Firoozeh, the narrator of the memoir, recalls moving from Abadan, Iran, to Whittier, California at the age of seven with her parents and her fourteen-year-old brother, Farshid. At the time, her eldest brother, Farid, is going to high school in Philadelphia and living with Firoozeh’s uncle and aunt.
It’s important to notice that Firoozeh moves to America when she’s old enough to remember Iran fairly well. Like many immigrants, she still identifies with both the country she came from (Iran), and the country where she’s spent most of her life (the U.S.).
The family moves to California because Firoozeh’s father, Kazem, is an engineer for the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Kazem studied in Texas and California in graduate school. He thinks of America as “a place where anyone, no matter how humble his background, could become an important person.” At the time, Firoozeh thinks of America as just a place to “buy more outfits for Barbie.”
Kazem is an enthusiastic proponent of American values and the “American Dream” (which he more or less defines in this passage). Firoozeh, on the other hand, thinks of America in strictly material terms, as a place of abundance. In a way, they’re both right: Funny in Farsi portrays America as a haven of freedom, but also a land of products and excess.
Firoozeh is a second grader at the time, and she starts attend the local elementary school in Whittier. Her parents arrange for her to meet with her teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, shortly before school begins. While Kazem speaks fluent English, neither his wife nor Firoozeh does. On her first day of school, Firoozeh feels embarrassed as her mother walks her to her classroom—other kids stare at them. Firoozeh’s mother sits with Firoozeh in class, and Mrs. Sandberg writes Firoozeh’s name on the board, and then the word, “Iran.” She asks Firoozeh’s mother something, and Firoozeh suggests that Mrs. Sandberg probably wants Firoozeh’s mother to find Iran on the map.
Almost as soon as she’s in America, Firoozeh begins to feel the Iranian and American sides of her identity tugging her in different directions: she loves her mother but she also wants to fit in with her peers, with the result that she begins to grow annoyed with her mother for embarrassing her. The scene also emphasizes the differing views of women’s education advanced in Iran and the U.S.: American women are expected to go to school long after most Iranian women are expected to be married.
Firoozeh’s mother, Nazireh, like most Iranian woman of the era, hasn’t had much education—she was raised to believe that her purpose in life was to marry and take care of her family. Her father was a fairly progressive man who encouraged her to have a career and become a midwife. However, her teacher died, and shortly afterwards, she married Kazem. Kazem was handsome and intelligent (he’d been a Fulbright scholar) and he liked Nazireh, partly because of her fair skin and straight hair. By seventeen, Nazireh had given birth to her first child.
Back in the classroom, Nazireh comes to the front of the room. She tries to find Iran on the map, but can’t. Mrs. Sandberg smiles and directs Nazireh back to her seat. Then she shows the class where Iran is located on the map. The children stare at Nazireh and Firoozeh, and Firoozeh senses that they think she and her mother are stupid.
Firoozeh’s earliest reactions with her peers in school are uncomfortable, because they seem to think of her as an alien, “Other” person, rather than a true peer.
On the walk home from school, Firoozeh and Nazireh get lost—the street signs are useless to them. Luckily, a young girl invites them into her home, Nazireh calls Kazem, and Kazem convinces the owner of the house to guide his wife and daughter home. Firoozeh decides two things about America: “the bathrooms were clean and the people were very, very kind.”
The chapter concludes with an anecdote that shows the generosity and openness of (some) American people: instead of regarding Nazireh and Firoozeh as dangerous outsiders, the family kindly helps them find their ways home. It seems likely that this interaction affects Firoozeh strongly, contributing to her early idealization of Americans as especially kind and welcoming (when later on she finds that this certainly isn’t always the case).