Together, my relatives form an alliance that represents a genuine and enduring love of family, one that sustains them through difficulties and gives them reasons to celebrate during good times. ….Before I married Francois, I told him that I came with a tribe – a free set of ginsu knives with every purchase, so to speak. Francois said that he loved tribes, especially mine. Now, whenever we visit my relatives, all of whom dote on my husband, I realized that he didn’t marry me despite my tribe, he married me because of them. Without my relatives, I am but a thread; together, we form a colorful and elaborate Persian carpet.
As I read this book, I kept thinking of Cheaper by the Dozen, the charmingly humorous family story written (don’t even talk to me about the movies) by two of the grown-up Gilbreth children about childhood in their very large family in the early 20th century. On the surface, these are very different families, but the books paint a similar picture: life has its ups and downs, and in the moment some things can seem embarrassing or even scary, but from a distance, it’s the family connection that makes it all ok. Dumas has written, sure enough, a charmingly humorous family story, if in a much drier voice.
Dumas’ father first came to the US as a Fulbright scholar, then as a grad student, and later, with his family on work assignment as a petroleum engineer for an Iranian oil company. All of this was before most Americans had ever heard of Iran, that is, before the 1979 hostage crisis. The family later moved here and became citizens. This is their story; instead of the huge family of Cheaper as a central point, it’s their transit between cultures that serves as the rail the story rides on.
Dumas begins with her experience of entering second grade:
To facilitate my adjustment, the principle arranged for us to meet my new teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, a few days before I started school. Since my mother and I did not speak English, the meeting consisted of a dialogue between my father and Mrs. Sandberg. My father carefully explained that I had attended a prestigious kindergarten where all the children were taught English. Eager to impress Mrs. Sandberg, he asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of the English language. I stood up straight and proudly recited all that I knew: “White, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green.”
The following Monday, my father drove my mother and me to the school. He had decided it would be a good idea for my mother to attend school with me for a few weeks. I could not understand why two people not speaking English would be better than one, but I was seven, and my opinion didn’t matter much.
Language, as you might expect, features in many of the anecdotes. “Thanks to my father’s translations, we stayed away from hot dogs, catfish, and hush puppies, and no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mudpie.” When Dumas, now fluent in English, gets separated from her parents at Disneyland, the staff tries to get her to translate for other lost children who don’t speak English, not really caring that they don’t speak Persian either. This was, remember, a long time ago. What I found really hilarious about the Disneyland episode had nothing to do with language: in an attempt to find her parents, staff asked Dumas what they were wearing. “No seven-year-old, except maybe a young Giorgio Armani, could tell you what his parents were wearing on a given day.”
Her father features in many of Dumas’ stories. She mentions in the Afterword included in this paperback edition that she hadn’t realized, as she was writing, how central he was, and still isn’t sure how that happened. Interestingly, the father is the most dominant character in Cheaper as well. I see a lot of parallels between Frank Gilbreth Sr. and Dumas’ father (he asked her not to use her maiden name as she wrote the book, then asked why she hadn’t used it when the book was published). In many ways he seems like any American father: he loves Denny’s, Las Vegas, and fancies himself a handyman:
[H]e purchased and installed a medicine cabinet in our bathroom while my husband and I were at work. Perhaps if it hadn’t been hung crooked, François would not have been so upset.
During his next visit, my father secretly decided that our bathroom needed towel hooks. Using nails that were too long, my father pierced the door, creating towel hooks on one side, medieval blinding devices on the other. My husband has since taken the situation into his own hands, hiding all our screwdrivers and hammers before my parents visit.
Other anecdotes involve Dumas’ childhood in Iran, her father’s year as a Fulbright scholar in Texas, her summer of language study in France, her multicultural wedding. We also meet some other family members, including Uncle Nematollah, who decided to lose weight gained via the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken and the many flavors of Baskin-Robbins, by ordering a silver “weight-reduction suit” advertised on late-night TV:
The instructions stated that the outfit had to be worn for 20 minutes before each meal, during which the wearer was supposed to engage in some form of exercise. My uncle decided to speed the weight loss process by wearing his moon suit all day. He thought nothing of circling the block endlessly, leaving neighbors wondering whether perhaps he was looking for the mother ship. Dressed for a jaunt on Venus, he strolled to the supermarket, the hardware store, and everywhere else he needed to go. Unable to understand English, he had apparently forgotten the international meaning of stares as well. Kids at school asked me about the strange guy who was staying with us. In terms of weirdness, my family I were now off charts.
There are stories of adjustment, of fitting Persian traditions to their new home. The holiday Nowruz celebrates the first day of Spring, and is about a big a deal in Iran as Christmas is in the States. Of course, Christmas isn’t much of a holiday for the family, though when she married, Dumas found delight in gingerbread and decorations. Then there are the celebrations that don’t translate that easily, but where there’s a will, there’s a way:
The Persians, like the Romans and Greeks before them, believe in slaughtering a lamb when something good happens. This is supposed to ward off the evil eye…. Iranians in America have had to tweak this tradition a bit. Slaughtering a lamb on one’s front porch in Los Angeles might not do much for the neighborhood, so when something good happens that calls for a lamb slaughter, who ya gonna call? Relatives in Iran, that’s who. Lambs are now slaughtered long distance and distributed to the poor in Iran. Your son bought a Lexus? There goes a lamb. The grandson graduated from UCLA law school? Don’t forget the lamb.
The book is more a collection of anecdotes than a consecutive narrative, which is appropriate for the style. This isn’t an in-depth examination of The Immigrant Experience or of Iranian-American relations;, it’s a fun family story that sometimes brushes by deeper issues – political, cultural, and social – along the way. While it follows a general chronological sequence, there are a lot of digressions, so it’s a bit hard to reconstruct the family’s life, which included several moves from Iran to the US and within the US. But as a charming family story, it works very well – well enough to have generated a sequel, Laughing Without an Accent, and a semi-autobiographical children’s novel, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.