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.