As I awoke in Washington, I had to remind myself I was no longer in the country I will call Dystopia. In the afternoon I planned to talk with Navid, a graduate student from that troubled country, about his experiences in the United States. I wanted to know how life was different for him here and in Dystopia. I was also curious to know how his fellow students and acquaintances treated him. He laughed as he told me some of the questions people had asked him as he travelled throughout the US researching his PhD thesis, questions that ranged from the supportive to the innocuous to the absurd, such as the Midwesterner who asked him if he found jeans to be comfortable. Confused, he said that he did, before he realized that she had assumed that jeans were disallowed in Dystopia and he was wearing them for the first time.
“I don’t think people realize just how pervasive and common-place American culture is in Dystopia,” he said. Having friends and relatives living in the US and Canada, Navid was not concerned about his reception, which he has mostly found to be pleasant.
But his experience here has not been entirely without incident. He has had several visits from plain-clothed FBI agents to his home, the first less than six months after he arrived. He says they were polite and non-threatening, and mostly asked questions about whether he had been invited to any meetings or gatherings that concerned him.
The first time they came to his house he was surprised, especially as he had been part of a democratic movement in Dystopia. He told me that in Dystopia he had several friends in the underground movement that had disappeared. When he moved to the US he felt for the first time a sense of relief, which he soon discovered was not to last. He found it ironic that he could be considered threatening, not because he was vocally pro-democracy and anti-regime, but for fear that he was an infiltrator, an extremist, or a terrorist. I asked him if he felt his current situation was very different.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Here I don’t worry every day about being incarcerated and tortured if I’m caught distributing pamphlets, or about my family being taken into custody.” The fear of the outcome, he said, was far less in the US. “But at least in Dystopia,” he said, “I can walk down the street, and no one will know my politics. I am anonymous. Here it seems my politics don’t matter. My religion and my race have taken away the protection afforded me by my anonymity, and so I still cannot be truly free.”