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Firoozeh Dumas and her family moved from Abadan, Iran, to California when she was a girl. Growing up, she struggled to mix with her American classmates, who knew nothing about Iran. She also retells firsthand experiences of prejudice and racism from being Iranian in America during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Firoozeh began to write and submit essays to obtain money to go toward college, the beginning of her career as an award-winning author. She attended the University of California, Berkeley where she met and married her French husband. Throughout her experiences, she emphasizes the significance of family strength and love in her life.

To find out more about Firoozeh, read through her website: https://firoozehdumas.com

Firoozeh Dumas, “The F Word” from Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America

My cousin’s name, Farbod, means “Greatness.” When he moved to America, all the kids called him “Farthead.” My brother Farshid (“He Who Enlightens”) became “Fartshit.” The name of my friend Neggar means “Beloved,” although it can be more accurately translated as “She Whose Name Almost Incites Riots.” Her brother Arash (“Giver”) initially couldn’t understand why every time he’d say his name, people would laugh and ask him if it itched.

All of us immigrants knew that moving to America would be fraught with challenges, but none of us thought that our names would be such an obstacle. How could our parents have ever imagined that someday we would end up in a country where monosyllabic names reign supreme, a land where “William” is shortened to “Bill,” where “Susan” becomes “Sue,” and “Richard” somehow evolves into “Dick”? America is a great country, but nobody without a mask and a cape has a z in his name. And have Americans ever realized the great scope of the guttural sounds they’re missing?

Okay, so it has to do with linguistic roots, but I do believe this would be a richer country if all Americans could do a little tongue aerobics and learn to pronounce “kh,” a sound more commonly associated in this culture with phlegm, or “gh,” the sound usually made by actors in the final moments of a choking scene. It’s like adding a few new spices to the kitchen pantry. Move over cinnamon and nutmeg, make way for cardamom and sumac.

Exotic analogies aside, having a foreign name in this land of Joes and Marys is a pain in the spice cabinet. When I was twelve, I decided to simplify my life by adding an American middle name. This decision serves as proof that sometimes simplifying one’s life in the short run only complicates it in the long run.

My name, Firoozeh, chosen by my mother, means “Turquoise” in Farsi. In America, it means “Unpronounceable” or “I’m Not Going to Talk to You Because I Cannot Possibly Learn Your Name and I Just Don’t Want to Have to Ask You Again and Again Because You’ll Think I’m Dumb or You Might Get Upset or Something.” My father, incidentally, had wanted to name me Sara. I do wish he had won that argument.

To strengthen my decision to add an American name, I had just finished fifth grade in Whittier, where all the kids incessantly called me “Ferocious.” That summer, my family moved to Newport Beach, where I looked forward to starting a new life. I wanted to be a kid with a name that didn’t draw so much attention, a name that didn’t come with a built-in inquisition as to when and why I had moved to America and how was it that I spoke English without an accent and was I planning on going back and what did I think of America. My last name didn’t help any. I can’t mention my maiden name, because:

“Dad, I’m writing a memoir.”

“Great! Just don’t mention our name.”

Suffice it to say that, with eight letters, including a z, and four syllables, my last name is as difficult and foreign as my first. My first and last name together generally served the same purpose as a high brick wall. There was one exception to this rule. In Berkeley, and only in Berkeley, my name drew people like flies to baklava. These were usually people named Amaryllis or Chrysanthemum, types who vacationed in Costa Rica and to whom lentils described a type of burger. These folks were probably not the pride of Poughkeepsie, but they were refreshingly nonjudgmental.

When I announced to my family that I wanted to add an American name, they reacted with their usual laughter. Never one to let mockery or good judgment stand in my way, I proceeded to ask for suggestions. My father suggested “Fifi.” Had I had a special affinity for French poodles or been considering a career in prostitution, I would’ve gone with that one. My mom suggested “Farah,” a name easier than “Firoozeh” yet still Iranian. Her reasoning made sense, except that Farrah Fawcett was at the height of her popularity and I didn’t want to be associated with somebody whose poster hung in every post pubescent boy’s bedroom. We couldn’t think of any American names beginning with F, so we moved on to J, the first letter of our last name. I don’t know why we limited ourselves to names beginning with my initials, but it made sense at that moment, perhaps by the logic employed moments before bungee jumping. I finally chose the name “Julie” mainly for its simplicity. My brothers, Farid and Farshid, thought that adding an American name was totally stupid. They later became Fred and Sean.

That same afternoon, our doorbell rang. It was our new next-door neighbor, a friendly girl my age named Julie. She asked me my name and after a moment of hesitation, I introduced myself as Julie. “What a coincidence!” she said. I didn’t mention that I had been Julie for only half an hour.

Thus I started sixth grade with my new, easy name and life became infinitely simpler. People actually remembered my name, which was an entirely refreshing new sensation. All was well until the Iranian Revolution, when I found myself with a new set of problems. Because I spoke English without an accent and was known as Julie, people assumed I was American. This meant that I was often privy to their real feelings about those “damn I-raynians.” It was like having those X-ray glasses that let you see people undressed, except that what I was seeing was far uglier than people’s underwear. It dawned on me that these people would have probably never invited me to their house had they known me as Firoozeh. I felt like a fake.

