Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: Funny in Farsi, a Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America

“Funny in Farsi, A Memoir of Growing Iranian in America”, by Firoozeh Dumas, is a collection of unforgettable stories about the author and her family’s experiences as immigrants in the 1970’s.  Firoozeh Dumas was born in Iran, when she was 7 years old, she and her family moved to California.  This book spans years from her childhood to her early adulthood, the author writes about not understanding English, getting lost in Disneyland, her nose being teased, horrible experience of summer camp, traveling in different places….  The American life was pictured in the eyes of an immigrant girl. 
        Another main character in this book is the author’s engineer father, Kazem.  He spent his graduate years in America in the 1950’s.  To him, America is a place full of clean bathrooms and kind people.  This book recounts Kazem’s attempts to seek riches through bowling and in Los Vegas, and his adventures on all kinds of American foods.
        If the 27 stories of identity, discovery, and power of family love are 27 shiny pearls, the string that connects all of the stories, is the sense of humor in this book.  “What is charming beyond the humor of this memoir is that it remains affectionate even in the weakest, most tenuous moments for the culture.  It’s the brilliance of true sophistication at work. ” (Los Angeles Times Book Review)
        I think this memoir covers almost every diversity topic mentioned in our textbook.  However, the most notable ones are:  geography, language, and religion.
        The author feels sorry about the limited geographic knowledge of Americans, and is surprised at how this limitation has restrained people’s minds. When the author and her family first moved to California in 1972, most of the Americans they met didn’t even heard of Iran.  People had such a mistaken image of Iran, which often consisted of camels, tents and the Sahara, that they were disappointed at knowing Iranians actually had cars and electricity, just as in America.   Things got worse after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the relation between Iran and the U.S. was on edge, Americans had bumper stickers that read “Iranians: Go Home” or “We Play Cowboys and Iranians”.  These Americans felt that they knew all about Iran and its people, and they had no questions, just opinions. 
        The author makes readers laugh about their experience of overcoming the language barrier in the chapter of “Hot Dogs and Wild Geese”, “moving to America was both exciting and frightening”, because they didn’t know English.   Her father was unable to understand spoken English and he himself was speaking a “private language” made up of thick Persian accent and pre- World War II vocabulary.  They searched for “elbow grease” in hardware shop to clean the floor; they referred the restroom as “Vater closet” and were guided to the drinking fountain; the author’s parents still don’t understand why teenagers want to be cool so they can be hot. 
        When religion for many people is a serious and heavy issue, the author’s father treats religion with hearty laugh.  As a Muslim, Kazem fell in love with ham, which is the forbidden food of Islam. He believed “it’s not what we eat or don’t eat that makes us good people; it’s how we treat one another….people of every religion think they’re the best, but that’s not true.  There are good and bad people in every religion.  Just because someone is Muslim, Jewish, or Christian doesn’t mean a thing.  You have to look and see what’s in their hearts.  That’s the only thing that matters, and that’s the only detail God cares about.”    The author believed this part is the soul of her book, in which I learned religions should function to unite people, other than divide them.
        The stories in this book could “easily translates to the experience of immigrants from any part of the world” (San Jose Mercury News).  The motto of the book, I believe, is to treat diversities and culture shocks as laughing matter.  If someone had been able to capsulate humor in pill form, the pills would undoubtedly put most prejudice and hatred out of business.

      Often kids tried to be funny by chanting, “I ran to I-ran, I ran to I-ran.” The correct pronunciation, I always informed them, is “Ee-rahn.” “I ran” is a sentence, I told them, as in “I ran away from my geography lesson.”                                                       ---P34
   …how sad it was that people so easily hate an entire population simply because of the actions of a few.  And what a waste it is to hate, he (my father) always said.  What a waste.                                                                                                                  ----P121
  [Father]I am a rich man in America, too.  I just don’t have a lot of money.                                                                              

Monday, November 15, 2010

Blog 10 Young Teachers, Old Teachers.

