Joseph Bruchac (born October 16, 1942) is a writer of over 120 books relating to the native people of the Americas. As a folklorist and musician, he performs stories accompanied by several indigenous instruments. He was raised in Saratoga Springs New York, with ancestors of Slovak ethnicity as well as ancestors of the Abenaki tribe.
Beyond the red
Brick of Ellis
where the two
who became my
waited the long days
after leaving the sickness.
the old Empires of Europe,
a Circle Line ship slips easily
on its way to the island
of the tall women, green
as dreams of forests and meadows
waiting for those who’d worked
a thousand years
yet never owned their own.
Like millions of others,
I too come to this island,
nine decades the answerer
Yet only part of my blood loves that
Another voice speaks
of native lands
within this nation.
when the earth became owned.
Lands of those who followed
the changing moon
knowledge of the seasons
in their veins.
1. The author is returning to Ellis Island, where his Slovak ancestors arrived in the United States. In which of the “Empires” did those ancestors live? Why did they never own their own land?
2. Why has Bruchac has come to Ellis Island?
3. Why does only part of him love the memory of his Slovak ancestors’ arrival in the United States?
Yoshiko Uchida was born in Alameda, California, the daughter of Takashi ("Dwight," 1884-1971) and Iku Umegaki Uchida (1893-1966). She graduated from high school at sixteen and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Uchidas were living in Berkeley and Yoshiko was in her senior year at U.C. Berkeley when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all Japanese Americans on the west coast to be rounded up and imprisoned in internment camps throughout the country. The family was interned for three years, first at Tanforan Racetrack in California, and then in Topaz, Utah. In the camps, Yoshiko became a teacher.
In 1943 Yoshiko Uchida was permitted to leave Topaz to complete her education at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Her novel Journey to Topaz and her autobiography Desert Exile was based on her experiences in the internment camps. She continued to publish more than thirty books, many for children, including Picture Bride and The Bracelet, vivid depictions of the lives of Japanese American immigrants.
Hana Omiya stood at the railing of the small ship that shuddered toward America in a turbulent November sea. She shivered as she pulled the folds of her silk kimono close to her throat and tightened the wool shawl about her shoulders.
She was thin and small, her eyes shadowed in her pale face, her black hair piled high in a pompadour that seemed to heavy for so slight a woman. She clung to the moist rail breathed the damn salt air deep into her lungs. Her body seemed leaden and lifeless, as though it were simply the vehicle transporting her soul to a strange new life, and she longed with childlike intensity to be home again in Oka Village.
She longed to see the bright persimmon dotting the barren trees beside the thatched roofs, to see the fields of golden rice stretching to the mountains where only last fall she had gathered plum white mushrooms, and to see once more the maple trees lacing their flaming colors flaming through the pine. If only she could see a familiar face, eat a meal without retching, walk on solid ground, and stretch out at night on a tatami instead of on a hard, narrow bunk. She thought now of seeking the warm shelter of her bunk, but could not bear to face the relentless smell of fish that penetrated the lower decks.
Why did I ever leave Japan? she wondered bitterly. Why did I ever listen to my uncle? And yet she knew it was she herself that had begun the chain that placed her on this heaving ship. It was she who had first planted in her uncle’s mind the thought that she would make a great wife for Taro Takeda, the lonely man who had gone to America to make his fortune in Oakland, California.
It all began one day when her uncle had come to visit her mother.
“I must find a nice bride,” he had said, startling Hana with this blunt talk of marriage in her presence. She blushed and was ready to leave the room when her uncle quickly added, “My good friend Takeda has a son in America. I must find someone to travel to that far land.”
This last remark intended to indicate to Hana and her mother that he didn’t consider this a suitable prospect for Hana, who was the youngest daughter of what once had been a fine family. Her father, until his death fifteen years ago, had been the largest landowner of the village and one of its last samurai. They had once had many servants and field hands, but now all that was changed. Their money was gone. Hana’s three older sisters had made good marriages, and the eldest remaining in their home with her husband to carry on the Omiya name and perpetuate the homestead. Her other sisters had married merchants in Osaka and Nagoya and were living comfortably.
Now that Hana was twenty-one, finding a proper husband for her had taken an urgency that produced an embarrassing secretive air over the entire matter. Usually, her mother didn’t speak of it until they were lying side by side on their quilts at night. Next, under the protective cover of darkness, she would suggest one name and then another, hoping that Hana would indicate an interest in one of them.
Her uncle spoke freely of Taro Takeda only because he was so sure that Hana would never consider him. “He is a conscientious, hardworking man who has been in the United States for almost ten years. He is thirty-one, operates a small shop, and rents some rooms above the shop where he lives.” Her uncle rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “He could provide well for a wife,” he added.
“Ah,” Hana’s mother said softly.
“You saw he was successful in his business?” Hana’s sister inquired.
“His father tells me he sells many things in his shop -- clothing, stockings, needles, thread, and buttons -- such things as that. He also sells bean paste, pickled radish, bean cake, and soy sauce. A wife of his would not go cold or hungry.”
They all nodded, each of them picturing this merchant in varying degrees of success and affluence. There were many Japanese emigrants to America these days, and Hana had heard of the picture brides who went with nothing more than exchange of photographs to bind them to a strange man.
