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Zarrah Birdie Oral History Interview

The interview was conducted as part of SAADA's ACFP 2021-2022. This interviewee discussed her experience as a young Zoroastrian woman growing up in a Zoroastrian neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan. She shared her experiences of moving to California in the early 2000s. Particularly she shared memories of being an international student and the impact of migration in her identity evolving as a South Asian Zoroastrian woman. She also shares her upbringing as a Zoroastrian and its effects on her values in professional and community life.

In this slideshow, you will see:
A photograph of Zarrah as a young child at her Navjote ceremony in Karachi, Pakistan.

A photograph of the spices Zarrah uses in their day to day meals and tea. Zarrah described how she makes tea using cardamom and cloves. The gharam masala chai brings comfort and warmth. These spices are also regularly used in Parsi desserts like ravo, Parsi style sooji (pudding).

A photograph of a prayer from Homage Unto Ahura Mazda by Dr. Dastur Dhalla that Zarrah has had in her room for the past 15 years.

A Farohar necklace Zarrah always wears. Zarrah shared that sometimes people are curious and ask her about it, which is great conversation starter for talking about Zoroastrianism. For Zarrah, the symbol of the Farohar is special as it symbolizes the philosophy of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, making a choice between good and evil. In the interview Zarrah shares how the Farohar as a symbol of faith and Zoroastrianism is powerful for her.

A Milo powder can that Zarrah shared. As a fond childhood memory, Zarrah would drink warm Milo after waking up early in the morning before the colony carpool came to pick her up for school. She shared that "milo breath" is what you had if you forgot to brush your teeth (second time) after drinking it because the carpool arrived and was honking downstairs.

Baatic prints hanging in Zarrah's current home.

Childhood, Memory & Remembrance, Education, Migration, Identity, Faith

Duration: 00:58:35

Date: February 11, 2022
Subject(s): Zarrah Birdie
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Sharmeen Mehri
Contributor: Zarrah Birdie
Location: Buffalo, NY

Transcribed by Shirin Mehri

Sharmeen Mehri: Today is February 11th, 2022. The time is 6:12 pm EST. My name is Sharmeen Mehri and I'm interviewing Zarrah Birdie online from Buffalo, New York for the SAADA Archival Creators fellowship project about Zoroastrian South Asian migration to the United States. Zarrah would you spell your full name for us.

Zarrah Birdie: Yes, my full name is Z A R R A H and my surname is Birdie, B I R D I E.

SM: If you're comfortable sharing, would you share your address or location and how long you've lived there?

ZB: Currently I live in Oakland, California and I have lived in the Bay area for the last, since 2007 so I think about coming on to 15 years now.

SM: If you're comfortable sharing with us your birth date or age.

ZB: I am going to be 34 years old this year in May and um I was born May 31st, 1988.

SM: I would just like to ask you some questions about your past and your home country and a little bit about your background as well. So where were you born and can you describe your childhood home?

ZB: So I was born in Karachi, Pakistan and my childhood home consisted of living in a colony, the Parsi, it was called the you know, Avari Colony and many people in the West get confused when I use the word colony with them. Um, and it's essentially just a you know community of people is how I describe it and you know Zoroastrians are a large minority, in well, a very very small minority in in Karachi and you know living in the colony was really great because I was able to grow up with a lot of other Parsi Zoroastrian kids and you know going to school as well, I had Zoroastrian friends in my class which was helpful as well. But you know outside of the colony, Pakistan is a very largely Muslim country and there were largely sort of Muslim rituals and Muslim culture that was followed so growing up in the colony I think was a really great way for me to, you know, from a very very early age the interaction with the kind of Zoroastrian and culture Zoroastrian and Parsi culture.

SM: What are some childhood memories of yours that are particularly related to Zoroastrian culture?

ZB: I remember one of my favorite childhood memories is actually the Navroze mela and so that's essentially Navroze is you know New year in Zoroastrian and Parsi culture and it happens in March you know during the March solstice. And the Navroze mela was really fun for me as a kid because firstly you got the day off from school which was really nice and second you got to basically hang out with your friends in this kind of fair or what we called a mela and you could like, ah, win gifts and stuff. It was like food to eat and it was just like a really fun thing that you know me and my Parsi friends in my class did and my Muslim friends would always wonder what we did on Navroze so I remember that being a very sort of Parsi thing that we did every year while I was at school.

SM: And what schools did you attend in Karachi?

ZB: So when I was in Karachi, I attended Karachi Grammar School since, since nursery all the way through A levels.

SM: So you had some Zoroastrian classmates, but was it heavily Zoroastrian populated or was that still something that folks did not know too much about and you had to explain your identity again and again?

ZB: And yeah I think it was definitely very much a minority. Even even in my class I think we we were 6 of us so we were the 6 Parsi kids. Always in the same class throughout the years and interestingly enough you know in, in our high school every because it was in Karachi, we had Islamiyat which was Islamic studies and if you were not Muslim, you didn't get to do Islamic studies and I distinctly remember that being as a differentiator because we would we ended up doing bible studies. So scripture and it was interesting because obviously like we weren't Christians but we basically it was just 6 Parsi kids with our with our bible studies teacher. So that was always unique. And then I just remember my friends always asking me questions you know about what it's like to be Parsi, like what Navroze is like, what the colony is like, things like that. So I definitely felt different from you know everyone. But I also felt like I felt engaged and and very much part of the group like I wasn't made to feel like there was something you know like the difference was bad. It was a good difference in a way. Um, and actually I think a lot of our friends were kind of jealous of us because they felt that you know as Zoroastrians we got more freedoms for whatever reason in, you know in their like maybe strict orthodox Muslim families or especially as a woman, I think a lot of my girlfriends would feel that way and you know even though my parents were pretty strict according to them, they were not as strict as their parents. So that was also a good like divider.

ZB: I genuinely think that like, you know, growing up in Karachi I feel like I got basically all the freedoms that any woman in Karachi would get which is to say I didn't get too much at all. But at the same time like you know, living in the colony was really great because it's it's a pretty big space. It's like I guess I I was actually just recently there so it's like one point three kilometers around so it's you know a little more than a little more than a mile and a half and all my friends lived there and so from a freedom perspective, I could walk down the street to my friends' houses. You know on a on a weekend and hang out at their house which I think a lot of my other you know, Muslim friends would not be able to do because their parents wouldn't let them leave the house so things like that, so I feel like there was a lot more like freedom of movement in that sense like we would hang out at the hall and there'd be like volleyball tournaments. Actually, that's another memory of mine of being Parsi like in Ramzan you'd have volleyball tournaments and those are really fun because you know everyone would come together and cheer for their own team. There would be food, the you know the final the final tournament would be kind of like a festival and it was always like a lot of fun to do that during Ramzan.

