On the first day of eighth grade, a boy walked up to me and asked if I had a bomb in my backpack.
The whole class erupted into laughter. My cheeks turned bright red and I sank into my seat. People had stereotyped me before, but this was the first time I felt it — like a bomb had been dropped into my lap. Like I was a foreigner in my own country.
After that, I began to feel ashamed all the time. I felt it every morning when the teacher took attendance and called out my exotic-sounding name, Soraya Marashi. In my history classes, when I felt the stares of my classmates during the annual 9/11 lesson. And when I looked into the eyes of my own mother.
"When you would come home and I didn't see happiness or peace, I felt guilty," said my mom. "I thought maybe if I had given you a more American middle name, you could've used that. Maybe, in hindsight, I didn't think this through when I was naming my children. Was I selfish because I was loyal to my culture? I should've considered the consequences you would face.
"You know, you start to doubt yourself when your kid isn't happy when they come home. And I thought maybe if we had moved back home it would've been better."
Iran is the home my mom is talking about. My grandparents immigrated to America from Iran, with my mother and her siblings in tow, to escape the Iraq war. They both lived with us for much of my childhood, and this allowed our Iranian traditions to continue to thrive.
But that doesn't mean I was raised in a particularly religious household. We didn't pray five times a day, we didn't cut pork out of our diet, and we didn't wear the hijab. But my little brother and I kissed the Quran before we left for school each morning. We burned incense to block out the evil eye. And we all spoke Farsi in the house every day: "As-salam alaykum," peace be upon you. "Mashalla," God has willed. "Khoda hafez," God be with you.
The glimpses of Islam I experienced as a kid didn't necessarily match up with the portrayals of Islam I saw on the news. Words like "jihad" and "Sharia law" echoed in my head. Images of terrorist organizations claiming to follow Islam holding assault rifles and proudly taking responsibility for attacks on innocent civilians.
I stopped learning Farsi. I stopped kissing the Quran.
At family gatherings, I stayed up in my room. When somebody asked me about my culture, I would say, "I am Muslim," but I would make sure they knew that I was non-practicing. Not because I cared if they knew about my upbringing, but because I didn't want to be associated with Islam.
My mother told me that my diversity and uniqueness made me beautiful. But I didn't want to be diverse. I wanted to be normal. I didn't want my name. I didn't want my olive skin, my big nose, my dark hair. I wanted so desperately to look like the blonde-haired and blue-eyed girls I was surrounded with every day.
But even as I wrestled with the shame I felt about my culture, there was one memory that shame just couldn't seem to touch.
It began as an accident, but I became more and more intrigued with every encounter. My grandmother, my Bebe Jan, could never hear the sound of my little bare feet against the hard wooden floor as I tiptoed in to observe. I would wait quietly in the dark corner, wide-eyed and perplexed at the most beautiful white hijab upon her head. I listened to her murmur prayers from the Quran and bow her head to the floor eight consecutive times, all in reverence to her Allah.
My mom told me that what you dream about indicates your thought process. "Bebe Jan always dreamt of her small town," my mom said. "She would speak Farsi in her dreams."
My mom said that as a mother first, Bebe Jan sacrificed a lot.
"She is a follower of all the things she grew up with, believing in, her tradition. But now that I'm Westernized in my beliefs, I never thought it was a flaw: her belief system and her traditions. That's who she is. If you take those away from her, it's someone different, right? It's part of who she is."
I didn't realize the beauty of being different. I didn't realize the strength and resilience my culture had instilled within me. I let my uniqueness isolate me from my peers, rather than let it bring us together. And right around the same time I began to love my culture again, something else happened.
In high school, most of my friends were white and knew nothing about Middle Eastern culture. But they began to ask me if they could try Persian food. They wanted to learn how we danced at weddings. They wanted to listen to my mother speak to her relatives on the phone.
My teachers began keeping me after class to ask me questions about myself and my culture, how I grew up. My confidence grew and grew. I learned how to block out the occasional ignorant comment.
After all, I knew my culture better than anyone. I lived it every day. It was rooted in my identity. And I knew what it felt like to be alone. I knew intolerance better than most of my peers. But all of that helped me understand how to empathize with others. How to treat other people better.
"There's a history and there's a beautiful story to be told for whoever comes to America from whatever country they come," my mom told me. "Here you meet people from all over the world. And you can share your language, your religion, your beliefs, in a respectful, open-minded environment. And that might not be the case in other places.
"That's what I hope for your generation and your children, and I know whatever we're going through at the moment -- it will pass, and it will be love and acceptance always."
I don't say "I am Muslim, but..." anymore. Now I just say that I am Muslim, I am Persian, I am American, and I am proud.
This story was created in RadioActive Youth Media's 2017 After-School Workshop for high school students at New Holly in partnership with Seattle Housing Authority. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.