I close my eyes and imagine my grandma’s apartment in Moscow. As I pass through the kitchen, I see the peeling linoleum tiles and the same old green table where I ate soft-boiled eggs as a small child. It smells of soap, tea, and matches. I enter into the hallway and walk over the dusty wooden floor that creaks with every step, no matter where you put your foot. I pass by the old calendars hanging on the walls. Then I slip into a bedroom and sprawl over the squeaky bed that smells something like apples and soil.
I open my eyes. I look around. I’m back in my bedroom in my American house staring at the chipped paint on the ceiling. The air is stuffy, and there are stripes of sunlight across my legs coming from between the blinds. A thought crosses my mind: perhaps I should continue with my regular life by doing homework, folding my laundry, and feeding the turtles. But instead, I close my eyes again.
The sun always comes in bright and strong though my grandma’s large windows, and the thin worn out drapes flutter with the cool Moscow breeze. I study the things on my grandma’s shelves. There’s the yellowing globe, the brown ceramic pot of Soviet kopeiki and rubles, and my beloved little red dragon. There are growing piles of books on shelves, windowsills, and desks. And there’s the old black and white TV where I watch “spakoynuy noche maluschu” before bed every night.
I open my eyes and find myself again staring at the chipped paint on the ceiling. I squint and try to remember every detail of my grandma’s apartment. I spent so much time there growing up, and every object holds a memory for me. These memories grow more dear with distance. Perhaps the first time I realized how important they are was when I entered kindergarten in the US. Before then, I didn’t even know there was a world beyond my little Russian bubble.
I close my eyes and remember that one particular warm autumn day. My mom was, once again, late to pick me up from school. I studied my shadow. It was dark and short and made me look plump. The tall teacher’s shadow was much longer, extending several cement blocks past our feet. My mom was frequently late, but today I had a problem with it. I had to pee. Badly.
I looked to the farthest point on the road that I could see. Our muddy-green Crown Victoria should appear there at any moment, except it was nowhere in sight. Actually, there were no cars in sight whatsoever since all the other kids had been picked up already. My teacher held my hand and also looked into the distance.
How do I say I have to pee? The other kids in my class ask to go to the bathroom all the time. What do they say? For the life of me, I couldn’t remember. I looked to the distance. Still no muddy-green car. Still no mom. And still I had to pee.
Maybe if I just look back at the building she’ll realize I have to go! I whipped my head around and looked at my school. She then also turned around to see. There was nothing there, so she turned back around. Darn it!
Mom, just come now. I looked hopefully again across the field. Now now now! Oh, come on! Where are you???
We stood there awhile longer. My thoughts rambled on in some incoherent way until I felt the warm wetness drip down my leg and run down the cement blocks in front of us. A yellow river of shame and embarrassment. I wanted to cry, but that would also be embarrassing. So I just stood there wishing I knew English.
I chuckle as I remember my struggles. Opening my eyes, I see stripes of red crawl across my legs as a car passes by. It’s getting darker, and the cracks on the ceiling become more mysterious. I lived in that bubble of silence and confusion for what felt like forever, not comprehending anything that the teachers said. It was just the way things were, and I hadn’t ever experienced school any other way.
I remember one particular winter day when I got up the courage to bring my little red dragon, darakonchik, for show and tell. The day went by until we were finally sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce in our circle. The tall teacher, in her kind voice, said, “Everyone who brought an item for show and tell, stand up. If you did not bring anything, keep sitting.”
Oh shoot, I thought to myself, what does “brought” mean again? It kind of sounds like brother in Russian, but that doesn’t make sense. I have my darakonchik in my cubby, so do I stand up or keep sitting? Does “brought” mean to have an item or not to have? I wish the crooked-smile teacher were here; I always understand her better. I look around the room.
“No one else brought any show and tell items? If you brought an item, stand up now!” continued the tall teacher.
This is awful, I told myself inside. It probably means to stand up, and everyone is probably wondering why I’m not standing up. I turned red. But if I stand up when I actually should keep sitting, then everyone will definitely think I’m stupid—or crazy! I wish I had left my darakonchik at home.
But wait! The“stand up” arm motions she is making probably mean she wants those who brought items to stand up. And Devon is standing up. I saw him carrying his robot this morning, which is probably for show and tell. That means standing up is for people who have items! Yes!
I stood up just as the tall teacher spoke another incomprehensible sentence. Luckily, after that sentence everyone standing up headed over to the cubbies and I followed.. I remember smiling with pride as I pulled out my dear old darakonchik from my cubby.
