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Caught in the Middle : Iranian Immigrants Try to Blend Into American Culture Without Losing Identity

May 12, 1988|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

It was a gray, drizzly Saturday afternoon and Fereshte Tajadode was waiting for her daughter's Farsi language class to end. "She'd prefer to be out with her school friends, doing fun things," Tajadode said. "But she's starting to adjust and not resent this so much."

The 60-minute class over, Sara got up from the table and headed for the door. "Mom, we've got 25 minutes to get to Knott's," she said to her mother, who smiled a resigned smile, knowing the unstoppable force of an 11-year-old with a plan.

Although Sara attends a private school that already gives her plenty of homework, her mother decided she wanted her daughter to learn Farsi, the language of her native Iran. So, for an hour every Saturday, Sara attends a Farsi language class in Westminster sponsored by the Iranian Cultural Assn. of Orange County. Sara, whose English appears flawless, is beginning to read Farsi and takes the class with several other youngsters, one as young as 6.

"We're just getting into this," her mother said. "I'm doing it so she can understand where she's from and what kind of person she is. Later on when she's older, it will be easier for her to understand who she is if she can read about and understand her heritage."

Farrokh Shadab, a Westminster pediatrician, can relate. He wishes his 11- and 13-year-old sons were as interested in the lilting poetry of Omar Khayyam as they are in playing baseball and basketball. So far, he says with a sigh, it's a losing battle.

Doris Ahadpour's son, now 15, spoke Farsi when the family moved to America from Iran 10 years ago. "He still understands Farsi, but he refuses to acknowledge it," she said. The reason? "My kids were at a young age, and they were extremely affected by the hostage situation. It was very difficult on all Iranians during that period, because here were people who had been loved and adored by Americans and all of a sudden they were all enemies because of a hostage situation they had nothing to do with. They themselves were running away from the situation, yet so many Americans were extremely cruel, especially to school kids."

So goes the continuing saga of Iranians in America, caught in a cross fire of emotions that in some ways hasn't let up since 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary forces overthrew the Shah of Iran and held American hostages for more than a year.

On one hand, their problems are as fundamental as those of other immigrant groups: how to adapt to American life while not losing a grip on their own heritage. And at first blush, it would seem the Iranians would have a running start, for unlike most refugee groups that came to the United States over the years, many Iranians had educations and professional expertise when they arrived. Indeed, it was the educated, professional and more conservative class of Iranians to whom the fervor of Khomeini's Islamic revolution was most distasteful.

But even for those who have settled into apparent comfort in culturally diverse Southern California, these remain troubled times for Iranians.

Interviews with about 20 Iranians and others suggest a sobering duality for many Iranians in Orange County: while there has been a clear assimilation into the mainstream, their happiness is tempered by ongoing concern about what is happening to their tradition-rich homeland. That concern goes beyond just the Iraqi bombs that fall on their soil; it includes the image that the Khomeini revolution has left with Americans and the international community. While President Reagan's statements in recent weeks have separated Khomeini from the bulk of Iranians, that message doesn't always filter down. As a result, many Iranians still feel like strangers in a strange land.

While those concerns may seem overly political and abstract and not connected to day-to-day life, Iranians in Orange County beg to differ.

Farrokh Shokooh has all the trappings of success. The Irvine electrical consulting firm he owns is doing well. A graduate of Louisiana State University, Shokooh has an engaging personality and lives comfortably in Mission Viejo with his wife and 2 1/2-year-old daughter. His extended family also lives in Southern California.

But many times, Shokooh, 39, doesn't fall asleep that quickly at night. Many times, when he's driving, his mind wanders and he finds it hard to concentrate.

"All these things you hear in the news are really depressing," Shokooh said. "Anytime I hear in the news about terrorists, pro-Iranian terrorists, that really gets me right into the heart. It's not worded 'pro-Khomeini' terrorists. That's probably the way it should be said. If it could come out and distinguish between the existing government and Iranians, that would be a step in the right direction."

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