Sometime in the last few years, my sixty-five-year-old father, a Soviet mathematician who spent the first fifty years of his life in Moscow, began speaking to me in English.
That I can’t recall when exactly this happened makes the shift seem, at least in retrospect, both gradual and sudden. One day he was correcting my Russian, his laughter once ascending into a taunting squeal as I attempted to casually use the swear word svoloch (along the lines of “scum”) and mistakenly said slovoch, which, if it were an actual insult, would mean “worder.” Another day, not much later, during what must have been an argument, I couldn’t find the Russian words to describe whatever I was feeling, and I remember my father, calm and patient, saying, “Say eet een English, my luv.” Then last week, a voice mail: “Hi. It is me. Call me back please.” When I return his call, the voice that I know to be father’s asks, without the sharp edges that used to define his accent, “Have you ever been to the Hamptons? Nice place.”
When we moved to the States, I was ten; my father, forty-eight. What this meant was that I lost my accent by the time I started high school while my parents still pulled up to the gas station attendant and said, “Fool up regular.” I spent whole afternoons then explaining to my mother that “ze” and “zat” were nothing like “the” and “that.” That no one in America hung Persian rugs on their walls as decoration. That boiled potatoes were not dinner. When my haughtiness was amusing, they called me “our little Americanka;” other times they looked at me with unrecognizing dismay—there was a stranger in their home, or, worse, a traitor.
Now something similar was happening to my father. The rugs dropped to the floor. Have you ever been to the Hamptons? Nice place. It was like watching a teenager discovering and appropriating the world around him: his acquired affectations so familiar, so endearing in their transparency and then irritating for the same reasons. Our little Americanetz. I missed the charming clunkiness of his beginner’s English that always sounded wiser in its flaws. “Vooman has soft, bootiful hands,” my father once said to me. “Man vork so vooman keep soft hands.”
Recently, I heard about that mythical vooman again, not from my father, but from my television screen, uttered by the mother of a twenty-three-year-old heroine named Diana on the reality television show Russian Dolls. “The vooman have to be all,” says Diana’s mother, a bleach-blonde prophet stirring a steaming pot of borscht. “The vooman have to be housekeeper. The vooman have to be good wife. The vooman have to be vooman.”
The show, created by two young women (not voomen) in their twenties, Elina Miller and Alina Dizik, who immigrated not to Brooklyn but the tamer Russian immigrant enclave of Chicago, is currently airing on the Lifetime channel. Following the show’s August premiere, my cousin had taken to posting quotes from the show on his Facebook page, spoken in the kind of English that required the show’s editors to institute subtitles: “You look a little bit lose weight,” says another character’s mother, later adding, “I so proud from you.” (Though not for being a “little bit lose weight.”) I took the bait. I tuned in.
There is a wonderful symmetry to the show: it follows three waxed, dyed, and needlessly painted bachelorettes (Diana, 23; Anna, 22; Anastasia, 26) and three witty Brighton Beach matriarchs (Renata, 47; Sveta, 47; Marina, 34). There are men too, but their role is to open their wallets a lot and their mouths little. Like Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, the show is about status, here measured by the radiant hue of fruity drinks and tautness of animal-print garments. These are not women, but voomen.
I asked my cousin out to drinks. Though we are the same age, my cousin Dmitriy is older in American years, having arrived in our Coney Island high-rise three years before me. As my seasoned guide to the square block radius that was sold to us as America, he took me to a deli on my second day in this country and showed me how to order a sandwich. “You can get anything you want on it,” I remember him saying, “or, all of it.” (Or, as Russian Doll Anastasia says, “This is America dammit and I have options.”) That same week, after a trip to the aquarium, we sat on a bench on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, watching the old men play chess in the December chill and ate order after order of onion rings until our stomachs hurt.
This time we met at a bar in Grand Central, not far from the Manhattan bank where Dmitriy now works as a mortgage broker. Our favorite character, we quickly agreed, was Anna, a “model” who lives with her family in a two-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach, where her bed is a clumsy pyramid of cheap stuffed toys and her grandmother, Beba, sleeps on the couch. At twenty-two, resourceful Anna already has a career to fall back on, running a modeling school for newly arrived Russian girls; she is at once fairy godmother, pimp, and naturalization bureaucrat.
