’t follow American sports and I didn’t know which parts of pop culture were cool or lame. To be honest, I didn’t care either. My friends were all gone and there was no way to find them. The place I called home didn’t exist anymore – not for me. It was all swept away by the revolution.

In Iran my friends and I would take taxis all over the sprawling city of Tehran. We’d hit the pirate tape stores, party in the discos, wander around in the Grand Bazaar, or head up to the Alborz mountains where we’d take ski-lifts to the tea houses. Tehran was our playground, exciting and always tinged with danger.

In Kansas my classmates cruised their cars around downtown on Friday and Saturday nights, a circuit that consisted of several blocks and two stoplights. They’d sit on the hoods of their cars, talk and laugh and sneak beers, and it was all fine, but for me it was as if life had slowed to a stop.

My answer to all of this was to isolate myself from my peers. Even family members seemed strange to me. I remember one of my favorite uncles proclaiming that ‘We should just nuke those A-rabs and take their oil.’ I couldn’t believe his words, but of course, I said nothing. He was a man I loved as a child, and I still wanted to love him. I had changed, he hadn’t. How could he understand me without having lived my life? The fact was he couldn’t, at least that’s what I thought.

The cliche that ‘time heals all wounds’ is mostly true. The emptiness I felt coming ‘home’ dissipated as I adjusted, made new friends, and re-shaped my world. I traveled, I pursued various careers, and I eventually married and settled down in Hawaii with my wife and baby boy. As I found myself finally at home, the past I thought was gone forever, returned through the advent of social media.

After 30 years of absence and not knowing, many of my old friends are part of my life again. As online connections grow we ask each other about former classmates, ‘Has anybody heard from Joe?’, ‘Whatever happened to Mary?’, ‘I just found Freddie and Eddie and invited them to join our chat group!’

We are no longer kids but the bonds of our youth remain strong. The goodbyes never said are now warm greetings, updates on families, talk of children and new adventures.

If you are feeling lost while returning ‘home’, I urge you to reach out and make connections both in your current life and all your other lives. No one can understand you better than your friends, wherever they are. Make the best of what you have, and cherish the best of what you had, for it will always be with you.


  1. Betty Chen says

    What an incredible experience .. I hope you have been able to track down most of your friends since then! Thanks for sharing this 🙂


  2. I almost cried when I read this! The re-entry culture shock is so familiar to me … the not being able to drive, etc. was exactly what happened in my case. Talk about shared experiences!


  3. @ Betty. Yes, Betty, I’ve been able to contact many of my old friends from my time in Iran. Not knowing what happened to my classmates was the worst part of coming ‘home’. Reconnecting with them after all these years is a wonderful experience.


  4. @ Liz. Ah, don’t cry Liz! Yes, I think we shared some common misery. I was 18 and fraying my mother’s nerves as she took me on the backroads of Kansas to teach me how to drive. In a big ol’ Lincoln no less! It was like steering a huge motorboat down a gravel road.


  5. Donna H says

    Well said, Tony. You experience is so similar to mine. I didn’t have culture shock going to Iran, but I sure did coming “home.”


  6. Aloha Donna,
    How does that Talking Heads song go. “Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there…” Global nomads, that we were.


  7. Anthony, as always, very heartfelt ~ mos def feel it in my heart bruddah & This Must Be The Place by Talking Heads is one of my all time fav songs ~ growing up in America as an Asian kid definitely makes me appreciate your perspective. Love ya!


  8. I feel you Anthony… We returned to the U.S. in December of ’78. While we returned to the same city we had left (Buffalo, NY), My parents for some reason decided that they were NOW going to send me to a small Catholic school to finish out the year. (we’re NOT Catholic)

    What a disaster that was. I spent the rest of the year as “The Iranian” (forget the fact that I’m Black, and was born in the U.S.), and had to literally fight two or three times a week because the IGNORANT kids at that school were convinced that I was somehow the “enemy”. The nuns did absolutely NOTHING to stop it, but were always quick to assign me detention if I defended myself.