“Taro San is lonely,” her uncle continued. “I want to find for him a fine young woman who is strong and brave enough to cross the ocean alone.”
“It would certainly be a different kind of life,” Hana’s sister ventured, and for a moment, Hana thought she glimpsed a longing ordinarily concealed behind her quiet, obedient face. In the same instant, Hana knew she wanted more for herself than her sisters had in their proper, arranged, and loveless marriages. She wanted to escape her smothering strictures of her life in her village. She certainly was not going to marry a farmer and spend her life working beside him planting, weeding, and harvesting in the rice patties until her back became bent from too many years of stooping and her skin was turned to brown leather by the sun and wind. Neither did she practically relish the idea of marrying a merchant in a big city as her two sisters had done. Since her mother objected to her going to Tokyo to seek employment as a teacher, perhaps she would consent to a flight to America to what seemed a proper and respectable marriage.
Almost before she realized that she was going, she spoke to her uncle, “Oji San, perhaps I should go to America to make this lonely man a good wife.”
“You, Hana Chan?” her uncle observed her with startling curiosity. “You would go all alone to a foreign land so far away from your family?”
“I would not allow it,” her mother spoke fiercely. Hana was her youngest and she had lavished upon her the attention and latitude that often befall the last child. How could she permit her to travel so far, even to marry the son of Takeda who was known to her brother?
But now, a notion that had seemed quite impossible a moment before was lodged his receptive mind, and Hana’s uncle grasped it with the pleasure that comes with an unexpected discovery.
“You know,” he said looking at Hana, “it might be a very good life in America.”
Hana felt a faint fluttering in her heart. Perhaps this lonely man in America was her means of escaping both the village and the encirclement of her family.
Her uncle spoke with increasing enthusiasm of sending Hana to become Taro’s wife. And the husband of Hana’s sister, who was head of their household, spoke with equal eagerness. Although he never said so, Hana guessed he would be pleased to be rid of her, the spirited younger sister who stirred up his placid life with what he considered radical ideas about life and the role of women. He often claimed that Hana had too much schooling for a girl. She had graduated from Women’s High School in Kyoto, which gave her five more years of schooling than her older sister.
“It has addled her brain -- all that learning from these books,” he said when he tired of arguing with Hana.
A man’s word carried much weight for Hana’s mother. Pressed by the two men, she consulted her other daughters and their husbands. She discussed the matter carefully with her brother and asked the village priest. Finally, she agreed to an exchange of family histories and an investigation was begun into Taro Takeda’s family, his education, and his health, so they would be assured there was no insanity or tuberculosis or police records concealed in his family’s past. Soon Hana’s uncle was devoting his energies entirely to serving as go-between for Hana’s mother and Taro Takeda’s father.
When at last an agreement to the marriage was almost reached, Taro wrote his first letter to Hana. It was brief and proper and gave no more clue to his character then the stiff formal portrait taken at his graduation from middle school. Hana’s uncle had given her the picture with apologies from his parents, because it was the only photo they had of him and it was not a flattering likeness.
Hana hid the letter and photograph in the sleeve of her kimono and took them to the outhouse to study in private. Squinting in the dim light and trying to ignore the foul odor, she read and reread Taro’s letter, trying to find the real man somewhere in the sparse unbending prose.
By the time he sent her money for her steamship tickets, she had received ten more letters, but none revealed much more of the man than the first. In none did he disclose his loneliness or his need, but Hana understood this. In fact, she would have recoiled from a man who bared his intimate thoughts to her so soon. After all, they would have a lifetime together to get to know one another.
So it was that Hana had left her family and sailed alone to America with a small hope trembling inside of her. Tomorrow, at last, the ship would dock in San Francisco and she would meet face to face the man she was soon to marry. Hana was overcome with excitement at the thought of being in America, and terrified of the meeting about to take place. What would she say to Taro Takeda when they first met, and for all the days and years after?
Hana wondered about the flat above the shop. Perhaps it would be luxuriously furnished with the finest of brocades and lacquers, and perhaps there would be a servant, although he had not mentioned it. She worried whether she would be able to manage on the meager English she had learned at Women’s High School. The overwhelming anxiety for the day to come and the violent rolling of the ship were more than Hana could bear. Shuddering in the face of the wind, she leaned over the railing and became violently and wretchedly ill.
By five the next morning, Hana was up and dressed in her finest purple kimono and coat. She could not eat the bean soup and rice that appeared for breakfast and took only a few bites of the yellow pickled radish. Her bags, which had scarcely been touched since she boarded the ship, were easily packed, for all they contained were her kimonos and some of her favorite books. The large willow basket, tightly secured by a rope, remained under the bunk, untouched since her uncle had placed it there.
She had not befriended the other woman in her cabin, for they had lain in their bunks for most of the voyage, too sick to be company to anyone. Each morning Hana had fled the closeness of the sleeping quarters and spent most of the day huddling in a corner, listening to the lonely songs of some Russians also traveling to an alien land. As the ship approached land, Hana hurried up to the deck to look out at the gray expanse of ocean and sky, eager for a first glimpse of her new homeland.
“We won’t be docking until almost noon,” one of the dockhands told her.
Hana nodded, “I can wait,” she answered, but the last hours seemed the longest.
