Thursday, May 14, 2020

I ran, I ran, I ran so far away: From Atlanta with love!

I lived in Atlanta for exactly 5 years but it was only during my last year there that I got to see the real city. Partly because I was busy with school and research but also because I was not really going out in the city. In my last year in Atlanta, thanks to my running habit, it changed dramatically. Every week I design a running path which would start from my home in west midtown and would go through different neighborhoods and would end in a café or restaurant where I was meeting my friends for brunch. This became my ritual, my version of Sunday worship and prayer. I was ;leaving my house at 7 am on Sunday and depending on how far I would run, after few hours I would end up meeting my friends at a nice restaurant for food. I was spending the rest of my Sundays to recover.
Through these Sunday runs, I saw many neighborhoods around downtown, midtown, and Buckhead. I even once ran to the Chattahoochee river that is notorious for disposing corpses. The runs ranged from 10 to 20 miles. At some point toward the I started mapping my runs on the Google map and saving them by date every week. I have a collection of 12 runs from Atlanta on my computer:

I ran, I ran, I ran so far away: Unto us a king is born

After running for a summer in 2000 I didn’t run for 13 years. It seemed that I had forgotten it or I was not interested in running again. My life took very sharp turns and went through lots of up and downs. I travelled a lot, saw many places, met many amazing people and then I finally moved to the US and started a new life in Atlanta, Georgia. I went to school and in toward the end of my PhD, one Saturday night I got an email from a friend who was asking me if I will be interested to join her in a run on Sunday. The run was organized by a meetup group in Atlanta and the idea was to run around the Piedmont Park. Piedmont is a large beautiful park right at the heart of midtown Atlanta. It has a shape of a triangle and its perimeter is about 3 miles and therefore it is a favorite area for local runners.
Piedmont Park, Atlanta

On that Sunday in August 2013, I put on my sneakers and biked to the park, parked my biked on the other side of the street and then joined a group of runners majority of them were female in their 50s and 60s. They were the sweetest people I had met and they welcomed us with big smiles.
Soon after the run officially started, the group was split into few subgroups of fast or slow runners. I tried to stick to the main core and the leader of the group who was running at a medium pace. We started from the main gate on 10th street, and went west toward Piedmont Ave and took it up to Monroe Dr. Once we reached the peak of the triangle where Piedmont and Monroe meet, I was pretty sure that I was done with the run. I was breathing short and fast and my heart was beating like it was going to jump out of my chest. There was a moment of decision: should I stop and take care of my body or ignore it and finish what I had started. I looked at the fellow runners in our small group. There were 3 or 4 of them, old but in shape and healthy. All seemed happy and enjoying the run. They were chatting all along the way. I was surprised how they could talk while running without being short of breathe.

I though by myself that if they can do it, I HAVE TO do it. So I kept running and following them. Looking down at their pace and just follow it automatically. Finally we got back down to 10th street and we approached the finish point inside the park. Once I got there, I fell down. I collapsed and I remember I told myself that that was it. “I am not going to run again”, I thought.
My friend who had stopped just after a mile of running, joined me and asked how I feel. I told her that it was fun but I am not sure if I can do it again.

On the way back home on my bicycle, I started to think about what I have achieved: “running 3 miles”. It seemed so long and so hard that I immediately felt very good about it. I had run a distance that was more than my daily bike commute to work. I felt I have achieved a milestone and I also felt that it was something that I have done it alone. Something that it belongs to me and only me. Something that I can finally take 100 percent credit for it. If academic achievements and professional success are a combination of personal talent and environmental factors, running is really a solo accomplishment. Yes you can say you need good shoes to run but even with my cheap sneakers I could run 3 miles! That was something magical for me. It was as if I had become a different and better person after that run.

I went home and took a shower and for a week I was waiting for the next Sunday to go and run around the park again. My journey has just started and I was so excited about it.