SM: Can you describe your home life a little bit more, you know how many siblings do you have?

ZB: I'm the oldest of 3 siblings so I have a younger brother who's 2 years younger than me and a younger sister who's 5 years younger than me. And yeah, I guess today in 2022, we’re all in the US we all came to the US for college. And my brother is in the Bay Area with me and my sister is in Seattle at the moment.

SM: How was it growing up in the colony with your family, was it a lot of emphasis on family culture or was there you know room for independence in that?

ZB: I think there was definitely a very strong emphasis on sort of family and culture and you know like retrospectively as I get older, I realized that that was also largely because we lived in a very Muslim community and a very Muslim state and so I remember that you know Navjotes, weddings, Parsi functions and things like that, were very much, my my parents encouraged me a lot during those settings. And also Parsi friends like you know I just I remember as a kid I would want to spend the night at a Muslim friend's house and that would be very very hard to convince my parents, but with Parsi friends, it was always okay. So I felt like there was a lot of close community and culture that uh existed during my childhood and I actually kind of miss that in a way because it really allowed us to form like a really close community with people that were like us. I think when I was that age I felt it was a bit claustrophobic maybe because as a child you know as a teenager, especially you want to do what you want and sometimes you're the opposite of what your parents want in a way and so I always wanted to hang out with my Muslim friends, I always wanted to spend the night at their house because my parents would say no. But now I realize that like having that closer community like really goes a long way and I don't know like even thinking back to some of like my values that I have today as an adult really come from sort of how I was raised and I'm really proud of how I was raised as a Parsi.

SM: Can you share some of those values and also how you’d define some of the key aspects of your identity as well.

ZB: I think some of the values that really resonate with me is you know generosity and humility. I think in Parsi culture that's really really taught to us as kids from a very young age and I think it continues throughout adult life. And so for me, that's really important. Another value for me is the value of community, like I'd mentioned like having that close community. Especially now when I'm in the US and I've been here like I'd mentioned you know I'm coming on to year 15, and I know the value of community and I've sought to like develop my own community or around those same values. You know, they may not be Zoroastrian but they're people that you know are kind of like my chosen family and I think that the value and the emphasis that I place on that is, really is a function of how I was raised in the Parsi community.

ZB: I think I identify as a and this is a no order of importance but you know as a Zoroastrian first. No order of importance and I say Zoroastrian first. But as a Zoroastrian, I think Parsi is a very loose term to me. I feel like I I identify more broadly with being a Zoroastrian than you know, being specifically a Parsi because I know the difference but my lived experience, I believe is a Zoroastrian lived experience. And I identify as a you know a Pakistani-American. I think as I'm officially American with the passport and things like that I don't I don't think I'll ever actually feel American, which is okay I completely think that's fine. You know it's okay to have a concept of like 2 homes almost like you know Karachi will always be my home and the Bay Area is my home and only recently I was able to reconcile those 2 things and say hey I can actually be 2 places at once because they both hold parts of me that I find very dear.

SM: I think those are very important observations and so could you maybe even differentiate what you mean by you feel more Zoroastrian than Parsi?

ZB: For me this is obviously just my opinion or my perspective, I think the concept of a Parsi is that of you know someone obviously like the defined version of Parsi is like from Pars came from Persia. Parsi were like the immigrants of Gujrat of India. And I think if I was born in any other generation before mine, I feel like I would resonate a lot more with that immigrant Parsi you know. Like I am an immigrant, like even in Pakistan like if you look back at our generations, like they were as immigrants, but you know for me my immigrant experience is coming to the US and so since it's been fifteen years and you know I'm going to come up very quickly in the next few years where I've spent equal amounts of my life in the US and in Karachi and for me, as I spend more and more time in my second home in the US, what resonates or continues to resonate with me is the aspect of being Zoroastrian and the values and philosophy of that and the culture around that. And Parsi is a subset of that, absolutely I don't but I think that you know as Zoroastrian is the big circle and Parsi is kind of the little circle inside of that big circle.

SM: I want to go next to for you to describe what you do, what your work is and if that was inspired it since you're schooling in Karachi or that's something that started much later on?

ZB: So I think the one thread that has continued in my career since I you know since I started working over ten years ago now is the concept of service. And I think I tie that really strongly again with my upbringing and tie that really strongly with being you know Parsi Zoroastrian and our community, the concept of service, and so I currently work in the healthcare industry and I work at a like a biopharma company that produces medicines for HIV and HCV, and actually is one of the largest HIV donors outside of NGOs you know Africa which is about 37% of people in with HIV are positive. So I work in a for-profit company that tries to do as much good as it's can and for me that's that's really important and also that's kind of the reason why I've continued to be in the healthcare field. Despite the fact that being in the Bay Area there's a tech tech startup every day that you could be joining or you know making a lot of money at and things like that. But for me like I think the concept of service and doing something that has an impact is really important so much so that if I can't find that impact in my job, I won't be able to do a good job. I won't be motivated and I think that is directly connected to my upbringing as a Parsi Zoroastrian.

SM: You were talking about community and chosen family. Do you belong to any particular organizations in the Bay Area or just in the United States that kind of attach yourself to certain parts of your identity as well?

ZB: Yeah, that's a great question I feel like the organizations that I belong to are largely from like a professional standpoint, which is you know I think just as important as personal in a way right, because we spend most of our waking lives at work. I do belong to sort of like a Women in Leadership, in Healthcare Care Leadership Foundation so that's been really great because it's learning from other women leaders and you know working in corporate America. I mean I think every single job I've had I have been working for a man or more than one man and it is increasingly aware of like perspective differences as well as just the way people are treated in the workplace. So being a part of this female organization is really important to me because it allows me to you know, have mentors. As well that you know maybe in positions that are higher than me but are able to give me advice on situations where I would not be able to seek advice from you know, even a manager or a peer if you will because of the fact that they were men. And then personally you know I have multiple communities that I'm part of in the bay area just based on you know, um, my interests and then also kind of like I mentioned family like friends as chosen family. So I have a really good group of close friends here and you know we all have we all have sort of different backgrounds. Some are immigrants and some are not and it's just such a wonderful way to get to know people that may be very very different from you but sort of share similar interests and kind of have a similar curiosity about the world. They're kind. They're humble, they're they're generous and for me like when I see those traits in other people that are not Parsis or Zoroastrians, I really kind of gravitate towards that.

