Erasing Metaphors in the Quest to Fit In
Dina Nayeri on the Metaphors of Belief and Belonging
My relationship with belief has changed now that I have some power over myself. Today, I keep examining how I believe—whom and what stories; what myths draw me in. But when I was a poor Iranian kid in Oklahoma, with my jet-black hair and massive nose, I gave that up as a decided thing (by my mother, my community).
All I cared about was what Americans believed, what they made true with the awesome power of their opinion. I wanted to understand how to change it, to influence it: how do I sound neutral and credible, here and now, to these people? I wanted to disappear, like a chameleon into every background. I became obsessed with the people who glided by, blissfully invisible, native to the land. How did they do it?
Everywhere I went, I felt noticed, extra, like the accidental chickpea in a plate of raisin rice. People looked up. In school, I was mocked for my shabby clothes, my Iranian food, my piles of witchy books plus dictionary, my tics and whatever lay undiagnosed beneath. Are those boy socks? Did you wear those yesterday? Geez, is that pink with red? “I wish there was a handbook for being American,” I told my mother.
I did know one rule of Western society: if you had money, you could be a little more yourself. And we were poor. Soon I became obsessed with getting into Harvard, the place where the handbooks were written, a place that could remake me into a stellar American. But how was I supposed to make time for such ambitions, when half my time was spent correcting tiny, instinctive nothings that no one else ever bothered to think about?
Noah was in my advanced geometry class. He was the first American boy who caught my eye. In my Isfahan preschool, I had been openly in love with Ali Mansouri, an older boy (he was in kindergarten) whom I dutifully followed around the playground, calling him always by his full name. “Ali Mansouri, want sour plums? Ali Mansouri, can I play now?” I didn’t have many words, and three or four questions stood for my entire spectrum of girlhood emotions.
He feigned annoyance for his friends until one day, when I stayed home sick, a woman appeared at our door, Ali Mansouri peeking out from behind her long chador, demanding to know that I hadn’t moved away. After that, his playground objections were loud as ever, but he kept glancing back to see if I was still a few steps behind.Childhood love, too, has its special language, metaphors, layers of protective tissue children use to wrap their hearts. In Iran: you’re bahal. In America: You’re dope. You rock.
For years after we landed in Oklahoma, the everyday demands of English and poverty, and the general strangeness all around, distracted me. My heart was too gummed up until seventh grade when, amid my 12-year-old turmoil, I met a boy with dark hair and kind eyes.
Noah was the nicest kid in school. He never made fun of my accent or my clothes. He didn’t mind being paired with me in math. “Lucky you’re the best at it!” he’d say. He laughed at my jokes and accepted Rolos from my bare hand, unconcerned with Iranian germs—which, since my arrival, had been going around. I carried the little chocolate pucks in my pencil case all through seventh grade, though they were full of grainy caramel. I preferred Crunch bars, but in every grocery store aisle I begged my mother for Rolos, loudly whining that they were only 50 cents (class shaming is the kryptonite of Persian mothers) and all I ever did was get A’s.
Noah and I never talked for long. I worried about my English—not the language, exactly, as I had studied vocabulary and worked on my accent with a tape recorder. But almost every day, I tripped up on the shorthand, the slang, pop culture, jokes. Each time Noah said “Hi,” I didn’t worry about my bad jeans or my accent or even my words. I worried about the metaphors. Phat and grody and chill pill and gnarly. Slammin’ was good but shady was bad (“Why, though?” I kept whispering to my only two friends). A bag of chips was good; cheesy was bad (“Cheese is so much tastier!”). And, my God, so many references from TV, which my mother had banned.
But Noah was easy—he didn’t lean on slang. He spoke simply, slowly. He smiled a lot. He explained jokes from his favorite shows. The first time he took a Rolo, he said, “Mmm, good,” in that gooey, closed-mouth way you do when your teeth are all gummed up. For half a second, I felt normal—as in on things, as much a part of this new childhood, as I had been when Ali Mansouri tried to choose the sourest plum from the hollow of my cupped hand.
I never told Noah that I liked him, not the way I had with Ali Mansouri, or with the right proxy words. Childhood love, too, has its special language, metaphors, layers of protective tissue children use to wrap their hearts. In Iran: you’re bahal. In America: You’re dope. You rock. Those words, though, didn’t belong to me. My own words were always the wrong ones. But one morning, as the bell rang, I said them: “I start to miss you as soon as the bell rings.”
