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first generation tug-of-war

Arriving in America a couple of months shy of his tenth birthday left D in a cultural no man’s land. Had he reached adolescence in Russia before immigrating, he likely would have felt a strong urge to hold onto his Russian heritage. On the other hand, had his family made the move a few years earlier, he happily would have shed the vestiges of his brief Slavic upbringing in favor of a thorough Americanization. As it happened, he felt both instincts tugging him in opposite directions, though not always with equal force.

1983 - D

At the outset, despite continuing to speak Russian at home, D longed more than anything to assimilate, to slough off his past and become as American in his manners and speech as the kids who surrounded and occasionally teased him at school. He even had recurrent dreams his first year in New York in which he spoke English fluently. He lacked the actual vocabulary to express himself in those dreams, and would wake up to the realization that the right words were almost but not quite there, always just beyond the tip of his tongue.

By the time D entered high school, he was beginning to grow comfortable in his Americanness, but still lacked the confidence needed to embrace both sides of his identity. He avoided the Russian clique at school and made no effort to keep up his language skills. In fact, he suppressed his heritage so much that reading in Russian became laborious; he nearly forgot how to write in Russian altogether.

He studied Spanish throughout high school and college, but after returning from a year abroad in Madrid, something changed. His senior year, D took two Russian literature seminars. They were small classes — only a handful of students, most of whom were Russian majors. There were two other people who, like D, had immigrated from the former Soviet Union as children and were trying to strengthen their grip on their native language and cultural heritage before it slipped away completely.

With each passing year, D has found new reasons to be thankful that he rededicated himself to the Russian language. During his Peace Corps service, he wrote letters to his parents and grandmother and read through a few Russian classics, great books that do not improve with translation. And speaking Russian fluently has had obvious professional benefits as well.

It was not until he became a father, however, that D fully appreciated how important Russian is to his sense of self. His decision to speak to Munchkin in Russian originally owed to a sense of duty and a firm belief that raising a child bilingual from the outset would translate to intellectual advantages later down the line. To his surprise, D has discovered that fatherhood comes much more naturally to him in Russian than in English.

S has a repertoire of silly songs from her childhood that she sings to Munchkin, songs her mom sang to her, songs that D has found difficult to sing despite hearing them often enough to know the words by heart. On the other hand, the silly ditties from his own childhood slip effortlessly from D’s lips. Staying with his parents these last two weeks and listening to his mom and grandmother sing these same songs to Munchkin evoked a pleasantly overpowering feeling of nostalgia.

2015 - Munchkin

D harbors no illusions that Munchkin will grow up to speak Russian fluently. He would be happy if Munchkin speaks some and understands the language well enough to communicate with his grandparents. Although it will likely become much harder to keep up once we leave Moldova, for now speaking Russian to Munchkin has been easier than not speaking it.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I wonder what will happen when my fiance and I have kids. He is american and I was that rare teenager that shed her Russianness. I speak it with my family but even with my brother’s children the hold on the language is tenuous.

    June 7, 2015
    • Suspect it will depend on whatever feels the most natural. We know plenty of couples in which only one parent speaks a second language, and the kids have some grasp of it because it was important to the bilingual parent. If you’re committed, even without your partner’s assistance, your children should pick up some Russian.

      To her credit, S has tried really hard to learn the language. Even though we speak English to each other at home, she has acquired enough to speak some baby Russian to Munchkin, and has heard D’s renditions of baby books so often that she can read many of them to Munchkin with hardly a look at the pages.

      June 7, 2015

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