When she set foot on American soil at last, it was not in the city of San Francisco as she had expected, but on Angel Island where all third class passengers were taken. She spent two miserable days and nights waiting, as the emigrants were questioned by officials, examined for trachoma and tuberculosis, and tested for hookworm. It was a bewildering, degrading beginning, and Hana was sick with anxiety, wondering if she would ever be released.
On the third day, a Japanese messenger from San Francisco appeared with a letter for her from Taro. He had written it the day of her arrival, but it had not reached her for two days.
Taro welcomed her to America, and told her that the bearer of the letter would inform Taro when she was to be released so he could be at the pier to meet her.
The letter eased her anxiety for a while, but as soon as she was released and boarded the launch for San Francisco, new fears rose up to smother her with feelings of dread. The early morning mist had become a light chilling rain, and on the pier black umbrellas bobbed here and there, making the task of recognition even harder. Hana searched desperately for the face that resembled the one she had studied so long and hard. Suppose he hadn’t come. What would she do then?
Hana took a deep breath, lifted her head and walked slowly from the launch. The moment she was on the pier, a man in a black coat, wearing a derby and carrying an umbrella, came quickly to her side. He was of slight build, not much taller than she, and his face was sallow and pale. He bowed stiffly and murmured, “You have had a long trip, Miss Omiya. I hope you are well.”
Hana caught her breath. “You are Takeda San?” she asked.
He removed his hat and Hana was further startled to see that he was already turning bald.
“You are Takeda San?” she asked again. He looked older than thirty-one.
“I am afraid I no longer resemble the early photo my parents gave you. I am sorry.”
Hana had not meant to begin like this. It was not going well.
“No, no,” she said quickly. “It is just that I...that is, I am terribly nervous…” Hana stopped abruptly, too flustered to go on.
“I understand,” Taro said gently. “You will feel better when you meet my friends and have some tea. Mr. and Mrs. Toda are expecting you in Oakland. You will be staying with them until…” He couldn’t bring himself to mention the marriage just yet and Hana was grateful he hadn’t.
He quickly made arrangements to have her baggage sent to Oakland, then led her carefully along the rain-slick pier toward the streetcar that would take them to the ferry.
Hana shuddered at the sight of another boat, and as they climbed to its upper deck she felt a queasy tightening of her stomach.
“I hope it will not rock too much,” she said anxiously. “Is it many hours to your city?”
Taro laughed for the first time since their meeting, revealing the gold fillings of his teeth. “Oakland is just across the bay,” he explained. “We will be there in twenty minutes.”
Raising a hand to cover her mouth, Hana laughed with him and suddenly felt better. I am in America now, she thought, and this is the man I came to marry. Then she sat down carefully beside Taro, so no part of their clothing touched.
1. For most of recorded history, and even today in some parts of the world, arranged marriage has been common. Where is it still practiced?
2. Hana in this story is among the Japanese “picture brides” who landed at the turn of the last century at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Read about Japanese immigration and the picture brides at Angel Island Immigration Station » Immigration to the United States (immigrationtounitedstates.org).
3. Cultures which arrange marriages find that they are more stable because expectations that couples will learn to share a life and cherish one another are more likely to be fulfilled than romantic love. Do you think that Hana and Taro will develop such a life? Write a continuation of Hana’s story in which she is either content or unhappy.
Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970) was a Jewish immigrant from Russia who wrote about her experiences as an émigré in America, living in the ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth century. Her most famous work is a biographical novel called “The Bread Givers” Parts of the experiences Yezierska described here appeared in that novel.
As one of the dumb, voiceless ones I speak. One of the millions of immigrants beating, beating out their hearts at your gates for a breath of understanding. Ach! America! From the other end of the earth from where I came, America was a land of living hope, woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire.
Choked for ages in the airless oppression of Russia, the Promised Land rose up — wings for my stifled spirit — sunlight burning through my darkness — freedom singing to me in my prison — deathless songs tuning prison-bars into strings of a beautiful violin.
I arrived in America. My young, strong body, my heart and soul pregnant with the unlived lives of generations clamoring for expression. … In the golden land of flowing opportunity I was to find my work that was denied me in the sterile village of my forefathers. Here I was to be free from the dead drudgery for bread that held me down in Russia. For the first time in America, I’d cease to be a slave of the belly.
I’d be a creator, a giver, a human being! My work would be the living job of fullest self expression. But from my high visions, my golden hopes, I had to put my feet down on earth. I had to have food and shelter. I had to have the money to pay for it.
I was in America, among the Americans, but not of them. No speech, no common language, no way to win a smile of understanding from them, only my young, strong body and my untried faith.
…Only one of two chances was left open to me: the kitchen, or minding babies. My first job was as a servant in an Americanized family. Once, long ago, they came from the same village from where I came. But they were so well-dressed, so well-fed, so successful in America, that they were ashamed to remember their mother tongue.
“What were to be my wages?” I ventured timidly, as I looked up to the well-fed, well-dressed “American” man and woman. They looked at me with a sudden coldness. What have I said to draw away from me their warmth? Was it so low for me to talk of wages? I shrank back into myself like a low-down bargainer. Maybe they’re so high up in well-being they can’t any more understand my low thoughts for money.
