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Foreign Mothers, Foreign Tongues: ‘In Another Universe, She Could Have Been My Friend’

Having grown up in different cultures with different expectations, my mother and I have often clashed. But as my daughter grows older, I have come to see our relationship in a different light.

The Guardian

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For a short time in 2020, when my daughter, Elena, was four, we lived in France. On our first day, our kitchen in boxes, I took her to McDonald’s and told her that the French call it “Le Macdo”. I propped her up on a counter and read her the French menu items, as she giggled into my shoulder. “Mummy, the French are so funny!” A few weeks later, we ran into a boy from her school. He said “Coucou, Elena!” She waved coolly at him, then grinned at me. “Isn’t that so funny?”

Her secret laughter reminded me of my first glimpse of family life in the west. I was nine and we had just escaped from Iran, because my mother was a Christian convert – an apostate. My mother, brother and I had been living in undocumented limbo in Dubai, and when the migrant hostel closed without notice we were taken in by a family of Australian missionaries. On our first night in their house, we three retreated to our room and giggled as we dissected their routines. We were grateful to have a comfortable room and a bed, but the family seemed so strange to us. There was also a thrill in scrutinising the habits of white people; we didn’t often get the chance. My mother’s eyes went wide when dinner arrived: plates of cold cuts, cold vegetables and leftovers. Each night, their son Nathan, a boy my age, got his private time, then official tuck-in with each parent, a bizarre ritual.

I had never been offered private time. My mother was in my business all the time. In the hostel, she had slept in my bed. Nathan’s closed door seemed to me so performative and unnecessary. Did mothers in other countries close the door, count the minutes and wait for their child to complete some kind of playtime ablutions? In those early immigrant days, my mother, brother and I lived in a perpetual state of wonder and bafflement. Everything these anglophones did was weird, and at night we clung to one another and laughed about it until our mirth turned to tears, and we fell asleep in each other’s arms, wishing that one day we’d get their jokes and sit easy at their table.

Nowadays I often return to Nathan’s closed bedroom door. For two decades, my mother, brother and I lived deep inside each other’s psychic borders, sharing mattresses and plates of food and a hybrid language. We became good at loving one another in crisis but bad at solitude, peace or privacy. Each of us somehow denied the other two their own points of view. No matter where we were – whether we were stuck in a refugee camp, an airport or a grimy Oklahoma apartment – it was as if we lived together inside a familiar old room, one draped in tapestries and smelling like dinners from home. Inside that warm bunker, we joked and wept and fought, shouting things we’d never say to anyone else. We released our trauma in ugly ways, expecting to be forgiven. No outburst could get you banished if you were blood. While outside boomed wars and displacement and chaos, we filled the inside with cosy family dramas. After many years, the outside noises died down and the inside grew darker and cacophonous. We grew taller, the air became rancid and my brother and I left, one after the other, seeking open skies and new families.

A few months after my partner, daughter and I arrived in France, we ran into another boy from Elena’s school. “Coucou, Benjamin!” Elena initiated the greeting this time, pronouncing his name in such a nasal way that I snorted. Bah-Jamah. It was like she’d picked up somebody’s deviated septum. She glared at me. “Stop it, mummy!” she whisper-shouted. I shrank back. Elena was disappearing into a passable Frenchness that I couldn’t fake, because I had no hope of hearing a difference between en and an. Soon I was alone in our cocoon where the French are so silly, so funny. “Stop it!” Elena whispered each time I tried to speak French to her friends.

“Excuse me, miss,” I’d remind her, “but this is my third language.” These words transported me back to my first home in the American south, a tiny apartment where my mother, brother and I began the long work of becoming American. I’d make fun of my mother’s English and she’d say “Excuse me, Khanom (miss), but in Farsi, I have a medical degree.” I used to think that I stayed inside that warm, imaginary room with my mother for a decade. But maybe I left her there, a year or two into our arrival in Oklahoma, where I assimilated quickly and deliberately, altering my accent in a hundred subtle ways that my mother couldn’t hear.

