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My Father, in Four Visits Over Thirty Years (newyorker.com)
223 points by lermontov on June 23, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

This one hit very close to home. I too was born in Iran. My family too emigrated to the United States with my father staying behind. Our family too grew up poor in the United States and managed to work very, very hard collectively and individually to realize common measures of success in this country.

I want to address an aspect of this piece that seems to be a bit controversial in these comments. Many seem to be sympathetic to the father and feel that the daughter is unappreciative and uptight. I completely understand where she's coming from here from my own experience.

One very vivid memory I have as a child was my brother, a teenager at the time, yelling at someone on the phone like I had never seen someone yell before in my short life. He then slammed the phone down and ran into the bathroom crying – one of two times I've ever seen him cry to this day.

Only a couple years ago I shared this memory with him, asking him who the hell was on the other side of that phone call to generate that sort of reaction from him.

It was our father. He called to see how everything was going. He was being cheery and asking how everything was going. Things weren't going well, and he had thrust a teenager who lived a very comfortable life back in Iran a couple years earlier straight into the role of "man of the house." We were poor, my brother was bullied endlessly, and my mom had become depressed.

When you've been abandoned by a father, you don't have the patience for the "fun uncle." The abandoner wasn't there for the hard times – the bankruptcy, the eviction, the teasing, the depression, the canned food your classmates would donate that ended up on your table, the toys they would donate that would end up under your Christmas tree. The abandonment is a burden that follows you throughout life. It manifests itself in the form of insecurity, anxiety, and/or a shitty attitude.

Sorry if that's too deep for HN, but this struck a chord with me. Dug up a part of me that I bury way deep down.

This sort of situation can have tragic consequences too. In high school, a friend of mine was in the same situation: Mother and kids in the US while the father is stuck in Iran. They were wealthy so they didn't go through the added stresses of poverty in the US and my friend seemed to everyone to be a happy go lucky guy. He was popular, involved in the community, and did very well at academics but we found out too late that the stresses in the family over the separation had developed into a drinking problem. A few days before his father finally managed to get a Visa and arrive in the US, he got too drunk at a party and stopped breathing. The psychological toll on the entire family is hard to understate, even when life is otherwise good.

This kind of separation happens quite a bit within immigrant communities, especially nationalities that have long waiting lists for green cards, let alone undocumented immigrants. Due to some quirks in the Visa system, you have to leave the country in order to change your status which runs the risk of delays or outright rejection. When the parents are on separate visas, one can get let through with the kids while the other is stuck indefinitely. Often times that means that the parent not granted a visa becomes an undocumented immigrant in the host nation and the other is forced to return home because all of their stuff and financial obligation/jobs are in the US. If they can't find a job in the host nation, the stuck parent often moves back to their support network in their birth country, further complicating things.

I'm an Australian, originally here on E3, then H1-B, now green card. I got stuck on just such a trip, to Barcelona. The local US embassy called the wrong number to notify me of my updated passport (which was delivered to a post office only a couple of blocks away, which I wouldn't find out for weeks), and never tried again.

I was stuck for a month, with no possible way of getting back to the US. It's a truly sickening, horrifying feeling, that the only solution is to blow up your life and go back where you came from.

I was extremely lucky that my employers lawyers cajoled them into communication before my money completely ran out.

The requirement to go to a third country to update status seems pretty routine. When I was on a foreign visa in east Asia, I knew of many Canadians who flew to Hong Kong for a week in order to get a new visa.

Thank you for your personal story. It is interesting the angle of the father being the one who abandons the family. Did your father have the option of coming with you at the same time and he chose not to? The father in the New Yorker article seems to have stayed behind in order to allow for the other to get the visa, the implication being that otherwise they wouldn't have crossed over.

Was the situation the same in your case? Or did your father simply chose to stay behind out of his personal comfort?

According to the US State Department, anyone who visits Iran and stays for longer than a year requires an exit permit to leave the country. I don't know much about the politics of Iran but I'd imagine that applies to everyone born there. Due to that exit permit requirement it's probably much easier for women and children to leave than for the father.

HN is all about the deep cuts, thank you for sharing.