From his rich height the man preached down to me that I must not be so grabbing for wages. Only just landed from the ship and already thinking about money when I should be thankful to associate with “Americans.” The woman, out of her smooth, smiling fatness assured me that this was my chance for a summer vacation in the country with her two lovely children. My great chance to learn to be a civilized being, to become an American by living with them.
So, made to feel that I was in the hands of American friends, invited to share with them their home, their plenty, their happiness, I pushed out from my head the worry for wages. Here was my first chance to begin my life in the sunshine, after my long darkness. My laugh was all over my face as I said to them: “I’ll trust myself to you. What I’m worth you’ll give me.”
And I entered their house like a child by the hand. The best of me I gave them. Their house cares were my house cares. I got up early. I worked till late. All that my soul hungered to give I put into the passion with which I scrubbed floors, scoured pots, and washed clothes.
I was so grateful to mingle with the American people, to hear the music of the American language, that I never knew tiredness. There was such a freshness in my brains and such a willingness in my heart I could go on and on — not only with the work of the house, but work with my head — learning new words from the children, the grocer, the butcher, the iceman. I was not even afraid to ask for words from the policeman on the street. And every new word made me see new American things with American eyes. I felt like a Columbus, finding new worlds through every new word.
But words alone were only for the inside of me. The outside of me still branded me for a steerage immigrant. I had to have clothes to forget myself that I’m a stranger yet. And so I had to have money to buy these clothes. The month was up. I was so happy! Now I’d have money. My own, earned money. Money to buy a new shirt on my back — shoes on my feet. Maybe yet an American dress and hat! Ach! How high rose my dreams! How plainly I saw all that I would do with my visionary wages shining like a light over my head! In my imagination I already walked in my new American clothes. How beautiful I looked as I saw myself like a picture before my eyes! I saw how I would throw away my immigrant rags tied up in my immigrant shawl. With money to buy — free money in my hands — I’d show them that I could look like an American in a day.
I trembled breathlessly for the minute I’d get the wages in my hand. Before dawn I rose. I shined up the house like a jewel-box. I prepared breakfast and waited with my heart in my mouth for my lady and gentleman to rise. At last I heard them stirring. My eyes were jumping out of my head to them when I saw them coming in and seating themselves by the table.
… The breakfast was over. And no word yet from my wages. …Lunch came. Lunch passed. Not a word yet about my money. It was near dinner. I began to set the table. But my head — it swam away from me. I broke a glass. The silver dropped from my nervous fingers. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I dropped everything and rushed over to my American lady and gentleman…
“The money — my money — my wages!” I cried breathlessly. Four cold eyes turned on me. “Wages? Money?” The four eyes turned into hard stone as they looked me up and down. “Haven’t you a comfortable bed to sleep, and three good meals a day? You’re only a month here. Just came to America. And you already think about money. Wait till you’re worth any money. What use are you without knowing English? You should be glad we keep you here. It’s like a vacation for you. Other girls pay money yet to be in the country.”
It went black for my eyes. I was so choked no words came to my lips. Even the tears went dry in my throat. I left. Not a dollar for all my work. ups in America, I turned back to the Ghetto.
I worked on a hard bench with my own kind on either side of me. I knew before I began what my wages were to be. I knew what my hours were to be. And I knew the feeling of the end of the day.
From the outside my second job seemed worse than the first. It was in a sweatshop of a Delancey Street basement, kept up by an old, wrinkled woman that looked like a black witch of greed. My work was sewing on buttons. While the morning was still dark I walked into a dark basement. And darkness met me when I turned out of the basement.
Day after day, week after week, all the contact I got with America was handling dead buttons. The money I earned was hardly enough to pay for bread and rent. I didn’t have a room to myself. I didn’t even have a bed. I slept on a mattress on the floor in a rat-hole of a room occupied by a dozen other immigrants.
I was always hungry — oh, so hungry! The scant meals I could afford only sharpened my appetite for real food. But I felt myself better off than working in the “American” family where I had three good meals a day and a bed to myself. With all the hunger and darkness of the sweat-shop, I had at least the evening to myself…
1. Although there are now protections against the treatment received by Yezierska, some employers still take advantage of immigrant laborers, especially agricultural workers. Dolores Huerta was a hero in the fight for the rights of these workers. What did she do?
2. Research the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the role played by immigrant women in struggling for fair treatment.
3. March is National Women’s History Month. If there were a Women’s Mount Rushmore, name four American women you would want on it.
Olaudah Equino, who was captured from west Africa, wrote the first autobiography by a slave, about his capture in the Eboe region of the kingdom of Benin, his transport to the Caribbean, his sale in Barbados, and his life in slavery. He wrote it in England, after he had bought his freedom, using his slave name.
During Black History month it is important that we study the lives of immigrants to the Americas who were brought here against their will, and the atrocities they suffered.
FROM CHAPTER 2,THE ATLANTIC VOYAGE
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard).
…When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who had brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not.
… I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
…I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water; and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut, for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself.
In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of these what was to be done with us? they gave me to understand, we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate; but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty.
…One day they had taken a number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat, as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again, although we begged and prayed for some as well as we could, but in vain; and some of my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw.them, of trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings.
One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together, (I was near them at the time,) preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea: immediately, another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would very soon have done the same, if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed.