I now know that the good-smelling room, that imaginary safe space I shared with my brother and mother, was never actually safe for a girl. An Iranian daughter isn’t ever meant to leave. A son will eventually go, but a daughter must rot there. She can never express any deviation from her mother’s values, or revel in any triumph her mother might find shameful. I realised this when, three months after my divorce in 2013, free in my pretty Lower East Side studio, two men in my family suggested that my mother and I move in together, since we were alone now and couldn’t possibly need privacy from each other.

Now, 10 years later and an ocean apart, my mother and I are sitting in our kitchens – me in my European tenement flat, she in her American farmhouse – and we speak through our screens in the presence of an English therapist. Privacy with my mother has become frightening, so I’ve suggested a compromise. “This isn’t normal,” my mother rails against my new boundaries: that I won’t discuss my writing, that I won’t be lectured on religion, that I won’t abide nightmares and paranoia (scheming relatives, meningitis scares with every itch).

But what is normal for mothers and daughters? I want a social scientist, not an Iranian mother, to tell me. In Iran, at great personal cost, daughters preserve a fantasy of closeness with and for their mothers. Mothers criticise. Daughters listen. That’s love, I guess. Over the decades, my mother has cooked thousands of extraordinary meals for me, pouring herself into each one. She has hemmed my jeans and plucked my eyebrows and made me laugh. She has also dismissed my expertise, instructed me to hang my diploma below my ex-husband’s, vilified my partners and accused rival mother-figures of brainwashing me. None of this is as big a deal to her as the meals and the plucking. She never considers that I might have earned my values, or that I may be insulted that she doesn’t believe me capable of forming my own opinions. To her, I’m just a stupid child who gets manipulated by cleverer people: wily men or witchy rival mothers.

As adults, displaced children crave to be normal again, free from the hundreds of daily calculations and errors. We want big heavy doors separating our psychic rooms from our parents’, some distance and tangible borders between the present and the past. Sometimes, that past is embodied by a heartbroken foreign mother always knocking on our door, issuing invitations. My mother’s face falls each time I enforce a hard boundary. She keeps dusting our imagined refuge, where we three were all tangled up together, wishing for her children to return to it for a cup of tea and a laugh. I make a joke, and she thinks maybe the door is opening a crack. Her eyes light up. I wish I could sustain the warmth, but sensing danger, I retreat behind my own door. She’s alone again, mystified.

For all our clashes of culture, our biggest rupture is over this: my mother spent my adolescence covering my body, policing my manners and generally shaming me for becoming a woman. My repressed religious upbringing has become the single biggest influence on my own parenting strategy: I am vigilant against shaming Elena.

The other day, watching TV, my daughter, now seven, said: “They’re going to have some lovely kissing now.” I wanted to fast-forward through the four seconds of tame kissing, but I restrained myself. In return for this leeway, she tells me all her heart’s secrets. When I was growing up, if television characters began to flirt, my mother would squirm and change the channel. If anyone kissed, she banned the show as filth, and said things like “If you watch unchristian things, I don’t trust you with the TV.” To be fair, if she had watched television romances as a child, she would have been beaten and thrown out of the house.

Once, when I was 12, my mother snapped at me for a tasteless joke. My chest tightened and I choked down my meal. Later, to assuage my shame, she told me that, when she was a girl in pre-revolutionary Tehran, she was doing her homework while absently muttering three interesting words she had heard on television. “Mary, Virgin Mother.” In Farsi it lends itself to chanting, all soothing ms. Her father walked past, heard her mumbling, realised what she was saying and slapped her hard across the face. Nothing would have happened to a boy in this situation, not in either of our generations, and that angers me. But the story also makes me chuckle: as a child, my mother had already discovered the mother of all martyrs.

“Let’s be weirdos, mummy,” Elena says, dancing joyfully, “not perfectos!” In public, she shouts: “Mummy, where does my vagina go?” If a stranger glances reproachfully in our direction, I stare back and reply loudly: “Up through your cervix and into your uterus.” Sometimes I pull up a medical drawing on my phone, but then, in that instant of believing that I’m somehow rebelling against my mother, I remember she was a gynaecologist in Iran. She showed me this same diagram. She may have tried to shrink-wrap and hide me the way Iranian mothers do, but she was also a rational, scientific adult, a doctor in a lab coat who solved complicated maths puzzles for fun. For all her magical thinking and religious dogma, my mother had strong arms and a big brain, and I worshipped her.

