Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Red Beret
“Wow! Your Russian is really good, considering you were born here.”
If I got a nickel every time I heard that, I’d have a whole lot of nickels!
I’m a Brooklyn girl, born and raised. My family immigrated to NYC from Minsk, Belarus in the late 1970s. Russian was my first language and until I turned 4 and went to pre-K, I didn’t know any English at all.
Every now and again, my mom tells me the story of how at some point around kindergarten, I came home from school, stuck my fingers in my ears and told her I don’t want to speak Russian anymore. And for much of my childhood and adolescence, that didn’t change. I communicated with my family in broken Russian with English mixed in. It wasn’t until around high school that I began to truly acknowledge and appreciate my Russian roots.
Growing up, my circle of friends was pretty diverse. My best friend in grade school was half-Bolivian, half-Pakistani. We went to school together, rode our bikes together, and engaged in the usual mischief that six-year-olds engage in. Our moms were close friends, despite a bit of a language barrier. As a teenager, I found it difficult to fully relate to the Russian crowd in school. While my best friend in high school was Russian (albeit fairly Americanized), none of my other friends were. I didn’t enjoy Russian movies or music. I didn’t care for Russian pop culture or literature, and I always found it weird to be among my best pal’s all-Russian crowd, who seemed to only speak Russian.
When deciding on a college, I didn’t want to go to a college in NYC with a large population of Russian students like Brooklyn College and Pace. I was excited to get accepted into Fordham University, a Jesuit university in midtown Manhattan. At orientation, there was a small handful of incoming Russian students (two of whom went to my high school). The rest came from all walks of life, from various corners of the country. I loved it!
Even though I may sound like a self-hating Russian, I’m not. I’m thrilled that I’ve managed to maintain my fluency in speaking and understanding the language and very much want to pass it on to my kids. So far my seven-year-old understands Russian pretty well and even speaks it occasionally. My almost two-year-old also seems to understand Russian well,but has yet to utter something in Russian besides “Papa.”
I’m proud of my background and I genuinely hope my kids grow up to be proud of it too. I hope my kids take pride in living in a city that’s made of immigrants and their descendants. It’s tough to grow up in NYC and not be open minded. It’s a melting pot. Every day you encounter people of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. The differences are why I love living here and why I’m a proud New Yorker…with Belorussian roots.