I ran, I ran, I ran so far away: In the Beginning was water

(Photo: Stephen Lam / San francisco Chronicle / September 11, 2015)

This is my running diary. This is my soul searching journey to find out why I run, where and how I started it and whether I will stop ever. this is a confession to find the roots of my deep passion for running. When I think of running the first thing that comes to my mind is freedom. Running is liberating, it is the closest one can get to his body and mind. My running story is the story of dreaming and living up to your dreams. When I talk to my running friends, they usually tell me how they started running in high school and how they all were doing cross country runs. Running seems like a natural continuation of an old habit for them. My story is however, a bit different:

My hometown Isfahan, Iran

I really started running way after my high school years. As a matter of fact I did not play any sports in high school beside ping pong. It was and still is one of my most favorite sports to play. But as long as for running, I don't even remember that I ever considered trying it until later when I started college. One summer during my college years (I think year 2000), I started running in the mornings. I would run from our house to a nearby park and keep running along the river. After few weeks I had found my passion: distance running. I had a good friend who was living on the other side of the town. Every morning we were running to meet each other on a bridge and run a mile from there together. After that, I would keep running a loop back home from the other side of the river.

Although the total run was something like 4 miles, I always had a dream of running longer. My goal (that I never achieved) was to run from the closest bridge to our house to the last one and run back. That would be a good 10 miles, something so far away for me that made me think of it as an unreachable dream rather than a realistic goal. 
That dream never died in me although I forgot about running for many many years after that summer. 
I graduated in 2002, moved to another city for my graduate studies. Then moved back to my hometown for work and then left my home country for good. I travelled and lived for few years around the world and never ran again. I came to the US in 2009 and started school again and then one night in my last few years of the PhD program, everything changed.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Chapter II: Mission San Francisco de Asís to Mission San Rafael Arcangel

“Let’s go, it is getting dark.”

“I’m coming. Give me a second” I said this and looked back at the blowhole where cool fresh air was blowing out of it in that hot August day. I was with my friend, Yuri, in the middle of a long road trip from Atlanta to San Francisco. We had left Albuquerque earlier that day to go to Flagstaff, Arizona. We had decided to visit the Native American ruins on our way and here we were in Wupatki National Monument. Next to the ruins there was this blowhole in the ground that was fenced off with a rope around it. There was a note next to the hole explaining the physical mechanism and mentioning that the exact purpose of it is still unknown.  I hold my hand over the hole and immediately felt the cool air was blowing up from the hole. It was surprisingly fresh and cool. I looked back. Yuri was busy investigating the ruins.  I crossed the rope and sat next to the hole. It was a dark deep hole around 10 inches in diameter.  It was a mysterious phenomenon and I was tempted to experience it first-hand. I bent over the hole and popped my head inside. What I experienced was as magical, as mysterious, and as refreshing as that whole historical site. A fresh flow of cool air pushed against my face. I could feel it passing through my skin and entering my body. I could barely keep my eyes open. Even if I could there was nothing to see. There was absolute darkness inside the hole and I could imagine myself from outside, bending over this hole in the middle of deserted ruins of Native American tribes. I felt I was being baptized by the spirit of those people and their authentic way of living. I pulled out my head from that hole and looked around. The big desert was empty and quiet but I was feeling a rush deep inside me. I stood up and called Yuri. “Let’s go!”

On October 11, 2015 almost one month after my first mission run, I started my second run. I started running from my home in Pacific Heights going back to San Francisco mission. After a brief stop at the mission building I started my journey back on the mission street. 
This time, though, I was going north towards the ferry building. First I ran up to Marina Boulevard and then turned left to continue running by the bay passing through Presidio until I reached the Golden Gate Bridge. It was busy as always, there were lots of tourists, runners, and bikers all over the bridge. From Presidio onwards, I noticed that I was accompanied by an uncoordinated running mate. Sometimes when I do these long runs it happens to me that I share few miles of the path with another runner. 

They are usually local runners from that area and they run for few miles maximum before they turn around and go back home, while I have to continue my journey for many more hours to come. Anyway, I passed this runner right before the park but he took over before we reached the bridge and then I again passed him on the bridge and to get to the Lone Sailor vista point on the other side of the bridge.I stopped to rest and get some water when I spotted him again. We greeted each other and then he asked me where I was running from and I told him that I was coming from mission San Francisco. He was impressed and told me he is headed back to the city after this stop. I told him my final destination would be in San Rafael and he looked at me in kind of surprise and disbelief. 

