What does one say to a half-Russian baby?
I didn’t know, so I didn’t speak to my daughter for the first week of her life.
As an immigrant, I figured English would be a straight-forward way of relating to my future child. Plus, her father’s only Russian connection prior to meeting me was Red Dawn the movie and a gig at a college radio station, where he paraded around campus every May Day, chanting “Ain’t no party like the communist party, cause the communist party don’t stop.”
As I stared at the wiggly six-pound creature staring back at me beneath the fluorescent hospital lights, Russian language suddenly seemed like the most intuitive link to her. It felt like home.
And as she grew, my dormant Russianisms began to emerge from their refugee suitcase stashed away beneath the safe “How are you? Fine, you?’s” and the blue jeans of my adoptive homeland.
Now, my kid is pretty confused – and she isn’t alone. More than one fifth of Americans speak a language other than English at home, which means their children get ridiculed for smelly lunches, weird holidays and for parents who insist that a football is round and beach and the female dog sound exactly the same.
So how do you know you’ve got a Russian baby on your hands?
The Wall Rug
Let’s get one thing straight: a Russian wall rug is weird – yes, and a little old school. But it isn’t a camouflage trick (i.e. Russian invisibility sweater). It makes an excellent insulator in cold weather. Its labyrinthine designs are as soothing as counting sheep.
The Safety Pin
Russians are a superstitious people. A safety pin threaded through baby items is said to keep the evil eye away. Even your ultra-logical engineer aunt will insist on getting you one. Also, don’t let anyone outside of the immediate family see the baby for the first couple of months for those same reasons. (And don’t get a Russian started about sharing baby pictures on Facebook, oy!)
Beets are their own food group. Particularly borscht, a steaming burgundy-colored soup made with beets and other root vegetables readily available in cold Russian winters. It is fed to children early on, to much jubilation of relatives as they clap for the baby drenched in red broth with a pudgy, vampire-like face. Borscht is basically your Russian peanut butter jelly sandwich. But messier. And more nutritious. I’m totally not biased, of course.
You’re starving/freezing the child!
Take a Russian out of an anxious northern nation, but you can’t take the anxious northern nation out of a Russian. No matter how much a Russian baby is fed, it’s never enough. A parent often hears, “Lord, what a skinny child! Do you feed her or what? Is she getting enough milk? Is she getting enough fat milk?” Unless the child eats just fine, measures in the 92nd percentile by weight and resembles a mini sumo wrestler, which means, of course, that she must be underdressed. Extra layers are a must in the California sun because every Russian knows: letting your feet or your head get exposed to the elements is like begging for sickness, begging.
You know you are raising a little Russian if there is at least one Cheburashka toy, cartoon or book in your home – kind of like beets. A character from an iconic children’s story, Cheburashka is big-eared, brown and furry and looks like a mix between a bear and Karl Marx, beloved for his idealism and songs.
A Russian-American child may hear Russian from one parent and English from another. but in reality, languages get mixed up in a bilingual household, and so does the kid.
Plus, speaking a foreign language in public can feel forced to some parents, so they often revert. After all, on the playground, “Be gentle and share with Johnny” spoken in Russian may come across as ominous and not unlike something one would hear from a Cold War-era spy interrogator, what with those rolling r’s.
The many winter holidays
Baby’s winter celebrations include Christmas, New Year’s Eve and maybe even Hanukkah. Because religion in USSR was outlawed, New Year’s Eve became the key national holiday, like Christmas but without Jesus. So every winter, a Russian-speaking child might get the tree, the menorah, the Times Square ball on TV, smoked herring – and plenty of opportunities to have her parenting discussed at family dinners.