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Funny in Farsi offers readers an intimate look at the immigrant experience through the lens of an exceptional–and exceptionally funny–Iranian family. Author Firoozeh Dumas teases out the everyday uniqueness of life in the United States as she recounts her family’s experiences as transplants from oil-rich Abadan, Iran, to the epicenter of the American pursuit of the perfect tan: Newport Beach, California. With her wry take on everything from television commercials to Disneyland to mixed marriage, Dumas uncovers what makes America so unique and so utterly puzzling to those unacquainted with its larger-than-life customs. Her poignant descriptions of what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced social alienation at any stage of life. In her unflinching examination into the essence of the Iranian immigrant experience, Dumas exposes America as it has never before been seen.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Funny in Farsi grew out of Firoozeh Dumas’ experience of moving to Southern California in 1972 at the age of seven. She originally intended her collection of essays as a gift to her children–to show them that our commonalities far outweigh our differences–and she wrote the book almost entirely in the hours before they woke for school. Arriving with no firsthand knowledge of this country beyond her father’s glowing memories of his graduate school years here, Firoozeh learned to adapt to her new surroundings with a special eye to the more absurd elements of American culture. Funny in Farsi chronicles the American journey of Dumas’ wonderfully engaging family: her engineer father, a sweetly quixotic dreamer; her elegant mother, who never fully mastered English; her uncle, who combated the effects of American fast food with an array of miraculous American weight-loss gadgets; and Firoozeh herself, who as a girl changed her name to Julie, and encountered a second wave of culture shock when she met and married a Frenchman.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Firoozeh Dumas was born in Abadan, Iran, and moved to California at the age of seven. After a two-year stay, she and her family moved back to Iran and resided in Ahvaz and Tehran. Two years later, Dumas returned to California, where she later attended the University of California at Berkeley. Funny in Farsi is her first book. The book was a finalist for both the PEN/USA Award in 2004 and the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and has been adopted in junior high, high school and college curricula throughout the nation. It has been selected for common reading programs at several universities including: California State Bakersfield, California State University at Sacramento, Fairmont State University in West Virginia, Gallaudet University, Salisbury University, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Dumas is also the author of Laughing Without an Accent, a collection of autobiographical essays published in May 2008. She currently lives with her husband and their three children in Northern California.
Funny in Farsi is an excellent addition to Language Arts and Literature courses, especially those on the genre of memoir. The book is appropriate for all reading levels, and its humor and relatability will make it appealing to a wide variety of readers, from voracious to reluctant to ESL/ELL. The book lends itself to frank discussions about ethnic assumptions, cultural differences, and racial biases, and the author’s tremendously entertaining and unflinching look at her own family’s misadventures offers fertile territory for class discussion and analysis. Given its expansive examination of everyday life and culture in Iran and America, Funny in Farsi would also be an ideal text for students of social studies and world cultures. Its depiction of life in the 1970s, and its focus on the political crises that developed between Iran and the United States at that time, would make it a useful text for courses in American and Middle Eastern history, and for classes that study the immigrant experience.
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
1) How does Firoozeh feel on her first day of elementary school when her mother cannot locate Iran on a map? What kinds of assumptions might her fellow classmates make about Firoozeh’s inability to speak English, her unusual Persian name, and her mother accompanying her to school? To what extent do you think language barriers are to blame for cultural misunderstandings? 2) Firoozeh’s parents don’t speak English fluently, and their efforts to do so often lead to embarrassment, especially for their children. Why doesn’t Firoozeh do more to encourage her parents to learn English? To what extent can you relate to the experience of being embarrassed by your family? 3) How would you characterize the role of television in Firoozeh’s family? Why does television’s visual medium connect her relatives to American products and attitudes in ways that their language cannot? 4) How does Firoozeh’s experience at Disneyland, where she is encouraged to communicate with another missing child in her native Persian, expose Western biases about people who don’t speak English fluently? How do you feel about “racial profiling,” or making assumptions about someone’s ethnicity based on their appearance and accent? On what past occasions have you experienced or carried out racial profiling, and how do you feel about it now, in light of Firoozeh’s encounter?
5) How did the experiences of Firoozeh and her family in America compare to how their friends who arrived after the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis were treated? Why are immigrants whose native countries are in conflict with their adopted country sometimes subjected to mistreatment and–in some cases–discrimination or abuse? What does this all-too-common phenomenon suggest about the intersection of patriotism and xenophobia?