SM: What are some favorite things for you and it can be something particular to the Karachi Zoroastrian community or just worldwide?

ZB: I think the first thing that came to mind when you asked me that question is like just a celebration of food and I just got back from Karachi myself this winter and oh my god I missed the food so much. And I missed the, the celebration and the community that comes around food. It's like the Ghambars for instance, the weddings and the Navjotes and stuff like that I just remember everyone would like the first thing they would ask you if you went to a wedding or a Navjote is like how was the food and there would be a 10 minute conversation about like all the different things you ate and how good things were or not they were. And I think that's just such a quintessentially Parsi thing for me at least growing up in Karachi and I you know and I miss that I mean I just don't only miss the food and how it tasted. I also miss the energy and community around that.

ZB: Dhansak is definitely up there on the list. I remember every time I come back, my mom will never make Dhansak if it's like someone's birthday or if it's someone's Roj birthday or if there's like a you know a special like a special day in the calendar. So I really have to plan when the Dhansak is made and when I’m back for only like two or three weeks and I want to have Dhansak twice I have to plan it. So it's definitely Dhansak because it's a prized possession and you can’t get it all the time. Close second is curry chawal. Khekra na curry chawal which is like crab curry chawal is really good and the chicken farcha is another close favorite. Love chicken farcha try to make I’ve tried to make chicken farcha probably like 3 times here and it has never come close. But I'm trying to perfect my own recipe because I feel like that's probably the easiest and Dhansak is probably the hardest in terms of trying to recreate it and like you're I'm always scared that it's not going to be as good as I remember it and I'll just be even more sad [laughs]. Ravo with the sliced almonds on top of it and like I remember that that's really good and then also like yellow dal chawal with the machi with the fish is really yummy and it kind of reminds me of I think on on weddings or like on birthdays and stuff my mom would always make yellow dal chawal with but the spicy fish on top of it so that was really good, now I'm hungry [laughs].

SM: Now let's move on to more of like the process of migration or specific memories of your experiences of first coming to America. What was the first thing that prompted you to decide to come here and can you just describe some of that experience?

ZB: I kind of knew I was coming to the US pretty early on during high school because it was something that my parents had planned on doing for us, for us 3 kids. And you know I still remember, my uncle, so my mom's brother was the one who sponsored us and it was always understood that you know after my A levels I would apply to US schools and mostly schools in California because my uncle was in LA and you know that's where I would go. And being the eldest, I was the first one that did that but you know my my brother did the same and my sister did the same and so that was the impetus for it. So I kind of always knew it was happening and I was always a little bit anxious about it as as one could be you know because you're going to a whole new country. I moved to the US for college in 2007 and I went to the US for the first time with my family in 2003 and so I'd only been to the US I believe I might be mistaken. But I think I'd only been like once or twice before and had never actually been to to Berkeley which is the town in which I started my college. It was all just really new and scary and I was far from my uncle because he was in LA and California is a very big state. I think it's like an hour plane ride away. I was like scared and nervous and excited at the same time. I think I still remember like when I got into Berkeley and I knew I was going I like went on Youtube and I searched like UC Berkeley or city of Berkeley to see what came up because I'd never been there and where where am I going you know like where where is this place. Uniquely enough Berkeley in and of itself is a very unique town. So like I didn't know it at the time but you know like years after like I was anyone would. You talked to would be like Berkeley is very very unique. It is not like the rest of the US. It's got its own culture like so it was definitely quite a journey for me in terms of like you know going there and it was probably one of the scariest things I'd done in my life up until then. But it was it was worth it because it allowed me to really come out of my shell and allowed me to really express myself. As a child I was really shy and really reserved and you know living in the community and having the same friends throughout your life like was very comfortable right? I didn't really have to sort of step outside my comfort zone and try to make a conversation with someone I didn't know. And at Berkeley at the time, I think it was 2% of the population was international. So not only was no one that looked like me everyone kind of was born and raised in the Bay Area or born and raised in California and then at was they would you know not worse, but at most they would be in like Texas or New York and I still remember people would ask where are you from, where you from and people would be like oh I'm from LA, someone would be oh I'm from Texas, and I'd be like wow it's so far and I would always be really shy about saying I was from Pakistan because everyone would look at me and be like wow that's so far I would just be like yes I know. You know! [Laughs].

SM: How was it when you would kind of share your South Asian identity and background with others, how did people respond to that?

ZB: You know it was a really interesting mix because like as I'm saying it was 2% international because it was UC Berkeley and because of where we were located in the Bay Area, there was actually a lot of first I want to say first generation South Asian kids there. It was an interesting mix because like they looked like me but their experience was very different and their relationship to their homeland or whatever they considered where their parents came from was very different and this is completely about coincidence. But my roommate and my freshman year of college was actually a Pakistani woman and you know her dad is Pakistani. Her mom is from Burma and we just randomly got matched up and so I remember being like oh my god she's Pakistani but she was so different from me, you know what I mean. Like she was born in like Yorba Linda, California and her affiliations and experience of what Pakistan was like was completely different from like my experience in what it like was like to grow up in Karachi. So it was I don't know it felt like oh I can relate to you but oh actually I can't be very different. It took me a long time to see the difference between what an experience as an immigrant would be versus an experience as a sort of first gen if you will right? A first generation would be. There were a couple of I think there was gosh now I can count them on my fingers, I think like 3 friends that I'd made in college that were in the same boat as me I guess. They were all immigrants like their families were both of them were in India, and you know I could relate more to their experience even though I wasn't born and raised in India. We had very different cultural experiences but the immigrant experience was similar.

SM: One thing you mentioned before that your uncle was in the States so was that the main reason why your family wanted you to study there and not anywhere else?

ZB: Yeah exactly that was the big impetus. You know like California and as close to him as possible but I got into UCLA and to UC Berkeley and because Berkeley was the better ranked. My parents were like let's, let's send you there like you should go there. And so that's how I ended up at UC Berkeley.