…At last, we came in sight of the island of Barbadoes, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer, we plainly saw the harbor, and other ships of different kinds and sizes, and we soon anchored amongst them, off Bridgetown. Many merchants and planters now came on board, though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this, we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us; and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch, that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much. And sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.
1. Equiano and the other slaves experienced unspeakable atrocities on the voyage to the New World. They were not viewed as human beings. This thinking has made it possible to oppress Africans, even recently. What was “apartheid” in South Africa?
2. When was slavery outlawed in England? In the United States? Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.".
3. Should descendants of slaves receive recompense for the experience and the labor of their ancestors? What types of reimbursement have been proposed?
Jumpha Lahiri was born Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri in London 53 years ago. Her family, originally from the Indian state of West Bengal, moved when she was three to Rhode Island. Lahiri considers herself an American and has said, "I wasn't born here, but I might as well have been." Her novels and stories describe the experiences of Indian-American families. In 2014, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
The Namesake follows the odyssey of an Indian man named Ashoke, who is injured in a catastrophic train accident and later emigrates to America to build a new life for himself and his family. As the train derailed, he was reading stories by one of his favorite Russian authors, Nikolai Gogol. Years later, as he’s waiting in a Cambridge hospital for his son to be born, he considers the profound significance of his journey thus far. He was raised without running water, nearly killed at twenty-two. Ashoke decides to call his son Gogol.
The baby, a boy, is born at half past five in the morning. He measures twenty inches long, weighs seven pounds nine ounces. When Ashoke arrives, the nurse is taking Ashima’s blood pressure, and Ashima is reclining against a pile of pillows, the child wrapped like an oblong white parcel in her arms. Beside the bed is a bassinet, labelled with a card that says “Baby Boy Ganguli.”
“He’s here,” she says quietly, looking up at Ashoke with a weak smile. Her skin is faintly yellow, the color missing from her lips. She has circles beneath her eyes, and her hair, spilling from its braid, looks as though it had not been combed for days. Her voice is hoarse, as if she’d caught a cold. He pulls up a chair by the side of the bed and the nurse helps to transfer the child from mother’s to father’s arms. In the process, the child pierces the silence in the room with a short-lived cry. His parents react with mutual alarm, but the nurse laughs approvingly. “You see,” she says to Ashima, “he’s already getting to know you.”
At first Ashoke is more perplexed than moved, by the pointiness of the head, the puffiness of the lids, the small white spots on the cheeks, the fleshy upper lip that droops prominently over the lower one. The skin is paler than either Ashima’s or his own, translucent enough to show slim green veins at the temples. The scalp is covered by a mass of wispy black hair. He attempts to count the eyelashes. He feels gently through the flannel for the hands and feet.
“It’s all there,” Ashima says, watching her husband. “I already checked.”
“What are the eyes like? Why won’t he open them? Has he opened them?”
“What can he see? Can he see us?”
“I think so. But not very clearly. And not in full color. Not yet.”
They sit in silence, the three of them as still as stones. “How are you feeling? Was it all right?” he asks Ashima after a while.
But there is no answer, and when Ashoke lifts his gaze from his son’s face he sees that she, too, is sleeping.
When he looks back to the child, the eyes are open, staring up at him, unblinking, as dark as the hair on its head. The face is transformed; Ashoke has never seen a more perfect thing. He imagines himself as a dark, grainy, blurry presence. As a father to his son. Being rescued from that shattered train had been the first miracle of his life. But here, now, reposing in his arms, weighing next to nothing but changing everything, is the second.
Because neither set of grandparents has a working telephone, the couple’s only link to home is by telegram, which Ashoke has sent to both sides in Calcutta: “With your blessings, boy and mother fine.” As for a name, they have decided to let Ashima’s grandmother, who is past eighty now, who has named each of her six other great-grandchildren in the world, do the honors. Ashima’s grandmother has mailed the letter herself, walking with her cane to the post office, her first trip out of the house in a decade. The letter contains one name for a girl, one for a boy. Ashima’s grandmother has revealed them to no one.
Though the letter was sent a month ago, in July, it has yet to arrive. Ashima and Ashoke are not terribly concerned. After all, they both know, an infant doesn’t really need a name. He needs to be fed and blessed, to be given some gold and silver, to be patted on the back after feedings and held carefully behind the neck. Names can wait. In India parents take their time. It wasn’t unusual for years to pass before the right name, the best possible name, was determined. Ashima and Ashoke can both cite examples of cousins who were not officially named until they were registered, at six or seven, in school. Besides, there are always pet names to tide one over: a practice of Bengali nomenclature grants, to every single person, two names. In Bengali the word for “pet name” is daknam, meaning literally the name by which one is called, by friends, family, and other intimates, at home and in other private, unguarded moments. Pet names are a persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people. Every pet name is paired with a “good name,” a bhalonam, for identification in the outside world. Consequently, good names appear on envelopes, on diplomas, in telephone directories, and in all other public places. Good names tend to represent dignified and enlightened qualities. Ashima means “she who is limitless, without borders.” Ashoke, the name of an emperor, means “he who transcends grief.” Pet names have no such aspirations. They are never recorded officially, only uttered and remembered.