In Iran, “normal” is to make room for that duality. Good Asian daughters can easily slip in and out of fantasy realms. They are loyal and they perform for their mothers. They stay in the imaginary room, and pretend it makes sense, that the westerners are so silly, so funny. I guess I’m no longer a good Asian daughter.

During an exhausting two-hour talk a few months ago – before we found the English therapist – my mother casually called me a concubine, since I’m not married. The whole enterprise, our reconciling, fell instantly apart. I texted my friend, a fellow immigrant writer, to complain.

“They can’t help it! These overbearing, traumatised mothers … it’s true, we all have the same mother!” My friend advocates for a gentle approach, wherein we fake loyal Asian daughterhood for our mothers, knowing that we will soon return to our own safe, feminist houses. “The way they were raised was so much worse,” she reminds me. “The cultural fuckery they were getting from their own mothers. Look how little of it they’re transmitting … so much less than they got.” It’s true, our mothers endured upbringings we can’t even imagine. Beatings and long silences, body shaming, sexual shaming, gruelling work.

My mother had to spend cold nights in jail and drag her two children from her home and remake her life. My mother’s mother, who died last year in London, was a child bride in Tehran. She was 13 when she married an adult man (mercifully 19, not 60, but this was no consolation to a girl who wasn’t even told the facts of sex before it was forced on her). After that, my grandmother rejected Iranian ways. Until she died, she drew hard western-style boundaries around herself. In London, she distrusted Iranians.

I ask my friend, who has a kinder heart than I do, what these Asian mothers want from us, why they can’t leave us alone. She says: “They want daughters who can understand and protect and translate them, in their old age.” Because the world is changing and our mothers’ rules, which might have seemed folksy in the 90s, the stuff of immigrant standup routines, are now unfathomable to younger generations.

I don’t know about that. I think our broken mothers, though they dominate their daughters, have a way of transforming into folksy movie grandmas for their grandchildren – woefully misguided but unthreatening, like a drunk uncle. My mother and daughter giggle about lipstick and drawings of birds. Elena dances like Lizzo and my mother drinks her in, forgetting to chastise. We want only to brutalise the generations above and below us. Skip forward or backward one and there’s enough distance for kinship, laughter, even understanding.

I believed my grandmother when she called my grandfather a rapist. Maybe this is because I wasn’t attached to my grandfather. The summer I turned 21, I lived with my grandmother in her London flat. She gave me Kahlua and pistachios for menstrual cramps, an affliction that she called “the bad situation”. Her family have always refused to acknowledge the rape, though there’s no denying the maths. My aunt and mother were 11 and nine when their mother turned 25.

My mother and aunt knew that as soon as my grandmother died, I would tell the world about her rape – so they broke into her home just after her death and cleared her devices, burned all her papers, saving a few of her poems and seven pages of harmless, but magnificently weird, Christian sci-fi she had written. Did she write stories from her aborted childhood? My grandmother’s final words to me were: “I’m writing my memoir. Will you help me?” She had written the first line: I had a very short childhood. That first line is all that’s left of her.

Until last year, when my grandmother died and her apartment was ransacked, her legacy destroyed, my mother and I still clowned around sometimes. Over the years, as we assimilated, our jokes were more often about the strange habits of Iranians than those of Americans. During the pandemic, I was writing a short story. She gave me details from her childhood. “We used to pluck our eyebrows and tell people we had a hypothyroid,” she said, chuckling into her fist.

“Just in your eyebrows?” I said, giggling. “A hypothyroid that makes just the bushy extra parts of your eyebrows fall out and nothing else?”

“It made our leg hairs fall out, too,” she said, and I burst out laughing. A glandular problem that only affects unwanted hairs. Nothing could be more Iranian. “The grandmothers believed it!” Or they let it go. Or were in on it.

Briefly, as we drank our tea and made fun of our countrywomen, we were in that movable bunker of our migrant days, that sacred space where we laughed at other people for their vanity or their boundaries or their fanned-out plates of dinner meats.