The focus of this chapter is the age diversity and development stages of school-aged children.  But what about the teachers’ age?  What impacts of teachers’ age have on their teaching and their students? What are the strengths and downfalls of young teachers and old teachers?  Are teachers the older the better?
Young teachers are fresh off school and full of new concepts and ideas of education; their passion and energy make natural ties between them and their students; they are apt to use modern technologies both in classrooms and the communications with students (e.g. internet, texting, youtube, facebook).  They could be teachers, friends, and role models for students.  However, younger teachers seem “immature” and need to grow up as well as the students. They may lack skills of classroom management, ability to handle emergencies, which were learned over the YEARS of teaching.  Since young teachers have not raised their own children, they might fail to understand issues from the stand point of parents.
Are teachers the older the better?  Veteran teachers are often referred as “experienced”, “highly efficient”, since they have been teaching the same subject over the years and have extracted the best teaching materials and approaches to teaching. They have rich life lessons, which enable them to understand what parents are expecting from and worrying about their children. Older teachers are familiar with education policies, routines, procedures, resources, personnel that are helpful for dealing with general and specific cases.  Nevertheless, old teachers may rely too much on their former experience when solving problems, other than try to learn new findings of education.  If they are not updated with the knowledge of all kinds of learning disability, they might easily label a child with learning disability as “trouble maker”, “do not follow directions” etc. 
So, I will conclude that a middle-age teacher (such as me), would combine all the strengths of being young and old and be the best teacher!  Just kidding!  Judging a teacher by his/her age, is “ageism”, and thus biased.  Best teachers can be from any age group, as long as the teacher is passionate about his/her job, listening to students and parents, professional in the content area, self-reflective about his/her teaching, and always ready to learn new things.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Blog # 9 East vs. West, South vs. North.

World Map, English Version

World Map, Chinese Version
 Can you tell the “surface” and “hidden” difference between the two world maps above? Of course they are in different language: English and Chinese, but the in-depth implication of these maps is the different ways we view the world based on where we are.

The entire childhood, I was exposed to the second map, and used to wonder why Asia is called the “east” or “orient” when obviously in the map, we are in the central part of the world!  (The name “China” literally means “the central kingdom” in Chinese language. Ethnocentrism!)   In high school and college, along with the learning of English as the second language, I started to tap into more topics and discussions of “East & West”.  I learned that the west and east cultures differ in so many ways from greeting, conversation, eating habit, dressing style, facial expression, to the social norm, political opinion, religion, and the value system, that when east meets west, there is a “culture shock”.  For example, China has a collectivist culture which emphasizes the benefit of people as a group, when necessary, people choose to sacrifice the individual for the group goal.  However in the U.S., individual freedom and rights is the main focus of the culture, any harm to individual right is the violation of “human rights”.
“South” and “north” is another pair of interesting concepts. We assume people from the same country are identical, but within this country, there is always regional diversity, in which “south” and “north” are commonly involved.  In China, although the geographical divide between south and north is Qinling Mountain and Huaihe River, the definition of “southerners” and “northerners” could be relatively different, I, as a Beijinger, was referred as “northerner” by people from Shanghai, but “southerner” by people from northeast China.  The “northerners” and “southerners” have all sort of stereotypes and prejudice to each other, just like in the United States.  I used to have 2 Indian families as my neighbors, from them I learned there is “south” and “north” in India too.
Geography encompasses with ethnicity and race, language, religion and socioeconomic status.  “Where are you from” decides your accent, lifestyle, religion, as well as your understanding of other regions and cultures.  It is easy to cross the geographic borders of north, south, west and east, but hard to pass the borders across people’s minds.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Blog # 8 Can an Atheist Like Me Love Christmas?

