BERKELEY — Yalda Modabber's parents didn't understand, at first, why their daughter insisted on speaking to her children in Farsi.
"They said, 'Why don't you speak French to them? Farsi's a useless language,'" Modabber said.
The Berkeley mother doesn't think so. Neither do her Iranian-American friends — many of whom came to the United States as young children in the late 1970s. They want their children to embrace a language and culture that isn't well understood in the West, she said.
About two years ago, Modabber and other like-minded mothers, including Ladan Sobhani and Yasi Massih, began meeting in the park for informal Farsi playgroups. Knowing that their kids might lose interest in the Persian language the moment they attended an English-speaking preschool, they started a preschool of their own: Golestan Kids.
The program — whose name translates, loosely, to "flower garden" — recently moved into the Heywood House, a historic home with high ceilings and sunlit rooms near West Berkeley's upscale Fourth Street shopping area. It is small, usually with less than 10 children on a given day, and three teachers. It costs roughly $12,000 a year to attend five days a week, and about $4,800 for two days a week.
Most of the children who attend the Farsi-immersion preschool or its after-school program are of mixed ethnicity, with just one Iranian-American parent.
"My wife is Persian, so we're trying to keep the language and culture alive for the next generation," said Chris Harrelson, who brought his daughter, Hanna, to school by bicycle.
One morning last week, the children started the day as they always do: with "circle time." The toddlers sang songs and clapped their hands on one rug, while the older ones gathered in another room to recite the Persian alphabet, count to 10 (in Farsi, Spanish and English), and play vocabulary games.
Mid-morning, all of the children and their teachers sat around a long table for a snack of carrots, celery, and avocado and pear slices.
One of the teachers, Hengameh Chamanpardaz, greeted the kids cheerfully from the head of the table.
"Salam," she said.
Even the small meal mimics an important element of traditional Iranian family life, with people of all ages eating together and sharing conversation, said teacher Samira Sharif.
"When everyone's at the table, you're not supposed to get up until everyone is finished," she explained.
That's important to Sobhani. She wants her kids to learn respect for elders, and to understand — though not necessarily practice — such cultural traditions as "taarof," a form of courtesy in which a guest is expected to refuse food or tea, for example, several times before accepting it. (Likewise, the host is expected to make the offer as many times.)
"My husband's American," Sobhani said. "They're only getting Iranian culture from me and my side of the family."
Massih and her husband were born in Iran and moved to the United States when they were young. But most of their friends are not Iranian, she said, and they have to make a concerted effort to speak Farsi with one another at home, in front of their children.
"We've both grown up in America," she said. "It's easier to speak English together."
Modabber said she was raised speaking French and that she might not have taught herself Farsi and embraced Iranian culture had she been immediately accepted by her American classmates in suburban Massachusetts.
Modabber moved to the United States with her family in the late 1970s, about the time when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American diplomats hostage for more than a year. Her fifth-grade classmates didn't like how she dressed or how she spoke, not to mention her nationality, she recalled.
"These kids were brutal," she said. "I shed a few tears and a few drops of blood."
Years later, at a school reunion, some of Modabber's former classmates apologized for her mistreatment. In retrospect, she said, she is grateful.
Now, Modabber wants her two young sons, Kian and Manu, to discover what she has grown to love about traditional Iranian culture — its poetry, its hospitality, its respect for elders.
At some point, she said, "They're going to leave Berkeley. When they go out in the world, I want them to be proud of being Iranian."