I smile again. It was quite an accomplishment to figure out what people were saying. I couldn’t comprehend anything that the teachers said, but I could use arm motions, facial cues, and pictures to figure things out. Sooner or later, I began to pick up on words, such as “bathroom” and “stand up”, but it was many more weeks until I actually started speaking. I was stuck in my bubble of silence, and it’s memorable to this day how I broke out of it.
We were once again sitting in our circle.
“Art,” I said.
A feeling of dumbfoundedness and confusion hit me. Did I just speak? Me? Where’d that come from?? It was time for the afternoon centers, and today I actually said “art” instead of pointing at the art center. An unusually large crowd of kids followed me to art and persistently asked me to say things.
“What about yellow, can you say yellow?”
It went on for a long time. But after this, I began to talk.
I still don’t know what came over me that day that caused me to speak. But after those first words, speaking became normal. In fact, I started speaking so much that sometimes I’d get “think times” for it. And I actually learned my teachers’ names. English became easy; it became second nature. And it was great until my English got so good that it overtook Russian. I started speaking English with my siblings. And my diary switched to English. And my thoughts switched to English. In fact, here I am, blandly staring at a ceiling and thinking in English! I remember the first time I noticed that English was compromising Russian.It was almost ten years after those first English words.
Jetlagged, I stumbled over my grandma’s dusty wooden floor to set up the table for dinner. I carried over the dishes my mom and grandma had prepared on that little, green kitchen table. I sneakily gulped a spoonful of olivye as I placed the bowl on the table. Then I set out the beautiful plates and the shiny silverware from the locked cabinet under the old black and white TV. As I walked around the table placing down shiny forks and knives, I’d pinch off a piece of one dish and sneak a spoonful of another.
The door buzzed. Ohmygoodnessthey’rehere!!!! I haven’t seen these relatives in so long! What if it’s weird? What if I’m weird? What if… Oh gosh this is scary. I stuffed a blinchik into my mouth and, nervously, went over to open the door.
“Privet, kak dela? Prohod’iti pozhalusta! Vam dat’ tapachki?” I greeted my guests and offered them slippers, by custom. What a strange thing it is to give out slippers, I thought.
We got seated around the table and filled our plates with the delicious Russian foods.
“So Lisa, you’re in high school now right? How’s that?”
“It’s pretty good. Much bigger and more people but all in all, pretty similar.”
“What classes are you taking?”
“Just the basics: math, Spanish, English, history, ceramics and… uhhh” Mmmm, how do I say it? Ehhhmmmm.. Oh yeah!! “and physics!”
“Interesting! And are you doing anything besides dance?”
“Yeah, I’m a runner for the school team! My favorite event is…” Crap, what’s that word again? Oh, yeah! “Hurdles. My favorite event is the hurdles.”
“Our friend runs the hurdles! He also does prushki! You know those?”
Uhhh, what does that word mean again? It kind of sounds like brush in English, but that doesn’t really make sense. We’re talking about running, maybe it has something to do with that. I nod and smile awkwardly. I hope they’ll just keep talking and not ask me about those. This is so embarrassing. It’s like kindergarten all over again, except now with my own native language! This is even worse than peeing my pants!
I’m proud of learning English, but as I live in this English world, I don’t use Russian as much anymore. I rely more and more on English, and it causes my Russian to become fuzzy. I can’t tell you the last time I picked up a book in Russian or chose to speak Russian over English. I now find myself stuttering or having to think of words before I say them. It gives me an uncomfortable feeling to have to think twice about my own language. Speaking Russian is part of who I am, and I don’t want to lose that. So I speak Russian when I can and fight the urge to switch to English. And when I dream in Russian or accidentally answer the phone with an “alyo,” I know the language is still alive within me.
But discovering the importance of Russian wasn’t the only thing that my experience left me with. Back in kindergarten, I used cues around me such as hand motions, facial expressions, and pictures to figure things out, such as whether I should stand up or keep sitting for show and tell. And I used these cues to communicate my thoughts to others, especially before I began speaking English. This is a skill that I developed and retained throughout the years. It helps me out when I visit foreign countries, such as Japan or Korea. It helps me out when I teach kids who don’t speak English. And it helps me in school where I use pictures or diagrams to figure out material.
My room is completely dark now. The stripes from the window have faded away, and the cracks on the ceiling blend in with the greyness. I close my eyes once again. This time I travel to my grandma’s living room. There is a paper bouquet of flowers on top of the dusty out-of-tune piano. There is a neat line of small porcelain figurines on top of a delicate white doily. There are paintings and pictures of my mom as a baby hanging across the wall. Among those pictures there is picture of little me holding my little darakonchik close to my heart.