My parents were born in Iran, and the culture is very family-centric. Much more than European cultures.

> Much more than European cultures.

Including eastern european and Balkanian cultures? If so, I would be interested on the reasoning behind your claim.

I don't think he needs to be put on trial. He probably based his generalisation on a certain view of Northern Europe. It's a common mistake to make - a bit like seeing all Americans like white Texans.

I meant western europe. Sorry for the misunderstanding. But I got hit with karma regardless.

> Including eastern european and Balkanian cultures?

Or Mediterranean cultures? I'm waiting for some explanation, too.

Reading this, I wasn't quite clear what the intent of the story was. Usually these have some kind of moral to them, or a lesson learned, or something.

The author came across as an extremely uptight and unapologetic jerk, who "quietly tolerated" all 4 of her lifetime visits with the man who stayed behind to make it easier for them to escape. Every time he came to visit, he seemed to be the "fun uncle" personality - Loud and boisterous, but always having fun and chatting up people. He seemed to have a few problems, for sure, but overall by the end I felt really bad for the father and rather upset at the abysmal treatment the author gave him. If I was supposed to sympathize with the author, they failed pretty spectacularly.

I read it as a neutral meditation on the author's relationship with someone who should have been a central figure in her life, but lives as the main actor of his own separate world. She still feels the faintest touch of a connection to him (through social media), but in the most important ways they are complete strangers.

Instead of being melodramatic, the author recounts some facts about their (lack of) a relationship, how and why it failed to develop, and how things stand now.

I don't think the author is looking for sympathy. Just reflecting (quite beautifully IMO) on the way things turned out.

I perceive it similarly, and marvel at some of the judgmental, parochial readings I see in comments above.

I've known more than one 1st-gen child who was a narcissistic brat, blaming their parents for not fitting in (and thus all other social failures as well), while being willfully ignorant of the sacrifices involved in simply getting them here in the first place, and scornful of the opportunities available.

The author of this piece wrote nothing that convinced me she was any different.

I may be completely wrong. But I do not think I am. I didn't live in the US until I was a teen, and I've seen this song and dance before.

I disagree. If she felt like that there would have been more excuses and less clarity.

We have differing opinions. Fair enough.

But your opinion is wrong

That's not a very compelling counterargument. :)

Seriously, it's OK to just plain disagree. Literary interpretation isn't a hard science.

My takeaway was "I was an insufferable tool my entire childhood/young adulthood and my dad eventually decided it would just be better to start a new family." (I think the author is likely in on it. There's hints of self awareness in the writing, to the point where I take the piece to written as a criticism of her younger self, but in a dry style that doesn't shove the epiphany in the reader's face.)

It may be a little too subtle - she still comes off as insufferable.

It's the New Yorker--I'd be disappointed if there were any other reaction one could have.

She still is from the snide comments about her ex.

As I get older, pointlessness seems less like an insult, and more like an accurate reflection of the world. Points can be found, and some times must be made, but the world doesn't need them. Neither does a good story. Looking for one everywhere will cloud your judgement.

She got older and realized that there is more to life than career and material status.

Edit: she also does not seem to realise that her father's behavior might have been determined by the sacrifice he made, staying behind and having his family ripped apart.

I'll be honest, I'm not entirely sure what part of my comment this was in response to...

I definitely empathize with the father, he seemed to have things figured out for himself, and by the end seemed to just kind of "give up" trying to please the author, preferring to spend his time with people who were less uptight.

I think they were responding to your first statement.

That makes sense. My mistake!

Maybe, you should read it again. Look: the author has written the essay, when she did not have to. Does that not tell? She has picked details to report that are unflattering to her (and not because she is unaware). Does that not tell?

"Usually" these stories have some kind of moral to them? Which personal memoirs of this sort have you been reading? Why can't it just have no moral, and just be (as this author seems to intend) a description of a lived experience?

She does come across a little entitled, specially reading about his Refugee novel here:


But at the same time I think both are very interesting reads, with a different point of view of what I'm used to, so for that it was a worth read.

