Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Middle-School Immigrant Blues: It's Not So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Today's Sunday and we're moving again.

I am eleven years old and this is my fourth move. Every time we move it's to a new city or a new country. I was born in Abadan, Iran. Now we are moving to Newport Beach.

There are trees everywhere and the city looks like it has just come back from a visit to the beauty salon.

If our crazy nomadic life has taught us one thing, it's this: Don't buy stuff that breaks easily.

Zomorod Yousefzadeh has made up her mind she's not going to be one of those breakable things. This time she's going to be called "Cindy," a name from a popular sit-com, and fit in at sixth grade. She is delighted when their first visitor is a girl from their condo group whose name is also Cindy. Original Cindy likes horses, especially her own horse Mystic, and people who know all the words to songs by the Captain and Tenille. Our Cindy gives it the old school try for the first week, faking the lyrics to "Love Will Keep Us Together" and trying to come up with new things to ask about horses and totally trying to "work on a tan," a novel concept in Iran, with Original Cindy.

But the the hostage crisis intervenes in her campaign to find a best friend. Original Cindy drops her on the first day of school, and Cindy suffers alone through the first day jitters and the usual trials of being an immigrant as well as the new girl--camel jokes, trick or treaters who all seem to be wearing rubber Khoumeini masks, PE coaches who tell her to "just roll," and eating lunch alone. Not to mention spending her afternoons and weekends translating for her mother.

Then fate steps in--in the form of an adventurous girl named Carolyn, who thinks speaking Persian is cool and tanning is silly when you could be swimming. As the images from Iran on the nightly news grow more grim, life gets better for Cindy in her new place, where her friends make her feel that she is finding a real home. But as the 444 days of the hostage crisis grind on, things take a frightening turn. Cindy's petroleum engineer father is fired, and other American oil companies want nothing to do with an Iranian employee. Cindy offers to sell her canopy bed and gets a paper route to help out with the finances, but it looks as if the family may have to move, penniless, back to an Iran that is much different from the one they left four years earlier. Anf then, to make things worse...

A dead hamster is left on their doorstep, with a sign [IRANIANS GO HOME!]

But again, fate steps in, in the form of Carolyn's plan, in Firoozeh Dumas' It Ain't So Awful, Falafel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), and a bit of girl-sleuthing comes up with the source of the harassment, and Carolyn has just the plan to embarrass the perpetrator, Original Cindy's persnickety mom. But that's just phase one of the plan to keep Carolyn and Cindy best friends forever, in a surprise ending that middle readers will applaud.

Even to native-born 'tweeners, starting middle school can seem like being a stranger in a strange land, and Dumas amiably begins her story at the moment when Cindy faces that epic occasion as a real immigrant whose mother's knowledge of English extends only to "Tank You" and TV toothpaste slogans. Cindy suffers the usual teasing about camels and Khoumeini, but in her openness to new things finds herself a willing citizen in her new land. Dumas' style is light and humorous, yet insightful, with even the less likable characters handled sensitively with the gentle consciousness of a Beverly Cleary, with her Cindy showing touches of Ramona Quimby's approach to the world around her. And how American is that?

In a time in which immigrants and immigration are always in the news, this one is, in Cleary's own term, a "funny-sad" look at what being an immigrant looks like from the inside out. Says Time in their featured review, "Dumas has created an endearingly plucky charcter--any kid who's felt like an outsider could related to Cindy. Through it all the young girl keeps in mind advice from her father: 'Kindness is our religion, and if we treat everyone the way we would like to be treated, the world would be a better place.'"

Firoozeh Dumas is also the author of the notable memoir, Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen

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