Three days come and go. Ashima is shown by the nursing staff how to change diapers and how to clean the umbilical stub. She is given hot saltwater baths to soothe her bruises and stitches. She is given a list of pediatricians, and countless brochures on breast-feeding and bonding and immunizing, and samples of baby shampoos and Q-Tips and creams. The fourth day there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Ashima and the baby are to be discharged the following morning. The bad news is that they are told by Mr. Wilcox, compiler of hospital birth certificates, that they must choose a name for their son. For they learn that in America a baby cannot be released from the hospital without a birth certificate. And that a birth certificate needs a name.
“But, sir,” Ashima protests, “we can’t possibly name him ourselves.”
Mr. Wilcox, slight, bald, unamused, glances at the couple, both visibly distressed, then glances at the nameless child. “I see,” he says. “The reason being?”
“We are waiting for a letter,” Ashoke says, explaining the situation in detail.
“I see,” Mr. Wilcox says again. “That is unfortunate. I’m afraid your only alternative is to have the certificate read ‘Baby Boy Ganguli.’ You will, of course, be required to amend the permanent record when a name is decided upon.”
Ashima looks at Ashoke expectantly. “Is that what we should do?”
“I don’t recommend it,” Mr. Wilcox says. “You will have to appear before a judge, pay a fee. The red tape is endless.”
“Oh dear,” Ashoke says.
Mr. Wilcox nods, and silence ensues. “Don’t you have any backups?” he asks.
“Something in reserve, in case you didn’t like what your grandmother has chosen.”
Ashima and Ashoke shake their heads. It has never occurred to either of them to question Ashima’s grandmother’s selection, to disregard an elder’s wishes in such a way.
“You can always name him after yourself, or one of your ancestors,” Mr. Wilcox suggests, admitting that he is actually Howard Wilcox III. “It’s a fine tradition. The kings of France and England did it,” he adds.
But this isn’t possible. This tradition doesn’t exist for Bengalis, naming a son after father or grandfather, a daughter after mother or grandmother. This sign of respect in America and Europe, this symbol of heritage and lineage, would be ridiculed in India. Within Bengali families, individual names are sacred, inviolable. They are not meant to be inherited or shared.
“Then what about naming him after another person? Someone you greatly admire?” Mr. Wilcox says, his eyebrows raised hopefully. He sighs. “Think about it. I’ll be back in a few hours,” he tells them, exiting the room.
The door shuts, which is when, with a slight quiver of recognition, as if he’d known it all along, the perfect pet name for his son occurs to Ashoke.
“Hello, Gogol,” he whispers, leaning over his son’s haughty face, his tightly bundled body. “Gogol,” he repeats, satisfied. The baby turns his head with an expression of extreme consternation and yawns.
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. Some immigrants past and present have changed their names to “Americanize” them. Jumpha was her nickname that her third grade teacher used instead of her full name Nilanjana. Is there an example from your own family?
3. The Gangulis tried to follow their Indian tradition in naming their baby. Which formal traditions did your family follow when you were born?
Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1879, but when she was nine years old her family moved to the small frontier town of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska and moved east to Pittsburgh and then New York City for most of her adulthood, but she never forgot her life on the Nebraska plains. Like Jim Burden, Antonia’s best friend in My Antonia, the young Willa Cather saw the Nebraska frontier as a "place where there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries were made.” In this selection, the young Antonia nicknamed “Tony” and her father, Mr. Shimerda, reminisce about their lives in the old country, Bohemia in eastern Europe, today’s Czech Republic.
One afternoon we were having our reading lesson on the warm, grassy bank where the badger lived. It was a day of amber sunlight, but there was a shiver of coming winter in the air. I had seen ice on the little horsepond that morning, and as we went through the garden we found the tall asparagus, with its red berries, lying on the ground, a mass of slimy green.
Tony was barefooted, and she shivered in her cotton dress and was comfortable only when we were tucked down on the baked earth, in the full blaze of the sun. She could talk to me about almost anything by this time. That afternoon she was telling me how highly esteemed our friend the badger was in her part of the world, and how men kept a special kind of dog, with very short legs, to hunt him. Those dogs, she said, went down into the hole after the badger and killed him there in a terrific struggle underground; you could hear the barks and yelps outside. Then the dog dragged himself back, covered with bites and scratches, to be rewarded and petted by his master. She knew a dog who had a star on his collar for every badger he had killed.
The rabbits were unusually spry that afternoon. They kept starting up all about us, and dashing off down the draw as if they were playing a game of some kind. But the little buzzing things that lived in the grass were all dead—all but one. While we were lying there against the warm bank, a little insect of the palest, frailest green hopped painfully out of the buffalo grass and tried to leap into a bunch of bluestem. He missed it, fell back, and sat with his head sunk between his long legs, his antennae quivering, as if he were waiting for something to come and finish him. Tony made a warm nest for him in her hands; talked to him gaily and indulgently in Bohemian. Presently he began to sing for us—a thin, rusty little chirp. She held him close to her ear and laughed, but a moment afterward I saw there were tears in her eyes. She told me that in her village at home there was an old beggar woman who went about selling herbs and roots she had dug up in the forest. If you took her in and gave her a warm place by the fire, she sang old songs to the children in a cracked voice, like this. Old Hata, she was called, and the children loved to see her coming and saved their cakes and sweets for her.