It's very clear that the author wrote this for the reader to sympathize with the father; the author's purpose is clearly to relate that she's made major mistakes in her life, misplacing her relationship with her father. She even mentions that her 'supposedly perfect marriage' [to a rich Princeton Ivy Leaguer like her] ended up in divorce.

It's very clear the tone, and it is in no way subtle; this is a piece meant for compassion for the father, and I assume is a cathartic release for the author. By writing it up and admitting her faults openly, she's giving herself the chance to forgive herself.

While I appreciate the response and explanation, the constant hammering of how "obvious" the point of this was is very irritating, since it is easy to see this was not apparent to me.

I don't like the use of the word "obvious" because of the pejorative connotations, but to me it seemed pretty self-evident when reading for effect (rather than the read-for-"content" that seems more common around here) that this piece should be taken as self-reflective and more than a little ironic. It's all the little things: word choice, framing of all the characters (author, father, author's husband, brother, brother's wife), and in particular the structure of the ending. It's the sort of thing you read in English Comp classes to recognize those signposts; if it's something that isn't regularly apparent to you, maybe it's a subject worth exploring further.

It was clear in its particularly East Coast Smug sort of literary omphaloskepsis. It isn't as easy as it reads to project a constant sense of superiority while pretending to be self-critical. I see the framing choice as a way to separate the author from any potential agency, a story viewed from behind glass, immutable. This conveniently absolves her of needing to actually grow, and the messiness inherent in the process.


(Please note this is in no way a criticism of you, or your point, with which I agree. But my experiences as a person who didn't live in the states until I was a teen give me... strong opinions about children who refuse to understand the deep sacrifices made to give them a shot (and that's what it is, just a shot) at a better life, no guarantees.)

Interesting - have you read a lot? For me the intents of writers have become clearer over the years as I have read more and more widely.

Not with that big of an ego. She can just call and say sorry.

Making an art piece has more meaning than just a phone call

Meaning to her you mean? Or meaning to people who pay her money. Surely (imo) not to the father.

More meaning to other people. It's a warning: don't do what I did, you'll regret it.


I think this qualifies as the kind of generic ideological comment that we've asked you before not to post. The discussions that follow are almost never the intellectually interesting kind we're after here.

I'm not sure what ideology you have in mind? Legitimately baffled.

I feel bad for the girl for not valuing family enough and I feel amazed by the father not only for the initial sacrifice but also the subsequent seemingly cheerful attempts to stay in touch with his daughter and son who, sadly, seemed to have written him out.

I hope my own dad doesn't feel like I don't value his sacrifices endured while getting us to safety decades ago during one of the wars in the middle east. I got him out of the middle east and into Canada a few years ago (bringing parents to the US is hard). So far, fingers crossed, he seems to have resettled.

This is something I am always baffled by, is a western or modern thing. The lack of remorse really disturbs me.

Not everyone shows remorse or guilt in the same way. I think it's best for us to avoid judging people on the basis of what we think they are feeling, because their outward presentation of their feelings may not be what they are actually feeling.

This is an interesting story but as others have commented, one without a clear point. that's not to say that we can't draw something from it. We can. Or at least I can.

Very tangentially I'm reminded of a book called White Teeth (by Zadie Smith) that I found compelling (I was living in England at the time).

Some others have commented that the author feels like things like children are an imposition. Superficially, I see why, but I think that misses the point.

She hints at this in other parts. How she comes across to me is I think what must be typical of many first generation immigrants (those first to be born in the country or who emigrated there in childhood).

You see stories like this where a family comes to the US from Russia where someone who was a doctor now works as a janitor to give his or her children a better life. I think it must be common to get knocked down several rungs on the social ladder when making this kind of move. But it's a sacrifice many parents make for the sake of their children.

Having gone to Princeton and Harvard (as the author and her brother did), they became fairly high achievers, which is to be applauded but is also I think the exception. It must be a huge part of their psyche to remember where you came from, coming to the US with nothing, living as a refugee on virtually nothing and so on.

One affect that has on someone, and I think you have to have experienced poverty to some degree to truly appreciate this, is the inescapable fear that all that you've worked for in life might go away, be taken away. Those who aren't first generation immigrants or came from money I think just don't appreciate this lack of security as it's not something they're typically exposed to or have any experience with.