From the vista point, I ran down Alexander Avenue to Sausalito and from there, I took Mill Valley – Sausalito path to go to near Camino Alto preserve. There is a big hill next to the preserve near Corte Madera. It is a hard challenge but the view at the top of the hill is rewarding.  
I ran for few more miles until I finally got to San Rafael, a beautiful city with my favorite restaurant, Sol Food. Unfortunately I could not stop for food before finishing up my mission. When I got to the Mission San Rafael Arcangel building, the main church was closed but there was a small chapel that was still open. I entered the chapel which was dark but filled with a pleasantly cool air.  I sat down for few minutes there and then came out to the mission’s yard. I lied down on a bench and looked up to the blue clear sky. There was a beautiful tall palm tree in front of me and I could see its crown and leaflets extending to the blue sky in the background. I wanted to stay there and enjoy this beautiful scene for hours but I had to go back home. I got up and started walking away from the mission building. I stopped at Taj of Marin, an Indian restaurant on my way to the transit center. After a good big Indian vegetarian meal, I found my way to the transit center where I took the bus 101 back to San Francisco.

San Rafael mission and its beautiful palm tree top the list of my favorite missions so far.

Date: 11 October 2015
Duration: 5 hours
Length: 26 miles (40 km)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Chapter I: Mission San Francisco de Asís to Mission Santa Clara de Asís

I have a theory about pain: it is increasing with a decreasing rate. In other words, it is bounded from above. When you experience something painful in your life it hits you very hard at the beginning but as time passes and the pain increases, you feel less impacted by it. You adapt to it and you live with it. When I start running long distances, I can see this theory in practice. The pain grows and gets worse and worse but it always seems that there is an invisible ceiling that bounds it and this makes me not to give up because I know that the pain cannot exceed my capabilities to cope with it. That is how I run.

On that summer day of September 13, 2015 when I stopped cycling and return home, I could not think about anything but my big running journey. I changed quickly and got out of the house for the second time that morning, this time on foot. I ran down Fillmore Street until I got to Market Street. From there I ran on Church Street to 16th street and finally I go to Mission San Francisco de Asís. It is located on the corner of Dolores Street and 16th street. The main entrance through the gift shop is on Dolores Street. However I entered the building through a small door in the back of the building on 16th street. When I entered the main room, the choir was practicing for the Sunday mass. Inside the church was empty and dark. I sat down on a bench and listened to the choir.  It was a very good feeling to be there in that moment in my life and at the beginning of that big journey. I always liked the spirituality and was drawn into the religious beliefs about the God and its relationship to my daily life. Few minutes passed and the choir finished their practice. The church fell into a deep silence. I got up and walked my way toward the main door. As I was going to open the door to exit, someone called me from behind “Good morning!” I looked back and saw a smiling face of a guy dressed in a beige suit. I smiled back and nodded. He extended his hand and shook mine warmly. Then he took a look at my running outfit and asked “are you coming from a run?” I laughed and said “Not yet, actually I am going to start a big one. This is my birthday today and I’m going to run from here to Mission Santa Clara on El Camino.” His eyes widened as he tried to digest what I just told him. He could not believe it so I explained to him what my running goal was. “Happy birthday!” he said and then asked “how “young” are you?” I laughed and told him I was turning 34. Then he hugged me and told me that he will pray for me, that he will keep me in his prayers that day in the church and that I should come bac next week when I finished my run and tell him about it. Randy, as he introduced himself to me, became my anchor that day. I could picture him praying for me at the church and this became a powerful image that kept me running that day. If what I experienced on my bike earlier that day was a sign for me to start this running mission, Randy became the confirmation of it: a random guy in an empty church, who was sincerely amazed by my running idea and promised to pray for me. Before I left the church I visited the old chapel, the only intact mission in the chain of 21 California missions that has even survived the big earthquake in San Francisco in 1906.

