Growing up in the UK as British-Iranian by Sarah Esfandiari

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Iran, Farsi, Atlas Translations, Sarah Esfandiari, St Albans, Hertfordshire

In 1996, my parents and my older sister, collectively moved to Glasgow, Scotland from Tehran, Iran – of course, with my parents being born and raised in the mysterious country most commonly known as ‘Iran’, a huge, bubble of cultural shock formed around them, when my dad decided to migrate 3,820.7 miles, in order to study Medicine at the University of Glasgow.

We soon moved to Bristol, then Hertfordshire, Harpenden. Harpenden is a fairly middle-class, typically British area, with 85.7% of residents being ‘White British’, excluding Irish and other white.

My sister and I, became two bilingual, dual national girls, and part of the Iranian diaspora. Those who identify themselves as British-Iranian, do this purely due to the fact that they don’t necessarily identify with being ‘just British’, or ‘just Iranian’, they see themselves as both.

 

Bilingual

When I first learnt to talk, I spoke the language of Farsi – the Persian language, spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other regions within the Middle East.

Soon after starting school, I focused more heavily on my English speaking, rather than my Farsi. Although English is not spoken at home in my household, I would find myself listening in Farsi, and replying in English.

This proceeded to form an ‘in between’ language, a mix of the two – especially during this ‘transition’ period of going to school and mostly speaking English, after only speaking Farsi beforehand. For example, at school when we were learning the names of colours, fruits, vegetables and numbers, I would put my hand up to say what these were called, but would get the answers wrong because I would say the Farsi name instead of the English word. Often to this day, when I can’t think of the English word for something, I know exactly what it would be in Farsi – it’s easy to get muddled up.

Having said this, I have no memory of learning either language, I was never fundamentally ‘taught’ how to speak either – I just did.

 

Dual national/Diaspora

Growing up as part of the Iranian diaspora has already had its ups and downs throughout the short 17 years of my life. Everyone who is of an ethnic minority background in the UK seems so have gone through the same stages that come with recognising differences in culture, thought, experiences, and being open and proud about this.

As children, we have nothing to hide. Children accept other people no matter what their race, colour, religion or background. I was unaware there was any difference, as far as I were concerned everyone was the same.

As life progresses and as environmental factors start to kick in, things begins to change. As you grow, as you enter secondary school, as everyone around you is now openly discussing politics and opinions, as they start to watch news channels more, as parents start talking to them about their own opinions on what happens in the world, it starts to get a little more difficult.

At this point, it is clear that you are different to the others. You begin to witness cultural differences, and the constant battle and tug of war, with which culture you will be ‘wearing’ today. During this stage, it is not possible or even remotely clear to you that you can have and adopt both cultures into one. In the midst of this awkward stage, that child who would openly speak about race, religion and culture, slowly begins to fade away, becoming increasingly guarded. You’re in the difficult and confusing position of choosing what to say about yourself and where you come from, and what not to say – especially when choosing who to discuss it with, and even more so in an area with over 80% of the population being white/white British.

Slowly but surely, entering adulthood, is when the realisation begins to creep up on you, that maybe people don’t care as much as you thought they would. You realise that those with a negative attitude towards who you are and where you come from, are not worth being in your life anyway. This is when those child-like qualities of confidence, and being proud of who you are, come back into play. You begin to recognise that you are incredibly lucky to have dual nationality, and to have different cultures to pick and choose from. You begin to realise that you perhaps see the world in a more open minded, and positive way to others, and that there are people who you meet, that find your differences interesting and appealing. It starts to hit you that you don’t need to identify yourself with one culture, one ethnicity, one nationality, or one language – you can have both. The advantages that come with these are unanimous. Once you realise this, you can then start to take on the world, and your future, successfully, with a mindset that will then go on to inspire others, and quite possibly change the way people think.

Sarah Esfandiari

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  1. Philip Scott

    I enjoyed reading your account of living in Hertfordshire with your two cultures. I am British but spent two and a half years in Iran in the 1970s and then did an MA in UK about an Iranian topic which required a bit of reading in Farsi.
    My wife and I found Iran a fascinating country: beautiful, welcoming and tense. I often hated it but also had happy memories of the people, the country and the food and ended up in tears when I left. Not a place you can be indifferent to.
    Wish me luck. I have just passed my Diploma in Translation, Spanish to English, and need to find some work.

    1. Anna

      Thanks Philip. It’s a wonderful piece, isn’t it? Sarah did a fab job on this. If you are interested in working for us, there’s an online application process. Just click on the ‘work for us’ link and complete the form providing 3 referees and upload your CV. I look forward to seeing you there.

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