Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America, by Firoozeh Dumas

This memoir of an Iranian family migrating to the US in the 1970s was originally published in 2004 but may have even more relevance today.

This is the first of three books written by Firoozeh Dumas about her life and family. It does an excellent job of showing the joys and sadness of uprooting a life to move to another country.

Dumas’ father was an oil engineer working for an Iranian oil company as a consultant to American firms. He brought his family to California and Firoozeh entered school at age seven when her only English consisted of colors. This was a time when a considerable number of Americans couldn’t point to Iran on a map (probably no different today) and had never heard of the country (now most have heard enough about it to dislike it whether they know why or not).

Her parents loved America at first sight. The bathrooms were clean, clerks in stores were pleasant and polite, people were happy to stand in lines, and everyone seemed to follow the traffic laws. As an engineer, her father was fascinated by Disneyland and thought Walt Disney was one of the world’s great geniuses. The family dabbled in different American foods, finally settling on KFC as a favorite. Her mother, who eventually learned an English filled with long, verbless sentences, learned to love game shows. The family had more belief in the American Dream than many Americans.

In grade school, after one teacher pronounced her name on an attendance list as “Frizzy Dumbass”, Firoozeh took on an American first name for a while (she went back to her name in college) and learned English well enough to go with her mother to stores to help translate. Until the “Iran Crisis” of the mid-70s people would ask where she was from and shrug. After the embassy hostage situation Iranians were suddenly hated and she found herself passing as Mexican because of the family’s lighter skin or explaining that her family was from Persia. It’s an interesting reflection of how tenuous life can be in a world guided by mass opinions rather than solid knowledge.

It’s a lovely and personal book filled with stories of parents, uncles, and distant relatives; of romance and navigating relationships in a world where parents don’t dictate marriage partners; of the volatility of prejudice; of success over tremendous obstacles; and of being loyal to family and heritage while still mixing in a foreign world.

In a time when immigration is cursed rather than celebrated it’s worth taking time to learn was life is like on the other side of the visa.