When we decided to immigrate to the US from Iran, I thought I was ready to face any possible hard times ahead—but there was still so much I had to learn about living.
Maybe the last hugs with our parents at Tehran’s international airport would not be our last—or at least, that’s what we started to daydream about. But these turned out to be false hopes. In early 2017, President Trump signed some pieces of paper, which listed bad countries, including Iran. It meant that if you come from Iran or any other country on the list, you may not enter your home country—and if you do, and you are not a US citizen, then returning to the US is not guaranteed.
Moments like this we had to bear alone: I can’t expect my best American friends to understand these losses. These pains are not even depicted in the movies, and if they are, it’s for a change of pace in entertainment, not because most Americans actually understand or feel them. I hope they are never going to.
There have been so many mornings when we wake up to the news of bad events from our motherland and feel miserable and sad, along with the guilt of running away from hardship to a better life without looking back. All we can do is to get ready for the monotony of our jobs and ignore our emotions. This guilt sucks the life from us. It bullies us, calling us cowards for not staying where we were born and raised, for not fighting to make it better, for not working to protect it. We left, and that leaving made us into orphans, wandering the streets, confused. These experiences have left us with so many wrinkles and indelible marks on our face. Our skin looks like the surface of an old paper bag.
A sparkle of luck lightened us, sparking our optimism, when my parents hurried to take their chances and get their visas in the last remaining days before the new law closed the US gates. We couldn’t wait to share our stories with them and show them our new life in America. All we wanted was to have them tell us everything would be okay one more time, while we were in their arms.
They came with suitcases filled with Iranian flavors and memories, and as soon as they arrived, they spread their disappointment over our newly-found lifestyle. Our jobs were not good enough, they said. No food tastes better than Iranian traditional foods. Our house could have been bigger. Our daughter hadn’t been raised well. And nothing I achieved, including a list of jobs I was getting at big animation studios such as Disney, the Cartoon Network, or Warner Bros, brought a glimmer of pride to their eyes.
I couldn’t blame them for not understanding my choice of career. My father wanted the best for me, and in his thinking, that would be becoming a doctor. He planned a life for me without asking me what I liked, or observing my potential. To him, that is how life is. You do what is right but not what you want. Iranian parents would never trust their kid’s future with art: They don’t want to see investments and hard work go nowhere if their child picks a career with a low salary. They don’t want to worry endlessly for that offspring who went off the tracks. Especially in a culture in which art is considered as godly doing, and artists are people who dare to play god.
In Iran, screening entertainment means wasting your good time, and it can harm the younger generation by introducing foreign cultures. What if they are attracted to those other lifestyles, instead of the perfect domestic one we have already? I was one of those kids, though. My parents were disappointed when I changed my major to art in the last year of high school, and when I wasn’t accepted to university the first year after high school. When, later, I dropped out from two universities, so close to graduating, it didn’t help to fix their broken trust. I understood all of this and accepted it. How could I expect them to believe that their only daughter, who is the only one in the family holding no academic degree, while my other three brothers have their walls decorated with masters and PhDs, makes a career in the biggest animation studios on the opposite side of the planet each and every day? And that, through her work, is the only financially independent one in the family? I still can’t even believe it myself. Every job I get still seems like a dream I couldn’t imagine as a child. What breaks my heart is that they don’t believe me when I tell them.
My father closed his ears and his mind when I described my job and the studio I worked at, and my parents brought bad memories to our home in L.A., memories I left behind purposefully. After three months, they went back to Iran. They judged us without considering how hard we worked to build our new small-sized life, a life designed to be small. They dishonored our fresh beliefs and forced their God upon us again, the God who ruined our childhood. How could I go back to a God who stripped me of my rights and freedoms, and tells me I am not valued because he created me as a woman meant to serve men from the beginning of time?
Every job I get still seems like a dream I couldn’t imagine as a child.