When the bank on the other side of the draw began to throw a narrow shelf of shadow, we knew we ought to be starting homeward; the chill came on quickly when the sun got low, and Antonia’s dress was thin. What were we to do with the frail little creature we had lured back to life by false pretenses? I offered my pockets, but Tony shook her head and carefully put the green insect in her hair, tying her big handkerchief down loosely over her curls. I said I would go with her until we could see Squaw Creek, and then turn and run home. We drifted along lazily, very happy, through the magical light of the late afternoon.
All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero’s death—heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.
How many an afternoon Antonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence! And always two long black shadows flitted before us or followed after, dark spots on the ruddy grass.
We had been silent a long time, and the edge of the sun sank nearer and nearer the prairie floor, when we saw a figure moving on the edge of the upland, a gun over his shoulder. He was walking slowly, dragging his feet along as if he had no purpose. We broke into a run to overtake him.
‘My papa sick all the time,’ Tony panted as we flew. ‘He not look good, Jim.’
As we neared Mr. Shimerda she shouted, and he lifted his head and peered about. Tony ran up to him, caught his hand and pressed it against her cheek. She was the only one of his family who could rouse the old man from the torpor in which he seemed to live. He took the bag from his belt and showed us three rabbits he had shot, looked at Antonia with a wintry flicker of a smile and began to tell her something. She turned to me.
‘My tatinek make me little hat with the skins, little hat for winter!’ she exclaimed joyfully. ‘Meat for eat, skin for hat’—she told off these benefits on her fingers.
Her father put his hand on her hair, but she caught his wrist and lifted it carefully away, talking to him rapidly. I heard the name of old Hata. He untied the handkerchief, separated her hair with his fingers, and stood looking down at the green insect. When it began to chirp faintly, he listened as if it were a beautiful sound.
I picked up the gun he had dropped; a queer piece from the old country, short and heavy, with a stag’s head on the cock. When he saw me examining it, he turned to me with his far-away look that always made me feel as if I were down at the bottom of a well. He spoke kindly and gravely, and Antonia translated:
‘My tatinek say when you are big boy, he give you his gun. Very fine, from Bohemie. It was belong to a great man, very rich, like what you not got here; many fields, many forests, many big house. My papa play for his wedding, and he give my papa fine gun, and my papa give you.’
I was glad that this project was one of futurity. There never were such people as the Shimerdas for wanting to give away everything they had. Even the mother was always offering me things, though I knew she expected substantial presents in return. We stood there in friendly silence, while the feeble minstrel sheltered in Antonia’s hair went on with its scratchy chirp. The old man’s smile, as he listened, was so full of sadness, of pity for things, that I never afterward forgot it. As the sun sank there came a sudden coolness and the strong smell of earth and drying grass. Antonia and her father went off hand in hand, and I buttoned up my jacket and raced my shadow home.
1. Immigrants often long for the land they left. How do you see this in the story, for Antonia and for her father?
2. “How many an afternoon Antonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence!” Do you have a particular friend or family member with whom you spend time at a certain time of day? Describe this special time.
3. Why do you think the Shimerdas chose to emigrate from Bohemia to Nebraska?
Sandra Cisneros was born in 1954. She is Mexican-American, the only girl of 7 children in a family that traveled back and forth from the Chicago Chicano barrio to Mexico. She lives now in San Antonio, Texas. Her subjects are both Mexican and Chicana women. She is the recipient of many awards, including a MacArthur “genius grant.” “Eleven” takes place on the birthday of a little girl like Sandra.
What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don't. You open your eyes and everything's just like yesterday, only it's today. And you don't feel eleven at all. You feel like you're still ten. And you are --underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that's the part of you that's still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama's lap because you're scared, and that's the part of you that's five. And maybe one day when you're all grown up maybe you will need to cry like you're three, and that's okay. That's what I tell Mama when she's sad and needs to cry. Maybe she's feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That's how being eleven years old is.
You don't feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don't feel smart eleven, not until you're almost twelve. That's the way it is.
Only today I wish I didn't have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I'd have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would've known how to tell her it wasn't min instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.
"Whose is this?" Mrs. Price says, and she holds the red sweater up in the air for all the class to see. "Whose? It's been sitting in the coatroom for a month."
"Not mine," says everybody. "Not me."
"It has to belong to somebody," Mrs. Price keeps saying, but nobody can remember. It's an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope. It's maybe a thousand years old and even if it belonged to me I wouldn't say so.
Maybe because I'm skinny, maybe because she doesn't' like me, that stupid Sylvia Saldivar says, "I think it belongs to Rachel." An ugly sweater like that, all raggedy and old, but Mrs. Price believes her. Mrs. Price takes the sweater and puts it right on my desk, but when I open my mouth nothing comes out.
"That's not, I don't , your not...Not mine," I finally say in a little voice that was maybe me when I was four.
"Of course it's yours," Mrs. Price says. "I remember you wearing in once." Because she's older and the teacher, she's right and I'm not.
Not mine, not mine, not mine, but Mrs. Price is already turning to page thirty-two, and math problem number four. I don't know why but all of a sudden I'm feeling sick inside, like the part of me that's three wants to come out of my eyes, only I squeeze them shut tight and bite down on my teeth real hard and try to remember today I am eleven, eleven. Mama is making a cake for me tonight, and when Papa comes home everybody will sing Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday to you.