Noah gave me a strange look. He gathered up his books, nodded goodbye, and then my only friend was gone. How did I get it so humiliatingly wrong?
Some years ago, I met a dramaturge who moonlights as an editor for college application essays. My first instinct was to be furious: if belonging is a performance with a script, a dramaturge is one hell of an asset, and I didn’t have any such help along the way. But her clients are mostly foreign kids, those without access to American storytelling tools.
Often her students say, “My life isn’t that interesting,” though they’ve survived war, poverty, insane grandmothers, village coups. They want to edit out the beautiful oddities of their voices, like the kind that pepper my mother’s speech. “Does this sound like authentic English?” they ask, wanting to scrub out anything that could be mocked or misunderstood.The dramaturge knows, too, that her students’ rivals, the kids from prep schools and country clubs, have a good script.
The dramaturge keeps them from shearing their essays of personality and applies her theater expertise to their on-paper “characters,” bringing every decision and consequence to life on the page. She keeps their voices broken in surprising places, their charming sentimentality intact. No one but my spicy Iranian mother has stepped in dog shit and said (about all of America), “Here is all over poops!” No one else has lost phone service and shouted into the receiver, “I got no wave!”
The dramaturge knows, too, that her students’ rivals, the kids from prep schools and country clubs, have a good script. In my brief stint at the American School of London, my literature students wrote with the instinct that their stories mattered. They held forth about every experience, as if our attention were their birthright. And they got into the best universities. Many substituted vulnerability with drivel and still got through.
But while for the foreign applicant the language of home has its place, you can’t be entirely yourself: you’re allowed a quick flourish, controlled, performed according to familiar Western mores, signaling dignity and grace. You should be interesting and new, but not unrecognizable, or of another realm. The gatekeepers are intimate with Western quirks and mistakes. A foreign teen’s forgivable oddities may alarm them.
In his essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes: “To be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone.” What we consider truth is only a herd truth, the truth of a particular community or language, their accepted lie. It has to be, because words are invented, and metaphors fail to correspond to or capture the essence of anything. Essences are brief, elusive, altered by perception.
What is truth, then, to most people? What is casual honesty and trustworthiness? Only the use of “the usual metaphors,” the familiar, comforting images we’ve already imbibed. Last year I watched Elena learn French. One by one, she replaced the sounds for every item, every action. All language, Nietzsche says, is code, “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms,” and everything we take as true and canonical in human relations is a worn-out metaphor we’ve long ago accepted, “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”
But even specific words aren’t exact. A leaf, Nietzsche writes, represents many objects with like traits, though they vary widely. Who knows if the platonic leaf even exists? Where does “leaf-ness” end? Not with size, shape, color, or texture. Other things grow from a tree. When, as babies, do we learn the boundaries of “leaf?” Once, as a toddler, my daughter informed me that a thick blade of grass wasn’t a leaf, that I had used the wrong word. How did she know? “Mummy, you lied!” We come to understand the accepted metaphors as children, yet those metaphors are constantly remade.
“You know who you should talk to?” a friend said. “If you want to know about passing for a leaf in places where everyone’s looking out for the blade of grass? Undercover cops.”
How do you know if the new guy hanging around is an undercover cop? I go lurking in a chat group where people ask this question a lot. Undercover officers stake their lives on being believed by vulnerable insiders trained to disbelieve newcomers. How do they do it? What’s the trick? The chat is brimming with charmingly specific (almost folksy) wisdom and lived detail:
You can spot an undercover cop by the sole of his shoes—you can beat up your shoes, but a real drug dealer walks through a lot of broken glass and needles.
No, no, the real giveaway is their hands—you can grime up your hands, but you need cracked nails and calluses formed over years.
Oh please, it’s their teeth—you can avoid the toothbrush for a few weeks, but years of neglect is hard to fake. And anyway, who’d do that to themselves for a gig?
There’s their confident, almost arrogant stance, their searching eyes, the constant pings to a target’s phone for tracking. The haircuts. There’s just something about the haircuts.
Watch out for the try-hard addict look: the filth, the long hair, even the emaciated look may be convincing for a while, but how is their skin so clear, their teeth not yet rotting? Also, short-term stink is different from long-term stink. That’s a detail that goes right to the subconscious, and the thing that gives the cop away is no more than “something feels off.” Sometimes, undercover cops stand with arms away from their torsos, because they’re used to fat utility belts. They squat for dropped items, instead of bending, because they’re used to a gun in the back holster. Those are the newbies, or those under shallow cover. The elite ones morph into their targets, ravaged teeth and all. They become shadows, a self from another realm.
