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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