From America with Russian Love

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A vivacious and carefree four-year-old, I dropped my paintbrush, splattering globs of blue paint all over my t-shirt and classmates nearby. Immediately, my thin lips transformed into an enormous grin. My grandpa, or as we say in Russian, my dedashka, was finally here to pick me up. Flailing, I ran into his arms screaming, “Deda Vova!” My grandpa’s warm arms embraced my little four-year-old body. He enthusiastically said, “Preevet Fionachka,” calling me by my Russian name and pointing his always-ready video camera towards me. I was ecstatic to start my fun-filled Friday afternoon with my grandfather. Hurriedly, I pulled away from his embrace and packed up my belongings. With my tiny and soft hand in his rough and wrinkly one, we left the building and began our weekly adventure.

Years later, I was helping my grandparents clean out their basement and stumbled upon a cardboard box of dusty cassettes. I found a tape labeled “Preschool 2003 – Fionachka.” I excitedly ran upstairs and asked my grandpa to start up the VCR. Video after video, I watched my preschool Fridays come back to life as my four-year-old self dropped anything and everything in hand and jumped into my grandpa’s arms. After a while of watching documentaries of our mini adventures, it was only then that I realized the extent to which my life had changed. Instead of rejoicing as I watched some of my favorite childhood memories, I silently watched my tiny lips make out Russian words so naturally and so effortlessly, an ability that, sadly, I had since lost.

Once the epitome of a girl with Russian immigrant parents, I wondered how I had allowed myself to stray so far from my Russian identity. My weekly adventures with my grandpa transformed into bi-monthly empty phone conversations in his broken English and my broken Russian. I wanted nothing more than to once again form a close connection with my grandpa and the Russian language that united us.

At first, it was extremely difficult. Though I could always understand Russian, I had a very limited vocabulary and often botched the pronunciation. However, I made every effort to watch Russian movies and converse with my parents in Russian. I even worked with a Russian tutor to learn the written language.

After two years, on my 15th birthday, I received my usual birthday card from my grandparents written in Russian. All previous years, I was unable to read their cards on my own. This year was different. Slowly, I made out the chicken scratch on the pink card that pictured a dog in a birthday hat holding balloons. After about five minutes of staring at the various Russian letters, I closed the card and gave my grandparents a long and tight hug, thanking them for their kind words. When I pulled away, I saw that my grandpa had a tear rolling down his cheek. He then proceeded to tell me that he was very proud of me.

In my re-learning of the language, I again became proficient and closer to my family – exactly my goal. My grandparents and I began to carry on more substantial and intellectual conversations in Russian. I learned more about my family’s past. I even began to read short Russian stories. Although my ability to converse in Russian has become better, there is still much more to learn. I want to become fluent enough to visit my grandparents’ and parents’ hometowns. I want to sing along to the Russian songs that play in my parents’ cars. I want to read Russian literature and discover Russian texts. But for now, I am proficient enough to spend an entire day with my grandfather and solely converse in Russian. Whether it is listening to his childhood stories, hiking in the park, or grabbing breakfast at our favorite pancake place, it feels as though nothing has changed since my preschool days.

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