What does it mean to be different in a world where growing up is all about wanting to fit in? I was born in Tehran, Iran. My parent’s journey to escape from the Iran/Iraq war and the new Iranian government was far from easy. They gave up everything, had a suitcase in one arm and 2 year old me in the other. They had to start all over again and build their lives from the ground up. They were learning a new language, finding a job, a place to live, all while making sure I didn’t even feel a ripple of their struggles. My mother stood in line for 10 hours to get me into one of the best Pre Schools in our town, even though Pre School was never a required educational milestone. I remember walking home everyday with a little bucket full of my day’s work of handprint art and the start of what I guess were letters of the alphabet.
When I started kindergarten I remember they brought me into a little room with other children who were also ‘different’ and they asked us questions to test our English. I still remember the man asking us “what color is this” and me wanting to respond excitedly “abee!” in Farsi, but with a little luck the child next to me got chosen to answer instead with the correct answer of “blue”. My English was well enough that I did not have to take any of those “special” ESOL classes.
Throughout my primary school years, I would bring home my homework and my parents would sit with me and make sure I did every page. My mom made me rewrite every wrong spelling word ten times. My dad would make me do extra sets of addition problems until I could recite them in my sleep. I had to be the best. I always had to stand out. And while other children were going to the movies, my mom would tell me that my education is an irreplaceable gift, and that movies will come and go.
As I got older, I started subjects my parents could no longer help me with; Calculus I, Advanced Physiology, English Literature. I sometimes had to work twice as hard as everyone else, just so I wouldn’t fall behind. I taught myself everything. These were the days before the internet (if we can imagine). I would have to read textbooks, stay after class, and ask upper classmen if I was really struggling. When I went to college, I stumbled even harder. Science was never a favorite subject of mine at the time and all my Pre-Optometry classes were sciences. I had to reach to my fellow peers for help, and for this, I had to fit in. I had to adapt myself into hanging out at cool spots like…. “Chipotle”, going to parties just to talk about important subjects such as “which Jonas Brother is the cutest”. I became very ‘white washed’.
When I started my Masters program, multicultural people surrounded me. I bonded and became friends with a lot of people from a middle eastern decent. Then they had to sit me down one day and explain to me, “Nadia, you know you’re not white, right?”. I was in complete shock. Finding out that my mother calling me 27 times a day and having to ask her permission to make any possible decision on Earth and my dad singing Iranian songs very loudly out of tune being a normal part of other people’s lives was a huge surprise. I came out of my shell. I realized I was different.
One day, I was volunteering at an event, where the local doctors and optometry students got together to give underprivileged children simple eye exams. One of the mothers there was so confused about what was going on, and she began getting so frustrated. I came over to see what the commotion was about. It turned out she was new from Iran and her daughter was about to get her eyes dilated, she had to consent, but no one could explain to her what was going on. So I sat her down and calmed her fears, explaining the procedure to her in Farsi and translating everything to her for the rest of the visit. Before they left, the little girl turned to me and said “I want to be just like you when I grow up” in Farsi. Right after they walked out, I started bawling. All I could think about was how that little girl used to be me. I thought about how her mom waited in line all day to get her daughter eye care just as my mother had stood outside in the sun for ten hours to sign me up for Pre School. I thought about all the times I was embarrassed when someone couldn’t understand my mother’s accent and looked down on her. I thought about when she didn’t understand what was going on, not because she wasn’t brilliant (because she is) but just because she couldn’t speak the language. I thought about how something so simple, made such an impression.
After that day, I decided that I would become a voice for people who feel like that don’t have one. I was going to embrace every difference. When people made fun of my culture differences, I didn’t revert to becoming more like them, I just educated them on the differences. When someone commented about my skin tone, my looks, my background, I just smiled with confidence. Because all those things that make us different, those are the things that make us good doctors. All the struggles we face, make us more understanding, more patient, more aware of what patients and people are going through. I spend everyday speaking to people with kindness, taking all these lessons with me through optometry school at WesternU College of Optometry. If you just go with the flow and spend all your energy into fitting the mold, you’ll never know how amazing it feels to break it. And how all these little things, made a world of difference.