Born and raised in a typically atheistic Chinese family and community, my early understanding of religion rested on the impression that Muslim people did not consume pork as the rest of us did, and they were very serious about it.   The schools I went in China did not teach us religion either.  Instead, we were taught Darwin’s theory of evolution, which has formed the foundation of my knowledge of the world and perceptions of human history and society. In China, many people share a common opinion: religion, as a synonym of superstition, was therefore the antonym of science, and only those with vulnerable minds would believe in supernatural power.
While in China, people with religion are usually judged and discriminated by the majority of atheists, it could be a totally opposite situation in the U.S.
With ninety percent of the populations (2005) claims a preference to some religious group and 60% of Americans believe that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems, atheists are minorities in the U.S. and somewhat become an equivalent to immorality!  Some published articles criticized China for being lack of religion, thus lack of morality and social conscience, which caused all sort of today’s social problems.  Personally, I have confronted the sense of superiority from churchgoers and questions like “Do you know where you are going when you are dead?”
Is being religious or not the only criterion to define people as good or bad?  Of course NO! Can I still be a good person without any religious affiliation? Of course YES!  All through my life, I learned the same values and virtues as those religious: love, care, honesty, sympathy, hard-working, responsible, humble, supportive, etc.  The only difference is: I am self-administrated. I am capable for making decisions and responsible for my actions, as well as taking all the consequences.  I do not worship any God, but it won’t prevent me from being a decent person!
I respect all religions, as much as I wish to be respected as an atheist.  I celebrate Christmas, because in my eyes, it is the most exciting AMERICAN holiday!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Blog # 7 What Are You Sinking About?

Think or sink?  This is one of the common mistakes of pronouncing a foreign language word: replacing an unfamiliar sound with a familiar sound of one’s first language.  Some English learners from China may have the same problem, because we don’t have a th sound in Chinese, you may have heard Chinese learners say Sank you instead of Thank you. 
As a long-term English learner, I would say speaking is one of the hardest parts for many Chinese learners.  Back the time I started learning English, the predominant approach to instruction was grammar-translation, reading and writing were the focus of teaching.  Not until college did we have native speakers to teach us Spoken and Listening.  But the gap between students’ writing and speaking proficiency had been long-existing and hard to be changed.  So, opposite to the common belief that English learners would grasp daily communication skills before they reach academic language level, Chinese learners seem to reverse the 2 phases. A good example would be my husband: he has no problem conducting research and publishing scientific papers in English journals, but when it comes to daily conversations and phone calls, he is not as skilled as in written English. He is also very self-conscious of his accent, and dubs his English “Yunglish”, because he was born in Yunnan China.
Another problem that frustrates English learners, is the difference between the textbook language and the authentic language spoken by the native speakers. We learned words such as wonderful, excellent, great, terrific, amazing, perfect in China, only to found Americans are actually saying awesome!  Slangs, idioms and phrasal verbs could be confusing too.  Firoozeh Dumas, author of Funny in Farsi, depicted a real story in which she and her mother went to supermarket in searching for “elbow grease”, because the American repairman who fixed their washing machine recommended in using it to remove the stain on the floor. 
Learning a second language is a long and twisted path.  When my Chinese and English are fighting in my brain, my tongue and teeth are fighting in my mouth, I couldn’t help lamenting when my English will be the same proficient as my Chinese, and when can I talk as fast and laugh as hard as my American classmates do!
I am thinking, and do not want to be sinking!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Blog # 6 My Book Choice