SM: Even though you visited the US before, what were some expectations when you were going there as a student?

ZB: [Laughs] I think that I, it's interesting like I, before I went to the US and visited I’d I, there was this just like this preconception I think that was kind of drilled into our minds. Mostly I think during my high school years because a lot of the kids in my high school would graduate and then go to go to international schools. Basically, so the whole goal was that you're preparing yourself to leave Pakistan and to go out into the world and do great things but like leave Pakistan and so the US is always seen as like the land of opportunity, as a land of like you know anything is possible. You can be anything like everyone is really nice and you are your full freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want and it was very rose-colored like rose-colored glasses almost. And then obviously you know I've been here fifteen years now so that has changed significantly. But it was interesting because when I first got there like I was very I very much had rose colored glasses. I really did not I chose not to see a lot of things that I found like wrong or weird or like if someone said something to me that like didn't didn't sit well with me, I would always think that it's like something I did or I said or maybe I had a face um you know something. It wasn't their fault and I really began and I kind of like lost a little bit of my identity as a process initially. And that was really interesting to see because I was then able to recognize that hey I am living an immigrant experience like I wasn't aware I was doing that for so long and that really came and that came into the surface and I got to know other immigrants I began to build up my identity. In a whole different way. So I think there was like a breakdown of wide identity when I came to the US around the expectations and then kind of a buildup of my identity.

SM: Would you be comfortable sharing some of these experiences that at first you thought you know it wasn't to do with this immigrant experience?

ZB: I guess just the feeling of being different or othered almost. I think the most good the best example of this in a way is my accent right? like I was very very conscious of my accent like I'd mentioned it. You know, 2% international I didn't know any Pakistanis that went to school with me and our graduating class was 4000 people. So it was just it was very much I felt very different and for a long time I tried to sort of be a chameleon you know and kind of just become like become part of the fabric or try to fit in as much as I could. And I I think I realized at some point during that process that no matter how hard I tried I could never fit into that mold or that person like I could never be anyone else you know and and that's when I kind of realized that actually there's a lot of value in being who I am and I never asked myself that question you know, like who, who am I, like what kind of an identity can I build up with myself and that's when I began to realize that like I remember I had a friend. Um I think maybe this was two or three years into my time like in college, and there was a we had an interaction. I was with her and we had an interaction with someone where you know I I think I mispronounced something and you know there's a difference between mispronouncing and completely saying something different I guess and what the person who I'm talking to sort of I think made an undue big deal about the fact that I wasn't able to pronounce the the word in exactly the same way as he would pronounce it and kind of just pretended that he couldn't understand anything I was saying and I felt really small at the time and I felt very, I felt like I had done something wrong and I remember she stepped she stepped in and explained it to him and then later on and she she said you know I'm sorry and she's like ah I asked her like why are you, why are you saying sorry to me and she said that that wasn't right. She's like I understood exactly what you were saying and I'm pretty sure he understood exactly what she was saying and he didn't have to come at you this way. I think she was the person that really helped me realize that like, me being an immigrant and me bringing my experiences as a gift to this community and this society and it shouldn't be the other way around. It should be that I'm coming in as an immigrant and now I have to like basically shed my identity and like become whatever version of American means to be you know like to fit in, change my accent or think about my home in a way that's like kind of degrading or whatever like oh I'm better now and things like that. It really shook me and I was like, wow this is it's actually true like I think that like what I bring to the table is important and needed.

ZB: And you know as a result of that I began to also seek friends and community that reflected that which was really great. A lot of my South South Asian first gen friend,s I didn't realize this earlier on but a lot of my first gen friends, kind of were actually a little bit like envious of me because, they had never lived an experience that was where they grew up and everyone looked like them and they were so steeped in culture. They gave me examples of when they went to high school and they were a minority brown kid. They called them in their schools and how when they would like open their lunchboxes and their mom would have made like some aromatic Indian food, everyone would stare at them. And so I was like wow like I never had those experiences you know, growing up. It's such a different It's such a different diametric difference that I think that I only began to realize as I got older and was able to reflect on that you know and a lot of those people that I went to college with are still close friends of mine and we’ve really grown together in so many ways.

SM: I know you were talking about how you've learned more about yourself in this process. So, using 3 nouns, how would you describe yourself?

ZB: Let’s see, I'm an explorer and I am what I want to say is, I'm a very open person. I'm a kind of like I don't know maybe I'm an open book is a noun. I don't know like something like like I'm oh I'm open like I I love learning about the world and I love connecting with people. And I think another, another noun to describe me would be I, I guess curious is part of it like, I'm an open book or I'm curious. I I love bringing people together. I don't know how to put that in a way that's like a noun but like I really like like bringing people together [laughs].

SM: So, in what ways are you an explorer, is it something to do with traveling?

ZB: You know so I think that that's actually connected to kind of what the the thread I was drawing in terms of like you know coming to the US and in many ways kind of having my identity broken down and having to build it back up again and I thought that like while I was building that up like the example I gave you of that interaction that I had with you know with my friend and where she was able to show me like hey like what you bring to the table as an immigrant and your identity and your experience is what the world needs. Like you need to share more of that and be confident in sharing more of that and I think that's really allowed me to open up my eyes a little bit more and be more curious about the world. Instead of taking a fear-based approach I've take more of sort of like uh abundance-based approach, where I see the world as as uh as an open space and if if I'm curious I can ask a question sort of making an assumption if you will. And for me that's really important because that allows me to live from a place of like openness and abundance versus a place of fear and suspicion and you know it took me a long time to get there because as an immigrant I was acutely aware of the fact that I could be kicked out of this country at any given time before I was a citizen in many ways, right? Doing really well in school was really really important. Like there were all of these things I put in front of things I wanted to do, it was like I need to do this I need to do this this this and it was very much of a fear-based living and I realized that once I started to accept who I was and accept who I was as a person and how I showed up in the world and I could actually be more open to the world as a result and I think that's where my explorer personality comes because I feel like the more I explore the world and this can be like my backyard over here in the Bay Area and it could be another country but I realize the more I explore the world the more I learn about myself and that really has been a massive journey for me and I think for me one of the most vivid examples of that explorer identity coming out is but, I think about 2 years after I graduated in 2013 had the opportunity to live and work in East Africa for 2 years and this was obviously a really scary thing again because I'd never been to East Africa but I told myself how as a kid, you did it once coming to the US, you can you can do it again.