I got out of the mission building around 10 am and started running to Mission Street. Running or cycling on Mission Street from north to south of San Francisco is a unique experience that I have done several times. As you go down you can see the San Francisco Latin community stretched along this long street: lots of taquerias and fruit shops with walls covered with murals. Cross streets are numbers, then country names (there is even a “Persia” street) and then finally you reach Daly City on the top a hill. As many other areas of San Francisco, Daly City has its own microclimate. It has been foggy almost every time I have been there. Just before entering Daily City, there is a big Lucky supermarket where I stopped and got a snack. After Daly City, Mission Street becomes El Camino Real and goes all the way down to San Jose. At the beginning there are some cemeteries and memorial parks (Cypress lawn and Golden Gate cemetery). Then I reached San Bruno and Millbrae where the airport is located and then after that there are small towns (about 3 miles) until you get to Redwood City. By the time I got to RWC I was exhausted and hungry. It was around 4 pm and I knew that there is a big Wholefood market on the corner of El Camino and Jefferson Street. All along the way to there I was thinking about a nice pizza place inside this store. I knew they had a very good furnace pizza. I was imaging a delicious fresh vegetarian pizza coming out of oven for my mid-run snack. So I gathered all energy I had and pushed myself hard to get to Wholefood market. When I entered, I could not believe what I was seeing. They had closed off the pizza section for construction. This was the biggest disappointment of that day after all those spiritual highlights. I got some humus and fruits instead and continued my run to Menlo Park when I received that text message from Xiaojing. Now I had to finish the journey and go back to see my friends. 

I was near Mountain View when my phone rang. It was my younger brother, Shakib, who wanted to say happy birthday. I told him what I was doing and told him that I still had about 10 miles to go. It was good to hear a familiar voice as I was losing all my energy and motivation. I was extremely tired and exhausted but there was no way that I quit and gave up. I had to finish it even if I had to run very slowly. So for the last 10 miles I tried to run but what actually was going on was like you see a very old man jogging in the park. I could barely take a step or stretch my legs enough to make a full step but whatever it was, I was going forward and the distance was getting shorter and shorter. I was frantically checking the distance on my phone. Every 0.1 mile was a big achievement, and there I learned a big lesson for my future runs: no matter how far the distance is and how unreachable it looks, it is composed of many small steps each the size of 1 meter or less. You won’t achieve your goal if you don’t take all of these small steps. There is no shortcut, no way around it. You have to take all of these thousands of steps to get there and although all I just said seems trivial and obvious, it is not obvious at all in practice. In other words, there is no impossible goal as long as there is a feasible path to that goal. Every small step in a long journey counts and bears equal importance. I did everything I could to finish my mission that day: I ran, jogged, walked, and dragged myself along El Camino and finally I got there. Mission Santa Clara is located on UC Santa Clara’s campus. I got to the campus few minutes before 10 pm when it was dark and no one was around. I pulled up my map to find the location of the church. As was walking along the path that Google map was showing me I kept my head down and was not paying attention to my surrounding. Finally I figured out the route and followed the blue dotted path on my phone until I got close to where it was supposed to be the Mission. I looked up and here it was a beautiful old building standing in front of me. I could not believe it. I had reached my first mission-to-mission goal after struggling for 12 hours. I saw the beautiful building and then I collapsed. I lie down right in front of the church and looked up into the dark sky. There was no star blinking at me but one, the one that rises from south and has been used by travelers throughout the history to navigate the endless deserts of the Middle East. That was my star, Canopus or Soheil.

I called Xiaojing. The party was over and the guests had already left. I had missed the party but I did not care about that anymore. I was happy that I had started what I always wanted to do and I wanted to share it with my good friends. After few minutes, Xiaojing came after me and found me standing on the street shaking and shivering. It was a hot summer night but I was feeling so cold. I got in her car that was packed with her stuff ready to move back to Atlanta. “Do you have something to cover me? I’m freezing.” She found a blanket and covered me with it and drove back to Palo Alto. We got to Mirte’s house around 11 pm. They sat me at the kitchen table and brought me food and drink. I could not have asked for anything more. “I think you have to eat eggs” Mirte said while she was running to pour me some more soup. “…and also beans, I have these Chilean super cool beans.” She said as she was looking for more food in the cabinets. For an hour or so she took care of my exhausted body, gave me everything she found in her kitchen. That kitchen and her hospitality became an integral part of my mission runs after that night. She opened her heart to me and embraced my mission project as like no one else. After that night, her cute apartment in Palo Alto became in a sense my running headquarters for the couple of my future mission runs.