Up Close Media Queen:  Oprah Winfrey, A Twentieth-Century Life, by Ilene Cooper, provides an intimate portrait of Oprah Winfrey’s life and a rare, comprehensive history of an American icon.  I believe this book is related to our diversity topics in the following 3 aspects:
1.  Race and Ethnicity.  In 1954, when Oprah was born, her hometown Mississippi was among the most segregated places in the United States, even drinking fountains and bathrooms were divided by race, so were schools.  The same year, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Brown v. Board of Education and opened the way to integrated schools.  The civil rights movement and the way the society had been evolving in the following 20 years benefited Oprah: she was offered a scholarship and went to a integrated high school and college, she won the opportunity to work as a TV reporter, which was mostly a man’s profession - a white man’s profession.  Oprah said she was “born at the right time”, because her success was based on the social trend that minority groups were being included by the main stream society.
2.  Gender.  Oprah was sexually abused when she was young; she had her first child at age 14(the baby only lived for 2 weeks). Her own experience made the grown-up Oprah actively involved in programs that help abused children and train young girls to be the future leaders. One of the things Oprah had in common with many women was a battle with weight:  she honestly talked about her dieting in her shows and shared her pains and sorrows as an overweight woman.  This society has been putting too much emphasis on people’s orthopedic characteristics, especially on women’s physical beauty.  In order to be “perfect”, women are putting up with increasing pressures.
3.  Socioeconomic Status.  A black girl born in a farm in the 1950’s, parents never got married, spent early years helping grandma with heavy laundries, Oprah was definitely born in a low SES class.  However, she held a firm belief in herself: she believed she “belongs to someone or something bigger”, and she “could do anything”.  Her grandma taught her read and found her gift in speaking, Oprah herself at first considered speaking a means of getting attention and love, but later realized it was this belief that triggered all the changes in her later life. What should be learned by all the parents around the world is, an early exposure to literacy, a strong belief of “I can”, plus complete and formal education, would help the children achieve in the future.
The life of Oprah Winfrey is a reflection of American’s diversity. Her story of success exemplifies America’s can-do spirit and the best of its humanitarian impulses.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Blog # 5 To Be "Included" or Not, That Is the Question.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 19.4% of all Americans are affected by some form of disability. Among the population with disability, people over 65 years old, African Americans, single parent families, and low-income families are more likely to become victims of disability.  As a reflection in school settings, 12% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with some type of disability. 
“Inclusion” means that students with disabilities have a right to be integrated into general education classes regardless of their ability to meet “traditional” academic standards.  Although not required by the Federal special education law (IDEA), “inclusion” has been frequently discussed by educators and parents of disabled children. Inclusion has its roots in the belief that segregating students with disability from general education classes, is same as segregating African American students from “white” schools, thus is morally and ethically wrong.
However, there are some issues and concerns related to full inclusion, such as “Are all children with disabilities feasible for inclusion, regardless of the types and degrees of their disabilities?” “What impact will inclusion have on nondisabled children?” “Are general classroom teachers prepared to provide appropriate instructional services to those children with special needs?”
I sometimes listen to “The Long Lost Love” at FM103.7, in which a detective would help people find out where their long lost love ended up today.  One morning, a lady called in, instead of a “long lost love”, she wanted to find out a “long lost bully” who had been harassed her from 1st grade to high school.  This lady was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which made her the laughing stock of the bully. The trauma was so intense both in degree and length, that years after graduating from high school, the lady would had nightmares of being bullied again and woke up in panic in the midnight.  The bully was found ended up in jail, which was not a surprise.  But one question hovering in my mind was, why the girl (and her parents) didn’t try to avoid the bully by going to a different school, or special education school/program? Maybe back then, children like her did not have other choices except for going to a public school and put up with the possible side effects of “inclusion”, which could sarcastically turned into a trend 20 years later.  I wonder how this lady would comment on "inclusion".
Should children with disability be included or excluded?  First, it depends on the types and degrees of their disabilities.  Second, it depends on the children’s needs and parents' choices. While some parents of disabled children consider “inclusion” as desirable, others may rather choose being excluded from normal school settings and turn to special education, where the children with disability could be better protected from harm, get full attention from their teachers, who are also supposed to have received special trainings on teaching these children.  What education agencies, administrators and educators should do, is to make sure all children with disability have the right and freedom to make their own choices based on their own needs.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Blog # 4 Raised by a Feminist Mother

