I was a Russian Language and Literature Major in college. When I look back at the arc of my life, it makes sense, but at the time, it felt random, different, and, therefore, cool. It had more of an effect on me than I anticipated; I started spending all of my breaks – long winters and summers – in the former Soviet country of Belarus, working for Jewish camps sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which seeks to reestablish and reinvigorate Jewish life in central and eastern Europe.
This was in the mid 1990s, and one winter, all of the stores were out of eggs. Another winter, on New Year’s Eve, it was brought to my attention as camp director that that the coal-shovelers, upon whom we were dependent for heat, were drunk. We didn’t have heat for two days. The American counselors zipped up their polar-fleeces; the Russian kids wore their woolen gloves inside the dining room, the smell of fresh-baked bulochki and the steam from the tea warming our cold noses and red cheeks.
One summer, somehow, I met my husband; we fell in love picking little red berries in the forests outside Minsk, widening our eyes at the swans in the lakes, which we half-joked were radioactive, and stealing glances at each other one late-afternoon, on the back of a horse-drawn wagon, the horse a new mother who’s foal trotted by her side. Then we had to bump along the dusty road of translating our love from Russian to English.
People would ask my mother what I was up to. “What’s her major,” they’d ask. “Russian,” my mother would answer. “Hmm.” Pause. “What does she want to be when she grows up?” “An immigrant,” my mom would answer.
Well, here I am, all grown up, a mother myself with two daughters. My Russian comes in very handy with my Russian-speaking babysitter. And I still haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up, or how all my pieces fit together. But, immigrant-like, I am engaged daily in a constant dance of navigation, translation, and interpretation. Defining myself over and over. In this sphere – a mother. In that – a professional. In the other – a wife. But always – an independent woman, riding her bike, wind in her face. Speaker of different tongues. Changing, constantly, sometimes elegantly, sometimes clumsily, my accents, and, with them, my very self.