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.