I’ve had three homes within two houses. The first was in Elwood, Long Island. At that house, our backyard filled yearly with violets, and trees sheltered the garden. I built fairy palaces out of pinecones and bark in the local park, before the trees there were cut down. We moved to Cold Spring Harbor when I was in third grade. In this house my room has two windows, and the morning sun scatters rainbows through hanging prisms. Sophomore year, my father moved out, my brother graduated, and suddenly the rooms that I had known became quieter, unfamiliar. I re-oriented myself to new emptiness, a new home. On those early mornings when I got ready for school, my footsteps were the only ones left to wake my mom up; I took care to walk lightly in the halls. In my town, the roads bring you to water—but sometimes I wake to rainbows on my blankets and realize I’ve dreamt of violets.
I sit on a train seat across from my mother, my viola case resting under my hands, tired after a long concert. She smiles at me and raises her phone to her ear, waiting for my grandparents to pick up. She greets them: “Salaam, janeh man, khoobee?” It means, “Hello, my soul, are you well?” This affectionate greeting has been familiar to me since childhood. With it comes the flowing language of Farsi, commonplace in my home and in my ears. Over her shoulder, only a few seats away, something catches my eye: a pointed nudge from one young man to another. I sit up straighter and blink away my fatigue, willing my eyes to focus. My mother chatters away obliviously, her childhood language rolling smoothly off her tongue, and I quietly watch the young men—strangers to me—exchange an incomprehensible look.
As my mother hands me her phone, I can already hear the murmur of my grandmother’s voice, and I’m smiling by the time I can hear her clearly. “Doret begardam,” she says, meaning, “I admire and love you,” or “I would do anything for you,” but translating literally to something like, “Let me circle around you.” I reply, “Deleh man barat tang shodeh,” a traditional sentiment of longing, “My heart is closed without you,” before passing the phone back.
I imagine I am sitting next to the men, listening to a language I am unable to identify or understand. The low pronunciations, thick and sweet as honey from my throat, entangle before me with grainy Internet videos of men dressed in black and their distorted, harsh voices. I know an outsider might think our encounter was hardly an encounter at all—but I had traded some childhood innocence for sharper eyes. How had moments like this one gone unnoticed to me in the past? It seemed impossible that I had been so blind to the sight that now seemed to fill my vision: eyes trained on the back of my mother’s head.
On the quiet drive home from the station, I sit very still. The dim light from a stoplight flashes over me, the washed-out glow tinting my cheeks a pale red, and I catch the reflection of my eyes in the window. What had I seen in those men’s eyes? What had their weight upon us meant? Perhaps that nudge hadn’t been as pointed as I thought. In the moment, I felt I had understood, but in truth I had no concrete evidence to ground my defensiveness.
Just as the everyday language of body gestures and glances is vulnerable to miscommunication, I have come to terms with the occasional failings of spoken language. The punchlines of jokes I translate from Farsi for my English-speaking friends are lost in complicated explanations and untranslatable words; when someone asks me to pass the milk, I can’t help but remember that “milk” uses the same word, shir, as “lion,” and how that had always made me laugh as a child. My household’s language brings out a version of me that my friends would hardly recognize, a romantic who uses phrases dripping with drama and sentimentality. The words do not match up exactly in Farsi and English, and neither do I. These unknowables—gaps in understanding, ambiguous translations—will inevitably remain messy.
I’ll never know the true intent of the men on the train, but I know the effect they had on me—and that is enough. My grandfather, with his voice like tumbling boulders, tells me always to keep myself and my name in dignity. Keeping respect for others and for myself foremost in my field of vision helps to broaden it; I respect my judgments and know when they don’t need someone else’s validation. In honor of all that he has taught me of my history and the language of his home, I strive to maintain my own sense of pride with clear eyes. My conviction in my identity and history ground me. I do not doubt where I stand. There is no shame in my family’s heritage–janeh man, my soul.
This story is a part of a series called "Preambles", sharing the personal essays current students submitted for their Wesleyan application.