When she’s seven years old, Firoozeh, along with her father, Kazem, her mother, Nazireh, and her older brother, Farshid, move from Abadan, Iran to Whittier, California. Kazem is an intelligent engineer working for a large Iranian petroleum company, and he needs to be in the United States for his work. Over the next two years, Firoozeh slowly adjusts to her American surroundings.
One of the first things Firoozeh decides about American society is that it’s kind and generous. On her first day of school, Firoozeh can barely understand what’s going on, since she speaks virtually no English. She and her mother get lost when they try to walk home, but a friendly American family lets them use the phone to call Kazem. Afterwards, Firoozeh quickly learns to speak English well, and very soon she can speak without any trace of an accent.
Although Kazem has lived in the United States years ago, when he studied in California and Texas as a Fulbright scholar, he’s largely ignorant of American culture, and his English isn’t great. He immerses himself in American culture, studying documents of any kind and watching hours of junky television. Nazireh is less interested in making friends with other Americans or improving her English, and even today, she doesn’t speak good English. Firoozeh perfects her own English learning how to translate for her mother. Kazem takes his family to various “all-American” places, such as Disneyland and Las Vegas, and he’s extremely enthusiastic about American pop culture—to the point where Firoozeh gradually comes to find Disneyland boring.
Firoozeh does well in school, but her classmates sometimes regard her as odd because she’s from a faraway country. Students asks her if there are camels in her country, and even parents assume that she speaks the same language as everyone else who lives in the Middle East. After two years, Kazem moves his family back to Iran, but shortly afterwards, his company sends him back to California, this time to Newport. During the early years of their second period in the U.S., Kazem takes him family on trips to Vegas, Hawaii, and Yosemite National Park, and Firoozeh goes to a summer camp, during which she refuses to bathe and spends all her time making key chains.
Many of Kazem’s relatives, with whom he’s extremely close, come to visit him and stay with him in California. Kazem loves his siblings, as well as his nephews and nieces, and whenever any one of them gets good news, the good news makes them all equally happy. As Firoozeh grows older, she learns more about her father. Unlike many other people in Iran, he doesn’t obey the Muslim ban on eating ham, and in general he’s not very religious at all. As a young man, Kazem did well on the prestigious Fulbright exam and earned a scholarship to Texas A&M. During his time in the U.S., Kazem met Albert Einstein and decided that he would raise his own family in the U.S., where his children would have lots of opportunities for success.
Firoozeh grows up with great respect for her family and Iranian culture. She’s very close with her uncles, aunts, and cousins, who provide her with lots of love and encouragement. However, she doesn’t admire everything about Iranian culture. Her mother, Nazireh, only has a sixth-grade education, and she had children with Kazem when she was only seventeen years old. Firoozeh admires other women in her family, such as her Aunt Parvine, partly because she became a successful doctor in Switzerland instead of doing what Iranian society expected her to do.
In the late 1970s, the Iranian Revolution breaks out, and Iran goes from being an important Middle Eastern country in America’s eyes to a symbol of danger. Revolutionaries take American hostages in Tehran and threaten to kill them. In the meantime, Iran reforms its oil economy, meaning that Kazem no longer has a job in the U.S. He tries to find other opportunities, but no American or Saudi companies want to hire an Iranian. Shortly after the hostage crisis ends, he gets a new job that pays much less money.
Firoozeh works hard as a teenager to pay her way through college. She excels at writing essays for scholarship money, and also wins a two-month stay in Paris to study French. Her visit to Paris is a little disappointing, however, since she doesn’t make any French friends, and finds the classes dull.
Firoozeh attends the University of California at Berkeley, and graduates with honors. There she also meets a French Catholic student named François Dumas, who later becomes her husband. In Iranian culture, marrying a non-Iranian is often frowned upon, but Kazem and Nazireh welcome François into their family. Unbeknownst to them, François’s parents are appalled that he’s marrying an Iranian woman, and many of his family members don’t attend the wedding. François and Firoozeh are married, first by a Catholic priest and then in the traditional Persian fashion. They move into a San Francisco apartment, and later have children. While she’s married to François, Firoozeh thinks more deeply about beauty standards and about the sexism of Iranian culture. She admires women who show confidence in their bodies and achieve success professionally. During a trip to the Bahamas, Firoozeh and François judge a beauty pageant and choose a conventionally unattractive but highly intelligent and articulate young woman as the winner.
Throughout her marriage to François, Firoozeh remains extremely close with the rest of her family. She admires her father for his extraordinary generosity to his friends, both in America and back in Iran. Kazem often tells her, “I’m a rich man in America … I just don’t have a lot of money.”