Date: 13 September 2015
Duration: 12 hours
Length: 48 miles (77 km)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Mission impossible

I pulled out my mobile phone from my pocket and checked a new message. “Everyone is here. We are waiting for you. Where are you, brother?” It was from my friend or as I like to call her my sister, Xiaojing. She was leaving in few days to go back to Atlanta after spending a year in California and she had a goodbye party at our friend, Mirte’s place in Palo Alto. I stopped to text her back. I was exhausted, my hands were shaking and my fingers were sweaty. I tried to focus. “Coming… just passed Redwood City…have 20 more miles… will join you later” I texted back and put the mobile back in my pocket The sun was about to set and my story, was about to be written.

In late 18th century, after Spanish explorers reached California and established their colonies there, they set up a missionarysystem that was going along the coast of California from San Diego in the south to San Francisco and beyond it in the north. The mastermind behind the project was a very controversial Catholic priest of Franciscan order, Father Junipero Serra. The main purpose of the mission system was to spread Christianity among the Native Americans but there are many controversies around how they achieved that purpose by enslaving the natives. There was a road to connect all these missions called “El Camino Real” or the royal road which has been turned into highway 101 for the most part today. There is a good part of this road still in use in the San Francisco Bay area and in fact this is a major street that connects San Francisco to San Jose. El Camino Real was a 600-mile (950 Km) road stretching from south to north connecting 21 missions. The idea was that a roughly 30-mile (48 Km) distance between each two missions can be traveled on horse in one long day. When I first came to the bay area and lived near this road, I became fascinated by the idea of connecting north and south of California by one road through 21 missions. What if I could travel along this historic road and see all of California? That seemed like a dream until a magic summer morning when I realized I have to do something remarkable to remember and be remembered with.
I woke up around 8 am on Sunday, September 13, 2015 in the bunk bed of my tiny studio in San Francisco. I had just recently come out of long lasting injury in my right leg; sheen splints. For the good part of last two or three months, I was not able to run or do any serious workout that needed my both legs. As an avid runner I was sad and depressed.  It was just a week before that I finally tried and succeeded to run to the top of Lassen Peak in northern California. But I was not still sure if I am ready to run a very long distance, longer than anything I had done before. The idea was simple but hugely ambitious; I wanted to go from San Francisco to San Jose or better o say from Mission San Francisco de Asis to Mission Santa Clara de Asis along El Camino Real. On the Google map, it says it is 45 miles (72 Km). I was not sure if I can do it at all. The longest distance I had run before that was 28 miles (45 Km) between Redwood City and San Francisco that I had run few months earlier when I was living in Redwood City.

As I was making breakfast, I thought about it more and more and I convinced myself that I was not ready to run it. I was not sure if the sheen splints would be back if I start running that long, or even if they would not, there was always the risk of dehydration when you run for that long in the summer plus I had no idea how long I would be gone for. What if it takes the whole day and what about the night? Where would I stay? I was scared and unsure, my confidence was shaky and my brain that I trust the most to optimize my life and give me the optimal solution at every little decision I am making in my life, was in disarray. Finally I managed to make up my mind. It was Xiaojing’s party and my birthday so I have to be with my friends. I decided to take my bike and ride it from San Francisco to Santa Clara along El Camino. This would count as my first mission-to-mission journey and then, I promised to myself, I will run the next ones, all 20 missions after this one. Having made my decision, I quickly geared back into my usual perfectionist mode. I changed and got into my cycling cloths, took my bike with few snack bars and water bottles and left the house in a journey to my first “mission”.

I rolled down Fillmore Street and started passing intersections one after another very quickly, then something started to change inside me. I felt a growing emptiness inside, I felt I was getting away from the person I was, the person I knew and I had worked really hard to become. I felt something big was missing in me. I was not myself and it bothered me the most. I have loved cycling since I learned how to bike when I was a little boy. Bicycles have been an integrated part of me for most of my life so riding a bicycle for me as natural as running, I ride my bike so freely and so happily that most of the time I forget that it is actually a mechanical machine that may not always operate the way I want and may fail me in dangerous circumstances. But honestly I have never cared about this. But that day, that Sunday morning, I felt something that I had not experienced before. I felt that the picture of me on my bike was something that does not belong to that sacred moment in my life. I hit the brakes and stopped. I was unsure and confused. Something was not right and I did not know what but then I started feeling it, hearing it from deep inside me. “I have to run the missions”. Suddenly I felt calm and confidence again. I was me again and now everything became clearer to me. I knew what I have to do and I was ready for it. No more doubts, no more fear. No more overthinking and underestimating. I was myself again: the adventurous, risk-seeker, confident me was back. I turned and started pedaling toward my home. I was determined and knew what I want and I could not wait to get home. California was calling me.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Veni, vidi, vici