ZB: And stepping into that fear right so that's the same thing. It's like stepping into that fear and like going with your gut feeling. I remember one of my one my close friends told me right before as I was leaving and she said look if you don't know, you won’t, like if you don't go, you'll never know you know and you can always come back if it's scary if it's not worth your while if you don't like it. You can always come back. But if you don't go, you'll never know so it's like listen to your gut and go with it and I think that's really what allowed me to go there and it was actually when I was living in Malawi with my roommates and doing this really awesome work working in healthcare. Sort of in rural health clinics and things like that like I was actually able to understand more of my identity and I was able to come out and be more of who I was and that was also a really scary experience. But again, I told myself like if you're afraid, that's not the thing that should hold you back like you can't live from fear, you have to live from a place of openness and I think that that's really that that's all captured within that sort of explorer identity.

SM: You did talk about why maybe your family wanted you to come to the US, but what were some of your own personal hopes of what coming here would do for you?

ZB: At like pretty much close to when I was about to leave like I'd mentioned you know feeling scared and you know feeling excited, anxious, but there was obviously fear of the unknown, but I remember there is a part of me that always wanted to go to the US and it was because, not because it was, I didn't like Karachi, I actually loved Karachi and I loved my community. It was actually because I wanted to learn more about myself and I didn't know what that was at the moment but I knew that if I, I knew that if I went, I would be able to discover that. So I think it was that similar thread of like stepping into something that's unknown but like listening to your gut, you know and I think that that is it's kind of a really strong feeling that's deep inside of you that that you know is true even though you may be afraid or even though you may be anxious or even though it's unknown and so for me that was a really big pull. And I kind of continue to listen to that and I remember journal entries from when I came to the US for the first time and they were the first couple of weeks were really scary. I had never been there before and like I mentioned it was I just I felt like an alien and I almost wondered why am I here, like I'm just like I'm scared, I'm anxious and um why am I here and it was only after I got over that fear and anxiety that I began to realize sort of the the unraveling of my identity and kind of the recreation of that in a way and so. Yeah, it was I mean in in short it was I I followed my gut.

SM: How is the immigration experience for you first when you were a student?

ZB: It was interesting because I was, I mean I was a minority in many ways. Like I'd mentioned it was just a very not many international students and I think my experience was definitely very much like. I kind of I tried my best to assimilate as much as I could in the early days for sure like I think that I figured that that was the only way to like survive and make friends and and things like that. And so as in in many ways felt like I put on a mask and I was this new person like. I had left the Zarrah that lived in Karachi and I had become this new person that I really had to learn how like I was like navigating her in many ways. And I think retrospectively, that's obviously like not the best way to go about things but in in my 19 year old mind I, I realized that that was probably the best way in which I could, get over my shyness and you know start to make friends and really try to find commonalities with people that, well didn't look like me for one but also had very different life experiences for me.

SM: In terms of maybe even you know coming to the airport or meeting, dealing with US authority or even paperwork, were there any concerns or bad experiences that you're comfortable sharing?

ZB: I just think that I had I just had a lot of I just had a lot of fear and a lot of reverence. Like I was just like whatever they say is right, just nod your head and keep your head down. You know like I think that was the general thinking and and I see that a lot unfortunately in in many immigrants that have recently you know, moved to the US as well and it's just kind of it's a survival tactic in a way. You have to sort of do that until you feel like you're more stable on your feet and you can, can have a conversation with confidence and so I think there was definitely like that fear. I still remember like being anxious about saying I was from Pakistan like I would just say I'm South Asian you know so many times I would just say I'm South Asian I won't say I’m Pakistani. And so, I I hid so many parts of my identity for so long, having immigrated for the first time.

SM: Was there an experience though that made you, particular moment, that made you feel you'd arrived in the US?

ZB: I don't know if there was one particular moment. I think what I did pretty quickly even though you know I was it was scary and all of that. I think one of the moments that one of the things that I really enjoyed was newfound freedom, so I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I could like walk around, I would still be scared to do it but I like knew I could do it. It's like oh I can like do things that would otherwise require like a car and a driver in Karachi, things like that. And it was just this empowerment and and as a woman like walk around and not be overly anxious about men staring at me and things like that and I think that was like a confidence in in me that I think continued to grow.

SM: How emotional was it to leave your family and friends behind and come to the US?

ZB: Oh man it was really emotional, yeah [laughs]. I think there was a lot of, I remember I left I think in my Parsi friend group like there were I think 3, 2 or 3 of us were leaving around the same time in the same year in 2007 and I was the first one and I still remember, just how sad it I mean it was it was exciting but also sad and scary like there were lots of tears and it felt like it felt like forever right? It felt like I would never see my friends again or if I did our lives be so different and we could never be friends in the same way again and, it was just a lot of fear and like I was sad and it was that on one side was vs the excitement and that like gut feeling that I was telling you about in terms of like hey, like, this is an opportunity to get you know yourself and understand yourself in ways that you couldn't have in Karachi and grow and evolve. So yeah, it was definitely a mixed bag brings up a lot of emotions.

SM: And now when you come back home or you meet those same friends, how is that different or similar?

ZB: It's just like I feel like our relationship has blossomed and grown in so many beautiful ways. And all my fears around we won't be friends, we won't have the same things in common, we won't, you know we won't know what to talk about because our lives will be so different. All those things were like not true at all. One of my closest friends I've known her since I was three and a half years old and she actually still lives in Karachi and when I was home in December this year like, we spent like every day together and it was like nothing had changed and that like warmed my heart so much because it allowed me to see like wow, I can grow and learn and she can grow and learn in so many different ways and live such different lives but we can still come together and really cherish our friendship. And you know at the end of my trip, I actually asked her, what do you see different in me since I left now it's been fifteen years and she said yeah you physically look different sure and become more of yourself but like at its core and the way you think and your perspectives and your values are still the same and I was like wow that's amazing, that's amazing to know that like I've continued to sort of grow on the core that I was raised with.

SM: How important do you think that Zoroastrian identity or even like other identifying characters, characteristics of your gender, age, things like that do you think are important for that core to still remain?

