Forked Tongues

I could tell the story of my life through the story of my forked tongues. What I can't seem to do is to remember when or how one language gave way to the other. It can't have been easy crossing over from Persian, but try as I might, I can't recall those first days and months of learning the English language.

I suppose I am lucky not to remember. It means I did not struggle, not much anyway, and not for long. Iranian friends who came to America just a few years after me, at eight or twelve or sixteen years of age, have had a much harder time of it. They have had to deliberately, painstakingly expel the foreigner from their speech.

But I do remember other things. Such as that when we first came to America, I would accompany my mother on shopping expeditions and stand by mutely as she struggled to communicate with American shop girls. Even then I could tell that hers was not a fashionable or exotic accent like some others, but rough and ugly to these strangers' ears. One word out of her mouth and they'd stare her down, hard and long. They were young, impatient, cruel girls. But the shame I felt during these exchanges! I'd inch away from my mother and quietly disappear behind a rack of clothes or scramble down the next grocery aisle. I wanted desperately not to be there with this foreign woman and not to be included in her humiliation.

Like a good immigrant child who knew dignity depended on it, I labored over my English penmanship, worked my way through stacks and stacks of library books, polished off essays, and walked away with all the school literary prizes. And my parents prided themselves on the seeming ease with which I picked up English. In public with Americans, my mother would nudge me and whisper, “Show them how well you can speak! Even better than those American kids!” And I would speak.

In time my parents learned to speak English well enough to make their own way in America, but for many, many years they had me assume the role of the family's official translator and all-purpose intermediary between “us” and “them.” At home, however, I could expect nothing but reprimands for speaking “that” language instead of “ours.” But while I grew up speaking “our” language, mine is a diminished and misshapen Persian tongue, a remnant of boundaries imposed and boundaries accepted.

The Iranian world my family and their friends reconstructed here in California was in fact made up of two very different worlds, each with its distinct vocabulary and distinct topics of conversation. When my parents' Iranian friends used to gather for dinner parties, birthday fetes, Noruz celebrations, and so on, invariably the men and women would part ways just as soon as they stepped out of their cars and over the threshold. Some old but unspoken rule seemed to require that the men gravitate towards other men, and the women gravitate towards other women.

As a girl, my place was with the women. For many years I was content to sit among them, silently observing. Their fancy attire, animated gestures and gossipy talk fascinated me as a child. My presence was tolerated so long as I sat quietly and fulfilled my duty of replenishing plates and tea cups. Yet with each year that went by in America, I'd cast more of a longing look at the other camp. Emboldened by my little bits of learning, I yearned to join the men in their earnest talk of politics, business, history, and literature.

Very few women crossed that invisible boundary in those days and in those circles of ours, and it was unthinkable that I, a young girl, should pull up a chair next to grown men. So over the years, my Persian grew up around these women's lives and the particular Persian language they spoke to each other. And my Persian tongue wrapped itself around the role I played at these functions, the forever deferential and soft-spoken daughter.

Now, when other Iranians hear how long I have lived abroad, they will tell me how good my Persian still is. I'm not so sure about that. No, I'd have to say I don't agree with them at all. My Persian is oddly and unmistakably stunted. Sure, by force of habit I've learned all the compliments and courtesies. I speak a colloquial Persian that gets me by remarkably well in most circumstances, but it's far from a high or literary Persian.

It's a discomfiting tongue on me, this incomplete Persian of mine, and I am angry with it and angry with myself for neglecting it for so long. When I speak Persian, even when I take care, I hear an infantile version of myself speaking. It's as if I've been frozen in time! In Persian, I am more bashful, sweet, and polite. Even the tone of my voice is different — it is a far, far softer voice than my voice in English.

Persian has been my language of infancy, intimacy, manners, and boundaries. And you can hear it as soon as I open my mouth, which is why as an adult I have so very often preferred silence. For me it's been English for school, work, and Americans, and Persian for home, intimacy, and Iranians. My self split somewhere along the way. Endearments are still the sweetest to me in Persian, and it's in expressing emotion that I'll most readily surrender to it. Ideas, though, come to my mind and out of my mouth in English.

Without the language to communicate, the bolder and frequently outspoken adult me does not come through at all. At home with my parents, I will serve tea with a nod and well-practiced pleasantry, and this is all that's required of me. For years I have sat in silence through discussions I could easily have entered in English. In this way, I have been frequently mistaken for the coy, quiet girl I leave behind when I am away from home.

A favorite poet of mine, himself a linguistic exile of sorts, writes that “[to] change your language, you must change your life.” I know we are different people in different languages, but is it possible to purposefully to make ourselves over with the languages we learn and the languages we forget?

I remember there once was a distant relative my parents loved to ridicule. One day in America, this relative up and decided he would forget he had ever spoken Persian. Other relatives would taunt him, making the situation into a sort of contest over who would finally make him break out of English and back into Persian. But this man held fast to his resolve. He never spoke Persian again.

The truth is that I have also been eager to unburden myself of my Persian and the world it bound me to. For me, leaving home and my girlish self has meant long absences from this, my mother tongue. The road away is easy, too easy really, and why would we choose to return to our first language again?

To make it over, maybe. I'll always speak many languages, but I have grown tired of forked tongues and split selves and mistaken identities. I want to access Iranian worlds that mesh with the worlds I access in English. But first I'll need to suit myself up with a new Persian language. And so, embarrassed, wary, curious, and afraid, I've begun the long process of willing this old language of mine into a new form.

I've dragged out the tattered old Persian language primers from childhood, the ones with the silly stories and cartoon drawings of school children. I left them behind years ago to reach instead for Keats, Bronte, Woolf and, much later, for volumes of translated Persian poetry. I just might never make it from here to meet Hafez or even Farrokhzad in our common language, but at long last I'm working my way in that direction.

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