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Chicken scratch
In perfecting my English I forgot Farsi

By Mahsa Tousi
March 19, 2001
The Iranian

I never thought I had lost so much of myself until I sat down to write a card to my cousin, whom I haven't seen in 15 years. I wanted to congratulate him on the birth of his first child. I stopped short of writing "Dear Shahrouz" in English.

I slid my hand across the page to the right side and prepared to write in Farsi. I practiced writing his name in the air a couple of times, but didn't transfer anything to the card. I wasn't sure if there was more than one letter in the alphabet that represents the "z" sound.

For my next sentence -- "Congratulations on the birth of your first child" -- I searched for the translation t for "congratulations". I closed my eyes and rummaged through my mind, past fragmented memories. I had spoken the word thousands of times before, but it had escaped me now when I needed it. Eventually, when I finally stopped thinking about it, the word came to me: "tabrik."

My momentary mental lapse filled me with despair and brought a cruel irony to my attention. Over the years, I had worked so hard to perfect my English that I had forgotten my Farsi. I was so eager to adapt to my new life that I had allowed my native tongue to slowly slip away from me. Out of necessity, in order to succeed in school, English had become my primary language and Farsi had been reduced to a hobby, like my French.

At first, I started throwing English words into conversations with my parents. They were annoyed because they wanted me to only speak Farsi at home. But they gave up after I refused to talk to them at all.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the language completely and I speak Farsi fairly well, although now with an American accent. It is my reading and writing that have suffered because I've hardly made use of them since I moved to the U.S. I only finished the third grade in Iran.

Years ago, I enrolled in a Farsi class at the request of my parents, but I didn't stick with it. Now as I sat staring at the blank card, I wish I had taken the class. I felt an overwhelming sense of loss; like the feeling you get when you realize you've lost something of sentimental value, which you will never find again or be able to replace. Having forgotten my language, I felt as if I had lost part of my identity.

A long time ago, I stopped writing letters to Iran because the ones I was receiving were superior in every way to the ones I was sending. While my cousins' Farsi improved, mine deteriorated. Our correspondences gradually ceased, and our lives diverged forever.

I still get jealous every time I receive a Noruz card from my cousins in Iran. I recognize the curved, dancing shapes on the pages as words, but I have difficulty deciphering them. There's no competition between their perfectly-rounded long hand and my chicken scratch.

Now, too proud to send my cousin a letter full of misspellings and grammatical errors, and too proud to let my father or mother write it for me, I have put the card away in a drawer. I figured he hasn't heard from me in years; what's a few more months? Maybe I'll go visit him this summer.

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