I spent most of my childhood begging for a pet I knew I would never receive. I begged when I came home from school, on our weekly trips to the grocery store, and while we watched TV. I begged while my mother cooked, the sound of my tiny, dejected voice and the aromatic smell of dishes like zereshk polo—white rice with saffron and dried barberry fruit—permeating the house together.
The answer came in various tones and words, but always ended up being the same: It was never going to happen.
Like all kids growing up in America, I wanted a dog. I watched Beethoven and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey so many times that I wore out the VHS tapes. When I was invited over to a friend’s house, I’d interact more with the family dog than my peers. I made up my mind at a young age that I was going to be a veterinarian and memorized every breed I could from books I checked out at the library.
But I knew instinctively that not having a dog was something that set me apart from my friends and classmates, that I would always be teetering between multiple identities and cultures, never really fitting in both. Not being allowed to have a dog meant that I wasn’t fully American.
Born in Tehran, Iran, to parents of Armenian extraction, I was 3 when I came to the U.S. with my family as a refugee in 1987. My early childhood years were spent in the basement with my extended family as the Iran-Iraq War raged around us and bomb sirens echoed throughout the city. When we landed in Los Angeles after a year in limbo, nothing would be the same again—not because we made a choice, but because there were no options left to consider.
As we adjusted to our new, unfamiliar country, the life I lived in my house and the one I lived outside of it were vastly different from each other. At home I spoke Armenian; at school it was English. While most people spent their weekends with friends or playing sports, mine always consisted of get-togethers with my large extended family and enough food to feed a small village. As a child, I understood that stark divide through pet ownership.
Due to religious and cultural beliefs common across the Middle East, dogs weren’t integral to—or even part of everyday life the same way they were in America. Dogs were dirty. They shed. They pooped. They would ruin the house. They were not things you kept indoors, gave names to, or took on long walks. They were animals, far away from the thriving pet culture of the West, far from everything that Rin Tin Tin and Lassie stood for. Years later, friends and acquaintances from similar backgrounds revealed truths we now know to be self-evident: The possibility of having a dog was so remote, so unattainable that many didn’t even try asking. Instead they lived part of their childhoods in their 30s or 40s when, for the first time, they were the ones making the decisions about pets.
I knew all of this, but I still begged anyway. When I watched Full House and Punky Brewster, I took away the notion that a dog was what made the modern American family complete and rooted, not in flux like mine. I begged enough that my parents, thinking they could get a much-needed sabbatical from hearing me talk about pets, bought me a plush toy dog, a tiny little thing with white fur, black beady eyes, and soft brown ears. It was a temporary fix, and when my mom, obsessed with keeping her house a bleached beacon of cleanliness, put the stuffed animal in the spin cycle and dryer to ensure that it, too, could not make our home dirty, my pursuit only became more relentless.
This meant a childhood spent acquiring odd pets, like several species of lizards, tadpoles, and even a chicken I found, which I kept in the garage until my parents forced me to give it away. When I finally plucked up the courage to bring a cat home, my mom took it back to the pet store while I was away on a trip.
By the time my parents had almost lived an equal amount of time in both Iran and America, I graduated college. We were settled, and life was, for the first time in a while, not hectic.
They decided I would finally be getting a real dog. We drove into the California desert, to a small city called Hemet, and brought home a Maltese puppy who existed solely because his parents got out of their separate quarters when they weren’t supposed to. He gnawed at my fingers when I picked him up from the litter, and I knew immediately he was mine. I named him Henry.
As my mom drove us back to Los Angeles, Henry wiggled all over the car. We were quiet, until I asked her why she gave in.
“I did this so that you could never say I didn’t,” she said.
She didn’t want the guilt, or the dog, so she went about it in her own way, making sure he was as clean and unobtrusive as possible. He didn’t shed, was hypoallergenic and small. His presence didn’t have to be felt all the time, and she wouldn’t have to be reminded, at least not in theory, that she had done the thing that went against everything she knew was right.
My parents expected that I would fall in love with him, but they never expected they would love him even more. These days, my mom cooks him gourmet Iranian-Armenian food. (His favorite is Cornish hen with saffron and green bell peppers, a dish only she knows how to make correctly.) My dad plays with him every night. When I moved out, I took him with me but would drop him off at their house every weekend as if he were part of some informal custody agreement. Like typical Middle Eastern parents who take the worship of their children to somewhat obsessive heights, they scoff at other people’s dogs in private. Henry is the cutest one of all, they say. Our dog is the best dog.
Their acceptance of his presence in our lives is one way I’ve melded my multiple identities together. Those identities now exist side by side instead of being at odds with one another.
Having a pet means being at peace; it means feeling grounded and secure. For immigrant and refugee families like mine who have witnessed war, violence, and other forms of instability, sometimes the simplest living embodiment of what contentment looks like is a 10-pound ball of white fur curled up on your lap.