Sandwiched between thousands of young Algerian men, it became comically obvious that I was one of the only women roaming alone.
In February, I traveled to the country for a week-long trip and found myself inadvertently caught up in Algeria’s “smile revolution.” I hid behind my phone, capturing videos of revolutionary chants and families throwing water bottles down to fatigued protesters. Swarms of riot police, many no older than 18, sectioned off the city with batons and shields.
Watching waves of coughing men double over from tear gas, my mind drifted back to a week before that moment, when my downtown Manhattan office had been celebrating Valentine’s Day. One co-worker had delivered cards with messages such as, “I wish one of our company benefits was you.”
It was there in the crowd, in a sea of chanting, wheezing men, that I realized I felt more comfortable in a massive Algerian protest than I had been in that office.
Despite years of adventurous travel, the biggest culture shock of my life had been starting my corporate desk job at a market research firm in New York City — where, similarly, it had become glaringly obvious that I was one of the only women of color roaming alone.
I was infatuated with New York City corporate life during the first few months at my job. I had been inducted into expensed happy hours, where I was regaled with tales of suburban tweens who had personal nutritionists. My peers were well-versed in how to book company-sponsored cycling classes with Instagram-renowned instructors; they had phone apps to pre-order post-workout smoothies, and they knew where to go for rooftop frosés without having to wait in line. It was a little glamorous, and very entertaining. As a first-generation Iranian American from California, I took every opportunity to learn about a culture that felt utterly foreign to me.
This new culture was distinct from other forms of wealth I’d seen before — that of influential San Francisco liberals (while I was in high school) and old-money, wannabe hipsters (while I was attending my liberal arts college). Until starting my job, I had been surrounded by rich white people who said things like, “I know, white people are the worst.”
But this was a new brand of wealth and whiteness, one that vaguely advocated for inclusivity in the workplace and yet lowered its voice when saying “black.”
As someone who passes as white, I discovered a new privilege: the opportunity to observe unrestricted xenophobia in the conference room, the office kitchen and the sports bar down the block. And I slid in seamlessly — similar enough to be included at first, but foreign enough to eventually need an out.
Eight months into the job, it became clear that my co-workers had never given a thought to my identity as a first-generation Iranian American. When I offhandedly mentioned it one day at lunch, it was as if I were living in an ethnic remake of “Mean Girls.” The alpha clique of data analysts dove right in.
“How do you even get to Iran? Is the plane always empty? Why did your family come to America — are you a princess?” they asked.
And then came the kicker: “That’s one place I would never go without a gun.”
In the moment, all I could do was mumble that my dual citizenship allowed me to visit Iran last summer, using an airplane that was, in fact, fully booked.
Rather than ask for my opinion on the nuclear deal or inquire about my grandma’s traditional Iranian cooking, a co-worker looked me directly in the eyes and said, “If you ask me, we should’ve gone for Iran instead of Iraq.”
I choked. Delayed reaction took on a whole new meaning; four years studying international relations had left me painfully unequipped to find a response. How could a “friend” — someone who had sought out dating advice and offered me professional mentorship — say something so unabashedly violent?
It was suddenly clear to me that my place in the conversation was confined to defending my personhood. There was no room left to share my culture.
I quickly grew weary of trying to “prove” my normalcy and debunk racist generalizations about my family, friends and customs.
But the ignorance crept beyond this particular group of co-workers. While the data analyst triggered a resentment that was difficult for me to compartmentalize, I began to recognize the main perpetrator: a culture that allows prejudice to silently permeate the workplace, unseen and unchecked. A culture that forces assimilation onto minorities who, like me, have learned to dissolve their shock and outrage with time and a desire for professional success.
I thought of middle school: when, to fit in, I westernized my packed lunches and straightened or pulled back my hair. When I checked my ancestry at the door.
In the months that followed, I struggled to hide the gaping holes in my American pop culture knowledge from my co-workers. I’d text my other first-gen friends every week or so for a cultural reality check: “Do you guys know who Yogi Berra is?”
On one fateful Friday morning, I failed to code-switch.
A co-worker was telling us that she had spotted Derek Jeter at a restaurant the night before. My mistake was asking, “Who’s that?”
Another co-worker shot up from his chair. “Okay, just get out,” he “jokingly” yelled at me. “Stay in Algeria.”
In the 50-plus times that I’ve replayed this scene, fantasy me replies, “I’m sorry that my experience hasn’t been as homogenous as yours, that this country perpetually builds systems of oppression that obliterate outside influence, and that my family worked tirelessly for our culture to flourish in our home, leaving little room for sports stars.”
Reality me, regrettably, replied in a shaky voice, “I was raised in an immigrant family and didn’t grow up with baseball.”
Naturally, I was slammed with the all-too-familiar reductive rhetoric: “That’s not an excuse — you’ve lived in America your whole life.”
This had, after all, come from a man who bragged about never having tried sushi. If his prerequisite for being American was naming big-time baseball players and living in the cultural epicenter of the country while depriving himself of delicious maki, I thought to myself, count me out.
I cracked a joke to fake impartiality, then made my way to the bathroom, where I sat and listened to Faramarz Aslani’s “Age Ye Rooz” (“If One Day”) on repeat. The Farsi verse surfaced a sense of home that soothed me through frustrated tears.
And I smiled to myself reading texts from my Iranian friends like this one: “No idea who Derek Jeter is. Jennifer Lopez’s husband? I thought he was a basketball player.”
It’s been nearly two years since I started my corporate job. The experience has led me to interrogate many questions: What sustains this urban tribalism in which people don’t engage with those different than themselves? Why and how are we drawn into such dense insularity in a city where 15 languages can occupy one subway car?
Even with the resources to understand and expose ourselves to people and places dissimilar to us, our engagement halts at “ethnic lite” (i.e. saffron-infused cocktails or the newly popularized eyebrow craze). In reality, we often greet the origin of these fads with fear-ridden hostility.
Still, I empathize with the limiting nature of individual upbringings, those that close us off from people floating somewhere beyond our daily feeds.
Consequently, my relationship with my co-workers remains deeply tangled: a friendship in which I don’t desire nor feel comfortable wearing my true self, but one in which I inevitably relate to their humanness: their insecurities, weaknesses and poorly masked projections at happy hours. For now, I continue to give them advice on their roommate’s passive-aggressive comments, boyfriend’s birthday gift or outfit for the holiday party — but only when prompted.