Isfahan's Shah Mosque, also known as Jaame' Abbasi Mosque or Imam Mosque after the Iranian revolution. Photograph: Braeden Mansouri

By Julie Ershadi

For many young people of Iranian heritage, early experiences of their family’s country of origin come through the stories their relatives tell. When these young people finally go to Iran themselves, those stories come to life. For the first time, they see entire cities light up during Chaharshanbe Suri.

They walk through bazaars packed with traditional wares, and have personal encounters with the ancient culture of their forebears. Such experiences can often be transformative, leaving these diaspora-born Iranians more deeply in touch with their cultural origins than ever before.

“It definitely drew me closer to my heritage,” says Braeden Mansouri, a law student at the University of California, Davis, of his trip to Iran. “Absorbing my ancient culture, wandering up steps and through the archways of Takht-e Jamshid [Persepolis], and observing the people and plains shaped by 3,000 years of history was an incredibly moving experience.”

Mansouri went to Iran with his family as a teenager. He was struggling through the awkward stages of puberty at the time, so visiting Iran helped him get in touch with an identity he could call his own. “After the trip, I became more involved in my culture. In college I was president of our school’s Iranian Student Union. I cook Persian food. It’s a part of my life now,” he says.

Amir Zendehnam, an activist and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, also went to Iran with his family. His family are from Tehran and Natanz, so these are the cities where he spent the most time, as well as his grandparents’ properties in Karaj and Rasht. “I still have vivid memories of each trip,” he says. “It taught me valuable life lessons I could not have learned here in the United States.”

Zendehnam says his interactions there changed his perspective on the Iranian and American cultures he’d grown up with. “It made me realize how American I actually was,” he says. “Growing up in America, we have a view of what an Iranian is, but when you go to Iran, you quickly realize that Iranian-American culture is not exactly the same as Iranian culture in Iran. I remember being told how American I looked because of how I dressed and talked.”

For some heritage visitors, the experience of seeing the real Iran is so powerful that they respond artistically to it. Shawndeez Jadalizadeh, a gender studies graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, traveled for four months in her family’s home country and later wrote a memoir called My Iran: An Iranian-American Experience Back Home.

Shawndeez Jadalizadeh’s Iran travels memoir. Photograph: Julie Ershadi

“I was supposed to go for three weeks, just for Nowruz,” she says. “Then I realized I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity and the time to spend four months in Iran again, so I just ended up staying.”

Jadalizadeh, who is from Los Angeles, was on a year-long break from her studies when she went, which is how she was able to arrange for a longer trip. While there, she traveled to 20 different cities with family members. Like Zendehnam, she says her travels changed her perspective on both Iran and the United States, as well as her understanding of the relationship between the cultures of these two countries.

“I came with quite an Americanized view of Iran myself, even though I was raised in an Iranian family in the largest diaspora community outside of Iran,” she says. “Going there, I was actually really shocked in a good way. Iran was so much bigger and different, so much more complicated than I knew or I’d allowed it to be.”

Jadalizadeh, Zendehnam and Mansouri all say that they would recommend a trip to Iran to any young people of Iranian descent who haven’t yet made one yet. Zendehnam says he had such a powerful feeling while there that even the pollution in Tehran made him feel at home.

“On the drive from the airport to my grandma’s house, and just looking at all the people, cars, street signs, businesses, and nature, I felt at peace in that land,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what that feeling was or what it even means, but I look forward to exploring it more.”