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Growing Up Iranian in America - 2003-07-23

With the great influx of immigrants to the United States in recent years, it is fair to say that most Americans personally know somebody who was born in another country. But the actual experience of adjusting to life in a strange land is one that most Americans know very little about. Perhaps that explains the popularity of a recently published book, “Funny in Farsi”, with the self-explanatory sub-title: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.

The book “Funny in Farsi” chronicles the experiences of Firoozeh Dumas, her parents, two brothers and assorted relatives after their arrival in the United States in the early 1970s. It gives American readers an inside view of the immigrant experience.

“I think one thing that fascinates them is how much we tried to get involved in American cultures. They all find that very amusing. Of course we were foreigners, but we were trying to become as American as we could, and by that I mean we were trying to become involved in what we perceived to be American culture. And there’s a story in there for example about my father taking bowling lessons, and then going on an American TV show, "Bowling for Dollars", trying to win a fortune. And they find that amusing, because for them the idea of somebody coming to this country and deciding, ‘Hey, I’m going to go on a game show’, maybe is not typical.”

Firoozeh was seven years old when she left Abidan, in southern Iran, for Whittier, a suburb of Los Angeles, California.

“One of the things that struck me is how close all the homes were, and there was no big yard for me to play in, and it just seemed like I had to be indoors all the time. The other thing I still remember is the supermarkets. I had never been to a supermarket before. In Abadan we used to have small markets that sold some British goods, so for instance I was familiar with corn flakes and Kit Kat bars. And the first time I went into an American supermarket I thought, ‘My goodness, there’s a whole aisle here of cereals!'”

Although she knew no word of English when she arrived, Firoozeh Dumas says she has no memory of learning the language – she just soaked it up like a sponge. Her father, who knew mostly technical English from having studied engineering in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship in the 1950s, improved his knowledge of the language thanks to his job in the petroleum industry. Firoozeh’s mother, however, was a different story.

“My mother had the hardest time. In fact, she’s lived here for thirty years, and she still really doesn’t speak English very well, which is very common for adult immigrants. The only way to really learn English is to somehow immerse yourself in this culture. But my mother was a stay-at-home mom. So her only exposure to English was through television. She learned a lot of information from game shows. Whenever we would be in a supermarket, she’d say, (in a heavy accent) 'Oh, Betty Crocker rich and creamy frosting!’ She knew this really useless information, but she didn’t know how to speak a sentence.”

However, Firoozeh Dumas says lack of English was not necessarily a handicap for her mother.

“See, now there have been a lot of Iranian immigrants, who are here, so now she has her whole immigrant group. And she goes to Iranian supermarkets, she watches Iranian television, so it’s like she’s built this little Iran for herself.”

As in any immigrant family, there were some conflicts between her parents’ expectations and the choices Firoozeh made. One such misunderstanding cropped up when she won a scholarship to study at the University of California at Berkeley.

“In my family, like most immigrants, we’re allowed to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, or during the nineties computer scientists. And I decided that I wanted to study history, and history of art and literature. And my family found this very disturbing. They used to say to me, ‘Well, what are you going to do when you graduate?!’ So I graduated from U. C. Berkeley, and there was a recession at the time, and for three months I was unemployed, and for three months I had relatives reminding me every day that if I’d studied accounting, I would have a job by now.”

After college Firoozeh worked for a while as a marketer for a computer company, but soon married Francois Dumas, a Frenchman. She says that her parents accepted him as a son-in-law without question, although his parents had reservations about their son marrying a Muslim. Despite their different ethnic and religious backgrounds, Firoozeh says the “Persian-French alliance” is working well. They are very similar, with common interests in food, travel, and a curiosity about the world around them. Their lives, while American, include elements of both cultures, and Firoozeh Dumas says that with her husband and children she perpetuates the Iranian traditions of her childhood that are important to her.

“Iranians are very much into hospitality. My children, even though they’re Americans, they’re raised here, they always know when someone comes to our house we always offer them something to eat or drink. They know that this is what I grew up with. And the other thing I passed on to my children is the idea of charity. That was a huge vein in my growing up. My father always insisted that no matter how rich or poor you are, there is always someone you could be helping. So I have since taught that to my children.”

Firoozeh Dumas says that she started writing the memoirs of her girlhood for her two children, so that they would know her stories, the same way she knows the stories told by her father of his childhood in Iran. Now, not only her children but other American readers have a humorous but authentic glimpse into what it’s like growing up Iranian in America.