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In Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas explains that her father, Kazem, had studied and worked in America and “often spoke about America with the eloquence and wonder normally reserved for a first love. To him, America was a place where anyone, no matter how humble his background, could become an important person” (3). Hearing her father’s wondrous stories of clean bathrooms and ever-friendly citizens, Dumas had anticipated a warm, welcoming country. For the most part, that is what she initially received upon her immigration to America. After the Iranian Revolution, however, many opinions had changed about people of Iranian heritage, but in a manner that perhaps exposed an American form of myopia. As Dumas indicates in one of her book’s most important ironies, Americans went from having never heard of Iran to assumingly knowing everything about its people and their culture.
Funny in Farsi explores the different prejudices associated with being an immigrant in America, and the tendencies many Americans have to judge other countries and cultures. Dumas tells, “I was lucky to have come to America years before the political upheaval in Iran. The Americans we encountered were kind and curious, unafraid to ask questions and willing to listen” (31). When Dumas and her family first came to America, they were faced with no particular enemies. In fact, the people they encountered had never heard of Iran or any of its surrounding countries, so they had no reason to dislike an Iranian. The Americans may have come off as slightly ignorant in the ways of geography and anthropology, but at least they were not making assumptions about the Iranian’s ethics. Dumas recalls, “Our relatives who immigrated to this country after the Iranian Revolution did not encounter the same America.” During the hostage situation in the American embassy in Tehran, Dumas encountered many Americans who both knew and disliked Iran and Iranians. She noted that most Americans seemed to think that any Iranian could take hostages at any time. Americans became quite fearful of her and her family because of the way they looked or spoke (39), so that Dumas’s relatives faced struggles with their appearances and names alike because of the hostage situation. They were oppressed by a state of fear and ignorance in a situation they could not control and did not support.
Dumas’s first name, Firoozeh, which means “turquoise” in Persian, became a daily struggle for her and other people. She jokes, “In America, it means ‘Unpronounceable’“(63). Her classmates would tease her because of her name and give her unwanted nicknames. Though most people experience some type of ridicule from classmates during their youth, Dumas insinuates that her name was far easier to mock than others and made her the target of much unwarranted attention. Being that she was new to her schools and was already the focus of many other children’s attention, the added scrutiny of her uncommon name only added to the pressure she felt to blend in with the general population. Dumas felt there was no easier way to escape this fate of mispronunciation and ill-willed joking than to change her name altogether. Dumas decided to adopt a more American name. The name she chose was “Julie.” With that name, her school life became “infinitely simpler” (65). Her want to change her name to something “more American” suggests her want to fit in as an average American child. She did not want the reputation of “that foreign girl.” She wanted to blend and develop her own identity, instead of having an identity assigned to her based on the assumptions made about her name or country of origin. This represents America in a bad way. This small girl felt so alienated by her own name that she felt the need to change it to fit into her role in America. Firoozeh is a name with beautiful meaning in Persian, yet to Americans, the name Firoozeh was unknown and unexpected. Dumas traded her meaningful given name for something that meant nothing to her to fit in. She traded a name with meaning for a name with convenience. This could be seen as Dumas making a transition from her previous culture, to the American culture she was submerged in.
After the Iranian revolution, Dumas faced a problem with her newfound identity and acceptance. Given that she spoke English with no accent and was seemingly American, she got to hear another side of American opinions that had before been unexposed to. Her dual identity allowed her to see and hear the real feelings that Americans held toward Iranians. Before her name change, people would filter their conversations for her, either out of respect or two-facedness. As “Julie,” people did not think of her as an immigrant, and they had no need to hide their hateful feelings towards Iranians. Dumas explains, “Sometimes simplifying one’s life in the short run only complicates it in the long run” (63). Her ability to see the two sides of the story showed her how cruel people can be behind closed doors. She was torn. One side of her wanted to accept the judgment of her peers and stand up for herself and Iran, while the other side wanted to blend in and go unnoticed.
When Dumas married her French husband Francois, she was able to see the differences in treatment between immigrants. “All Americans seem to have a favorite France story,” Dumas said (40). When Americans think of France, they think of the Eiffel Tower, beautiful accents, and the United States prized Statue of Liberty. Americans romanticize France because of this favorable image and assume that all of the French must be classy, artistic types with a passion of wine. Oppositely, when people thought of Iran, they thought of hostages and political upheaval. She felt cheated when she learned of the biases Americans had for immigrants from different countries. Francois was no more deserving of his good French reputation than Firoozeh was her bad Iranian reputation. This demonstrates a problem with the stereotypes that Americans associate with certain countries. No matter how insignificant at first, perpetuating stereotypes can turn into a continuum of prejudices and discrimination for generations. Entire countries or races should not face punishment for the actions of a few. Dumas writes,” He [Dumas’s father] only said how sad it was that people so easily hate an entire population simply because of the actions of a few. And what a waste it is to hate, he always said. What a waste” (121). It is hard to understand how someone can hate an entire group of people without even knowing them, but this has been a common scenario in America for quite some time. The average American male has, in the past, always been above any person of color, socially and economically; even in the absence of institutionalized prejudice, stereotypes that assume inferiority and alienate those who are being stereotyped can still proliferate.
Funny in Farsi indeeds explores the different prejudices associated with being an immigrant in America, and the tendencies many Americans have to judge other countries and cultures. Such judgment is not always harmful, but it historically has had an unfortunate underside. Americans have a habit of perpetuating stereotypes; the ramification of general prejudices against other cultures is the alienation of immigrants and their feelings of needing to change themselves to be accepted in America.
Dumas, Firoozeh. Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America. New York: Villard, 2003. Print.
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