There are a few things my mother and I will never agree on: that Madonna has any musical merit at all, that sushi is a good meal (“I swear I can taste the seaweed,” she says as she spits it out), and… Farsi.
Our debates began with the simple question of what to call our language. Was it Farsi or Persian? I didn't take this issue as personally as many older (and perhaps more learned) family friends seemed to. The Iranian vs. Persian and Farsi vs. Persian questions consistently provide scripts for theatrical debates of well-rehearsed opinions over darkly brewed chai that take place into the hours of the night. (Indeed, our Iranian pride rarely allows us change course midstream!)
My Persian-daughter temptation was to cave to her point of view simply because she's my mom and by the Code of Persian Procedure, she is always right (there is a token caveat for father's veto, but it's really quite overlooked). She won on her own merits, with the simple point that speaking English yet referring to the language of “Farsi” is as ridiculous as talking to someone about how you're “taking EspaÑol.”
Our second heat of linguistic debate centers on mixing languages. This is the debate that consumes us. As I see it, there are three variations on the Persian-American child. First there are those who can speak, read and write. The golden children, these folks are fully literate. Then there is a sector of the population who speak, but have only some or no reading or writing ability. And of course we have the ever-present third class, identifiable by a look of complete confusion and a “huh?” when spoken to in their mother tongue.
Born and raised in the United States, I am of brand 2. By contrast, my younger brother and sister are definitively part of batch 3. I figured that assured me favorite child status, but it did not. How I ruined my chances to exploit this hard-won ability (I had studied Persian every semester for four years of college) was beyond me. I hadn't acquired most favored nation status in the Ghahremani world, and I wanted to know why. With her trademark honesty, my mother told me – she detested that I resorted to infusing English into my Persian conversations. For the record, I shall now state my case.
My usage of English was born of frustration and necessity. Propelled by my urge to participate in Persian conversations without sacrificing an ability to fully explain or express my thoughts, I began to use English filler words. For an example:
“Jane o khailee doost daaram. Valee meetuneh annoying baasheh.” (I like Jane very much. But she can be annoying.)
With each sentence, I weighed the cost and the benefit; getting all those other words out of my mouth was worth plugging with an English word here or there – or seemed so to me. Mom did not agree. She claims the rampant usage of “Feengeeleesh” is a social disease that preys upon our linguistic currency. As armchair anthropologist, she notes that it has ravaged the Los Angeles community beyond repair, and she didn't want me to catch it. (Cover your ears, Iranian moms!) I kept on.
I gathered Persian friends in college and law school, hitting an anticipatable sharp learning curve during my years at UCLA. My friends welcomed me into their circle; many of them were also prone to “mixing”, and I trudged forward with my enthusiastic use of broken Persian. I found that the comfort of knowing that I had a fallback language eased me into speaking Persian less consciously. Whenever possible, I'll pronounce the English word I'm dropping with as much of a Persian accent as I can muster. As time goes, I find that the Persian words come to me much more naturally, but I am subconsciously grateful for that crutch.
I write this brief note as platform and one-woman rally of support for those individuals who find themselves in the same predicament. Will the use of Fingilish destroy the Persian language completely? My thought is no. Absolutely not. Over the course of time, it will build more confident speakers of the Persian language.
With our mass emigrant population, we shoulder an obligation to support the promotion of our language at any level. We must keep those words alive. “Fingilish” is a badge worn by a culture that struggles deeply with biculturalism (on soil that isn't always the most welcoming). It is, in its own silly way, a show of love by people who live with one foot on each continent.
As for me, well, I continue to speak my own brand of Persian, and to throw in English substitutes for words that simply aren't in my mental dictionary yet. Yet. That is the key >>> See mother's
Lilly Ghahremani is a literary agent and authors' attorney based in San Diego, California. Her company, Lennie Literary Agency, is actively scouting Persian and other multicultural writers.