        My mom is the most strong-minded, ambitious, and self-reliant lady I have ever known.  Grew up in a 3-generation combined female-dominant family with no presence of men, she started her first job at 16, got married and raised 3 children in her 20’s, obtained college degree in her 40’s and master’s degree in 50’s.  Currently working in a court and actively participating in public affairs and civil lawsuits, she has won herself a prestige as an “Alpha Woman”, which is exactly her dream! 
        At the same time, she also played her role as a traditional woman in family life, taking care of cleaning, cooking, child-rearing……  The difference is, it was much out of her obligation, rather than her own choice.  For many times when I was little, I heard her regretting having started family (which includes the existence of me!), wasted her time and energy on the mundane house chores that would make the realization of her dream difficult.  Looking back from now, I see the dilemma in which a woman struggled between her role as an independent individual who had a big dream in her heart, and the role as a woman that had been assigned to her by the culture.
        Interestingly, my mom changed when she was older. Claiming her children and grandchildren the most valuable assets and most important traces of her life, she is happily playing her role as a loving mother and grandmother. In her words, she is making “compensation” for not being able to cherish us enough when we were young, and for our tolerance of her endless battles with my dad on “Who is the decision maker”!
        Raised by my feminist mother, I was instilled with the beliefs that women can achieve as well as men.  With her acute observation, my mom helped me make important decisions both in career and personal life.  As most modern women today, sometimes I see myself on the same track as my mom was: trying to find a balance between career and family life, struggling transforming across the roles of the different “caps” on my head.  Then I thought of my mom, I told myself:  It is meaningless to debate on “Man and woman, which is superior?” or whether you are "Fiminist" or "Anti-Feminist", what really count is how you view things as important in your life, you follow your heart and “just do it”!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Blog#3 Make the Connection.

        I just finished reading the biography of Oprah Winfrey, the now "Media Queen", who was born in a lonesome Mississippi farm, and had a humble childhood, in which her mother was always out working as a cleaning lady, and she was sometimes left home alone playing with the cockroaches that scurried around the boarding house they lived in. Throughout the reading, I couldn’t help trying to find the connection between the little girl in the above mentioned gut-wrenching scene and the successful, confident, and glamorous lady shown on TV and magazines of today.
        In 1987, Oprah endowed 10 scholarships to Tennessee State University where she graduated from, in honor of her father, who had always encouraged her to pursue an education, telling her it was the keystone to a successful future.  Oprah’s story perfectly recounted what our textbook states, “A college education is the most reliable step for moving from a low-income to a middle-class and higher status”.
        Another example would be Chinese immigrants.  Of all the minor ethic groups in the U.S., Chinese immigrants are the rare species that managed to maintain a higher socioeconomic status.  Traditional Chinese culture highly values the significance of education.   From the early immigration in the 19th century in which the immigrant were mainly labor workers from southern China, to the most recent immigration that started from the 1980’s in which the immigrants were mostly highly educated professionals, higher education has been viewed as a necessary safeguard against potential racial discrimination and a means to reach affluent life for both the individuals and their families.  All in all, it was education that helped Chinese immigrants make the connection, in the long process of assimilating into American culture.
        Education is helping all of us sitting in this classroom make connections as well.  For me, it helps me reach my career goal and fulfill my dream.  What connections are you making through education?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blog #2 Jellyfish Salad----"Melting Pot" Vs. "Mosaic"

        In 2002, I came to the U.S. as a visiting scholar at Reed College, Portland, OR.  Before that, I had been teaching international students for 6 years in China, and had some knowledge about western cultures and cross-cultural communications.  I thought I was well-prepared for the year ahead, until......

      A month after my arrival at Reed, there was a "Progressive Dinner" across the five language houses on the campus (French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Chinese).  Residents of each language house would serve traditional and culturally representative food for the visitors.  As the only native Chinese in the Chinese house, I decided to make something plain and authentic.  One of the things I made was jellyfish salad, which was an ordinary and inexpensive appetizer in China. I didn't expected jellyfish salad to make a critical incident in my multicultural experience----most of the college students were shocked at hearing the word "jellyfish", and refused to have a taste. Some of my friends did try a little bit, out of the intention not to hurt my feelings, but they also teased my jellyfish salad in light-hearted banter.

      Jellyfish salad taught me "When in Rome, eat what Romans eat", and it was risky to try to keep your original cultural traits in the United States, the "melting pot", in which immigrants were encouraged to discard their original identity and assimilate to the dominant culture.