6) Firoozeh’s husband, François, experiences life as an American immigrant much differently than does Firoozeh. What do you think accounts for Americans’ biases in their attitudes toward immigrants from different countries? To what extent are these biases grounded in stereotypes about the immigrants’ native countries? 7) How does Firoozeh’s experience of sleepaway camphighlight the social isolation she experiences as someone who is perceived by others as “different”? How does her decision not to bathe the entire two weeks contribute to her loneliness? To what extent can you relate to her feeling of being “invisible” at camp? 8) What does Firoozeh’s decision to take an American name suggest about her feelings toward her adopted country? What might her name change to Julie suggest about her identity as an immigrant? How does her dual identity (and her ability to speak English without any discernable accent) enable her to see how Americans really feel about Iran? 9) Firoozeh’sfather, Kazem, is grateful for his opportunity to vote as a naturalized American citizen. Why might being able to vote make someone feel especially connected with one’s community or country? Based on the information about Iran you have learned from Funny in Farsi,how do the political rights of Iranian citizens compare to the political rights of American citizens? 10) How is the Thanksgiving meal at Firoozeh’s house a metaphor for her American assimilation? To what extent might eating another culture’s traditional cuisine enable one to better understand its people? 11) How did the promise of education in America change Kazem’s life forever? To what extent does education seem to hold the same opportunities for both immigrants from foreign countries and native citizens? 12) How does Firoozeh’s interaction with her many relatives compare to your involvement with your extended family? To what extent is the notion of one’s family defined differently by each culture? How might one measure the importance of the family in American society? 13) How does Firoozeh’s experience of violence during the Shah’s visit with President Carter in 1977 affect her? How do you think Firoozeh is able to reconcile this experience of violence and racial hatred with her appreciation for all that America offers her family? 14) How does Firoozeh’s engagement to François, a French Catholic, affect her relationship with her parents? To what extent does her mother’s reaction to the news reflect her acceptance of the changing realities of contemporary life in America? Are mixed marriages (ethnic, religious, racial, etc.) accepted or considered controversial in your community, and why? 15) How does Firoozeh’s use of humor to describe her experiences as an Iranian immigrant in America enable you to appreciate the more confusing or mystifying aspects of American culture? How would the experience of reading this book differ for you if it were told from a more serious perspective? Of the many humorous moments detailed by Firoozeh Dumas, which was most memorable for you, and why?
Funny in Farsi contains 27 chapters, each addressing various themes for discussion. To begin a general discussion of the book, I suggest asking, “What chapter stands out for you and why?”
For those who prefer a chapter-by-chapter guide, I have prepared the following questions, followed by a set of general questions.
Leffingwell Elementary School 1. How do you react to someone who does not speak English? Do you make assumptions about their intelligence? 2. When Firoozeh’s mother could not find Iran on the map, who do think was more embarrassed, Firoozeh or her mother? 3. Do you think geography matters? Why?
Hot Dogs and Wild Geese 1. In some cultures, it is considered very rude not to try new foods. Do you try new foods? Is there a polite way to refuse? 2. What foods in this culture might seem strange to a foreigner?
In the Gutter 1. What role does television play in shaping our hopes and dreams? 2. Have you ever quit something because you thought you were not good enough?
Save Me, Mickey 1. Have you ever been lost? 2. Have you ever been mistaken for someone from another country? 3. Have you ever assumed you know where someone is from based on his or her appearance?
Swoosh, Swoosh 1. Why did Nematollah feel compelled to try every American food item? 2. What do you think of the culture of weight loss in this country? 3. Why did Nematollah believe the ads on TV?
With a Little Help From My Friends 1. Do you have a world map in your house? 2. By studying geography from first grade, Iranian students learn that the world matters. Do you think the rest of the world matters? 3. Do you believe that kindness is never forgotten? If yes, give an example from your life. 4. How would this book be different if Firoozeh had only known America after the Iranian Revolution?
Bernice 1. When you see negative events in the news about another country, what assumptions, if any, do you make about the people of that country? 2. Imagine coming to America and only watching the news. What would you think of American society? Would you feel safe?
A Dozen Key Chains 1. Share your worst camp experience. 2. Do you think Firoozeh would have made friends if she had bathed?
You Can Call Me Al 1. Find Abadan on a map. Find the Caspian Sea. Trace the drive through Tehran, the capital of Iran. If you drive that distance from your hometown, where do you end up? 2. How do you define “vacation”?
Of Mosquitoes and Men 1. Do you like to travel to exotic locations or do you prefer the familiar? 2. Why do you think some people seek adventure when they travel while others seek only comfort?
The “F” Word 1. How do you react to someone with a difficult name? 2. Do you know an immigrant who changed his name to an American name? 3. On Ellis Island, many immigrants were given new anglicized versions of their last names. Discuss the pros and cons.
Waterloo 1. Has anxiety ever prevented you from learning something? 2. Do you think anyone at any age can learn anything or is there a time limit on certain skills?
America, Land of the Free 1. Do you automatically try all free samples? 2. We all know the expression “nothing is free.” Is that true?
The Ham Amendment 1. Firoozeh’s father believes that there are good and bad people in every religion. Do you agree? 2. How is religion used to divide people? How does it unite?
Treasure Island 1. Education changed Kazem’s life. Do you think education can transform everyone? 2. Meeting Albert Einstein was the most exciting event in Kazem’s life. If you could meet anyone, whom would you pick?
It’s All Relatives 1. Family plays a huge role in the Iranian culture. What role does it play in the American culture? 2. In America, the role of family has changed over the years. Discuss the pros and cons.
Me and Bob Hope 1. What is it like to live in America and not celebrate Christmas? 2. Some non-Christians celebrate Christmas so their children do not feel left out. How do you feel about this? 3. Even though Christmas is a religious holiday, many believe that it has become a shopping extravaganza. What do you think?
I Ran and I Ran and I Ran 1. How did this chapter make you feel? 2. Were you surprised by the events? 3. Firoozeh wrote this story because nobody was seriously hurt. Do you think she would have written this if anyone had been seriously injured?
I-Raynians Need Not Apply 1. Even though America is the land of immigrants, immigrants do not necessarily feel welcome. During the 19th century, Irish immigrants were faced with signs in shop windows stating “N.I.N.A.” meaning No Irish Need Apply. How do we treat immigrants now? 2. Who was the immigrant in your family? 3. Some people feel we should limit immigration. Do you agree?
Girls Just Wanna Have Funds 1. Firoozeh held a string of odd jobs to earn money. Have you ever had an odd job? 2. Firoozeh’s Aunt Sedigeh did not have the educational opportunity that Firoozeh had. Do you think that educational opportunities for the next generation are improving in America? 3. Do you think that anyone who wants an education in America can obtain one?
Joyeuse Noelle 1. Firoozeh’s summer in Paris turned out very differently than what she had imagined. Have your expectations of an event ever clashed with reality? 2. Noelle was very excited that Firoozeh was from California. What stereotypes might foreigners have of Californians? What has shaped their ideas?
The Wedding 1. Have you ever attended a wedding of people from different religions? If so, what was it like? 2. Some people believe that people should only marry within their own religion. Do you agree? 3. Firoozeh says that her mother became a “pioneer” by accepting Francois. Did you expect Firoozeh’s mother to react that way? 4. Every culture has marriage traditions. What are yours?
I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet 1. Firoozeh described her china as having “bad karma.” What do you think she meant by that? 2. Do you agree with what Firoozeh did with the china?
A Nose By Any Other Name 1. Firoozeh says Iranians are obsessed by noses. What is the obsession in America? 2. How do different cultures define beauty? 3. The librarian had learned to accept herself as she was. How different would we be if we accepted ourselves as we are? What would happen to the beauty or diet industry?
Judges Paid Off 1. What do you think of beauty pageants? 2. Firoozeh said she thought the beauty pageant should be replaced with a spelling bee. Do you think it would be any easier to lose in a spelling bee?
If I Were a Rich Man 1. Why do you think Firoozeh’s father refuses to apologize for his mistakes? 2. What is the American dream? Has it changed over the years? Is it achievable? 3. How we define wealth in America?
Afterword: Kazem and Nazireh Jazayeri 1. Firoozeh still keeps in touch with her second grade teacher, Mrs. Sandberg. Why do think this is? 2. Firoozeh says that everybody has a story to tell and everybody’s story counts. Do you agree?
General questions: 1. The theme of Funny in Farsi is “shared humanity.” What does that mean to you? 2. How would our communities, both locally and globally, be different if we saw our commonalities before our differences? 3. Most Americans’ perception of the Middle East is limited to what is shown on the evening news. Since only bad news is news, how does this effect the perception of Middle Eastern immigrants in this county? 4. Immigrants often do not try to be a part of American society, preferring instead to spend time with their own compatriots. What can be done to encourage assimilation? 5. Should immigrants speak their native language at home? 6. Firoozeh’s book is funny without being mean. Discuss the humor found in television.
