The long read: When she arrived in the US as a 10-year-old refugee, Dina Nayeri found it hard to fit in. But that all changed when she hatched a plan to get into Harvard by becoming a taekwondo champion
When I was 13, three years after arriving in the US with my mother and brother, I devised a plan to get into the Ivy League. I was a refugee kid with no money and I lived in Oklahoma, where university means Tulsa or Stillwater or, if youre smart, somewhere in Texas. My mother, who had been a doctor in Iran, was now a single parent working in a factory. My father, who was a dental surgeon, had stayed in Iran and rarely sent money. Our sponsors, conservative Reaganite Christians who thought public assistance was a slippery slope to a lifetime of sloth, discouraged us from applying for temporary relief. It took all our energy just to continue living, working and studying. I didnt have tutors or advisers. No one was bribing coaches or hiring consultants on my behalf. But I did have a vague notion that I needed more than good grades and test scores I needed to transform into someone the books called a high achiever.
Information was hard to come by at first. It was the 1990s, so whatever I knew about Harvard and Yale I got from 80s movies set in a muted and stylised 1950s for the super-rich. My adolescence was all Dead Poets Society and School Ties, so fantasising about getting into a top university meant that I imagined myself as a well-heeled white boy from a good family (with brief interludes to go dancing in Nazi Germany a la Swing Kids. Basically, wherever Robert Sean Leonard went, I was there.)
One day, in my first or second year in the US, as I sat in Edmond public library reading Judy Blume to beef up my English, I spotted a book lying open near the YA fiction rotary display. It was an old edition of a college admissions book, complete with rankings, statistics, test score minimums and advice on activities and essays. The name at the top of the list, Harvard, was the only one any Iranian would recognise, so it took about three minutes for getting admitted there to become my entire lifes purpose. The book told me that if I wanted to get into the best universities, I couldnt just be gifted at maths or writing. I would have to win medals and trophies. I would have to be sporty, arty or a genius at something. A national championship wouldnt hurt.
I admit the notion that sport trophies got you into university in America struck me as bizarre for exactly one second before I gave myself up to it, incorporating it into my fantasy life the way a buzzing alarm clock gets incorporated into dreams. I was raised in the extreme academic tradition of Iranian medical households to get into Tehran University, my parents had beaten thousands of their peers in a daunting exam called the Konkour. Still, this was the US and, so far, everything had been weird iced tea and fruited yoghurt, ground meat in crunchy shells made of the same material as snack chips, people in commercials grinning about anal disease and heavy-flow periods, a fitness show called Sit and Be Fit I had learned to suspend disbelief and just roll with stuff.
I decided to give it a try. I could be sporty. Why not? When we were asylum seekers, my mother had taught me to swim in the scorching Emirati sun. And back in Iran, she had done horse-riding and tennis. But then the revolution happened, and her sporty body was draped and forgotten. Banned from public exercise, she took to pounding her ass against walls to get that chic, saddle-flattened effect of the late 70s. Sometimes I joined her. (It didnt work, because our asses, like the rest of our bodies, were Iranian.)
I wanted to try swimming or tennis, but in Oklahoma those sports were the province of rich girls with private coaches. Every one of them was four inches taller than me, with fat blonde ponytails that slapped you as you tried to get past and thighs that could strangle a small goat. Then, my best friend, a fellow book nerd, mentioned that she had joined a martial arts club that had no other girls from our school. The absence of those girls was an unspoken preference in our misfit circle so I agreed to visit.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art focused on strong legs and cardiovascular fitness. Unlike karate a calmer, more physically balanced combat style in taekwondo, you do a lot of jumping around and kicking. It is a perfect sport for teenage girls, and yet there were almost none in this dojang, probably because all the glory came from bloodying and being bloodied and you could really mess up your face.
It was a strange place: a Protestant fighting school called Kicking Christian Soldiers (KCS) run by Kerry, a white man with a Navy Seal body, and his scary Thai girlfriend, Cheri. She was KCSs first selling point: those blond bitches had nothing on this lady. Her thighs were torpedoes.