When I went to college, I eventually went back to using my real name. All was well until I graduated and started looking for a job. Even though I had graduated with honors from UC-Berkeley, I couldn’t get a single interview. I was guilty of being a humanities major, but I began to suspect that there was more to my problems. After three months of rejections, I added “Julie” to my resume. Call it coincidence, but the job offers started coming in. Perhaps it’s the same kind of coincidence that keeps African Americans from getting cabs in New York.

Once I got married, my name became Julie Dumas. I went from having an identifiably “ethnic” name to having ancestors who wore clogs. My family and non-American friends continued calling me “Firoozeh, while my coworkers and American friends called me Julie. My life became one big know, especially when friends who knew me as Julie met friends who knew me as Firoozeh. I feltlike those characters in soap operas who have an evil twin. The two, of course, can never be in the same room, since they’re played by the same person, a struggling actress who wears a wig to play one of the twins and dreams of moving on to bigger and better roles. I couldn’t blame my mess on a screenwriter; it was my own doing.

I decided to untangle the knot once and for all by going back to my real name. By then, I was a stay-at-home mom, so I really didn’t care whether people remembered my name or gave me job interviews. Besides, most of the people I dealt with were in diapers and were in no position to judge. I was also living in Silicon Valley, an area filled with people named Rajeev, Avishai, and Insook.

Every once in a while, though, somebody comes up with a new permutation and I am once again reminded that I am an immigrant with a foreign name. I recently went to have blood drawn for a physical exam. The waiting room for blood work at our local medical clinic is in the basement of the building, and no matter how early one arrives for an appointment, forty coughing, wheezing people have gotten there first. Apart from reading Golf Digest and Popular Mechanics , there isn’t much to do except guess the number of contagious diseases represented in the windowless room. Every ten minutes, a name is called and everyone looks to see which cough matches that name. As I waited patiently, the receptionist called out, “Fritzy, Fritzy!” Everyone looked around, but no one stood up. Usually, if I’m waiting to be called by someone who doesn’t know me, I will respond to just about any name starting with an F. Having been called Froozy, Frizzy, Fiorucci, and Frooz and just plan “Uhhhh…,” I am highly accommodating. I did not, however, respond to “Fritzy” because there is, as far as I know, not in my name. The receptionist tried again, “Fritzy, Fritzy DumbAss.” As I stood up to this most linguistically original version of my name, I could feel all eyes upon me. The room was momentarily silent as all of these sick people sat united in a moment of gratitude for their own names.

Despite a few exceptions, I have found that Americans are now far more willing to learn new names, just as they’re far more willing to try new ethnic foods. Of course, some people just don’t like to learn. One mom at my children’s school adamantly refused to learn my “impossible” name and instead settled on calling me “F Word.” She was recently transferred to New York where, from what I’ve heard, she might meet an immigrant or two and, who knows, she just might have to make some room in her spice cabinet.

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Did you enjoy reading this selection from “Funny in Farsi?” You can buy the whole paperback book online. Even better, you can join Firoozeh’s “Falafel Kindness Project,” named for her novel “It’s Not So Awful, Falafel.” See below.

The Falafel Kindness Project

The very first two sentences  I wrote for It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel were the dedication. “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason. This one’s for you.”

We all know that school, especially middle school, can be a tough, or even miserable experience. I remember not fitting in for many reasons, but I also remember how much I appreciated friends, teachers, librarians, and all the people who, perhaps without realizing it, showed kindness towards me when I really needed it.  This is how The Falafel Kindness Project was born. We hear a lot these days about standing up to bullies but I think that is a terrible idea! I would never recommend standing up to a bully unless you are built like Shaquille O’Neal. But we all know that kids who are built like Shaquille O’Neal are not the ones being bullied.

Let’s face it– everyone feels like an outsider at some point. You don’t have to be an immigrant named Zomorod, whose father is unemployed and whose mother does not speak English, to feel like you don’t belong. It takes the most trivial matter and suddenly, boom, you’re in Tease Town. Are you tall, short, fat, skinny, or not good at sports? Does your mom pack a lunch that looks like mud on rice? Is your hair too curly, too straight, too thick, too thin, or too anything? Do kids call you gay? Do you wear glasses?  Are you from an unpopular country or state? (“Which are the unpopular states?” you ask. Depending on where you live, it can be anywhere, except Hawaii, of course.) The list is endless and pretty much includes everyone, except for approximately three kids at each school.

So for the rest of us, here’s the plan. Let’s create a kind, safe environment that diffuses bullying. Let’s make sure no one eats alone, unless they want to. Let’s make sure new kids have someone to hang out with that dreaded first week of school. Let’s banish the word “retarded” when used as an insult. If you see a kid being teased, for whatever reason, befriend that kid! It’s no fun teasing a kid who comes with a whole posse of friends who care. Be that friend who cares! Become a member of Team Falafel! (Or you can pick a cooler name, although I do think being named after a deep-fried bean ball is kinda cool, in a subversive way.)

Questions to answer:

  1. Your name is very much a part of your identity. What do you know about your own first name? What does it mean? Who chose it, and why? Are you named for someone honored by your parents?
  2. What is the origin of your last name (surname)?
  3. Do you form a preconceived idea about people you haven’t met from their names? Give an example, if you have.
  4. Firoozeh found that she wasn’t offered jobs because of hers. Do you think that still happens to immigrants? (You can research that online.)
  5. Some immigrants past and present have changed their names to “Americanize” them. Is there an example from your own family?

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