language

College Bound

The Kremlin, Moscow

The Kremlin, Moscow

My son was born in the US state of Minnesota. We were living in Russia at the time. Our first challenge was getting him a passport. We took a bunch of photos of him lying on a white bedspread. He would not be still so we had to work fast. We came up with a few we thought might work and went off to submit our forms. They were rejected. The photos were no good. They had a place in the building where we could try again. I held him up over my head so I wasn’t in the photo and more pictures were taken. Finally we came up with one they accepted. My thought was, he would look completely different in a couple of months so what difference did it make?

At seven weeks I boarded a plane bound for Moscow. It was a 12 hour flight with a layover in Amsterdam. Luckily he slept most of the way and the real up side was he proved to be a ticket to the head of the line at customs. Easiest arrival I ever had.

Dancing in the rain in Switzerland

Dancing in the rain in Switzerland

Over the next six years I dragged him all over Europe. At eight months we went to visit a friend in Finland. We took him with us to see the movie Braveheart and he slept right through it. At 10 months we visited family in the US. At 18 months we went to Helsinki. Later we spent time in France, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. We took a road trip across the Rockies to California. At one point we were sitting in a restaurant in Amsterdam. It was late and we were enjoying a nice meal. There were two men at the table next to us. One of them leaned over and asked, “does your son always sleep at restaurants?”. I looked over and he was fast asleep with his head on the table. My answer was, “Yes he can sleep anywhere”. And he did.

The electric train in St Petersburg

The electric train in St Petersburg

I had some challenging plane trips during his terrible two period but otherwise he was a good traveler.

My childhood was much the same so I didn’t really think anything of it. Children might not remember the details of their early travels but they absorb the experience. They understand they are in an unfamiliar place and need to act differently. They hear people speaking different languages. They learn all kinds of things. I can vividly remember being six in a hotel room in Tokyo and seeing television for the first time. What struck me was I could not understand it. They were speaking a language I did not understand. I grew up speaking five languages, how could it be that there were more?

On a Carousel in Paris

On a Carousel in Paris

 

So my child learned to adapt and adjust and deal with things he found unpleasant. He went to a Russian school and hated it because he was the “different” one. When he returned to the US and went to school, again he knew he was the “different” one.

 

“Although the length of time needed for someone to become a true TCK can’t be precisely defined, the time when it happens can. It must occur during the developmental years – from birth to eighteen years of age. We recognize that a cross-cultural experience affects adults as well as children. The difference for the TCK, however, is that this cross-cultural experience occurs during the years when that child’s sense of identity, relationships with others, and view of the world are being formed in the most basic ways…… no one is ever a “former” third culture kid. TCKs simply move on to being adult third culture kids because their lives grow out of the roots planted in and watered by the third culture experience.”

From Third Culture Kids by David C Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken

After returning the US, my son had other challenges – adjusting to five different schools, his parents’ divorce, and his father’s death. His experience in Russia and traveling around Europe gave him unique tools to cope with these things. His father’s family was Russian and he now embraces his heritage with a balanced view. He knows the hardships that people endure there but he also knows about their rich culture and has memories of the wonderful people who helped care for him.

Nations Friendship Fountain, VDNK, Moscow

Nations Friendship Fountain, VDNK, Moscow

 

 

Now, as he goes off to college he will have new challenges to face. My main challenge in college was adjusting to my passport country and people I knew little about. My son is better prepared for the transition. He is comfortable with diversity and a wide range of people. He will do well.

 

 

My First Loaf of Bread

In the early 90’s my husband went to work in Moscow, Russia as a freelance journalist and decided to stay and live there.  After a while, I followed him over there.  I arrived in Moscow knowing very little about the country and nothing about the language. The Soviet Union had formally dissolved in 1991 but the city I landed in two years later was still very Soviet.  The streets were poorly lit, there were no neon signs, or many signs at all for that matter.  People did not generally speak English and were leery of foreigners.  It was an adventure for me but not an easy transition.

I determined there was bakery right outside our apartment building because it always smelled so good.  Fresh bread in the middle of winter, yum.  I went in one day to check it out and it was packed with people.  I stood and watched as people went up to the counter, looked around, and then queued up at the cashier’s cage.  They told cashier the type of bread they wanted, how many loaves, and what it cost – at least that is what I assumed was going on.  Over the next few days I stopped in on my way home and watched this process, trying to catch the names of the bread people were buying.  I still could not make out the Cyrillic writing under the loaves.

I finally managed to understand the name of one of the loaves – bolichka – it was a small, fat, French or Italian type bread.  I decided to give it a try.  I got in line for the cashier and yelled “Adin Bolichka!” into her cage.  I had learned how to count to ten and felt confident that “adin” meant “one”.  Much later I learned that Russian is more complicated than Latin and there were different ways of saying “one” depending on what you were talking about.  I probably should have said Adna instead of Adin.

Of course she didn’t understand me and started to yell at me – “What? What are you saying?  What do you want?  Speak up!”  Yelling at me!  I quickly left the building.

A few days later, I waited until there were only a few people in the store. Using a combination of sign language and my rudimentary skills, I pointed to the bread I wanted and asked the woman behind the counter what it was called.  “Shto?”  What?  She told me.  I asked her how much it cost.  “Skolka?”  How much?

She realized I was not catching on too quickly so she kindly wrote it all down for me on a piece of paper.  I went to the cashier and handed her the paper.  I paid her and returned to the counter with my receipt.  I had successfully purchased my first loaf of bread in Russia!!  I was so happy!  I felt like I should frame it.

But it was delicious.

I went through this process many more times during my years in Russia.  Eventually my language improved and my “Babushka” skills were honed enough that I could make transactions without falling apart.  The Russian Babushka is a fearsome entity.  She is a grandmother who always wears a scarf and  feels it is her duty to scold you.  It doesn’t matter who you are.

“You should button your coat”,

” You should not sit on marble”,

“You should wear a hat”,

“Your son should put his gloves on”,

“What is wrong with you, why don’t you do what I say?”.

She is everywhere and she is intimidating.

These are the women who manned the cashier stations in the Russian shops.