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Monday, August 4, 2014

Life Story: Sometimes knowing a language is worth it for its literature alone.

 
It is easy to learn languages as a baby and be bilingual from birth. But many of us, including the parents raising those lucky bilingual children, have a different story. Some were born and raised monolingual until leaving the country as teenagers, some - as adults. Andrey left his home country when he was 10 years old and moved to US with his parents. There he started a new life and learned a second language. He has also learned how to preserve his mother tongue and this gave his life a different spin - he started translating the poetry and putting his own thoughts into rhyme. He is also raising a bilingual daughter.



My name is Andrey. I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. I remember my childhood, as most kids remember theirs, carefree and easy-going. I spend most of my summers with my grandparents, either from my mother’s side, in Pishchulino, a small village some five hours drive south of Moscow or from my father’s side, in Pyatigorsk, a city in southwestern part of Russia, known for its mountains and mineral springs. In Pishchulino, I learned how to collect mushrooms, pick berries, and play card games. In Pyatigorsk, my cousin and I would make water guns from old shampoo bottles, and run around with local kids, spraying one another. During the long winter months in Moscow, I would spend a lot of time outdoors, playing in the snow. My brother, who is six years older than I am, always had many friends and he would reluctantly drag me with him from one party to the next.


As a child, I did not ever think about the economy, politics, the army draft that was looming over my brother’s head, or future in general - that was my parents’ job, and so it was somewhat of a surprise when they had decided to follow my aunt and uncle and immigrate to New York.  I was ten at the time. I remember feeling anxious and excited at the same time, elated and depressed. I did not know what awaited me on the other side of the ocean. I knew that the chances of me coming back to Russia in the near future were slim. The evening before we left,
I remember distinctly walking down the street and silently saying my goodbyes to all of the inanimate objects that happened to catch my eye.

What was I losing? Even before leaving, I would ask myself this question repeatedly. Was Russia my childhood? Was Russia the language, the books that lined a huge bookshelf in my room, the music that my brother would listen to non-stop, the culture that I had only barely began to discover? Was Russia all of my friends, and one girl in particular? I felt stress and tension descend on my family and I knew that the next few years would be difficult, and that I could no longer be a child. I had to grow up and mature quickly. I also promised myself that I would do what I could to preserve the Russian culture by reading more, listening to more music, and retaining what I could. As far as the girl, (our mothers knew each other since their adolescence and she was always like a big sister to me) for some reason, I was convinced that we would reunite soon.

The first couple of years in New York were a blur. I remember a lot of compulsive cigarette smoking and many tears (usually, but not always, it was my mother). I remember my father being away for weeks, working somewhere in Connecticut, (was it loading and unloading trucks?) just to earn us a living. I remember sitting with a Russian-English dictionary and translating my homework word by word. The assignments that I could have done in ten minutes usually took me ten times as long. I remember my brother, who had never had any problems finding friends, alone and depressed. This was the metamorphosis stage and soon enough life normalized – my brother found the one friend that he needed at the time to make things easier, my parents found better jobs, and I learned English. Oh, and the girl, she moved to Canada and was now within driving distance. Although not very often, we still visit each other to this day.

Learning English came easy. I watched TV, I hung out with my cousin (who moved to New York two years before me and was already forgetting his Russian), and before I knew it, I began to speak without an accent. My grandma once asked me how I managed to do this and my responses was that I had no other choice; other kids did not understand me otherwise. Once I felt relatively comfortable with my English, my focus changed to preserving my Russian. At 13-14, I started reading all of the Russian books I could get my hands on, from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy to Nabokov. I would take the six train and transfer to the Q to get to Brighton Beach (a two-hour trip one-way), where I would buy Russian CDs and movies. I fell in love with Russian poetry, and devoured Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, and Brodsky, and soon realized that my love for poetry, extended beyond my desire to preserve the Russian language.

The idea of picking a particular form and morphing your thoughts to fit into it, while maintaining a rhythm and including rhyme to drive it forward, really appealed to me. I started writing. And to learn to do it better, I started translating my favorite poets into English, a language that despite my best efforts to preserve Russian, already felt more natural to me. Fast-forward to the present. I have self-published a dozen of books (11 books of poetry translations and one of myown writing). 

Andrey, his wife Lena and daughter Sasha
Currently, I live with my Ukrainian-born wife, Lena, and our three-year-old daughter, Alexandra, or Sasha as we call her. Like me, my wife moved to America when she was ten. We can both read and speak fluently in Russian (writing would take some practice), but feel more comfortable talking to each in English.  We also agreed that it was important for Sasha to grow up knowing both languages and so we made it a point to speak to her exclusively in Russian (a strange family dynamic, I know). At three, (I am happy to report) she is speaking much better in Russian and speaking is something that she does non-stop. We are also looking into moving one town over into a school district that teaches in French-immersion. The more languages the better. Our hope is that, when she’s a bit older, Sasha takes interest in Russian culture and we’d like to give her enough of tools to start that exploration. If nothing else, knowing Russian is worth it for Russian literature alone.
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Please contact me, if you are interested to participate in the Life Story series and write about your experience as a bilingual or multilingual child and/or a parent.

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Life Story: Trilingual mama - trilingual kid. Why would it be any other way?  
 

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