And here was the second selling point: I learned that they handed out trophies by age, belt and weight, almost every weekend at local competitions that led up to statewide, then national contests. That meant I could starve myself into a lower category, beat up a bunch of scrawny green belts and write my ticket to Harvard a totally logical way of becoming a doctor or professor or supreme court justice.
I had just one little problem: as it happened, while I was busy fantasising about being a mid-century prep-school boy, my mother had met another Iranian immigrant and quietly married him. So now this guy lived with us. My new stepfather, Rahim, a conservative Christian immigrant, was on my back about everything, all the time. He also happened to have a third-degree black belt in taekwondo (which just meant he was a deadlier, more experienced blackbelt), and because of that, he was also deep into local Korean culture.
This strikes me as an insane coincidence now, but it didnt then. It was just an irritating obstacle. He would never let me join. Not in a million years. Its not a sport for girls, he said, the first time I brought it up. Daniel can join. You can find something else. My brother, Daniel, was also mildly interested in the sport, as he was in most sports, but he was less intense about it than I was; his entire future didnt depend on a plan that would take years and most likely fail.
Meanwhile, Rahim marinated Korean beef bulgogi and sealed another jar of his own special kimchi. His obsession with all things Korean made sense if you followed the loneliness trail: I found taekwondo because I was desperate to get into Harvard, where I was sure friendship and love awaited me. Rahim came to taekwondo because, some 15 years earlier, having left his family in Iran for the blindingly homogenous American south, he spent every meal alone until he found the Korean community of Oklahoma City. He had arrived at 19 or 20, slept outside the admissions office of one of the state universities until they offered him a place and, as a way to meet other immigrants and keep fit, he had enrolled in a taekwondo class.
Soon, he fell in love with the food, the sport, the ritual, even the sounds of Korean conversation and music. He loved to cook Iranian food and he began offering his dishes to his new friends, learning their cuisine, and combining recipes. Korean ribs on fluffy, buttery basmati rice, a staple of my childhood, was his masterwork because, as Rahim used to say a cigarette dangling from his lips basmati is always better (except under sushi, which he summarily rejected, but acknowledged as a reason for sticky rice to continue existing).
Despite his devotion to taekwondo and the role it had played in creating his new identity, Rahim refused to relent on the issue of my joining. I called my father in Iran for help convincing my mother. I explained that it was necessary for college and that he must foot the bills, a monthly cost equivalent to six or seven impacted wisdom teeth. (My father, the dental surgeon, calculated all costs according to root canals and caps and fillings.)
Why are you going to sport college? he said. Go to medical school! You cant make a living on sport degree!
This is for the best university, Baba! I whined. Trust me! I know this system.
It makes no sense, Dina joon. A real college wont make you learn fighting to be a doctor.
Believe me, its a real thing.
Baba never sent the money but, in the end, I convinced my mother with a two-pronged argument about self-defense and sexism. Werent she and Rahim converted Christians? Wasnt their struggle in Iran all about equality, the veil and fighting the oppression of women? Also, didnt they know how many rapists hang out in the US? I should learn to injure the rapists.
I signed up for three classes a week.
Until I found taekwondo, assimilation had been a constant struggle. The summer we arrived in Oklahoma, my mother enrolled us in a church etiquette class. The instructor was so cloying, and her rules so obvious and patronising, that I raised my hand and asked if it was OK to lick our plate after a meal. My mother giggled. The teacher assumed this is what we do in Iran.
As for American pleasures, they were many, but they came with a price. My first bottle of conditioner was a marvel; I kept it away from everyone elses bath things. And yet I missed those hours with my mother or grandmother, sitting still as they brushed tangles out of my hair in our big Iranian hamam.
In those early years, I was so overcome by gratitude for my freedom, shame at my Iranian-ness and fear of being sent back that I found it impossible to say no to Americans. During a lice epidemic at our school, when a classmate asked to borrow my brush, I was so moved by her gesture of friendship that I relented, then put the brush in a plastic bag and ran home to have my mother disinfect it. We were never comfortable. We kept squirming inside our own skin, trying to find a way to be ourselves while satisfying all the people who wanted us to transform instantly into them.
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