I'm not even sure the author realizes it even though it's what I took from the piece. Perhaps the book will explore this (the book is mentioned at the bottom). Perhaps it's an editing snafu with the excerpt.

Oh man this comment is perfect. I often get into arguments with my girlfriend because she says I think about money too much and that money isn't everything. That you should focus on living life and having fun.

Money is everything. Without money you can't do any of that living life stuff. But only someone who's experienced not having any can understand that.

To quote a great philosopher, "Money isn't everything. Not having money is everything." There's a lot to be said for your side of the argument as well as hers.

It was Yeezy who said:

"Whether you broke or rich you gotta get this

Havin' money's not everything, not havin' it is"


A quote from an acquaintance: "Money isn't everything. I'd tell you more about it, but my phone's account balance has almost run out, so I need to cut the call" /s.

Certainly if you live in a city, money is everything. Without it, you are homeless and wondering where you'll sleep next or what you'll eat. Where to shower, how you'll find work, get your hair cut, and so on. All of these things require money to obtain, more or less.

The countryside might be a different story, if you're willing to work wherever you can find it. Room and board on a farm perhaps; that costs nothing if you are willing to work. Tent in a forest; this costs nothing, as anyone can scrape together a tent and sleeping bag. Cities have no room for these things.

A bare minimum amount of money can be everything. Once you can feed and house yourself, why not focus on life and making the best of it? I think money is everything _until_ you can sustain the bare minimum. After that... if you still think money is everything, you have lost sight of the rest of your life. That or you have kids.

> After that... if you still think money is everything, you have lost sight of the rest of your life.

I think a large part of it is that I've spent the first 25 or so years of my life living hand to mouth. As such I'm probably never going to get used to the idea that you can ever have "enough" money.

What if something happens? Is your stash really big enough to tie you over? What if it isn't? What if ... basically I think that once you're in a money-tight situation for a prolonged period, especially if it was when you were growing up, that leaves a mark that's never going to go away.

As the anecdote attributed to different rich people says: "Yep, my son tips more than I do. He's the son of a millionaire, I'm the son of a <insert poor-ish profession>"

Maybe I hit a double whammy as well.

My girlfriend's parents emigrated to the US from a relatively well-off French background. It's not all roses of course, but to my understanding they were never broke broke. Her grandma, for instance, has an estate that's been in the family for 300 years.

I emigrated to the US from a single-parent background in a postsocialist country. My maternal grandparents went bankrupt when my mum was 15 or so, my dad's grandparents died by the time he was 5. Great grandparents' assets were mostly wiped out during WW2 (partially effect of war, partially socialist redistribution of wealth). So really I have about 4 generations worth of baggage about "Fuck we're broke!".

There's no way that doesn't have an effect on how I think.

But how many of the people who say money isn't everything do so from their self-made hut in a farm living off of food they have grown / killed themselves etc.?

I don't mean to make an ad hominem, but I think it's fair to say that lofty pronouncements such as how much money does or does not matter from people who have basically never actually had to experience extreme poverty sound a little hollow.

I love that, money is everything until you have the bare minimum.

I just graduated and moved across country for a new job and for the past few years have been incredibly worried about money constantly. I worried that the rest of my life I would be completely obsessed about having enough money. Now that I'm starting to get some paychecks the sense of relief of not having to worry if I'm going to go hungry/not make rent etc is incredible

I believe the implication is that it is not everything, but that it is still something. They aren't saying that money is nothing, just that it is not the only thing.

Thank you for this comment, you shed some light on my relationship!

As an immigrant, I see the "American pride" a lot, which is not necessarily healthy. That attitude of American doing everything right or better than everyone else is apparent specially first generation immigrants who are still riding the high horses, like the author in her early days.

Only when I had the first bitter taste of having the first series of failures did I bother to find out that not everything that I think is right is right, and there is not one true highway. People have different ways of living a life. Thinking everyone who doesn't live or think the style that I do is worse than me (especially the people and family back in the home country), is the one thing that will lead me to my ultimate demise. It got me to the utmost lonely, singled out, outcast feeling that I have ever experienced, despite how many likes and support I get on social networks because of my popular idea.

