From Abadan to Whittier
Coming to America
June 9, 2003
Chapter one from Firoozeh
in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian
America", which will be released on June 17 by Random
House . Firoozeh, is from Abadan and is the daughter of an engineer
with the National Iranian Oil Company.
Her book was selected
as one of their six hottest books for the summer of 2003. It
has received many glowing reviews and was recently endorsed
by Jimmy Carter, who called it "A humorous and introspective
chronicle of a life filled with love -- of family, country, and heritage." In
addition, Firoozeh has also read her stories on National Public Radio in California
for Morning Edition.
Firoozeh will embark on a national tour on June
24 in Berkeley and will be going to New York, Washington DC,
Los Angeles, Irvine, San Francisco,
Washington State. For more information, you
can visit her website: firoozehdumas.com
Leffingwell Elementary School
I was seven, my parents, my fourteen-year-old brother, Farshid,
and I moved from Abadan, Iran, to Whittier, California. Farid,
the older of my two brothers, had been sent to Philadelphia the
year before to attend high school. Like most Iranian youths, he
had always dreamed of attending college abroad and, despite my
mother's tears, had left us to live with my uncle and his American
I, too, had been sad at Farid's departure, but my
sorrow soon faded-not coincidentally, with the receipt of a package
him. Suddenly, having my brother on a different continent seemed
like a small price to pay for owning a Barbie complete with a
carrying case and four outfits, including the rain gear and mini
Our move to
Whittier was temporary. My father, Kazem, an engineer with the
National Iranian Oil Company, had been assigned to consult for
an American firm for about two years. Having spent several years
in Texas and California as a graduate student, my father 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. It was a kind and orderly nation full of clean
a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped
It was the Promised Land. For me, it was where I could buy more
We arrived in Whittier shortly after the start of
second grade; my father enrolled me in Leffingwell Elementary School.
To facilitate my adjustment, the principal arranged for us to
meet my new teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, a few days before I started
school. Since my mother and I did not speak English, the meeting
consisted of a dialogue between my father and Mrs. Sandberg.
father carefully explained that I had attended a prestigious kindergarten
where all the children were taught English. Eager to impress Mrs.
Sandberg, he asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of the English
language. I stood up straight and proudly recited all that I knew: "White,
yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green."
The following Monday,
my father drove my mother and me to school. He had decided that
it would be a good idea for my mother to attend school with me
for a few weeks. I could not understand why two people not speaking
English would be better than one, but I was seven, and my opinion
didn't matter much.
Until my first day at Leffingwell Elementary
School, I had never thought of my mother as an embarrassment, but
the sight of all the kids in the school staring at us before the
bell rang was enough to make me pretend I didn't know her. The
bell finally rang and Mrs. Sandberg came and escorted us to class.
Fortunately, she had figured out that we were precisely the kind
of people who would need help finding the right classroom.
and I sat in the back while all the children took their assigned
seats. Everyone continued to stare at us. Mrs. Sandberg wrote my
name on the board: F-I-R-O-O-Z-E-H. Under my name, she wrote "I-R-A-N." She
then pulled down a map of the world and said something to my mom.
My mom looked at me and asked me what she had said. I told her
that the teacher probably wanted her to find Iran on the map.
problem was that my mother, like most women of her generation,
had been only briefly educated. In her era, a girl's sole purpose
in life was to find a husband. Having an education ranked far below
more desirable attributes such as the ability to serve tea or prepare
Before her marriage, my mother, Nazireh, had dreamed
of becoming a midwife. Her father, a fairly progressive man,
refused the two earlier suitors who had come for her so that
his daughter could pursue her dream. My mother planned to obtain
diploma, then go to Tabriz to learn midwifery from a teacher
whom my grandfather knew. Sadly, the teacher died unexpectedly,
my mother's dreams had to be buried as well.
Bachelor No. 3 was
my father. Like the other suitors, he had never spoken to my mother,
but one of his cousins knew someone who knew my mother's sister,
so that was enough. More important, my mother fit my father's physical
requirements for a wife. Like most Iranians, my father preferred
a fair-skinned woman with straight, light-colored hair.
spent a year in America as a Fulbright scholar, he had returned
with a photo of a woman he found attractive and asked his older
sister, Sedigeh, to find someone who resembled her. Sedigeh had
asked around, and that is how at age seventeen my mother officially
gave up her dreams, married my
father, and had a child by the end of the year.
As the students continued
staring at us, Mrs. Sandberg gestured to my mother to come up to
the board. My mother reluctantly obeyed. I cringed. Mrs. Sandberg,
using a combination of hand gestures, started pointing to the map
and saying, "Iran? Iran? Iran?" Clearly, Mrs. Sandberg
had planned on incorporating us into the day's lesson. I only wished
she had told us that earlier so we could have stayed home.
a few awkward attempts by my mother to find Iran on the map,
Mrs. Sandberg finally understood that it wasn't my mother's lack
of English that was causing a problem, but rather her lack of world
geography. Smiling graciously, she pointed my mother back to her
seat. Mrs. Sandberg then showed everyone, including my mother and
me, where Iran was on the map. My mother nodded her head, acting
as if she had known the location all along, but had preferred to
keep it a secret.
Now all the students stared at us, not just because
I had come to school with my mother, not because we couldn't
speak their language, but because we were stupid. I was especially
mad at my mother, because she had negated the positive impression
I had made
previously by reciting the color wheel. I decided that starting
day, she would have to stay home.
The bell finally rang and it was time for us to
Elementary was just a few blocks from our house and my father,
underestimating our ability to get lost, had assumed that my
mother and I
would be able to find our way home. She and I wandered aimlessly,
hoping for a shooting star or a talking animal to help guide
us back. None
of the streets or houses looked familiar.
As we stood pondering
predicament, an enthusiastic young girl came leaping out of
her house and
said something. Unable to understand her, we did what we had
done all day:
we smiled. The girl's mother joined us, then gestured for us
to follow her
inside. I assumed that the girl, who appeared to be the same
age as I, was a
student at Leffingwell Elementary; having us inside her house
akin to having the circus make a personal visit.
Her mother handed us a telephone, and my mother,
who had, thankfully,
memorized my father's work number, called him and explained
My father then spoke to the American woman and gave her our
kind stranger agreed to take us back to our house.
Perhaps fearing that we might show up at their doorstep
again, the woman and
her daughter walked us all the way to our front porch and
even helped my
mother unlock the unfamiliar door. After making one last
futile attempt at
communication, they waved good-bye. Unable to thank them
in words, we smiled
even more broadly.
After spending an entire day in America, surrounded
by Americans, I realized
that my father's description of America had been correct.
The bathrooms were
clean and the people were very, very kind.
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