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  • Writer's pictureDonna Talavari

Bridge to Belonging: A Bicultural Exploration of Identity



When I think of my family’s upbringing in Iran, I imagine a home that I’ve heard about countless times. Each time I conjure it in my mind, it takes on a slightly different form. You see, I’ve never laid eyes on this home - all I have are the stories.


I heard of a place where my grandparents, mom, three aunts, and cousins all once called home. I often wonder how it felt for my mom, waking up each morning in a bustling kitchen, surrounded by family. As she reminisced about her childhood, my mother’s stories took me on a journey. I could almost feel the joy my mother felt when she was greeted by close friends and relatives as she ventured out into the neighborhood. I joined in on the spirited games she played with her siblings and cousins from sunup to sundown. It was as if I was right there in the dining room, savoring my grandmother’s homemade dishes or joining them in the park for a delightful change of scenery.


As I listened, I couldn’t help but notice the differences in my own upbringing, born and raised 7,500 miles away in Houston, TX. I became the first in my family to be born as a natural citizen of my current host country, setting me apart from my family’s place of origin. Unlike the bustling household in Iran, I’d often wake up to the sound of my mother on international phone calls, now connecting with relatives scattered across Western Europe and those still residing in Iran. My upbringing was marked by the presence of two worlds, one where I absorbed the tales of Iran through the perspectives of my family and the other where I navigated the diverse landscape of my American hometown.


This doesn’t mean I never caught glimpses of what my life might have been like in Iran. I spent a couple of summers in Iran during my childhood, as my mom insisted, determined to keep me connected with our heritage, fearing I might otherwise lose touch with our family roots. During those visits, my extended family warmly welcomed me into their homes and asked me questions about my life, which would inevitably land on one final question: “Which life do you prefer? Your life in America or your life here?” I had my rehearsed answer ready, “I love both sides equally, 50/50!” In retrospect, I did not have a true answer at the time, so I settled for an answer that would please everyone. However, I was not sure where I truly belonged.


I never wanted to choose a side, so I chose both. I felt torn between honoring my family’s history and embracing the dominant culture I was growing up in.1 I did not have other relatives who could truly relate to this feeling, and it was still something I could not put into words myself. The experience of a second-generation immigrant involves growing up in a cultural “transition zone”.1 One where you are between cultures, never fully belonging to one, yet sitting somewhere in between. While the first-generation immigrant experience comes with its own set of unique challenges and sacrifices, I discovered that for second-generation immigrants like me, there is a profound sense of cultural dissonance that can be incredibly difficult to articulate and navigate, especially when it comes to shaping one’s own identity.


I realized this when a close friend asked me whether I ever felt like there were two versions of me: one for my family and another for my friends. As we delved deeper into the topic, she explained that she saw her versions as stark personas, believing that if both versions were in the same room, they would be strangers to one another. As I started to reflect on this, I started to question my previous notions, the ones where I appreciated my ability to “shapeshift” in different environments.1,2 I thought it was great to choose both identities and give them the space they deserve, however, I started to realize that I was missing a key piece. Who could I be if neither side recognized the other?


I realized that I had crafted a double identity to feel accepted in different environments, often suppressing parts of myself. It was clear that I needed to make a change - to fully embrace all aspects of my identity. This journey began by finding a sense of belonging within myself, gaining the confidence and courage to create a unique path that, while different from my family’s expectations, felt more authentic to me. As a child, the perceived expectations of my family created a great deal of pressure at times, and I was left wondering that if I pushed those boundaries, I may disappoint my family in the process. Over time, I learned that boundaries are not meant to push people away; they are meant to define a space where your relationships can grow, and those who truly love and care about you, will evolve alongside you.


Through trial and error, time, and self-reflection I realized that my efforts to fit in prolonged my journey in finding a sense of belonging. Belonging isn’t about seeking validation from others that you fit in an environment, but rather asking yourself if the environment resonates with your authentic self. For instance, I invest more time in discovering what genuinely brings me happiness. Then bit by bit, I make decisions that are aligned with this newfound understanding. I may not have reached my final destination on this journey yet, or even know if one exists, but I take comfort in knowing that I will continue to make mindful choices to create a life that reflects both who I am and who I am yet to become.


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If you enjoyed reading this blog piece exploring themes at the intersection of the immigrant experience & identity formation, you may also like reading -

  • 285 South - A news publication centering the stories and perspectives of immigrant and refugee communities in metro Atlanta - the heart of the New South.

  • Brown Girl Therapy – First and largest mental health community for all children of immigrants


Author’s Bio: Donna Talavari is a Communications & Special Projects Analyst at Resilient Georgia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and Arts in Human Development and Family Sciences from The University of Texas at Austin. Donna is passionate about delivering humanistic, culturally competent medical care to underserved populations. She has previous research experience, including co-authoring a paper aimed at developing a culturally sensitive neuropsychological assessment battery for Farsi-speaking Iranian aging adults in the United States. Additionally, she has work experience as a medical scribe and is eagerly looking forward to attending medical school in 2024.



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