When my family moved to the United States from Iran in 1972, the first Americans I met were the Bradys and the Partridges. After hours of devoted television viewing, I learned that American brothers can be just as annoying as Iranian ones, and that Mrs. Brady worried about her children just like my mom.
I learned that Americans, like Iranians, eat dinner together, although no one on TV ever dined on kabob, not even on Gilligan's Island, with its ample grilling opportunities. Needless to say, I couldn't wait to meet real American families, particularly ones with sons who looked like David Cassidy.
Call it sitcom diplomacy.
I've written books and lectured about growing up Iranian-American. From Arkadelphia, Ark., to Olivet, Mich., and from Hebron, Maine, to Bakersfield, Calif., I encounter two reactions: fear and surprise. Fear of Middle Eastern immigrants, and surprise that I am nothing like the person they expected.
Tehran's politicians make it easy for an Iranian-American to get a laugh — I need to thank them for that. But they have also created a PR challenge worthy of Sisyphus. No matter how many laughs I get, I can't push that rock up the hill far enough or fast enough. My people need a TV show.
What would America find out when they tuned in? My family alone could provide enough lovable hilarity to keep the franchise going for years. In Orange County, Calif., in the 1970s, we all but invented the "situation" in situation comedy.
Consider my dad. His main goal in America was to educate his kids — and get rich. He succeeded in only one of those goals. My brothers and I all graduated from college and have successful careers, but his ill-fated attempt to win big on Bowling for Dollars was what today we'd call an epic fail. The late great Chick Hearn, the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers and the show's host, could not pronounce his name. It went downhill from there. There were gutter balls. We still don't talk about it.
My mother struggled with English. She tried to buy elbow grease — honest — at the hardware store. She joined a Gloria Marshall Figure Salon with its pink decor and gossiping ladies, and started using Hamburger Helper and Shake 'N Bake. We preferred Persian food, but my mom wanted to shake those drumsticks in the plastic bags, just like the happy lady in the commercials.
I loved my new life in America. School was only five days a week, not six as in Iran, and every day I could trade my apple for Connie Musgrove's six-pack of mini-donuts. Mrs. Sandberg, my second-grade teacher, read stories to us out loud and gave us stickers just for doing homework we were supposed to do anyway. It was no wonder I won an award at the end of the year for perfect attendance. Why would anyone miss a day of Mrs. Sandberg's class?
And there was our permanent houseguest, my Uncle Nematollah, who tasted every American food he could find, from canned chili to Cheez Whiz. Who knew 31 flavors of ice cream existed? He ate it all, which led him down the path to American weight-loss products: the Body Shaper, the man girdle, the silver suit that made you sweat away the pounds. Welcome to America. Now switch to elastic waistbands.
Of course, what's most important is what isn't part of this package. My family, and most Middle Eastern immigrants I know, spend their time working, studying and, yes, trying to lose weight. We're not terrorists. We're not very Muslim. (I have some Christian friends who attend church every day, and others who just eat chocolate bunnies on Easter. My family is the Muslim equivalent of the bunny eaters.)
A TV show starring us would make this obvious point obvious: Middle Easterners come in all shapes, sizes and belief levels, just like every other kind of American. I would love for Americans everywhere to meet my family the way I met the Bradys. But plenty of other normal, lovable, culture-clashing Middle Eastern all-American families could inhabit TV land and prove the point: We're not what you think we are. We are more or less like you, you and you.
For now President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the only Iranian face that most Americans see on TV. And that is truly a shame.
Firoozeh Dumas is the author of two memoirs, "Funny in Farsi" and "Laughing Without an Accent." She is currently working on a tween novel.
© 2011 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.