“I do think we are dealing with intergenerational trauma,” the therapist told us in our second session. Something more than just a culture gap. It’s true that there have been migrations and abusive men and deep, reverberating pain. Everyone in my family is a little weird about sex, not just because of culture or the theocracy, I now believe, but because of the repeated and community-sanctioned childhood rape of my grandmother, a crime that birthed us all.

Once at bedtime, I said something about locking the doors at night and Elena shrieked. “Don’t tell me scary things! Don’t tell me that stuff until I’m 20!” Do all mothers frighten the living crap out of their daughters, or am I transmitting something deep rooted and inevitable to her?

My mother, though, insists our problems are entirely about culture and the definition of normal. “In my culture,” she says, “you respect your mother. You don’t make so many walls for her.” Sometimes she says just what I’m thinking: “Weren’t we close?” And my stomach drops because I know that one day, I will lose my private space with Elena. “Explain to me,” my mother says, “at what age mothers stop being mothers.” I have no idea; but I know it’s inevitable, that fighting it will mangle my heart. I spend hours a day just smelling Elena’s neck. At my grandmother’s funeral, I gave my mother a reluctant hug, and she took a hungry sniff of my neck. I felt violated and stunned, but also sad for her. I yanked myself away. Her need was becoming nightmarish, and I started to think about myself, in two decades, holding too tight to my daughter.

“Do you two see what you’re doing to me right now?” the English therapist interrupts us, clutching her head; my mother and I have been shouting. We go silent. We’ve disgraced ourselves in front of a white person. We have a habit of returning to those chaotic days when every release was forgivable. Now we need an English woman in the room to make us behave. Though we’re in the middle of a fight, I have an urge to translate my mother for the European, because that’s my job. I’ve been doing it since childhood, but it’s also my literal job – I write about Iranians for western readers. My mother hates that I write candidly about my insecurities or failures: I am revealing too much and damaging our redemptive refugee story.

The writer Matthew Salesses, whose work grapples with storycraft across cultures, writes that a sentence will read differently depending on expectations. “She was absolutely sure she hated him,” could have a range of meanings. To a western reader, it signals that by the end of the story she will love him, or that she already does. To my grandmother, that sentence might signal that soon she’ll be forced to marry him. This is precisely the kind of sentence my mother and I fight over. If I reveal a small flaw in a fictional Iranian mother, a flaw that might later bloom into understanding or connection, she dissects it for insults. “You think I’m just a dumb immigrant,” she says. I explain that it’s boring to show only resilience and strength, that you have to start in a different place from where you plan to end. Imperfect stories are more interesting, more redemptive than heroic myths. Flawed characters are more beloved. She waves away all of this. It’s American nonsense.

For my mother, being unmasked in front of westerners is terrifying. For me, writing honestly, in my voice, is restorative, a kind of prayer. My mother enshrines our good days in her memory. She makes our clothes cleaner, our faces prettier, smiling at each other as in Hallmark cards. I store these same memories with our cracks showing. I write what I find worthy of preserving. “You ruined my precious memory,” she says, when she reads my work. But why should we give these falsely soothing immigrant stories? Why should we run off into our corner and giggle about the plate of cold cuts alone? I want to invite readers to look through my lens, not appear presentable in theirs. I want them to see all the specific, glorious ways we’re jerks – I think that’s worth celebrating. Appealing to Iranian hierarchies: doesn’t compelling European and American audiences to consume my flaws put me on a higher rung? Doesn’t it make me a queen, rather than wretched?

I have friends who play the good Asian daughter at home. They morph into a flat version of themselves, deferential and sweet. My mother used to perform her respect for her own mother, serving her tea, addressing her with formal pronouns. Writing has made me hyper-aware of these falsities. I’ve always wanted to be myself, and if someone demands theatre, I stay away. Do I owe my mother – a woman who has suffered many injustices – a soothing performance, even if the ritual harms me?

