We, the Russians


This weekend, I had two completely different experiences that made me think about what it means to be Russian-speaking.

I went to visit New Baby Cousin on Saturday.  As we were leaving, Mr. B asked his exhausted new parents,”So, how are you guys planning to raise him with the whole Russian thing? I know it’s important to you. ”  Like me, marrying a Russian speaker was very important to both of them.  But, also like me, they don’t speak Russian to each other, because honestly, it’s easier to speak English.  Mr. B and I speak English almost exclusively unless we’re talking about someone or something and we don’t want them to understand.

Mr. B and I grew up being drilled Russian, Russian, Russian, don’t forget Russian, always speak Russian at home.   But I don’t speak Russian to my parents or to New Baby Cousin or to Baby Cousin’s parents.  Only, actually, to my mother-in-law, out of respect.  Why?  For me (and I suspect for Mr. B) speaking Russian feels like we’re our parents, because we essentially learned Russian from them, outside of the context of television shows, books, and movies that we could co-opt as our own slice of the language.  All the slang we know, we picked up from our parents and random young Russians, and it feels strange to use it, like we’re parroting what we learned in elementary school.

In Russian, I still feel like I’m five, even though I’m pretty fluent in it, can read, can write, and even worked on projects at work with the Russian Ministry of Finances representatives.  When I speak Russian, I feel like I’m playing dress-up in my mom’s fancy clothes.  It feels ridiculous and strange, like I’ll be discovered and outed at any minute. So when we talk to our cousins or hang out with other Russian Jews, it’s all in English, because, otherwise, we feel like we’re at a fake  dress-up tea party.  We know we all can’t express ourselves truly the way we want in Russian, even though we know all the words.  “Kofe” means coffee but Kofe means drinking it dark with dessert cake in your aunt’s kitchen in a high-rise in Yaroslavl while “coffee” means a cappuccino in a Starbucks.

Source.

English, however, is my language.  No one owns the fact that I learned the word douchebag somewhere online or in 10th grade, or that I read about tessaracts in a strange, strange book.  I romped and roamed all over English on my own without any hand-holding or screaming matches for me to read books in English.  It’s fresh, it’s new, and I can concoct whatever I want with it.  I don’t have a limited set of cultural and linguistic frameworks.I can make up new words like sealrus (seal plus walrus) or come up with flexible nicknames for friends.

So, for kids,  you have to literally make yourself into someone else to teach your baby to speak normal Russian, not a problem for our parents, for whom Russian was extremely natural.  I left feeling worried and uneasy about our future unborn children.  Because, if I’m so selfish that I can’t switch to Russian when I specifically made it a priority to marry a Russian speaker so our children wouldn’t end up monolingual, what the hell is wrong with me?

Then, yesterday, Mr. B and I went to a  birthday party.  The friends are Russian and came here, on average, about 5 years ago. So, they’ve lived most of their adult lives in Russia and in Russian.  We talk to them 100% in Russian, joke with them in Russian, and think with them in Russian.  Because, I think, we know that there’s no possibility to switch into English.  Not because they can’t speak it-they are excellent English speakers-but because it would be awkward.  I know that if I switch to English with them, the conversation becomes strained and awkward.  And, the weird thing is that, when I speak Russian with them, it doesn’t feel forced and strained like it does for family, who know we can express ourselves better in English.

And at this point, some of them can, too.  Mr. B’s mom says, “I can’t read books in Russian anymore because I have to switch my mindest completely.  It’s not hard, but there is an adjustment.”  A normal sentence for any given family member is, “Ya poyehala na shopping, i zaparkavala mashinu okolo Macy’s.”   I went shopping, and parked my car near Macy’s.   Because it’s easier to say shopping than “kupit novoiu odezhdu” because shopping is shorter and  has a specific American context that modern Russian doesn’t cover.  When my aunt from Russia was here last year, we had to constantly correct ourselves because we forget that she doesn’t know Runglish words like draivat’ (to drive), uploadat’ (to upload, which the Russian verb povesit’ -literally, to hang up, doesn’t quite cover) and turka (turkey).

What does this tell me about being a Russian speaker?  That, despite having  Russian drilled into me since being born and feeling good about the fact that I can speak it, it’s still somewhat of a foreign concept, and one that I will have to consciously, strenuously, and painfully work on to inculcate into my kids, who, it’s not even guaranteed, will be good at it because instead of at least five years in a Russian-only environment, they’ll have zero.  I think I’ll have to look to [

This weekend, I had two completely different experiences that made me think about what it means to be Russian-speaking.