“It’s like dressing poor to avoid highway bribes,” says a South African friend. “You can’t fake it. You have to be gaunt. You have to be the fourth person who’s worn your clothes.”
Quite often, though, even the best spies are betrayed by some simple item of clothing or slang. Both are specific to times, to places, and differentiate in-groups from out-groups. They are full of metaphoric meaning. And if you’re on the outside (maybe a cop newly undercover or a refugee girl newly in love), it’s easy to see jeans as interchangeable and slide into your usual pair, agonizing instead over shades or a phone (or Rolos), when ultimately the jeans will give you away.
Group-speak can be simple generational argot (“groovy” or “lit” are both metaphors: fire, the grooves on vinyl), or it can be a fully formed subversive anti-language that helps keep the secrets of vulnerable subcultures. Polari, the coded language of gay communities in 1960s Britain, began as a way to identify each other without triggering suspicion. It might have been a nod to your “batts” (shoes) or a joke about the “lilly” (police). Polari was full of images for vital words (police were also “Betty Bracelets,” “Hilda Handcuffs” and many more).
For a long time, pretenders simply didn’t have the words, though you only needed about twenty or thirty to identify yourself to friends in hostile surroundings. At a time when homosexual acts were criminalized, a proposition without the usual metaphors was risky, and hardly believable. Later, because of the influence of gay artists in creative industries like television, those 20 or 30 words became widely known. Suddenly everyone knew what a “friend of Dorothy” meant, and Polari as a secret signal became less and less useful and, after some social progress, no longer necessary.What magic the dramaturge could have performed with those funny Iranian phrases, changing them from a rant to something moving and profound.
A community’s private language gives the vulnerable a modicum of power. When new Christian refugees arrive from Iran, my mother grills them for the shibboleths. If you’re a “believer” you will have a “flock,” you will know the songs, the verses, the images that signal brotherhood to members of the underground church in the Islamic Republic.
As the community gains influence, respectability, and aspirants, the code grows more elaborate, exclusive, and subtle. And yet, it takes so little for a more powerful outsider to invalidate it, robbing it of its charm and vigor. Polari faded because mainstream use stripped off its protective covering. After that, many of its words slipped into English slang, used simply to suggest hipness. The hostile gaze cuts through the metaphor, casting a harsh light on the thing itself—powerless, endangered. The undercover cop, when he outs himself in his own time, destroys every metaphor that he used to infiltrate a vulnerable group, who will now need a new set of signals.
There is a famous letter Iranians pass around online. It’s supposedly from a local employee of the National Iranian Oil Company written to an English boss, Mr. Hamilton, in the 1950s or ’60s. Throughout the letter, the employee begs for his boss’s help. “My hands grab your skirt,” he says, and he beseeches “to the 14 innocents.” A wily coworker is “putting watermelon under my arms,” he says. “I have six bread-eaters.”
In Farsi, it’s a heartbreaking read: a poor, overworked, frustrated man begging for help. Yet when it first appeared online it was an object of pure ridicule. All those Iranian sayings translated directly to English sounded silly—Mr. Hamilton surely laughed before passing the letter around.
Years ago, my friend and agent gave me a gift: the American Women’s Club of Tehran handbook, printed in the prerevolutionary 1960s. It’s a relic from the Shah’s Iran, a country beholden to the colonialist West. It lists common phrases of “the local help,” requests obscured by Iranian manners. It instructs American women on how to respond. It cracks open the face-saving metaphors, giving instructions on how to lay bare and ignore the raw pleas underneath.
What magic the dramaturge could have performed with those funny Iranian phrases, changing them from a rant to something moving and profound. How many Iranians try to tell their story in precisely this way to stoic asylum officers who have had their own narrative rules engrained since childhood? (This rings true; that is too insistent.)
But, as it stands, the Western reaction to that letter is humiliating. I don’t know why Iranians laugh along at this wretched man. When the code isn’t an explicit struggle against existing power, it reinforces that power. And, given enough time, it isn’t the outsider who’s at a disadvantage, but the systematically weaker one. The undercover cop may have to learn slang, the local idioms, for a brief time before he casts off his mask and claims back his power, but the manager of Iran Oil never needs to bother with a word.
Copyright © 2023 by Dina Nayeri, from Who Gets Believed: When the Truth Isn’t Enough. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.