Found this poignant. I made the decision to immigrate from India to the US in my early twenties. At the time I looked at the decision merely as a change of address. Thirteen years later I am still struck by how much of a profound change a "mere change in scenery" can have on basic issues of identity.

I'd like to voice my appreciation for the discussion here.

I've read The New Yorker (and similarly targeted magazines like The Paris Review, etc) since I opened one up to kill some time in the university library, freshman year.

Though I've never found a place to discuss them with people like myself - I'm not a literary kind of person though you pick up things here and there. I identify much closer with the HN crowd.

While some of your comments make me roll my eyes for how to me it appears you missed the point, some are genuinely enlightening and even those I don't "like" have been valuable.

So thanks all, for talking about this article. It was interesting.

As an Iranian with a torn apart family (me in Europe, mom and brother in the U.S. and my father back in Iran) this was a spectacular read. Almost brought tears to my eyes.

The situation is not exactly the same for us. We'd like to reunite as soon as we can (but the immigration situation in the world has become an issue and we don't know how its going to happen).

But what I relate to is my connection with my father. I love him. He loves me immeasurably. But I cannot make the right connection with him and I feel its mostly my fault because he tries and I fail.

Both the main story and comments were fantastic. Many thanks to the Author and everyone here.

I just (re)read a book which deals with a lot of similar themes. It's a collection of letters to a Yiddish-language newspaper advice column which started in 1906. Many of the letters are about immigration, including conflict between generations who are divided by their experience of immigration, both in families where everyone came to the US and in families where some stayed behind in the old country.

Although the immigrants come from a different culture and a different time than in this essay, they share many themes (keeping the old language, being ashamed of parents who seem too attached to the old world, fitting in, etc).


I suspect the author felt betrayed. She's sent away. She is not 40 years old. Imagine trauma with absence of a father and who knows how the mother might have explained it all. Nothing easier than blame. I'm sure at the first visit she was extremely upset and trying to cope and kept coping to survive. It seems in the end that she might have gained some empathy for her father just at the time he lost it for her.

I think it is the father who sacrificed: Out of a family of four, he is the one that chose to stay behind so that the other three (mother and two children) can get to US.

Interesting fact is that we do not hear much at all about the mother.

The read was a great journey. It felt very honest but in that honesty I did not get the impression that there were good guys or bad guys in this story, and am a little taken aback by the strong comments to the contrary here.

I got the impression that the author is blaming her father's decision to stay behind, as the root of all her issues in life, including who she has become over the course of her life.

This was a touching story. Thank-you for sharing it.

I don't understand the negative reactions to this. Emigrating to a new country is hard, being a teenager is hard. She was frustrated with her new culture for not accepting her and with her old culture for putting her in an impossible position and making her an alien in the first place. I felt like this was an honest account of what it feels like to be a refugee.

Maybe she could've done more for her Dad by moving him, but as she seemed (to me) to say, he didn't really want that.

Maybe the mother did not help keep the image of their father in perspective. It would be great to know how mother coped.

To all emigrants who left close family behind...

I wonder if they would have been better off (happier) remaining in Iran and being together. The children basically lost their dad in order to live in the USA. I'm not sure that's worth it.

Had to read the entire article to get the full picture. Started off unsure, though finally drove the point home by the end. Enlightening story; much appreciated–

A lot of people seem to be missing the culture shock involved in this.


Could you please not post unsubstantively like this?


It's funny, I read the piece because of your comment, wanting to see what you meant. The tension between the way she acts and the way her father acts is fascinating, grotesque, and kind of beautiful. For me, the story would be really boring if not for that central dynamic of discomfort you picked up on, which is ostensibly caused in part by her father's absence from her life, but not stated in such direct terms. Seems like the author has come to terms with her neuroses, and that she can now write about them frankly and candidly. I'd love to talk with the author at a party.

I feel sadder for the girl than for the father. She comes across as quite self-absorbed, where even a child is a distraction, close to an imposition.

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