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Accents: Russian Family

Wednesday, December 11, 2002 at 1:30 PM

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If someone were to ask whether or not you are an American, you probably wouldn't hesitate to say yes. But, for many, that isn't an easy decision. Even in a city as ethnically diverse as Cleveland, a foreign accent can label you as an outsider. ideastream is conducting an in-depth examination of Northeast Ohio's immigrant culture through a special series of radio and television reports called Accents. This morning, David C. Barnett takes us to the home of a local family that's trying to establish a new identity.

David C. Barnett: Rachel has come to the end of a long journey. She pauses to smile and look approvingly at her new home.

Rachel’s less than a year old. Her parents, Vadim and Alla, recently bought a brand new home in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, after spending the first few months of her life in a two-bedroom apartment in. More than 6,000 Russian-Jewish immigrants have settled in the Cleveland area, over the past decade. A podiatrist by trade, Vadim says his medical background gives him a unique perspective on being a person of two countries.

Vadim: It’s a very psychological thing for me. I lived with my family for quite a few years when we first came here, because we didn’t have enough money to rent apartments for everybody, or buy houses. And now I realize it was quite an experience, because I when I visit my parents now, I don’t speak English to them, I speak Russian. Then, I go to another place and I have to speak English. Initially, I had to force myself when I would leave the house in the morning, as I was driving to work, I would listen to the radio and I was thinking in my head, I said to myself, no matter how slow I think, I’m going to think in English.

DCB: Though Vadim is now quite comfortable with his adopted language, he occasionally he has to repeat himself for store clerks who can’t penetrate his accent. And that has caused him to ponder what it means to be an American.

Vadim: It depends on people’s perception of what they think it is to be an American. If I don’t watch football, and I don’t speak about it, they think… they even say, don’t call yourself an American. You don’t watch football, you don’t know what’s going on in the stadium. But, I could care less about it. Unfortunately, I never watched football, and I never watched soccer. It’s just not my thing. I have other things to do.

DCB: Right now, it’s time for Vadim and Alla to go shopping. Alla’s mother has arrived to watch Rachel while they’re gone. She makes it a habit to speak English, Russian, and the universal tongue of baby-talk to her grandchildren. It’s one of the subtle ways she tries to balance the two cultures for these young citizens.

Grandmother: We try to keep it American and Russian, because we try to keep it our language. It’s very good to know two languages. I never think about what was before.

DCB: The Miles Farmers Market in Solon is a popular stop for many members of Greater Cleveland’s immigrant population. As Alla and Vadim roll through the Produce section, she tears off a plastic bag to gather the ingredients for a breakfast that harkens back to the old country.

Alla: We love to make pancakes from zucchini. Vadim loves those pancakes. It’s very easy, you add onions, flour, eggs, and some herbs, and the zucchini. You just grate them. We grew up with those; my Mom used to make them.

Vadim: And the pancakes are usually much thinner than the ones that are served in the restaurants here. There is a Yiddish word for that - blintzes.

DCB: Alla is a native of Minsk, in Belaruss. She came here when she was 20.

Alla: To be honest, I was scared when I came here. It was a culture shock. I was afraid to speak, and I was afraid that people would not understand me. I remember watching TV and not understanding a single word.

DCB: Now, if there are any language difficulties remaining, it’s on the level of trying to decipher public address announcements. Approaching the checkout, she suddenly remembers a key ingredient for supper.

Alla: Vadim, we forgot to get greens and cucumbers.

DCB: Vadim dutifully heads back to the Produce section to pick up the requested vegetables, while being serenaded by Christmas music, and walking by store displays bedecked with smiling Santas. Returning with his bagged produce, Vadim says he doesn’t feel much alienation - being Jewish in the midst of a commercial Christmas culture.

Vadim: The thing is, I came from a huge country that was even more Christian than this. It doesn’t really bother me, I’m used to it. Plus, the fact that what over here has a religious meaning has no meaning over there. It’s just a celebration of New Year.

I can relate to that song a couple years ago I heard it on the radio, it was kind of a joke about Chanukkah. About this guy who lives on a street where everyone’s house is lit, and his is dark, and he can’t understand why.

DCB: Adam Sandler’s musical pep talk for isolated Jewish kids aside, Vadim recalls an incident that underscores the need for parents to help children establish their own identities.

Vadim: I do know about some couples that are mixed, like I have a girl who works for me and she’s Armenian, which is a Christian culture, and her husband is Jewish, and he said that wouldn’t like to have an Christmas tree in the house and she’s like, well, what if we have kids? How are they going to figure out who they’re going to be?

DCB: Vadim and Alla plan to raise Rachel in the family’s Jewish heritage. Rachel hasn’t developed much of a vocabulary, yet. But, when she does, she probably won’t encounter store clerks who have trouble understanding her. She’ll be the first generation of her family with no direct contact to the old country that her parents left. She’ll be able to converse in the mother tongue of her grandparents, and in the local slang of her school friends. Her father hopes that she’ll be accepted as an American.

Vadim: I think if she’s not going to have any accent speaking English and living in this country, it’s going to be good for her. Definitely. But, she will have an accent, if she speaks Russian.

DCB: In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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