I woke up around 8 am on Sunday, September 13, 2015 in the bunk bed of my tiny studio in San Francisco. I knew right away that something big is waiting for me that day. First of all it was my birthday so if nothing, I had to celebrate it somehow. The night before, I had gone to bed thinking about my dream project. I wanted to to something unique and unusual, something that would define me forever and would add a new dimension to my being and my identity. "Who I am?", I had been asking myself constantly since I remember but every year since I turned 30, I had been revisiting this question trying to find new answers to it. I had listed 30 things that had made me who I was at the age of 30 and had written extensively about them. It was a killer exercise and now few years after that, I was ready to add some more big items to the list.
Running was going to make it to the list pretty easily, as well as San Francisco itself or in a more general way, California. And now I had an opportunity, a desire, and a wish to make them merge and marry and make a something new, unique and special. Something magical like my every single day in San Francisco. I was ready to add to the magic and beauty of this place and I was ready to be initiated into what I considered to be the true San Francisco lifestyle. It was a big day for me, I was turning 35 and I was about to engrave California into my heart and make my mark on it in return. But it was not just all symbolic or a fantasy. It was a paradigm shift for me to finally find a place to call home and feel belonged to.

I was born and raised in Isfahan in Iran, a beautiful oriental city with an essence and reputation of one-thousand-and-one-night cities. I grow up in a relatively new part of the city and I loved the city with all its hustle and bustle. I moved to Tehran and lived there for three years after I finished my undergrads but I knew it is not my city. In fact, even Isfahan never made me feel happy or excited about my life. it was a beautiful city with lots of historic mosques and monuments, a beautiful river with old bridges over it, and pretty parks along the river. I had always felt foreigner in my life and I had good reasons to believe it is true. In order for you to understand why I felt that way, I have to give you a little bit of my family background. Both my parents are coming from a small village in the Zagros mountains, about 90 Km west of Isfahan. My father moved to Isfahan to go to highschool and later when he finished his university in Tehran, he came back to work in Iran's then largest industrial complex, the Isfahan steel plant. My mother moved to Isfahan with her parents and went to school there. Since both their families were from the same village, it was easy for them to meet and get married. They decided to live in a part of the city which was historically an Armenian district. In the late 16th century, the king of Persia made Isfahan his capital and ordered a big community of Armenians to move from Armenia in the northern part of Iran to the center to help him build his capital. Armenians to date have been always famous for being hard working with special interest in manufacturing and architecture. The capital and the center were being built on the north side of the river and since Armenians were Christians they were settled on the other side of the river next to the Jewish district in the south to have a safe distance from majority Muslim residents of the north. Over the next hundreds of years, as the city grew many of these small communities mixed and migrated but the Armenian district remained almost intact. So when my parents decided to move to that part of the city, they were among a few other non-Armenian families who were living there.