I went to visit New Baby Cousin on Saturday.  As we were leaving, Mr. B asked his exhausted new parents,”So, how are you guys planning to raise him with the whole Russian thing? I know it’s important to you. ”  Like me, marrying a Russian speaker was very important to both of them.  But, also like me, they don’t speak Russian to each other, because honestly, it’s easier to speak English.  Mr. B and I speak English almost exclusively unless we’re talking about someone or something and we don’t want them to understand.

Mr. B and I grew up being drilled Russian, Russian, Russian, don’t forget Russian, always speak Russian at home.   But I don’t speak Russian to my parents or to New Baby Cousin or to Baby Cousin’s parents.  Only, actually, to my mother-in-law, out of respect.  Why?  For me (and I suspect for Mr. B) speaking Russian feels like we’re our parents, because we essentially learned Russian from them, outside of the context of television shows, books, and movies that we could co-opt as our own slice of the language.  All the slang we know, we picked up from our parents and random young Russians, and it feels strange to use it, like we’re parroting what we learned in elementary school.

In Russian, I still feel like I’m five, even though I’m pretty fluent in it, can read, can write, and even worked on projects at work with the Russian Ministry of Finances representatives.  When I speak Russian, I feel like I’m playing dress-up in my mom’s fancy clothes.  It feels ridiculous and strange, like I’ll be discovered and outed at any minute. So when we talk to our cousins or hang out with other Russian Jews, it’s all in English, because, otherwise, we feel like we’re at a fake  dress-up tea party.  We know we all can’t express ourselves truly the way we want in Russian, even though we know all the words.  “Kofe” means coffee but Kofe means drinking it dark with dessert cake in your aunt’s kitchen in a high-rise in Yaroslavl while “coffee” means a cappuccino in a Starbucks.

Source.

English, however, is my language.  No one owns the fact that I learned the word douchebag somewhere online or in 10th grade, or that I read about tessaracts in a strange, strange book.  I romped and roamed all over English on my own without any hand-holding or screaming matches for me to read books in English.  It’s fresh, it’s new, and I can concoct whatever I want with it.  I don’t have a limited set of cultural and linguistic frameworks.I can make up new words like sealrus (seal plus walrus) or come up with flexible nicknames for friends.

So, for kids,  you have to literally make yourself into someone else to teach your baby to speak normal Russian, not a problem for our parents, for whom Russian was extremely natural.  I left feeling worried and uneasy about our future unborn children.  Because, if I’m so selfish that I can’t switch to Russian when I specifically made it a priority to marry a Russian speaker so our children wouldn’t end up monolingual, what the hell is wrong with me?

Then, yesterday, Mr. B and I went to a  birthday party.  The friends are Russian and came here, on average, about 5 years ago. So, they’ve lived most of their adult lives in Russia and in Russian.  We talk to them 100% in Russian, joke with them in Russian, and think with them in Russian.  Because, I think, we know that there’s no possibility to switch into English.  Not because they can’t speak it-they are excellent English speakers-but because it would be awkward.  I know that if I switch to English with them, the conversation becomes strained and awkward.  And, the weird thing is that, when I speak Russian with them, it doesn’t feel forced and strained like it does for family, who know we can express ourselves better in English.

And at this point, some of them can, too.  Mr. B’s mom says, “I can’t read books in Russian anymore because I have to switch my mindest completely.  It’s not hard, but there is an adjustment.”  A normal sentence for any given family member is, “Ya poyehala na shopping, i zaparkavala mashinu okolo Macy’s.”   I went shopping, and parked my car near Macy’s.   Because it’s easier to say shopping than “kupit novoiu odezhdu” because shopping is shorter and  has a specific American context that modern Russian doesn’t cover.  When my aunt from Russia was here last year, we had to constantly correct ourselves because we forget that she doesn’t know Runglish words like draivat’ (to drive), uploadat’ (to upload, which the Russian verb povesit’ -literally, to hang up, doesn’t quite cover) and turka (turkey).

What does this tell me about being a Russian speaker?  That, despite having  Russian drilled into me since being born and feeling good about the fact that I can speak it, it’s still somewhat of a foreign concept, and one that I will have to consciously, strenuously, and painfully work on to inculcate into my kids, who, it’s not even guaranteed, will be good at it because instead of at least five years in a Russian-only environment, they’ll have zero.  I think I’ll have to look to ](http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/ben_yehuda.html) for this one.