      Almost a decade passed.  On today's class, when we were discussing the critical incidents in multicultural experience, I thought of my jellyfish salad again.  All of a sudden, I had this curiosity, "Have people in today's United States started to accept it?"  I tried googling "jellyfish salad", to my surprise, I found quite a number of records, including pictures and recipes.  Looks like there are more people interested in eating jellyfish salad in the U.S. than 9 years ago.  Is it an outcome of multiculturalism, or is it in light of the widespread internet, or both?

      When doing research for our group project on "ethnicity and race", I encountered the term "mosaic" several times in different locations.  In recent studies and publications, the terminology "melting pot" has been gradually replaced by "mosaic". As a conceptualization of culture diversity in today's United States, the "mosaic" model provides people of different backgrounds with equal opportunities to fit together without having to lose their original identities.  I am asking myself, "Is mosaic related to jellyfish salad?"

      Jellyfish salad, melting pot, and mosaic.  These are what I learned today.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Blog #1 Everyone is Ethnocentric!

          Ethnocentrism can be defined as “based on their limited experience, people of a given culture view their particular culture as centrally important, and make false (usually negative) assumptions about other groups”. Examples of ethnocentrism could be found broadly anytime in the history, anywhere in the world, in both levels of politics and daily life: 

• The European imperialism started in the 16th century. Europeans took over colonies in Africa and America, based on the belief that both of them were primitive societies.

• Nazi Germany in the 20th century. Millions of innocent Jewish and other groups were slaughtered, due to the prejudice against them.
• People in the U.S. talking about British driving “on the wrong side of the road”.

• Foreigners are sometimes referred as “foreign devils” in China, because they have blue eyes, red hair and big nose.

      In some other cases, people make false positive assumptions about other groups. These false positive assumptions sometimes lead to xenocentrism, a belief that cultures of other groups are superior to one’s own. I had chances to visit Hong Kong (a city of China historically, after colonized by British government for 100 years, it was eventually taken back by China in 1997) between 1999 and 2001. I found that when lots of people in Hong Kong were struggling with relocating and adjusting their cultural identities, false assumptions of "British culture and language are better than those of Chinese", could be observed throughout many aspects of the society.

      Ethnocentrism and xenocentrism lead us to make premature judgments and cause misunderstanding between people of different groups. They are the barriers to the social justice and equality of any country, as well as the international society.

      Looking at the definition of ethnocentrism, many people would believe they are not “ethnocentric”, but are rather “open-minded” or “embracing”. As a matter of fact, ethnocentrism is inevitable, everyone is ethnocentric. The problem is our consciousness could not sense ethnocentrism, because it is in the layer of our subconscious. Did you have the experience of learning a second language, and judging it as “difficult” or “easy” to learn, by subconsciously comparing it with your first language? Did you notice that each mistake you make in the process of learning a second language, either on pronunciation or grammar, is something different from your first language? We are naturally ethnocentric about our first language, and are viewing other languages with our tinted glasses. 
      But what could we do about it? Our experience is always limited, there is no way we can experience everything that other people had experienced, therefore, there is no way we cannot be ethnocentric!  Well, we can still try not to be ethnocentric! Before making a judgment about things from different cultures, to avoid being ethnocentric, you can ask yourself these two questions:

1. What is the meaning of doing so? For example, why is there a “One Child Policy” in China? What is the social-economic context of this policy? What is the purpose of the legislation? When was it enforced?

2. What is the function of doing so? For example, what are the outcomes of “One Child Policy”? On what aspects does it help? How do Chinese people feel about it? Do they comply with this policy, or feel oppressed by the government?

      Same questions could be asked about our own culture. By answering these questions, we will establish more objective understandings about the things that we have been accustomed to for generations. For example: Why is “freedom” considered as an important American value? How does this value help American people adapt?

      Yes, our human nature and limited life experience have decided that everyone is born ethnocentric.  But through critical and rational thinking, we could develop more functioning understandings about issues from both our own culture and different cultures, that enable us to interact with people of other cultures.