  9. That’s terrible Jonathan. All the feelings we had coming home, and then to have religion and race thrown on top of all that and having to fight your way through school. It’s so, so wrong you were put through that. In addition to what you experienced, America went a little crazy during the hostage crisis. I remember Iranian friends in the US pretending to be anything but Iranian to keep from suffering discrimination and reprisals. I remember all the ‘F*** Iran’ bumper stickers and the rage because of the hostages. Sadly, many of the Iranians who lost family members to the mullahs and had to flee their homeland were the ones who faced the brunt of the hate here in the US. Ignorance: the core ingredient of racism. I’m glad life if good for you now, Jonathan. Be well, my brother.


  10. ‘Make the best of what you have, and cherish the best of what you had’ – wonderful story beautifully told. having social media back then wouldn’t have stopped the pain and alienation, but you could’ve found solace in ‘talking’ with your friends. So glad you’ve reconnected. What a gift.


  11. Mahalo Linda. Very true. There was no going ‘home’ again, and pain and loss had to run its course. It would have been helpful to talk with those who experienced the same emotions. Coming back to the States after fleeing Iran and then very quickly having the nation engaged 24/7 in the Hostage Crisis was a whirlwind of emotion for me. The last thing in the world I wanted to talk about was how much I loved and missed Iran, even knowing that the ‘Iran’ I missed no longer existed, especially for me. I felt a personal connection to the Hostages and was overjoyed when they were finally released, yet, I still missed what we had there.


  12. Katherine says

    I’m currently living in Saudi. Only those who have experienced life here, can know what it’s like. I give up on trying to explain. But I can sit in stillness with those who shared similar experiences. Loved your account. It is so real and heartfelt.


  13. Marhaba Katherine,
    I lived in SA in the early 70s. Two years in Al Khobar (which we hated) and 3 years across the continent in At Taif (which we loved). You so right, it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t lived the experience. Good and bad but it all becomes normal life.


  14. russ says

    I feel for you, I was told that we would be coming back, and we(my mom, sister and me) left only with a couple of suitcases, lots of things I would have tried to take with me had I known it was a final departure, I happened fast, and I didn’t even try to get addresses of friends.


  15. Lisa Britt says

    Wow. It would have been so great to have the internet back then when we were all going through the same thing, and all doing it alone. I not only didn’t say goodbye to any TAS friends ….I thought we would go back after Christmas. I only packed a few clothes and my snow skis! So good to hear a familiar story and feel kinship with someone from those days. Thank you for sharing – Lisa


  16. Lisa Solomine says

    Reading this article really touched me. I, too, lived in Tehran, yet until 1979. I wasn’t 17 when we left, I was only 11 years old and unfortunately, unlike you, I haven’t been able to re-locate any of the former TAS-ers I knew from back then. I especially miss my then, “best friend” Christopher McKeen. (You wouldn’t believe how many Christopher McKeens there are in the world!) (And coincidentally, I have family who live in Hawaii) 🙂 I agree – there’s nothing like good friends and your final sentiments couldn’t have resonated stronger. Thank you for sharing your memories of that time. I have the fondest memories of Tehran, that period and TAS and the friends I made there….Merci, Aloha!


  17. Aloha Lisa,
    Thank you for your kind words. Are you involved in any of the TAS facebook groups? I’m in a couple and there are some folks who went to Lavizan at the time you were there: my sister, DeEdra Roberts, Jonathon K. Lee and Donna Hamilton. I’m sure there are others but those are the ones with whom I’m acquainted. Any of those names ring a bell? Feel free to email me at sonsofthegreatsatan@me.com if you’d like me to steer you to these groups.


  18. Holly N. says

    A lot of us at the Passargad Facebook page (Ahwaz, Iran) are really enjoying your article. We all relate. My fifth grade class had pen-pals at TAS and we had a field trip where we stayed with host families. At least I think it was TAS, weren’t there two American schools there? Ann Post was I think who I stayed with and Jennifer was my first pen pal. We were in 5th grade and I think the trip was in 1978.


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