Funny in Farsi:
A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America

by Firoozeh Dumas

Villard Books (Random House Publishing Group), New York, 2003. ISBN 1400060400.
Reviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 11/03/2003

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: Relationships

At the age of seven, Dumas moved with her family from Abadan, Iran, to Whittier, California. Her memoir captures the experiences of Dumas the Iranian immigrant, Dumas the daughter, and Dumas the incredibly delightful and funny writer.

In one of her opening pages, the author writes of America through her father's eyes: "To him, America was a place where anyone, no matter how humble his background, could become an important person. It was a kind and orderly nation full of clean bathrooms, a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped through hoops. It was the Promised Land. " She is quick to add "For me, it was where I could buy more outfits for Barbie."

Dumas' first day at her new elementary school would prove to be a challenge for all. The children and teacher were unsure just where Iran was. Her mother's inability to speak English was an embarrassment to Dumas. Of this day she writes, "After spending an entire day in America, surrounded by Americans, I realized that my father's description of America had been correct. The bathrooms were clean and the people were very, very kind."

In a light-hearted approach to those early, and most surely difficult, years in a strange land, Dumas shares incidents where mastery of the English language would have created an entirely different outcome for her or her parents. Instead, the lack of command of the English language provides Dumas with a very heartwarming and real look at what becomes of many people who come to this country with no knowledge of anything but their native tongue.

"My mother's approach to learning English consisted of daily lessons with Monty Hall and Bob Barker. Her devotion to Let's Make a Deal and The Price is Right was evident in her newfound ability to recite useless information. After a few months of television viewing, she could correctly tell us whether a coffeemaker cost more or less than $19.99. How many boxes of Hamburger Helper, Swanson's TV dinners, or Turtle Wax could one buy without spending a penny more than twenty dollars? She knew that, too. Strolling down the grocery aisle, she rejoiced in her celebrity sightings—Lipton's Tea! Campbell's tomato soup! Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy Frosting!"

Dumas entertains her reader with escapades of the child of seven or eight made even more charming by the sheer innocence of her recent relocation to the States. Getting separated from her parents in Disneyland brought unexpected status in her family. She is quick to point out that because of where they had come from, the family was not as impressed with the big attractions as they were with such things as clean bathrooms, employees who smiled, and signs that clearly marked the way.

Of particular interest to me were the author's comments on the timing of her relocation to America, and how things might have been different had she moved to this country at a later date.

"I was lucky to have come to America years before the political upheaval in Iran. The Americans we encountered were kind and curious, unafraid to ask questions and willing to listen. As soon as I spoke enough English to communicate, I found myself being interviewed nonstop by children and adults alike. My life became a long-running Oprah Show minus the free luxury accommodations in Chicago, and Oprah."

"When my parents and I get together today, we often talk about our first year in America. Even though thirty years have passed, our memories have not faded. We remember the kindness more than ever, knowing that our relatives who immigrated to this country after the Iranian Revolution did not encounter the same America."

With humor, she speaks of her frustration in trying to educate her new friends and neighbors about where her native Iran was geographically positioned. Although most people from that region do not like to be referred to as Persian, she finally resorted to telling folks that Iran was part of the Persian region of the world and would quickly remind people that Persia was the land of the beautiful cats—Persian cats!

Dumas takes us through her years of growing up in America, her marriage to a Frenchman, and her first experience with an earthquake in San Francisco. She peppers her memoir with interesting tidbits about Iranian culture and life.

Her final chapter speaks volumes of profound wisdom about the true meaning of wealth. In Iran, the company for which her father worked took care of all of their needs. There was no need to worry about money. In America, her family was far from rich. When discussing this with her father, he related that he was, in fact, very rich—he just didn't have a lot of money. A lesson in humility and grace from a man whose life in America is far different than the life he once led in Iran. An experience in looking at the human condition through the eyes of a young girl, her college-aged counterpart, and her womanly heart that has seen and experienced much in the country so many of us take for granted. This is a delightfully entertaining, "feel good" read that I hated to see come to a close.

Ms. Dumas graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is married and lives in California with her husband and children.

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