When my parents saw our broken hearts in pixels on the screens that connected us after they returned to Iran, they realized it was too late. The damage was done. They had left scars upon our hearts. And the possibility of another reunion has been less likely every day since.
My family of three has been happy in this new home in Los Angeles. Our life is better than what we could have back home. Here we can choose how to appear, how to think and be. Back in Iran, we had to do as we were told. How to believe in God, how to wear our clothes, what to look like; how to talk, where to go, and what can be eaten or not. But immigration was harder than we thought it would be. The experience came with so much loss and stress and struggle. All those hardships made us depressed, angry, and grumpy—not always pleasurable friends to be with. So, we became like those thick plastic bags you get from stores that hide everything inside, one with a happy face on the outside and the phrase “have a nice day!” under the smile. We were relieved no one was ever curious enough to peek inside, but lonely, too.
The thing about plastic bags is that they will live a very long life. They are new and fresh in the box, or maybe they were another plastic bag first, and they most likely will be used for a short time to help to carry things around. Then they are a piece of trash. They can be a little lucky and get recycled to come back to life in a different shape. Otherwise, they wander aimlessly from place to place. They float through life witnessing what happens to them by the forces of nature, or at the hands of others, without having any choice in the matter. They might drown to the bottom of a deep sea and maybe get pulled inside of some fish bodies, making them sick enough that their death could be the plastic’s way out.
On the other hand, I like that our life is short. Time gives us value. A deadline to make. Time brings in so many feelings and colors to our lives. Relief when the bell rings to end a school day; stress that comes with deadlines approaching; impatience to see our loved ones walking toward us slowly, step by step, as they exit the airport. Time takes us through springs of births and winters of death. If there was no timeline for our lives, we would be as careless as a plastic bag, letting our days go by without fighting for a change. Time makes my life better, and closer to my husband and daughter. Time inspires me to try to make myself live every moment. To try to push myself into thinking differently in darkness, and to remember my days are not endless. To notice how every day my daughter grows taller. To hold my husband closer and kinder as our hair loses to gray. These days will come to an end one day, and I want to make sure I will color them in the best I can, in whatever style I wish. I try to not go with the wind, and instead write my story as I am going: getting it down, permanent.
I like to float under the sun’s life-giving, glowing hands like that plastic bag, but I am not content to be that bag. No, I will be the wind, too.
Born in 1984, Maryam Sefati is an Iranian artist and writer based in Los Angeles. In early 2011 Maryam’s childhood dream of working in animation studios inspired her to move from the other side of the planet to the United States. Enchanted by the moving illustrations, she had to explore the magic and power of imagination and dreams. Her greatest joy so far has been discovering storytelling with shapes, lines, and colors while working at animation studios such as Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros. Propelled by the force of drawing, she has now expanded her creative energy by delving into the world of words.
Living in a highly creative environment such as the realm of animation, and experiencing so much as a newcomer to the US, Maryam developed a strong urge to write short stories so she could share what she has been learning as an immigrant. She unabashedly delves into her experiences to reflect on themes that she is deeply passionate about.
In the animation industry, artists are always tasked to create a world that is formed in the script writer’s mind. But Maryam has discovered that writing is now part of her daily life as well. Although drawing has been her main outlet since 2004, writing has provided her with a new set of tools with which to reflect on her life, and her perceptions of it.
As a writer, Maryam can create entire stories, as opposed to her position as an artist where she is focused solely on designing backgrounds for characters to step in. In the capacity of background designer however, Maryam has come to fully appreciate environments and how they are created to enhance the story. In the same breath, she has developed a devotion to the role of non-living materials and the significance of the relationship between characters, their belongings, and the places they occupy.
Maryam is passionate about fiction and non-fiction. She considers writing fiction as a cohesive form of art to stretch the words and imbue them with imaginative thinking, and nonfiction as a way to share her life learning and memories. To her, reading stories is an important means to add depth to the understanding of the world around us. She is looking forward to the opportunity to share her stories with others, so she can reciprocate for what she has gained from all her readings.