And yet, I found watching the show that there was something enviable about Anna. Rather than being lost between two worlds, as we were, she had found a way to straddle them, seizing opportunity offered by her new land—she would be buzinessvooman!—with goods from her old one.
“I’m a little jealous.” I told my cousin. The expression on his face grew tense, serious.
“You want to be … like them?”
“Well, not exactly like them,” I said, “but they are sort of … more Russian than us.” (Anna would know how to properly use the word svoloch, or any other Russian expletive for that matter.)
Dmitriy considered this. “But they don’t live in America,” he said. “Brighton is where we went because we had to. You’re not supposed to want to stay there.”
After the show premiered, Russian-American viewers waved their fists around in articles written about the show in newspapers here and abroad, over what they saw as an inaccurate portrayal of Russian immigrants: the stereotypes, the materialism, the vulgarity. Most of us are not like them, was the popular sentiment. They don’t live in America … You’re not supposed to want to stay there.
That Russians are known to be a resilient people is due, in no small part, to the immigrant’s evolved, practically Darwinian ability to adjust values and tastes when necessary. As our country back home had yet to settle on a post-Soviet identity— “Russia is like a woman in a state of perpetual hangover,” one Muscovite told me, his BMW racing along Tverskaya, “she is impossible to love.”—we happily subscribed to the stability offered by the early-nineties America of the grinning Clinton. As Russian Doll Renata says, “In America I learn you are what you say you are.” And we became patriots. We shed our accents. Our parents put their money into banks. The summers we spent at Russian bungalow colonies in the Catskills, a sad substitute for the dacha, ended. We traded in traditional zakuski of rye bread, cucumbers, and beef tongue for onion rings. We begged our parents to take us to Florida, to see the friendly mouse. Have you ever been to the Hamptons? Nice place. At some point, it became about us and them.
And here were the Russian Dolls, eating zakuski on Brighton Beach nearly twenty years after immigrating. In the first episode, Diana asks Anastasia for advice. The dilemma? Her parents want her to marry a Russian man, but she is dating a Spanish guy named Paul. “Just tell your mom his name is Pasha,” says Anastasia, the all-knowing minx. This, when all the Pashas have been changing their name to Paul!
The exchange reminded me of Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, a novel about a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrives on the Lower East Side and promptly changes his name from Yekl to Jake. Soon enough he becomes hostile to other less-adjusted immigrants, nicknaming them Greenhorns. When his wife Gitl joins him America with his son Yossele, they too are not spared from his harsh words:
For several minutes at a time, while kicking his treadle, he would see, reddening before him, Gitl’s bandana kerchief and her prominent gums, or hear an un-American piece of Yiddish pronounced with Gitl’s peculiar lisp—that very lisp, which three years ago he used to mimic fondly, but which now grated on his nerves and was apt to make his face twitch with sheer disgust … Ah, may she be killed, the horrid greenhorn.
Gitl, played by Carol Kane in the 1973 film adaptation Hester Street, is the original Russia Doll. In the end, her tightrope walk between heritage and modernity is a graceful one. The final scene shows Gitl emerging from the divorce proceedings in the Rabbi’s office as the victor and Jake—seeing his horrid Greenhorn without her “bandana kerchief” and in the arms of a traditionalist named Bernstein— as “the victim of an ignominious defeat.” At some point we all became Jake; but what happens when we want to go back to Yekl? Will he still be there?
My father who used to be Mikhail, but is now Michael, hasn’t seen Russian Dolls. My mother, who used to be Yelena and now goes by Lena, watched the show after I asked her to. She too loved the coquettish Anna and her mountain of stuffed toys. “What are they going to do, make a show about computer programmers?” she said, a retort to the critics. She changed the subject. She was enjoying the Russian translation of a book that she had just uploaded to her Sony reader. “Have you heard of Eh-leeza-bez Geel-bert?” She said this in Russian.
Irina Aleksander is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.