We discuss the day the word “concubineslipped out of her mouth, and my mother asks me to consider her culture – that she can’t help it. I’m reminded of how I defend myself when I mix up my students’ pronouns. I want to say, each time I stumble, be patient with me. I agree with you, but I have the habits of another generation. I’m trying. Sometimes, I remind them that in my first language, Farsi, we don’t even have gendered pronouns. And that the only reason I’m fumbling is that I’ve been Americanised. If I were my original Iranian self, pronouns wouldn’t even be a thing.

My students are a mystery to me, as I am to my mother. We both stumble in our newly acquired dialects. My mother asks for the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I should give it to her, because I need it from my students, and because one day I’ll need it from Elena. We are all displaced in time, the foreign mothers of the next generation.

I look back, trying to be kind. I recall how my mother has tended to my wounds, though she was brought up by a teenager. She used to rub my muscles after taekwondo practice. She phoned me almost nightly during my divorce. Those calls comforted me because she was safely in Thailand then, a brave American Peace Corps volunteer. When she returned to the US, she showed up uninvited at my door with bags of tea and basmati and discount painkiller, the intrusive Iranian mother breaking my boundaries again.

Sometimes when I most crave time with Elena, she pushes me away. Have I done the same to my mother? Stuck in my point of view, all I hear is my mother in my teenage years, with her bad English and her haughty attitude, trying to fit in and failing. Maybe it’s enough to understand her briefly. To know that she’s (a little) right – everything is about culture and language. To me “concubine” is a slur. To her the word means nothing more than thousands of other words she’s said in her life.

My mother’s culture says that young women must serve and sacrifice. A few days ago, I asked Elena if I could eat one of her french fries. She thought about it, then said: “I’d like to give you a chip, mummy, but I’m sorry, I think I will want to eat all of them.” I laughed, trying to decide if this was time to teach her sharing, or to be grateful that my daughter knows how to say “no”. Deep down, I was relieved. My god, I thought, I did this. This is my reaction to a generation of overbearing immigrant mothers and their selfless-daughter dogma. And that dogma happened because of a previous mother, and one before that. My writer friend, the fellow Asian with the kind heart, sent me some words by the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. Our talents and our faults, Nhất Hạnh wrote, are all inherited. They’re not our own. My friend wants me to accept that we’re not very different from our mothers. She wants me to fight on, and to fight better.

Many grown children understand that you can love someone deeply and not like them at all. And we prepare ourselves to survive the painful moment when our own child struggles with this distinction – we hope they’ll like us and love us, too, but the frightening possibility remains: maybe it won’t be a struggle for them; maybe they’ll just decide that loving us is enough. So we close their bedroom door and count the minutes, trying not to listen as they do their playtime ablutions, negotiating borders that we’ll one day have to respect.

I understand now that Elena’s values will one day be unfathomable to me. But will I want her to perform a lie so that I can grow old inside a fantasy room? When I was younger, I’d roll my eyes when I saw children faking politeness or care so that they could get a treat. “Doesn’t that mother know she’s being manipulated?” I’d think. Now when Elena puts on an act, I’m just grateful that she’s delivering the lines. The performance is a gift. I imagine my daughter at 30, performing love and devotion, suppressing a long sigh as I sniff her neck, and I think, you know what? I’ll take it.

Sometimes I pretend for Elena, too – I don’t actually care that much about unicorn politics from My Little Pony – and I remember all the times my mother has tried to mimic western-style boundaries for my sake. (It was too much to ask her to knock before entering my childhood room, or call before she visited my adulthood home, but now and then she’d toss me a ceremonial “is this a good time?”) I judged her for navigating these American boundaries so clumsily, plodding along until something stressful caused her to stumble and her gargantuan rucksack of Iranian expectations spilled out.

“They’ve been through so much,” my friend reminds me.

Be kind, she means, and remember the funny doctor who solved maths puzzles and, in another universe, could have been my friend. Imagine her as a confused child, tiptoeing that dark minefield of a mid-century Tehrani household, slapped for uttering a mysterious new word. I take a deep breath and agree to the next session with the English therapist who makes us behave. Briefly, I look forward to seeing my mother’s face. I miss the good-smelling bunker. I turn on Zoom, we nod hello. Then we open our mouths, speaking over each other in our foreign tongues.

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published March 9, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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