BY JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Growing up in the busy metropolis of Tehran, Nahid Soltanzadeh lived a privileged life. “I have a liberal family, and I had a lot of freedom that many girls my age did not have. There is a complex combination of religion and tradition that creates the fiber of what society expects of women in Iran.” Although her family did not practice Islam, Soltanzadeh noted, “The rules and the laws are made as if everyone is a Muslim, and you have to pretend that you are. Women have to wear loose clothing and the hijab [headscarf]. There are hijab police who drive around, and if you are not wearing one, you are taken to a police station where you sign a statement promising that you will wear it. A family member has to bring you the proper clothing to be released. I was arrested three times. After three arrests, you [may] have a criminal record. That didn’t happen to me, but it was much harder to get released after the third time.”
While simultaneously studying engineering at university in Tehran and teaching Persian literature at a middle school, Soltanzadeh, along with her family, received U.S. green cards. “My aunt has been living in Ohio for 50 years and petitioned for my family to become U.S. citizens. It took nine years for all the background checks to go through.” Given her newly acquired legal status and the fact that her sister was then living in Canada, Soltanzadeh decided to pursue her master’s degree in education in the U.S. In 2015, she left Tehran to attend Penn State University.
Although Soltanzadeh had traveled to the U.S. every six months after receiving her green card in order to keep it active, when she moved here, she began to experience culture shock in forming friendships. “I didn’t know how much to offer of myself to someone. Iranians are very hospitable people. The standard for kindness is so different from the U.S. In Iran, people do more sacrifice and always put others first. We do things for each other without being asked. If someone doesn’t have food, you share it. If you are lost and ask people for help, they may give you a ride to your destination, and it’s a normal thing.”
Another challenge Soltanzadeh encountered was “the racial dynamics.” She explained, “It was very shocking for me, not that [racial tension] exists, but the denial of it and the complexity. When you are out of the U.S., you think it is the land of opportunity, but [it’s] not for everyone. It was really hard for me to understand because [in Iran] we do not have different races. We all look the same, and we don’t have a loaded history of oppression as big as slavery. I feel that I belong more to the community of people of color than of white people because I am not from here.”
However, Soltanzadeh has enjoyed the freedoms she has in the U.S. that she did not experience in Iran. “Suddenly I could live free of my gender. In Iran, you have to wear the headscarf, and the first thing people see is a woman. Here, people may see other things about me. For a long time, I really enjoyed that space of not being identified by my gender first.” She also appreciates the ability to have public conversations about controversial topics, like the current #MeToo movement. “Listening to this conversation in the U.S. has helped me frame oppression and given me a language to talk about it.”
Soltanzadeh moved to Hyattsville to be close to her teaching job in Bladensburg. She feels at home here because of the diversity and the authenticity of the people and the city’s vibe. “There are big differences in the lives of the people who live in Hyattsville. The fact that I can see it — that it is visible on the face of the town, the buildings, [and] the businesses — makes me feel that I’m not lied to. I feel that Hyattsville is an honest town.”
Nonetheless, Soltanzadeh hopes to return to Iran someday. “I miss the feeling I had when I was home [in Iran] that I own [a] place collectively with other people. I’m not borrowing anything. I have a voice here, but I don’t feel like I know how to play this game. I’m trying hard to learn.”
Cultural Connections is dedicated to sharing the voices of immigrants and other foreigners who have settled in Hyattsville.