ZB: I think my Zoroastrian identity and like I mentioned like the values that I that I highlighted earlier in terms of like generosity, humility and like also like treating everyone as equal right so like having this sense of like, I'm not going to judge you because you're different. I think that's really really important and personally speaking for me that's been really important because as I came out to myself, I was approached with a lot of internalized homophobia, and one of the biggest values that came out for me is, never judge anyone who's different from you just be curious about their relationship because that's how I was raised and I, you know, I looked in the mirror and I gave myself that same understanding. You know it's like hey like this is who you are and this is how you are your best self so, why judge it, why live from that state of fear and I think for me that has been the most important aspect of my identity and so being a Zoroastrian and being raised in the way I was has allowed me to be more of myself and I couldn't be more grateful. You know like I have friends that live in ways in which that are which are opposite to who they are and they're in so much pain and agony and they can't they don't know what to do and that's like that's like living in hell in a way you know and I'm so grateful that I was raised in a way that allowed me to look beyond that and allowed my family to love me for who I was you know and I continued to sort of do that to the world around me right? Cause like if that's something that you can you can accept about yourself. Anything that's different or weird or or you're, you're curious about and instead of making a judgment you can ask a question. I think that's that's like a very I feel like a very Zoroastrian trait that has really helped me.

SM: That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. While settling down in the US, what were some of the most difficult changes to your lifestyle and your thinking that you had to make?

ZB: I think I I really had to change the way I saw myself as a woman. I think that you know, growing up in Karachi and this is just a function of you know, living in a largely patriarchal society. In order to survive or thrive in a society like that you are taught as a woman to kind of, keep your head down or make essentially just sort of like navigate life in a more kind of reserved way. And I think coming to the US and seeing how different women behaved initially like in my mind you know as a nineteen-year-old like I was kind of taken aback and I I felt like I was placing judgments on them as well and I felt that like oh this person's like really going out of their way to like get attention when in reality they were just being confident. You know what I mean and so, it felt awkward for me at the start and I felt like I was putting a lot of judgments on folks that I felt were not acting in the way that I thought that they should and it took me a while to realize that actually that's not the case. If you come at life with confidence or if you're coming from a perspective of like hey doesn't matter if you're male or female right? Like what matters is how you think or like what you have to say you know and I think that for me was an important, important shift in a really good way. It also really allowed me to just question my judgments, right? I said hey like I if I don't want someone to judge me, then why am I why am I placing judgment on them or what is the real core of it right? Is it based on something that I've been socialized into or is it based on something that has if it's based on something that like fundamentally is at odds with my values? If it's a fundamental odd with my values, then it's like okay then that we have a difference of opinion, then maybe I won't interact with you. But if it's a judgment based on my socialization then you know I think I should question that.

SM: So, there is a lot of unlearning in that process as well, right? Are there any other occasions you would like to share where you felt like you were treated unfairly because of your non-American origin or other parts of your identity that you would like to share?

ZB: You know I think there's there were multiple instances of, retrospectively, I think maybe hindsight’s twenty twenty but retrospectively I'm realizing that people essentially put me in a box or had a particular stereotype of me based on the fact that you know I was South Asian, I was an immigrant, and I was female. And yeah, just like as I you know like oh this person is very shy or is very weak or I can walk over this person or I can intimidate this person in various forms and these weren't like physical intimidations or anything but like something as simple as how group members treated you during a group project or you know how a professor answered your question or didn't, things like that. You know I've only increasingly begun to see this when I see it in other people that look like me being treated that way and that that kind of like brings back the memory to me because in the moment it just felt like I had done something wrong.

SM: I would like us to think more about just the here and now right. Of being here for now nearly fifteen years, but you know you are a Zoroastrian and you still identify as a South Asian as well, with being an American. How has being in the US affected your family life, so can be relationships with your parents, your siblings, or just various other relationships?

ZB: I think one of the tradeoffs honestly has been that we are like we as a family are not in close proximity to each other right, we live in different states. My parents still live in Karachi and you know that's definitely very hard obviously and like not having them close by. And it's definitely changed the dynamics. But I think what it's what it's done on the flip side is that that when we are together, we really value those moments and experiences that we have together. And you know my mom and dad love to travel as well and we always try to find a place that we could all meet up at you know so like before the pandemic, we went right in December, we met up in Hawaii for two weeks and that was so nice you know because you really try you really value those experiences because you know that like as stand goes by and our parents get older and older like those are going to be few and far in between and so I think having those experiences has really helped me cherish my relationship with my parents and and with my siblings as well. In terms of we're hoping that we can do another you know another family trip soon given the given the pandemic is hopefully over, fingers crossed and I was able to go back to Karachi this this December to see my parents. And just be back in Karachi after 5 years which was like really important to me. And so for me that was that was really beautiful and I think I'm I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to do that despite all the uncertainty with travel and the virus and all of these other things. I'm really glad that I was able to go.

SM: 5 years is a long time so was there just something that after visiting you've thought about a lot, you know some things that have changed or stayed the same in terms of the community and how you were brought up there?

ZB: I honestly think this was probably one of my best trips back to Karachi and I left with just this like overwhelming feeling of joy and and pride and appreciation for our community and also just Karachi in general. Like I'd mentioned for a long time like as an immigrant because I was trying so hard to assimilate I had to push Karachi away you know and push my Karachi identity away and very much so, basically say here this is this is my home now and in order to do that like that's not my home and I think for the first time in a long time I was able to recognize that I actually have 2 homes and the fact that Karachi has grown so much in the last five years and like is actually a place where people have choices that as someone graduating from college you have the choice to go abroad and come back and you know if you wanted to you could still do that like it's like you could go abroad or you could come back and I feel like that didn't exist fifteen years ago and there's a lot more openness there too. There's a lot more embracing of different identities as well and for me that was really beautiful to see that I don't have to I don't have to like shut down my Karachi identity to embrace my identity or I think like I'm the sum total of both of them. And so it was a really beautiful experience.

SM: How has time changed your perspective of living in the US?

