The last time I went to the beach with my grandmother, I must have been about 6 or 7. She came carrying a backpack full of fruits and Russian chocolates that had already begun to melt.
Going to Brighton Beach with my family was a highlight of my childhood summers. The beach was right off of Little Odessa — a neighborhood in Brooklyn with a large Russian-American population — so my grandmother frequented it constantly to remind herself of home. On the days she brought me along with her, we made it a point to bring some towels and watch the Atlantic Ocean.
My mother immigrated to the United States in the mid-’90s, and my grandmother followed a couple years later. Because my mother planned to fully immerse herself in American culture, living in Little Odessa was never an option. Under no circumstances was she going to marinate in her Russian comfort zone, so instead of following Brooklyn’s immigrant crowd, we crammed ourselves into a small one-bedroom apartment off of Midtown Manhattan.
Throwing themselves into the middle of New York City wasn’t an easy transition for my mother or grandmother. Though we all spoke the same language at home, school and friends made my grasp of English speed ahead without them.
Which is to say, whenever they were around, my Russian identity stuck out like a sore thumb. My grandmother would pick me up from school every day wearing her thick accent proudly.
“I am here for Alexia,” she would say.
As she spoke, she rolled her Rs and stressed the wrong syllables. Security would look at her in confused silence.
“Alexia,” she would say once again, slowly and confidently. “I am grandmother.”
I’d approach her shyly and translate her broken English into a version of the language they understood. Being so young, it was easy to mistake their confused expressions for a reflection on my grandmother’s intelligence.
That’s not a unique feeling for children of immigrants. Author Amy Tan captures it perfectly in her essay “Mother Tongue.” Tan’s mother, a Chinese immigrant, struggled with speaking formal English as well.
Tan wrote, “When I was growing up, my mother’s ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say.”
I relate to young Tan’s embarrassment. I had also internalized an association between intelligence and English-speaking ability.
That wasn’t the case on Brighton Beach, though. Going to Brooklyn was the only time I would see my grandmother communicate in Russian outside of our apartment. When I’d watch my grandmother speak with a shop owner in her native tongue, it was a sudden reminder her thoughts weren’t limited — they were fluent, clever and perceptive.
Tan quickly became uncomfortable calling her mother’s English broken. Though she and I had been quick to write off our families’s versions of English as insufficient, the reality for her mother and my grandmother was the same: just because they couldn’t capture their thoughts in their second language didn’t mean they didn’t understand the world around them.
Now that I’m farther away from home, I catch myself forgetting my Russian grammar more often. The other day, while on the phone with my grandmother, I stumbled over my words trying to explain a project I was working on for school. I found myself using the same “limited” tongue I was ashamed of my grandmother for speaking in English.
I realized then how silly it was to judge the quality of what I was saying by my grammar. Unlike my younger self who would have greeted my lack of knowledge with shame, my grandmother met my language with patience and understanding. She understood my mouth couldn’t catch up to what I had visualized in my head, but that didn’t mean the meaning wasn’t there. My misuse of certain vocabulary words painted its own picture — a vibrant world of Russian and English influence.
I’ve come to realize the major role her English played in molding my perception of the world.
Tan echoed this sentiment when writing about her mother: “Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world.”
As we baked under the Brighton Beach sun, I asked my grandmother if she dreamed in Russian or English. She stared at the ocean for a little while in deep thought before turning to face me.
“Both,” she said.