I grow up in that part of the city which was isolated with some invisible lines from the other parts. Sure, we had the same stores and businesses as in other parts but there was something more profound that separated us. A feeling of being minority and being looked at differently. I remember when I was walking back home from the school everyday, I was passing groups of Armenian students in their navy blue uniforms and they were all over our neighborhood. I was the only one who was not dresses in school uniform and didn't speak Armenian. Sometimes there were bullies and sometimes there was just heavy looks. The outcome was devastating for me, it made me feel like a foreigner in my hometown, a funny minority because I was part of an overwhelming majority of non-Armenian Iranians but I was in minority in this specific neighborhood. When I finally graduated from University and moved to Tehran, I thought I was going to blend and integrate pretty quickly in the melting pot. But it did not take that long for me to realize that I was still a foreigner. In Tehran, my Isfahani accent was like my Jewish star. As soon as I was opening my mouth to say something, or ask an address or  order food at a restaurant, the first thing people would pick up was my accent. "Are you from Isfahan or..?" they would ask with an unpleasant curiosity. It made me feel like a stranger in my own country. How can I not fit in even in my own hometown, in the capital, or wherever I go? And it was not all that, I had like many other people in that age, lots of confusion about my religious beliefs, cultural upbringing, political ideologies, and of course my sexual identity.
Few years later I moved out of Iran and started a journey around the world to find myself. I found good answers for some of my confusing questions, and I found new questions that made me even more confused. But one thing remained constant until that Sunday, September 13, 2015, my 35th birthday: I never felt I belong to anywhere. I remained a foreigner wherever I went and in every city i lived. This sense of not-belonging was so strong that at some point I started questioning the ideas like nationalism and patriotism in all form. I thought it was really absurd for anyone to endanger his or her well-being for a piece of land. "Why can't we all feel the same about everywhere? Why do you prefer certain geographical locations to others? Why we always think "home" is the best place on earth?".  I was almost sure that I will never call any place home, or hold it so dear to my heart that I would be ready to die for it. I thought if things get worse, I can always move and I will feel the same everywhere I go. I am always a "foreigner" so why should I prefer a place to another?

Interesting enough, my first home after living Iran was in Armenia! I was now a true minority in the country of Armenians. In a sense, my childhood neighborhood had grown to the size of a whole country. For the most part I could pass off as Armenian as long as I would keep my mouth shut. I looked like Armenians. In fact i remember once in a supermarket a nice old lady behind me in the cashier line was so surprised that I could not speak Armenian. She was certain that someone in my family  should be Armenian because "how come you can have such a unique big Armenian nose without being actually Armenian?" she asked while drawing the shape of my big hawk nose in the air with her finger. I was glad that I could blend in and feel belonged to even it is only for a little bit. My nose helped me blend in one more time when I was living in Abu Dhabi few years later. There I would pass off as a real Emirati and one of the elites (less than 20% of people who live in UAE are Emiratis, the rest are expatriates mainly from Southeast Asia).
The story changed dramatically when I moved to Kenya the year after. There was no way I could pass off as a Kenyan. In the first time in my life my skin color became a part of my identity. In Iran at least in the places I lived, and in Armenia the minorities are not about their skin color. There are religious, ethnic, or cultural minorities but skin color rarely bears any privilege or disadvantage in the extend that exists in the West. In Africa I came to the realization that for many locals there, I am just another "Muzungu". I loved it even if it was used sometimes as a derogatory term. I remember walking on the streets of Kampala in Uganda on the New Year eve of 2008 and a Matatu (a minivan used for public transportation) passed by. A guy pulled his head out of the window and yelled at me "Muzungu!" while laughing. It was so embarrassing to be singled out but at the bottom of my heart I liked it because at least showed that I am, good or bad, different from others.

When I moved to the US, the very first thing I experienced as a true "cultural shock" was the fact that no one was "American" as I thought. Everyone was an immigrant and almost no one was speaking English. I could not believe it. This was the story in the areas within and around the New York City.

But when I moved to Atlanta in Georgia the race and skin color became a defining factor again. Although I was spending most of time at school with other international students and never really felt discriminated, there were few times during my time there that I felt my skin color is a defining factor. I remember once I had to fill an application for the background check at a police station and I noticed that I'm the only non-black person there. As I was filling the form, I got to the question about my race and since there was no Iranian or Middle Eastern listed there, I checked "Others". I turned the form in and waited for them to process it. Few minutes later an officer came out and called my name (actually she called some very strange name but since I was the only foreigner there I realize it should be my name). I got up and went to her. She looked at me and asked why I had picked "Others" for my race. I was puzzled and wanted to explain but she just looked at me and while correcting my application for me, said "you are WHITE, sir!". I was not white, at least before that moment  was sure that I was not white. In my whole life if anybody would have asked me about my race, answering "white" was as far for me as any other color, "black", "brown", etc. I was pretty sure I was Iranian or at most Middle Eastern. But "white"? no way. After that day, I realized that I am white or at least for people who care about this stuff, I am white. So now I am checking "white" on any application without even thinking about it anymore. That day in Atlanta, I was assigned my race. That solved some of my confusions about who I was but did not help me find an answer for the person I really was, a foreigner inside.