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 who can’t pronounce “beach” right.
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 – that it certainly is. But it isn’t a camouflage trick (i.e. Russian invisibility sweater). It makes an excellent insulator in cold weather and helps with fussiness. 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 left-brain 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 then there’s Facebook…)
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 and clapping of other relatives. Borscht is basically your Russian peanut butter jelly sandwich. But messier.
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, “Oh Lord! What a skinny child! Do you feed her or what? Is she getting enough milk? Is she getting enough fat milk?” And so on with the solids. 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 revert. After all, when on the playground, “Be gentle and share with Johnny” could come across as “Go stuff sand into Johnny’s pants for taking your truck.” As if the playground were a relaxed apolitical environment to begin with.
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 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.