November 01, 2012
A few days ago I was at Soaptopia–one of my favorite neighborhood stores–picking up a few bars of their heavenly scented handmade soaps when I noticed the exquisite earrings the lovely young saleswoman was wearing. The earrings were round in shape and made of gold but wafer-thin, almost transparent with detailed carvings studded with tiny stones which looked like coral and turquoise. I hadn’t seen anything like them, at least not here in the States. They were exotic and delicate. I felt compelled to compliment her on her earrings and she beamed me a bright smile and told me that she’s had the earrings since she was 16. “I got them when my family travelled to Persia!” She told me.
“You mean Iran,” I said.
“Yes, Iran,” she confirmed, her smile never leaving her lips.
I told her that I was from Iran and that I was half Armenian. She told me she was from Senegal and how much her parents loved to travel but that Iran had been one of her favorites. Though I haven’t been to Senegal, I had travelled to Kenya when I was 13.
“I had my ears pierced in Kenya,” I told Isabelle, my new-found Senegalese friend.
Soon Isabelle and I started chatting about Senegalese music, Persian food, Armenian coffee and the joys of travel. A middle-aged woman standing nearby couldn’t help but join in on our fun. Turned out she was from Cape Town, South Africa and she too spoke of her trips to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt and would’ve loved to have visited Iran had politics not intervened. This is exactly why I like Los Angeles, in spite of the smog and traffic. The beauty of living in Los Angeles is the myriad of cultures that coexist and the stories we have each brought with us.
At Charters Towers School, the boarding school I attended in England, I had the privilege of meeting and making friends with girls from all four corners of the world. At 15, thanks to my friend Sheila Samani, I attended my first Indian wedding, dressed in a turquoise blue sari. I learned about miso soup and nori from my Japanese friend Masako Kawahara. I listened to stories of apartheid in South Africa from my friend Kavita. My friend Anupama, a devout Hindu, told me stories of the guru whose teachings she and her family followed. This was the first time I heard the word “meditation,” and techniques to sit, breathe and calm the chattering mind.
I owe my African adventure to my boarding school friend Anne Summers, whose parents had moved from England to Kenya like many other English expats. Anne had talked me into piercing my ears and I still remember the day I placed the long distance call from Nairobi to my parents in Tehran for permission. My mother gave me her blessing, but it wasn’t until we were on safari when the deed was done. Out in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles away from Nairobi, we happened upon a small white-washed box-like structure with the words “Clinic” painted in black. We were greeted by an English woman dressed in an all-white nurse’s uniform. She even had on her white nurse’s cap, white hosiery and sensible white shoes. There and then I decided to have my ears pierced. She agreed to pierce my ears and while numbing my lobes she casually mentioned that she’d never done this before, which made me nervous. But my worries quickly disappeared when she broke into Farsi on learning I was from Iran. Before relocating to Kenya, she had lived in Isfahan, Iran where she learned Farsi. I still can’t get over my encounter with the English nurse. What are the chances of having your ears pierced by a Farsi-speaking English nurse on safari in Africa?
Travel, be it in the form of a study abroad program, back packing or vacation, is the antidote to xenophobia, and the “us and them” mindset that prevents us from seeing the goodness in everyone. The experience of travel also broadens our minds and helps us appreciate the connections and similarities we all share, no matter where we’re from or the languages we speak, or the religions we follow.
Next time you’re in LA, Mar Vista to be exact, make sure you stop by Soaptopia, say hi to Isabelle and share stories about your travels and ask her about the Persian earrings!
Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI