Monday, July 30, 2012

Culture in Translation

By Heidi Noroozy

Don’t you love seeing your familiar world through the fresh lens of a stranger’s eyes?

I do.

So do my husband’s relatives in Iran, who are amused at my take on things they accept without question. They grin at my naiveté when a shopkeeper at the bazaar repeatedly insists that my purchase is a gift for a guest to his country, and I believe him. In fact, he’s dissatisfied with the price we’ve negotiated and wants more money. Or my fascination with the way the small bags of garbage people put out daily seem to vanish overnight. And my puzzlement over why people put out bones for the feral cats that no one would allow inside their homes—to catch rats, naturally.

Firoozeh Dumas flips the coin for me in her book, Funny in Farsi, a memoir about growing up Persian in Southern California. Born in Abadan, Iran, an oil town on the Persian Gulf, her family moved to a suburb of L.A. in 1972. In this slim volume and its sequel, Laughing without an Accent, Dumas points out the idiosyncrasies of American life with an irony that is often laugh-out-loud funny.

She is bewildered by the unappetizing names we give to food: hot dogs, catfish, Tater Tots, and sloppy Joes. “…no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mud pies,” she writes.

Her first trip to a public lending library introduces the book-loving Firoozeh to a concept so wondrous and perplexing she doesn’t quite believe it at first. Surely no one would actually lend her a book for free! She brings her purse and a few coins along just in case. At seven, Dumas learns that there is such a thing as a magic carpet, only it’s called a library card.

One of my favorite chapters in Funny in Farsi is “The F Word.” And no, she doesn’t mean that f-word. The essay is about her name and the difficulty many Americans have in remembering or even pronouncing it. In Persian, Firoozeh means turquoise. “In America, it means ‘Unpronounceable’ or “I’m Not Going to Talk to You Because I Cannot Possibly Learn Your Name And I Just Don’t Want to Have to Ask You Again and Again Because You’ll Think I’m Dumb or Might Get Upset or Something.’” And so she tells everyone her name is Julie. Nice and simple. Problem solved. Or at least until her American friends meet her Iranian ones and she can’t remember who knows her as Julie and who calls her Firoozeh.

Boy can I relate to that! But for me, the problem is reversed. I’m often confused by the various Persian/American configurations of names my Iranian friends and relatives use, but usually the Farsi versions are easier for me to remember. They are the ones I learn first. When I’m used to people calling themselves Shahab, Faribourz, or Sharzad, it throws me when they call on the phone and say, “This is Dean.” Or Freddy or Sherry.

In both her memoirs, Firoozeh Dumas writes with a gentle, wry humor. She pokes a gentle fun at Americans and Iranians in equal measure, pointing out not just the oddities of American culture through her non-native eyes but also the absurdity of her own reactions to it.

Whether you’ve lived abroad, married into another culture, or just have immigrant friends, these books offer something we can all relate to—with a smile and a chuckle.


  1. Heidi, this sounds like so much fun. It's such a great adventure to watch another culture with foreign eyes.

  2. Ooh, I'll keep my eye out for these books! Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Patricia and Beth, definitely try these books. The essays are entertaining and stay with you for a long time.

  4. These books sounds so interesting. I love everything that teaches me about other cultures. Thank you for your the recommendation.

  5. Thanks for stoping by, Marianne! I hope you try these books and enjoy them.