We couldn’t wait for Kaveh to start talking and hear what his little baby voice would sound like. It was no surprise that one of the first words he learned was car. He was obsessed with cars and especially big trucks. He probably collected over 200 matchbox cars from birthdays, holidays, or the casual visit to the toy store. He organized them in a long single-file line that resembled a highway traffic jam, starting from the playroom and stretching out along the length of the hallway until he ran out of cars. Other times he lined them side by side like they were in a big parking lot or perhaps the start of a monumental race. Every time he saw a car or a truck on the street, he would yell out “CAR!!!” Since he began talking relatively early, I figured he was smart enough to learn the difference between a car and a truck. So, every time we saw a truck and he yelled out “car,” I would point and say “truck.” After a few days of this it started sinking into his vocabulary. Unfortunately, I just confused him and he ended up combining the two words together. This was a never-ending source of laughter, especially with his grandparents in the car because most of our conversations with them were interrupted with our one-year-old blurting out the word “COCK!!!” every time he saw a car or a truck that he liked.
We knew we were in big trouble though when we walked into a birthday party for our friend’s son and noticed the theme was construction. All of the plates and napkins and posters on the wall had great big trucks on them. Pooneh and I exchanged cautionary glances and before we knew it, our excited little Kaveh ran through the room repeatedly yelling out this taboo word that had never before been uttered by a one-year-old! We didn’t even know most of the parents at the party, making it embarrassing and funny at the same time to see their expressions of shock and dismay.
He wasn’t shy about using new words that he heard, even big words that came out sounding more like a completely new word that he invented. The funny part was that he would repeat it the exact same way with total confidence like we were idiots for not understanding him. You’re welcome came out as Malcolm (I think there was a kid in his daycare with that name), hamburger became hangeber, and helicopter sounded like lellipopper or something like that. He used to sing the song “Small World,” but we could never really understand if he had all the words right until I heard him singing loud and clear, “It’s a small world, Uncle Wob…” I suppose he figured all those little kids inside the ride at Disney Land were singing to his Uncle Rob.
Pooneh taught him some Farsi words to enhance his language capacity and hoped he would eventually speak it fluently (he didn’t). She told me this would help me learn to speak Farsi too if I practiced along with my kids, but I’ve never been adept at learning foreign languages. I took French for two years in high school and two more years in college, yet still can’t speak it worth a damn. I did pick up some new words and phrases from her every couple of months that I would sprinkle in to the conversation with her family, but not nearly enough to carry on a conversation. Sure, they acted like they were impressed, but sometimes I mixed up a word or used it in an inappropriate context which could get embarrassing at times.
Whenever Pooneh took Kaveh for a bath, she would call it aab-baazi. So, one day Pooneh’s aunt called from Iran while she was giving Kaveh a bath. Her aunt didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Farsi, but I did know—or at least thought I knew—the word for bath. Figuring she would understand to call back later, I explained the situation with as much clarity as I could muster, “Pooneh aab-baazi.” I was sure I said it correctly but instead of replying, she giggled kind of awkwardly, so I repeated, “Pooneh aab-baazi,” louder this time. Then she burst out laughing along with a blur of words that I couldn’t begin to comprehend except for Khoda hafez (goodbye), then hung up. I told Pooneh that her aunt called and when she called her back, I could hear them both laughing throughout their entire conversation, and by the way she kept looking at me, I had a pretty good feeling I was the source of their amusement. After hanging up, she explained to me that aab-baazi is actually a term to describe babies or children playing and splashing in the water and not bath or shower. Of course, her aunt knew exactly what I meant, but I guess it painted a picture in her head she wouldn’t soon forget.
More confusion followed at Kaveh’s daycare. The teacher asked us one afternoon what sheer meant, because he kept repeating it with increasing insistence until he began to cry. When we told her it meant milk, it looked as though she just had an epiphany and she promised to spread the word to other teachers. We felt bad for the poor little guy and realized that if we were going to teach Kaveh a dual vocabulary, then we would have to teach the teachers how to speak Farsi as well.
A few months later I asked him a question at dinner, but he kept ignoring me for some reason, so I snapped at him, “Hey Kaveh, what’s the matter, don’t you speak English?” His reply was almost indignant as he shook his head: “I don’t speak English, I speak Farsi.” This became one of his most famous lines, and we still tease him about this to this day.