6,877 miles from home, by Riley Youngman
NOTE FROM THE WRITER: Taking on the idea of fermentation as the more metaphoric meaning of “a state of agitation or turbulent change or development,” I have chosen to focus on the experiences Iranian students at Oregon State University are currently encountering with the changing American political climate, and the methods in which they cope on a day to day basis—food included.
Facing an increasingly uncertain future in the United States, Iranian students at Oregon State University turn to one another, food for support
When Hoda Tahami came to the United States from Iran to attend Oregon State University, one of the first things she noticed was the difference between American and Iranian food culture. Mohammad Pakravan, also from Iran, had a similar experience.
In addition to different meal times–Americans eating their final meal early in the evening, Iranians eating their final meal later in the night–Tahami noticed differences in the general habits and celebrations around cuisine.
Tahami quickly realized there were substantial contrasts in the makeup of ingredients in American and Iranian foods. In particular, she explained that the high amounts of sugar and sweeteners present in American cuisine is not normal for the more traditional Iranian food she and other Iranian students are accustomed to.
“Another thing that I found, not my experience, but other Iranian friends at OSU, is that they gained weight in a short amount of time after coming to the U.S.,” Tahami said, a smile stretched across her face. “It is not difficult to find ingredients for traditional foods though, maybe not in Corvallis, but in Portland you can.”
Pakravan was warned against the potential weight gain before coming to the U.S. to pursue his Master’s degree and eventually move on to his Ph.D. at OSU. Pakravan’s roommate in Corvallis still cooks Iranian food, but he does find himself missing his home cuisine from time to time.
“I miss my mom’s cooking style the most,” Pakravan said.
Tahami uses cooking as a way to socialize and connect with those around her. Last March for Iranian New Years, Tahami and others from the Iranian Student Association cooked Iranian dishes for over 100 individuals. Serving a traditional dish of fish, rice and greens called sabzi polo mahi, she was able to use her favorite food to join her culture and herself with those around her. The meal was followed with traditional dances and performances.
“Eating together stimulates communication, creates memories and establishes good eating habits,” Tahami said. “Social gathering with food is an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expression of altruism, whether from anyone to visitors and strangers.”
Pakravan’s favorite foods are kebabs and gheimeh, a Persian stew that consists of meat (usually lamb), tomatoes, peas, onions and lime. Fried potatoes are served on top and the dish is paired with rice. Pakravan said that rice is a staple in his culture and that most meals are eaten with it.
One significant difference between food culture and law in the United States and Iran is the prohibition of alcohol in Iran. Stemming from the country’s Islam-based system of law, Tahami said that older generations of Iranians do not consume alcohol. However, in the younger, more progressive generation, alcohol is consumed more and more privately. While still not publicly allowed, Tahami thinks that the stigma around alcohol will be gone within the coming years in Iran due to the changing mindsets present in the country.
“Because I was in the group that illegally used alcohol, coming to the U.S. was not a big change. But the biggest difference was the accessibility,” Tahami said, noting that the underground nature of the market means even a single beer in Iran can cost four to five times what it would cost in the United States.
But the struggles Iranian students across the United States and in Corvallis experience goes beyond the adjustment from their usual foods to the more Americanized diets.
On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that banned citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for a 90-day period. Iran was one of the countries listed in the ban. After this order was struck down by a federal court, Trump signed another order set to go into effect on March 16. This order was also temporarily blocked by a federal judge as well.
However, the sentiment behind the ban still persists in the U.S., and international students such as Tahami and Pakravan are feeling the consequences regardless of whether or not the orders are still in place. Tahami’s first reaction to the order was one of uncertainty. Pakravan’s was frustration and uneasiness.
“I was shocked. I felt it was not in accordance to the U.S.’s perspective in the world,” Tahami said.
Both Tahami and Pakravan understand the need for secure borders, but don’t believe this is the correct way to achieve this objective.
“I am being turned into the playcard of politicians without having any say,” Pakravan said. “It was not my decision to be born in Iran. Many people being targeted have no say in what is happening to them.”
Even though the ban has been blocked by a federal court’s ruling, the sentiment and rhetoric that surrounded the executive order remains relevant still. Locally, Iranians have felt the subsequent consequences of the order.
According to the Fall 2016 Enrollment and Demographics compiled by the Oregon State University Office of Institutional Research, there were 95 Iranian students in attendance at OSU’s Corvallis campus.
Pakravan and Tahami both alluded to the fact that their friends and family back home cannot come to the U.S. right now, even if it is to come live with their family in America.
“One of my closest friends had a baby here in the U.S. and her mother was trying to come to the U.S. to help. She has not seen her family for over four years,” Tahami said. “She applied for a visa and has not been rejected yet, but she also has not heard back yet on the final decision. She cannot be in this situation for a long time.”
Pakravan’s research in various countries has been disrupted due to the ban and uncertainty around the visa process. He is unsure if he will be able to travel internationally as planned to complete several projects now.
However, despite the national turbulence surrounding Islamic-American relations and the wide scope of issues Muslims in the United States face, Tahami feels lucky to be in the Corvallis community.
“After the order, people from different communities reached out to the Iranian Student Association in support,” Tahami said. “I have friends in other parts of the United States that did not have that kind of experience.”
Citing the U.S.’s history with the persecution and prejudice of Asian Americans during World War II which ultimately resulted in the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans, Tahami says that a similar fear exists within the Iranian student community
“There is a fear that even if you are just working or schooling, that you may receive a message telling you to go home, or potential action could be taken against you,” she said. Pakravan echoed this fear.
Life goes on
Yet, day to day, life goes on for the nearly 100 Iranian students at OSU. Pakravan continues working towards his Ph.D.–he has two years left–and Tahami is looking forward to this year’s Iranian New Year’s celebration.
“For every situation, you can use food in a gathering to talk about problems,” Tahami said. “This can be with your American friend or your Iranian friend, but the food can be the reason for the gathering.’
At the end of the day, Tahami knows that she can find solace and comfort in a conversation over dinner.
“In the time of uncertainty, concerns can be shared over a meal,” Tahami said. “This can have positive effects. Food is a means for providing more context and conversation.”
Tahami plans to graduate in two years, but has yet to decide whether or not she will attempt to remain in the U.S. or return to Iran. Although she had not given her distant future heavy consideration, the executive order has forced her to think more about what is coming down the road for her.
Pakravan has friends who have been unable to return home to visit their dying family members over fear of not being able to return to the U.S. to finish school. Tahami still talks with her parents daily, usually over Skype.
“After the order (my parents) worked to make me calm and relaxed, and focus on my work. My father said they will not do anything to students, they just want to protect the borders,” Tahami said. “I planned to invite them for the next summer (before the order),” Tahami said. “But I am afraid this is not possible right now.”
As Tahami and Pakravan continue their education at OSU, one fact is certain: they can rely on those around them to enjoy a night of sabzi polo mahi, gheimeh, dancing and conversation–Americans and Iranians alike.