International Students Feature: Iran

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Hadeel Arwak is a second-year transfer student studying biology that came to the United States from Iran in 2013. When asked about differences in culture between the two countries, Arwak thought that, in general, people here were more open, especially when speaking to elders. “People who are older,” she said, “I feel you can speak more freely with them, but over there you have to act with more respect.” Similarly, she explained, “It’s an Islam country, so it’s more strict, you can’t talk to boys. I’m still shy around boys now.” Cultural differences did not end at speech; the way Arwak dressed in Iran was also different. “When I first came here, on the first day, I was wearing a hijab, but my uncle was like, ‘You don’t have to wear that anymore, you can take it off.’ ... I liked it, it didn’t bother me, but I didn’t feel like I was wearing it for the right reasons. In the future if I was going to wear it, I would want to feel like I wanted to wear it, not because I was forced to.”

Weather was a dramatic difference for Arwak; although the northern part of Iran experiences winter, Arwak was from the south, which was always hot. “The weather was a big change, it was my first time seeing snow in the winter in 2013. It was very fun the first night, and then the second day, I was like, ‘I’m done with this.’ I’d rather have summer all year.”

Arwak’s first language may have been Arabic, but she learned English in school, and received significant pressure from her father to learn. “My dad wanted us to learn it, so when we watched TV he would turn it on to the English channel without subtitles, and then he would ask us to translate.” For this reason, Arwak felt comfortable with English by the time she moved to the United States, although she still felt extremely shy and nervous when put on the spot. “When someone asked me a question, I would be like, oh, I forgot all the English I learned.”

The differences academically, Arwak explained, were significant. She attended high school in Iran, and Wilbur Wright community college in the US. And while she struggled in school back home, she found that she performed much better here. In her words, “I was doing really bad in school back home. I had problems with with my teachers. I was feeling kind of depressed, and it was affecting my academic performance, but when I came here ... The professors are so nice here. You don’t feel scared approaching them. That was my biggest problem over there.” According to Arwak, she graduated community college with high honors, which was a big difference from high school. “[In Iran], we had mostly tests and quizzes, and that was that, and then you had the final test. But here, you have tests and quizzes, and you have all of the extra homework and papers.... It’s never like you fail the test, you fail the class.”

The “biggest problem,” Arwak said, was food. “I’m Muslim, and I only eat halal food and that’s super hard.” When out with friends, Arwak frequently has trouble finding food she can eat. “I miss my mom’s homemade food,” she lamented. “But there’s a lot of different [halal] places around here, so I can go anytime.” One of her favorite dishes from back home is called “doma,” which consists of grape leaves filled with rice and meats, and is then boiled. “It’s the best thing that you can ever taste,” Arwak said.

Out of everything, Arwak thought she missed her parents and friends most. Due to the time difference, she explained, it is extremely difficult to contact them; Iran is 9 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Chicago. “It’s always like, I can’t find the time when they are free to contact them, and sometimes I feel left out. They are all in one university, so they see each other all the time.” However, she understands why her parents sent her to America. “My parents sent me here because they felt like there was no future over there, they just felt like things were going from bad to worse.” In addition, she explained how a grade earned in Iran was “worthless outside.” And although Arwak missed a lot of things from her home country, she recognized that “my parents sent me and my sister here to have a better future, and I agree with that.”