But when the sick feeling goes away and I open my eyes, the red sweater's still sitting there like a big red mountain. I move the red sweater to the corner of my desk wit my ruler. I move my pencil and books and eraser as far from it as possible. I even move my chair a little to the right. Not mine, not mine, not mine.
In my head I'm thinking how long till lunchtime, how long till I can take the red sweater and throw it over the school yard fence, or even leave it hanging on a parking meter, or bunch it up into a little ball and toss it in the alley. Except when math period ends Mrs. Price says loud and in front of everybody , "Now Rachel, that's enough," because she sees I've shoved the red sweater to the tippy-tip corner of my desk and it's hanging all over the edge like a waterfall, but I don't' care.
"Rachel," Mrs. Price says. She says it like she's getting mad. "You put that sweater on right now and no more nonsense."
"But it's not--"
"Now!" Mrs. Price says.
This is when I wish I wasn't eleven, because all the years inside of me--ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two and one-- are pushing at the back of my eyes when I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that smells like cottage cheese, and then the other arm through the other and stand there with my arms apart like if the sweater hurts me and it does, all itchy and full of germs that aren't even mine.
That's when everything I've been holding in since this morning, since when Mrs. Price put the sweater on my desk, finally lets go, and all of a sudden I'm crying in front of everybody. I wish I was invisible but I'm not. I'm eleven and it's my birthday today and I'm crying like I'm three in front of everybody. I put my head down on the desk and bury my face in my stupid clown-sweater arms. My face all hot and spit coming out of my mouth because I can't stop the little animal noises from coming out of me, until there aren't any more tears left in my eyes, and it's just my body shaking like when you have the hiccups, and my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.
But the worst part is right before the bell rings for lunch. That stupid Phyllis Lopez, who is even dumber than Sylvia Saldivar, says she remembers the red sweater is hers! I take it off right away and give it to her, only Mrs. Price pretends like everything's okay.
Today I'm eleven. There's cake Mama's making for tonight, and when Papa comes home from work we'll eat it. There'll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday to you Rachel, only it's too late.
I'm eleven today. I'm eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny-tiny you have to close your eyes to see it.
1. In what ways does the teacher stereotype Rachel in “Eleven?”
2. Rachel says, “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.” This and other statements show you that Rachel feels powerless, especially because she is an immigrant. Find other examples.
3. Find some of the similes in “Eleven.” They are all expressed through the limited experiences of childhood. Here is one example: “ my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.”
Julia Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950, just before the family returned for ten years to the Dominican Republic. They were forced to leave when Alvarez’s father was in danger because of his political opposition to the dictator Trujillo. All of these experiences inspired Alvarez’s award-winning writing. This episode appears in her novel “How the Garcia Girls lost Their Accents.”
Our first year in New York we rented a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look peculiar, like dolls in mourning. I liked them a lot, especially my grandmotherly fourth grade teacher, Sister Zoe. I had a lovely name, she said, and she had me teach the whole class how to pronounce it. Yo-lan-da. As the only immigrant in my class, I was put in a special seat in the first row by the window, apart from the other children so that Sister Zoe could tutor me without disturbing them. Slowly, she enunciated the new words I was to repeat: laundromat, cornflakes, subway, snow.
Soon I picked up enough English to understand holocaust was in the air. Sister Zoe explained to a wide eyed classroom what was happening in Cuba. Russian missiles were being assembled, trained supposedly on New York City. President Kennedy, looking worried too, was on the television at home, explaining we might have to go to war against the Communists. At school, we had air raid drills: an ominous bell would go off and we'd file into the hall, fall to the floor, cover our heads with our coats, and imagine our hair falling out, the bones in our arms going soft. At home, Mami and my sisters and I said a rosary for world peace. I heard new vocabulary: nuclear bomb, radioactive fallout, bomb shelter. Sister Zoe explained how it would happen. She drew a picture of a mushroom on the blackboard and dotted a flurry of chalk marks for the dusty fallout that would kill us all.
The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, "Bomb! Bomb!" Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. A few girls began to cry.
But then Sister Zoe's shocked look faded. "Why, Yolanda dear, that's snow!" She laughed. "Snow."
"Snow," I repeated. I looked out the window warily. All my life I had heard about the white crystals that fell out of American skies in the winter. From my desk I watched the fine powder dust the sidewalk and parked cars below. Each flake was different, Sister Zoe had said, like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful.
1. Yolanda came from a Caribbean island where it never snows. If you were to
emigrate to the Caribbean, what might you see that you had never seen before? Look up “Caribbean islands” in Google and select Images for some suggestions.
2. Did you ever misunderstand something that your teacher or your parents had told you, when you were small children? Were there song lyrics that you got wrong? (In Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona and the Pest,” Ramona’s kindergarten teacher tells her to sit a certain desk, “for the present.” Ramona waits all morning for the gift she expects.)
3. Immigrants often come to the United States to flee from danger. In the story, their new country scares Yolanda. What examples of “Push/Pull” immigration can you find in Lesson 5of the Citizenship Counts curriculum. What dangers might immigrants from some other countries and other years find in the United States?
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/
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 thespice 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.
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?
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.)
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