Lucia Arseni, 20, has lived in America since she was 11, but she still calls Moldova "home."
"People are really surprised by that," said the St. Paul resident.
Although learning the language proved difficult -- "People don't expect someone who is white to be put in ESL," she said -- navigating the cultural differences seemed even more daunting. "When I came into school, I didn't feel like the kids were trusted as much," she said. Used to Moldova, where students get up and do things in the classroom without asking permission, she said, "I would get in trouble constantly, absolutely."
Arseni also spent her initial years grappling with how to present herself.
"There was a short period of time where I felt like I needed to be American to fit in," she said. "Youth can be very brutal."
Arseni is one of the subjects of Jila Nikpay's "Faces of New America," a series of black-and-white portraits of first- and second-generation immigrant youth from countries such as Uganda, Somalia, Russia, Tibet, Laos, Myanmar, El Salvador and Vietnam. Nikpay, an experimental filmmaker and photographer who emigrated from Iran, often explores ideas about identity, the nature of belonging and memory, exile and journeys in her work. The exhibit shows through Sept. 30 at the Burnhaven and Galaxie libraries, and Nikpay will give an artist talk on Saturday at the Galaxie Library, in Apple Valley, to discuss the project and her conversations with youth.
Nikpay conducted lengthy interviews before the photo sessions.
"I absolutely loved being part of it," Arseni said. "She really, really wanted to know everything. I ended up sharing everything with her."
The photographer posed the following question: "Imagine your portrait is seen by a large number of people. How do you wish to present your identity?"
"I didn't want to direct," Nikpay said. "Usually, people don't ask them these kinds of questions. [It's] not that they don't want to be American and blend in. It's just that they are pressured in certain ways."
Some chose traditional clothes. Some did not. Some students brought in flags or photographs to hold up for the camera. Arseni, who used to dance in Izvorasul, a traditional Romanian dance ensemble in the cities, dressed in an antique traditional embroidered blouse and aproned skirt.
Nikpay said her subjects talked with her about missing the landscape and the food of their countries, their friends, family and a sense of community. "Americans are fiercely independent, which can make this country an extremely lonely and narcissistic place to live. Also money is a measure for everything here," she said. "You won't find that in most countries."
After working as an artist-in-residence in schools, Nikpay said she discovered that most American kids actually often have a better understanding of cultural differences than their parents, as they interact more frequently with youth from non-western cultures.
"Their parents' awareness about the immigrants is limited to the news from the media and ethnic food or festivals," Nikpay said. "I think kids today are far more tolerant of those they don't share values with. Sometimes they even regard being from another culture as very desirable. It is one way to stand out and be noticed."
Nikpay, who has shown work at places such as the Walker Art Center and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, said she hopes to expand the project and tour colleges. "My intention from the beginning was to exhibit the images large scale," she said. "I believe the scale creates a powerful statement about the new cultures in America. I am still hoping to carry on the plan."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Minneapolis freelance writer.