My parents forced me to get braces at the tender and turbulent age of thirteen. I had no say in the matter. They didn’t care that the 32 (albeit very crooked) teeth resided in my mouth. If I wanted to get married, get a job, have any future at all, I had to fix my smile.
I remember trying to reason with them on the way home from the orthodontist’s office:
“I have personality. I don’t need to be beautiful!”
“Why do I have to go to an Iranian orthodontist with bad breath?”
“Death to America’s obsession with dental hygiene!”
But they were unmoved. It was one of the rare instances in our relationship where my opinion was irrelevant.
Eleven years prior, we’d escaped Tehran in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, but when it came to the subject of my teeth, my parents were as tyrannical as the Ayatollah.
“You’ll thank us one day,” was all they said in response.
I was too respectful (and afraid) to say that I hated my parents out loud, so instead, I repeated the words in my head like a teenage war cry. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.
I’m fairly certain that the status of my dad’s teeth never crossed my mind on that drive home. But as a kid, I used to hang out in the bathroom and observe his strict dental regimen. He was religious about flossing, brushing, and swigging mouthwash, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. For starters, he’d been a smoker before I was born, and his crooked teeth never recovered from their exposure to nicotine.
Braces hadn’t existed in Iran when he was growing up. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that a group of American-trained orthodontists would be invited to Tehran University to train Iranian students. Once advances were made in the field of orthodontics, demand for braces would still outweigh the supply of orthodontists. Straight teeth would become a luxury afforded only to the elite. Dental work was never an option for my dad. And yet, he kept flossing and brushing and swigging mouthwash. He had no intention of giving up on his teeth.
My dad always had a gregarious personality. He’s cheerful and upbeat and the type of guy most people love instantly. He may have been self-conscious about smiling with his teeth showing, but it’s hard to stay tight-lipped when you’re regularly brimming with joy. I love his outgoing side. I love that he talks to the clerk at the grocery store or a stranger on the street like he’s known them his whole life. But as a teenager, I worried those same people might judge him at the sight of his stained and imperfect teeth. I worried his mouth was just another sign of our foreignness. I had frequent bouts of anxiety over how different we were from my American friends’ families. Anxiety that was compounded by a family secret I’d discovered: we were undocumented immigrants.
It was my older sister who unceremoniously broke the news of our immigration status to me. Despite the fact that we’d lived in the Bay Area for over a decade, we didn’t have green cards. At the time, my sister and I didn’t even have Social Security numbers. We’d escaped Iran as refugees but entered the United States on visitor visas. When they expired, we applied for political asylum, but after two years, we were told there was no record of our application. Our only hope was getting green cards through my uncle, who was an American citizen. So we filed our applications and waited and waited and waited.
Our undocumented status was the reason I had to go to the Iranian orthodontist with halitosis. He generously gave us his friends-and-family rate for my braces. This was a necessary savings for my parents. Being undocumented came with an array of financial burdens. It meant paying a lawyer to help get my sister and me Social Security numbers. It also meant not being able to apply for financial aid when my sister went off to college. My parents would have to pay for her education in full. For small-business owners, this was a behemoth expense.
Braces were not exactly cost-prohibitive, but my teeth required a lot of work. I had to start with a palatal expander to widen my upper jaw. This is a metal contraption (or torture device) that’s secured to your top molars and sits below the roof of your mouth. It has a tiny screw that you turn with a small metal key each day to help move your teeth apart. If that wasn’t humiliating enough, it also made me speak with a lisp.
After six months of properly widening my jaw, I was finally ready for braces. I was happy I could feel the roof of my mouth again, but I hated the layer of metal that masked my teeth. I dreaded the monthly appointments where I had to get my wires upgraded and tightened. The orthodontist’s office was a trek from our house, which gave me ample time to bitch and moan to my mom on the ride home. My teeth hurt. The edge of the wire was cutting into my cheeks. I was in agony.
“Bemeeram barat,” my mom would say. “I’ll die for you.” It’s what Persian parents frequently say to their kids when they voice even the slightest discomfort.
“I’ll die for you.”
“I’ll die for you.”
“I’ll die for you.”
“Khoda nakoneh,” I’d mumble in reply. “God forbid.”
My braces came off during my sophomore year of high school. By then, I was consumed with other insecurities: bad skin, a boyish physique, a stereotypically large Iranian nose. There wasn’t much I liked about myself. But for once, I was giddy as my mom drove us home from my appointment. I kept gliding my tongue along my teeth, stunned by the sensation. And I couldn’t stop smiling at myself in the car visor mirror.
My parents and all my friends agreed: my teeth were perfect.
“Thank you,” I finally told my parents.
But as my dad proudly smiled back at me, my joy was quickly replaced with guilt.
One day, I told myself, I’ll be successful, I’ll have a lot of money, and I’ll return the favor.
Three weeks later, I was in the throes of every teenager’s worst nightmare: I’d lost my retainer. I’d wrapped it in a paper towel during a meal and accidentally thrown it away. I frantically dug through the trash in our backyard, praying to the universe that I would find it. I never did. My parents would have to spend a few hundred dollars to replace it to keep my perfect teeth intact. I hated myself for being so irresponsible. This time, tears accompanied the guilt.
For most children of immigrants, guilt is a familiar emotion. Hell, it’s more like a state of being. We don’t require verbal reminders of our parents’ sacrifices. We bear witness to them every day. We can see it on their tired faces when they come home from a job that pays the bills but wasn’t what they’d dreamed of doing with their lives. We can see it in the faraway look in their eyes when they wax nostalgic about a country they loved but had to leave. We can see it when they sheepishly ask us to proofread something they’ve written for grammatical or spelling errors, when they fumble or get embarrassed because the person on the other end of the phone can’t understand what they’re saying. All parenting requires some form of sacrifice, but not all parents choose a lifetime of feeling marginalized so their children can flourish and bask in the freedoms they were denied.
It would take more than twenty grueling years for our family to become American citizens. My parents were relieved when our immigration ordeal was finally over, but that doesn’t mean they live in a country that makes them feel American.
A few years ago, my mom and dad downsized their lives, sold their house in Silicon Valley, and purchased a condo in the less expensive town of Brisbane, California. They can’t afford to retire, but they’ve finally been able to put some money away.
At 70 years old, my dad got his teeth fixed. I never did make good on the promise I had made to myself. He covered all his own dental bills. His smile is beautiful now, but it was beautiful then, too. It was, after all, the marker of my happy childhood.
At 37, I still feel pangs of guilt when someone compliments my straight teeth.
“I had braces,” I always explain.
But there’s more to the story. My teeth, my smile, are evidence of immigrant parents, who would do anything for me.
Sara Saedi is a novelist and TV writer living in Los Angeles. Her memoir, Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card, is out now from Knopf Books for Young Readers.