ZB: Oh, in so many ways. I mean gosh, I, part of me is really grateful that I ended up going to college at Berkeley because like I mentioned earlier like it's a very unique place and it also is a place that really embraces differences in thought and different perspectives and thought and you know I, I think very early on in my years at UC Berkeley and then living in the Bay Area, I was made aware America isn't the land of milk and honey and that's okay. But like realizing that or having that perspective shattered for me was personally a big growth experience because like I'd mentioned I had basically banked a lot on the US being this place of great opportunity that you know that's I was making this really painful move and immigrating and moving to the US and it was going to be all this opportunity and I've gotten so much opportunity and I'm grateful for it. But I also have very very clearly recognized the fact that I'm an immigrant and I would always be an immigrant and that's okay, but it's important to you know, ah celebrate differences instead of trying to take everyone and mush them together as like one entity and so I think that's been the biggest, biggest shift for me that the US isn't one sole identity. It's actually like a really really massive potpourri like different kinds of people you know and everyone's having their own experience and the flip side of that is like you can come across a lot of people that may have you know have very different backgrounds that you have very similar interests with which you may not find in a society maybe that everyone kind of has the same ethnicity or the same culture and the other side of it is that you'll always come across people that will treat you differently or will have a certain perspective of you and like how to navigate that and how to have the self-confidence to navigate that. And not just because someone sees you a certain way doesn't mean that you are what they see you as you know and being able to you know, just just stand up for yourself too.

SM: Have you only lived in California for the years you've been in the US or have you lived elsewhere in the US as well?

ZB: No, I've only lived in California yeah, so would take would take that with a big grain of salt for sure because I've lived in the Bay Area you know and uh it's a leftist bubble, people. It's just, it's like such a different experience like it's so. I love it when my friends that are born and raised here are like curious about my experiences growing up in Karachi right, like I love sharing that part of me and I also realize that like that's not the immigrant experience in most parts of the US; where you're not actively having people like genuine curiosity being like. I remember when I came met from Karachi this time I got a bunch of mithai from Karachi and I shared little pieces of me with my friends right, and everyone was like so excited and overjoyed to like eat it is this is amazing I was like I should’ve gotten like 5 boxes, why did I only get one box you know and so that's that's really great and I feel like sharing parts of myself from Karachi with my community and so it's so important and I'm grateful for that too because I do think that like that's not the I know that that's not the experience that everyone has in other parts of the US.

SM: How important is it for you to stand out or fit in here particularly in relationship to your Zoroastrian South Asian identity?

ZB: Yeah, that was a really interesting question. I think for me, I think the community and the friends that I have, we are all so much of ourselves. In order to fit in, you have to stand out. In a way, it's like differences are just not like celebrated, they're like empowered and it has really allowed me to like express different parts of myself as well. I really like telling stories and I didn't realize that that was a thing that I had and it was just curiosity of my friends around me. I'm like oh maybe I should take creative writing class just like finding ways and that's like a different part of my experience and identity that I hadn't quite explored and so. In terms of being a Zoroastrian I think that's a really big part of my identity and it's only in the last, I mean recently honestly in the last like two years that I have been bringing that more to the surface. You know and I think it was my MY partner like mentioned this to me and said that you know you have a lot you have such a rich culture behind you and like your values come out so much in it like, why don't you share it more with your community. They're there and they're listening and they they want they want to you know they'll embrace it and I realized that like it's not like I wasn't actively sharing it I was bringing out it in different ways. I can't cook so I'm like okay well I can't really, I can't, I try to cook but you know what I mean but things like you know, bringing mithai back from Karachi or like sharing my experiences um of what it's like there, sharing photos and things like that like it's really It's been really great because I've, I've slowly started to do that and I think it allows me to express more of myself.

SM: Could you maybe elaborate a little bit more about what does it mean to be a Zoroastrian in the US particularly, um are you part of any Zoroastrian communities?

ZB: I'm part of this, it's like a very informal like Bay Area Zoroastrian community. It's like a Facebook messenger group and honestly it was started and it was started like in 20, what was it, there was a youth congress in New Zealand and I remember me and my brother went and this other dude who had just moved to the Bay Area and he was looking for more Zoroastrian friends and he turned to my brother and I and he said you know honestly we don't have that many Zoroastrian friends in the Bay Area and he said oh I'm going to stop this Facebook messenger group and I know these 2 other people so we'll all be in a group and it was like 5 of us and now it's like 123 people so that's really amazing and I personally like had no role to play in like the growth of this community. But I love being a part of it because there's just people that move to the Bay and then other people that know about it that may you know that tell other people about it. And there's like events and stuff that happens so there's something happening for Navroze or there's like some sort of event happening that posted on the community. And so it's a nice way to keep in touch.

SM: Is there any particular traditions or beliefs that you've continued since you've migrated to the US or have they changed particularly to do with the Zoroastrian religion or just culturally that you used to do back home?

ZB: I think like celebrating Navroze is a big is a big part of it. You know last year at Navroze my cousin was actually visiting and we, we had like a little lunch with a few of our friends and I did the I did this I did the the sort of the ritual of when you have the rose water and the mirror and with my friends and it was really great. We had and you know I told him about no rose and like how it's like connected to the spring equinox. It's the start of a new year, it's connected to sort of the cycles of nature and things like that and I did the rose water and the mirror like you know, put some rose water on your face and look at the mirror and make a wish for them and I think like just celebrating in small ways and that way.

SM: Is there a particular Zoroastrian principle or tradition that means the most to you and why?

ZB: I think this encapsulates so many different things to me that I bought up earlier around my values. But Humata, Hukhta, Huvarashta, which is good thoughts, good words, with good deeds is a very deeply ingrained principal of mine and also like, I think really speaks to the way I show up in the world. And also speaks to a degree of I'd mentioned before living from a place that's not fear, not fear based if you will so I think that's a big one for me.

SM: What are your thoughts on the Parsi/Irani Zoroastrian divide?

ZB: I don't know if I have any specific perspectives on it. I do know that it exists and I honestly think that it's like unfortunate on many levels. We are a rapidly declining population I mean I don't know how many times I've said to someone that I'm Zoroastrian or Parsi and gotten just like a full blank slate. You know once in a while someone's going to be like oh yeah, like I did my PhD thesis in history on it. It's just like we are a tiny and ever small community, that's like not getting any bigger by the way like we're actually getting smaller and smaller as years go by and so why the divide. It's unfortunate on many levels. My mom is half Irani you know and it as always I've always been aware of it like growing up in Karachi as well. You know like and and I think that's why I mentioned like being Zoroastrian for is more important to me like that's the big that's the circle and Parsi is the inside circle.