1)Ask your students toaddress some of the more confusing elements of American culture that Firoozeh Dumas pokes fun at in Funny in Farsi,and have them prepare an essay in which they describe the experience of viewing their country through the eyes of one unaccustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Ask your students to analyze how effective Funny in Farsi is at using humor to bridge the cultural divide between author and reader. 2)Ask your students pretend to they have just arrived in America, knowing nothing about Americans or American culture, and have them watch the evening news for 5 consecutive nights. Ask them to then write about their impressions of Americans and share these thoughts with the class. This exercise is particularly useful in helping students understand how Iranians, or other groups, often feel about having almost entirely negative news shown about them on a consistent basis; it also raises issues for discussion of media and its impact on how people formulate opinions and biases. 3) Ask your students to reimagine one of the typically humorous chapters in Funny in Farsi from the perspective of an Iranian immigrant who arrives in America soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. How did American sentiment toward citizens of Middle Eastern descent change in the wake of terrorism on American soil? You may also ask your students to describe their own stereotypes about Middle Easterners or Iranians, and how their attitudes changed in the course of reading Funny in Farsi. 4) Remind your students that Firoozeh Dumas reveals the experience of what it feels like to be an Iranian immigrant through a series of brief and humorous episodes from her everyday life. Have your students then brainstorm the events or incidents they would include in memoirs of their lives. Ask them to consider how many of the events they would include are rites of passage, like Dumas’s wedding or her first day of school in America, or whether they are more simply snapshots from their lives. Have your students prepare mini-memoirs in which they connect a series of these memories together in a narrative. Ask them to share their memoirs with their classmates, and to identify what the events they’ve chosen to include (and exclude) reveal about them.
Firoozeh Dumas defines most Persian words in context in the course of Funny in Farsi, but the following terms may be useful to readers. • ameh, — father’s sister • amoo, — father’s brother • aqd, — Persian wedding ceremony • dye-yee, — mother’s brother • khaleh, — mother’s sister • pessar ameh, — son of father’s sister • pessar amoo, — son of father’s brother • shohar ameh, — husband of father’s sister • shohar khaleh, — husband of mother’s sister • sofreh, — a hand-sewn cloth on which family arranges food and objects that carry special meaning in the traditional wedding ceremony
BEYOND THE BOOK
1)Funny in Farsi refers to a number of political controversies that arose between Iran and the United States in the 1970s, including the hostage crisis, the Iranian Revolution, and the rise of anti-Shah sentiment in America. Ask your students to research more about the history of American-Iranian relations, with a particular focus on the years covered in Funny in Farsi. Encourage your students to examine the American-Iranian relationship today, and to consider how the status of this international affiliation has changed in the past thirty years. How would Firoozeh and her family have experienced America as Iranian immigrants if they had arrived today? 2) In the past few years, a number of memoirs have been published that examine the Iranian immigrant experience in America, many of them penned by women. Ask your students to select a memoir from the list of titles below and to prepare essays that compare and contrast both works. In their analyses of both works, students may want to consider such themes as cultural assimilation, social alienation, political disenfranchisement, and political empowerment. 3) Firoozeh Dumas is also the author of the nonfiction collection, Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad.Ask your students to read Dumas’ other book and prepare an essay in which they analyze how Dumas’ opinion of the United States has changed over the years, as her acquaintance with this country has grown. Students may want to explore how the immigrant experience evolves from childhood to adulthood.
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
Also Available by Firoozeh Dumas
LAUGHING WITHOUT AN ACCENT Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad Funny in Farsi author Firoozeh Dumas returns with Laughing Without an Accent to tell more stories about her hilarious, warm, and loving family, and the experience of being not just an American, but a citizen of the world. Whether describing her Iranian family’s wonder at her French husband’s Christmas traditions, or comparing questionable delicacies in international cuisines, or what it’s like to live in the International House college dorm when you’re an American after all, Firoozeh Dumas’ wit, warmth, and insight illuminate the universality of the human condition, and show how our differences can become our bonds. Villard Books | HC | 978-0-345-49956-1 | 240 pp | $22.00/$25.00 Can.
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST Iran Awakening: One Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, Shirin Abadi and Azadeh Moaveni All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, At Home and Abroad,Firoozeh Dumas Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran,Roya Hakakian Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood,Marjane Satrapi
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
This guide was prepared by author Firoozeh Dumas and writer Julie Cooper.
Julie Cooper is a graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Washington. She has taught beginning and advanced fiction writing at the University of Washington, and works as a freelance writer of educational materials and reading group guides for several major publishers.