WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
How place determines race for racially in-between immigrants.
by Neda Maghbouleh
July 4, 2002, was a particularly humid Independence Day in Boston. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I had stayed on campus to work, and for the first time my family had come to visit me in New England. That year, we found ourselves among the thousands of revelers who descended in undulating waves down to the banks of the Charles River to see the fireworks. My mom and little sister scrambled onto the first available patch of grass while I unrolled a blanket I had snatched off my twin-size dorm room bed hours earlier. My aunt unpacked almonds, cantaloupe, and soda from a plastic shopping bag; my dad, ambling slowly, as he does, brought up the rear.
As we fanned ourselves on the blanket, my parents discussed how twenty years earlier to the day they had boarded a Fourth of July flight to Portland, Oregon, with me, at nine months old, in tow. We were striking out on our own, away from New York City, where I was born and where, as new immigrants from Iran, my parents worked in a Persian rug store owned by my dad’s extended family.
That morning in Boston I was the last to notice the white woman on the next blanket over who was staring at us in disgust. She stared at my dad in particular, who in a bit of confusion politely smiled back at her between his bites of cantaloupe. She whispered something in her companion’s ear; they rolled up their blanket and left, flip-flop sandals smacking up and down against the ground. We didn’t see or think about the women for a few minutes until two men in sunglasses and cargo shorts began to walk in wide circles around our blanket. “Oh my God,” my mom whispered to me in Persian. “The cops are watching us.” The July humidity was already intense, but it began to feel suffocating. Within seconds, a uniformed police officer and his K-9 approached us.
“What brings you folks down here today?” the officer asked my dad.
“Fourth of July, the fireworks,” my dad replied.
The K-9 sniffed the plastic bag that held our snacks as the officer probed further: “Okay, where are you from?”
“We’re visiting our daughter; she goes to college here. We are from Portland, Oregon,” my dad said softly.
Like the two women before him, who now stood smirking at a safe distance away from us, the officer seemed unconvinced. He scrutinized our blanket and what sat on it: four women, one man, all of them sweaty, with dark hair, skin between white and brown, speaking to each other in English and something else. The uniformed officer made a slight gesture and, before the plainclothes officers he’d signaled swooped in for backup, he clarified the question: “I didn’t ask where you live. I said where are you from?”