SM: Do you imagine yourself moving back to South Asia, why or why not?

ZB: Yeah, it's so crazy I mean if you'd ask me this question even a few years ago, I would be like no. And I think now that I could actually like potentially see that happening if, if my life went in that direction. And it's just such a good feeling to know that I have that choice. I think like as I I mentioning earlier like it's this feeling of like empowerment that you know, like as an immigrant, I always felt that like hey like I'm in the US and now I just have to be here, I can't go back home and I had to like kind of dissociate my sense of home and now it's not that way anymore and I feel really grateful for that or feel empowered to know that it's, it's there, it exists and there's a lot of me that will always live there and a lot of who I am is determined, was determined or was influenced, it was inspired by my life there.

SM: Would you like to convey something to the future generations particularly Zoroastrian communities that will be growing up in the US?

ZB: It’s just it's so interesting right, because like I mean I think of my cousins. All my cousins you know from both my mom's side and my dad's side were born and raised in the US because my mom's siblings and my dad's siblings as well, all came to the US for college and then have been born and raised there and you know their experience of Karachi and experience of being Zoroastrian is so different right? They came to visit when they were kids and they kind of a little bit remember a little bit, don't remember but I think. You know I guess it was like a message message to future Zoroastrians living living in places where their parents were not born. You know it's a big part of your identity even though you weren't born in the place right, like even if you weren't born in South Asia or born where your parents were born. I think the impetus is on you to explore that part of your identity and kind of explore it on your own terms as well. I think this is really important because it's so easy you know I see this in a lot of my first gen friends as well. It's so easy to grow up with a certain perspective of what like their home, parents’ home used to be like and I think that like taking the impetus on yourself and you know even visiting there or experiencing it on your own terms is really important because I think it does so much for your own identity and your own growth.

SM: If you could put 3 things you own in a time capsule, what would they be?

ZB: That's so interesting, you know I think one of the things I would, I don't know like I have these, what's the, I guess it's called baatic but it's like these they're like these like baatic and I can send you a picture of them because I think that's going to be one of my archival objects. Um and I've moved to so many different places in the last fifteen years I've been living here but I always have these, they're like these baatic prints with little mirrors inside of them and so I think that's, that's one. Another one would be this, I have these really, these really pretty like shawls. I think I like got them from like the Zainab market or something but like over here, it's such a big part of my identity and like it also I don't know it like it's it's like an outfit and it's like another way a small way in which I express myself as South Asian living here.

ZB: And then, hmm, this is going to sound weird but cardamom and cloves because I love both and I cook with them and you know like recently I've been making, I've been like cooking my tea with them as well. And so just like the the, the, comfort and the warmth of like garam masala chai I think so with cardamoms and cloves. And you can use them in cooking and stuff too so. The smell of cardamom in rava you can put cardamom as well and tea and the smell of cloves for sure, both those things. I think just the other day actually I had a friend who I think it was, he's probably one of those like it was like an almond butter like one of those like really hipster like almond butter jars and it had cardamom inside of it and he was so excited, he's like come let you know try this. It's so yum, I'm obsessed with it and I'm like oh it's cardamom and he's like yeah how do you know it and I was like I grew up around it. He was like I love it so much I’m like that’s amazing, completely different lifestyles and like we’ve just discovered cardamom.

SM: Is there anything maybe you've kept with you or that was passed down to you that you've kept with you always?

ZB: I always wear this, it's like a Farohar necklace and I think that's been just a really important necklace that I've had and I've definitely like lost it before and my mom's given me a new one. But it's been consistent over over the years. And I mean it sometimes if people are curious, they ask about it too, you know and it's a great way, it's a great conversation starter to talk about Zoroastrianism as well. So the Farohar, it's like a tailsman or like a symbol in my mind like the Zoroastrian philosophy and hope, it's a guardian angel. And the structure of the Farohar, the way the way the wings are laid out the way the the kind of feet are laid out all symbolized different parts of Zoroastrian culture including things like you know Humata, Hukhta, Huvarashta which is good thoughts, good words, good deeds. Um, the concept of you know, like in this life, there's good and evil and you as an individual get to make the choice between the two, the concept of like Ahura and like eternal light and so for me I think I think the Farohar and everything that it symbolizes from sort of being a guardian angel to like a symbol of Zoroastrian faith and and philosophy is like really powerful.

SM: Thank you! That's great and so one last question for you. What is home for you and how do you define home?

ZB: Gosh, that's a really great question. I think home is so many different places for me and like I'd mentioned before you know the concept of having 2 different homes in 2 places where you could be and where you define yourself. I think home is a sense. Home is a feeling, more than a place for me. And that feeling comes from being surrounded by you know other humans that are you know, like value your existence and are open to who you are and are respectful of you or proud of you. But, also celebrate you and I think I think that's why a home is a feeling and home is like safety, home is empowerment, home is knowing that you'll be caught if you fall. And so it could mean it's like a feeling of warmth, feeling of gratefulness I think and yeah I think like you know I thought it sounds cheesy when they say like home is where the heart is but like what is the heart right? It's all those things that I just described.

SM: Before we end the recording would you like to share anything in particular? Maybe something I haven't asked yet that you would like for the listeners to know.

ZB: I am really grateful that I'm able to share this. I think you know my South Asian experience, my South Asian experience of immigration has you know is obviously unique to me but I hope that what I've shared today can help inspire someone or I wish I had someone to listen to that had a similar experience to me if I was going through the same thing because it's just like we're never alone. You know like there's always many many thousands of people just like us. I think that like I am you know I'm so proud to be a Zoroastrian and I'm so grateful for the way I was raised and the Zoroastrian community back home in Karachi. That you know I don't think I would be anywhere close to the person I am today in terms of sharing my truth and being wholly myself and being empowered to be myself and being confident and and having an identity that is me, and is a combination of so many things but is uniquely me. And so I think the one thing that I mentioned earlier as well is like living from a place of like openness and abundance, over fear and suspicion is I think one of the biggest lessons that I have learned, in my experience so far and a lot of that has been colored by how I was raised and all the love and community that I was surrounded by growing up.

SM: Thank you for sharing your story with us Zarrah. Um I shall stop recording now.

Collection: Sharmeen Mehri Fellowship Project
Donor: Zarrah Birdie
Item History: 2022-06-10 (created); 2022-06-29 (modified)

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