Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Language, Garden Tools, and Breakfast

One of the questions I'm frequently asked is "do your kids really understand both English and Russian?" The short answer is yes! They are bilingual. Growing up in an international family led to this (not just living overseas.) Are my children equally proficient in oral comprehension and writing/reading abilities? No. Having bilingual kids has been an interesting adventure for this missionary mom--one where I feel I'm more an observer than anyone who's pulling the strings.

When we were expecting our first child, I heard someone say that children learn best in bilingual families when one parent always speaks one language, and the other always speaks a 2nd language. This is the way it turned out in our family--not because we decided beforehand to do this, but because once I held my pudgy baby boy in my arms for the first time, it was only natural to speak to him in my native tongue--English. The same goes for my husband who spoke to our son in Russian exclusively. My husband and I together however, always speak Russian to each other.

Language acquisition is a fascinating thing to watch, and as our boy grew and began saying a few words, he interestingly spoke a mix of both languages. All his choices seemed logical to me. For example, instead of saying "give me that" or "gimme" which is a complicated 2 syllables, he (and in fact all of our children) said the Russian "dai," which is an easy 1 syllable. "I want to go over there" was the simplified Russian "too-da."

By the time my son was a preschooler all the foreigners oohed and ahhed over his language ability. What we had to acquire through hours spent pouring over grammar books, my son learned through osmosis and daily interaction (and his accent was better.) He did however, refuse to translate for people. He gave them a look, when they asked him what a word meant in the other language as if to say "don't you know yourself?" Maybe that was more to do with his personality than anything else. He also refused to speak a foreign language with a foreigner. He seemed to instinctively know who was Russian and who was a native English speaker. In our circle of international friends and colleagues, he refused to greet a Russian with "hi!" or an American with "privet!"

As a preschooler, I taught my son his English letters and he was reading by 5. I spent hours reading to him and his siblings story books and nursery rhymes, and singing children's songs in English. Although my husband always spoke to the children in Russian, he rarely read to them and they didn't sing songs. However my children seemed to understand everything in both languages and I felt confident calling them bilingual.

When my eldest was 6 we hired a tutor to teach him his Russian letters (so he wouldn't hear the pronunciation through my American accent.) We completely dropped our English reading at that time so that we wouldn't confuse him. Within 2 months he was reading proficiently for his age, and we felt confident in sending him to Russian school in the fall.

School was a huge wake-up call for us. All my pride in having bilingual children was squashed within days of the start of 1st grade! The teacher said he simply didn't have the vocabulary the other kids had. "You must read read read to him in Russian!" she said. "That's his father's job." I protested weakly. He didn't know the Russian fairy tales or nursery rhymes that were constantly referenced, even in math class! Well, you could say, that's just a cultural difference, nothing to do with language. But the difference is that the language in Russian fairy tales and nursery rhymes is different than every day language. It is what is used to teach Russian kids literacy. A child who doesn't know these things is considered to not know much at all. The Russians also teach their preschoolers to memorize nursery rhymes, and expect the children at any given moment, to be able to recite one. My son, of course, could recite none. Another minus.

The entire class was sent to the school psychologist for diagnostic testing. My son's test scores were quite low. Alarmed, I attended a parents' meeting to discuss the results. The psychologist gave an example of the kind of tests the kids completed. "I will tell you four words," she said, "and you should say one word that describes that entire group." I expected her to say "cat, dog, bird, cow" and we would call out "animals!" Instead she quoted four words that I had never heard before in my life. "And what are they all?" she asked. "That's right! Garden tools for your summer home!" Well, we had no garden or summer home and I doubted my son knew even one of those words.

I didn't run out and buy my son a spade, but we did get some books of Russian fairy tales. As my son struggles through the intricacies of Russian grammar, we left his English studies in the dust. As a result he speaks English better than Russian but reads and writes better in Russian. Then there's my four year-old, who, in an act of defiance stopped speaking Russian a year ago. But that's a story for this blog for a different day.

Many people have noted humorously that our family speaks a blend of Russian and English. This we don't notice ourselves. I think that I am speaking just English with my kids, and my husband thinks he speaks just Russian. But since we all know both languages (more or less) there are certain words that make more sense in one language than in another. For example my husband will call out to the kids in English "toys away!" in the evenings and the kids and I will all refer to sweet and condensed milk (a favorite pancake topping here) as the easy Russian word "sgushonka." In this way being bilingual has really enriched our family's spoken interactions, especially at the breakfast table.

And so as we continue to wade these waters of living in a bilingual home and having bilingual children, I am still learning alongside my kids. It's been an adventure and a challenge, and I've spent lots of time praying for guidance. Are my children bilingual? The long answer I tried to describe in this blog. The short answer, I can say with a smile, is yes--yes they are!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Worries, Gnats, and Storytelling

June found us bouncing down remote, back village roads, heading into mosquito territory armed with children's Bibles, puppets and balloons. The plan was to do a mobile kids' club in the northern villages. It was bound to be a grand adventure, as it was every year, but I had my worries and concerns.

My parents were visiting from America--two adventuresome pensioners, who trekked halfway across the globe to see yours truly and my three exuberant offspring. They had braved multiple flights on multiple continents, overcome merciless jet lag, and endured hours of intense Lego playing on the floor. But when I informed them of my imminent trip to the villages and my plan to leave them alone in this foreign city for 3 days, their eyes widened in disbelief and maybe a little horror. My attempts to assuage the situation by informing them that my 3 year-old would stay and keep them company seemed to no purpose.

Before we set out I left detailed instructions on all the essentials: how to use the dishwasher, how to answer the doorbell, how to use the oven, how to use my cell phone, how to turn on Luntik (a Russian cartoon.) To my dismay I forgot to write down the phonetic pronunciations for "milk," "bread," and "water" in case an emergency trip to the store would become necessary.

We set off in the wee hours of the morning (which in Russia in the summer are as bright as mid-day.) Roughly two hours into our trip my husband's cell rang. Through a weak connection I heard my mother's voice say, "I pressed something on your phone and now it appears to be blocked and is asking for a code or something. What do I do?" This call did nothing to allay my fears at leaving them behind in my apartment in the city.

Setting my concerns aside we bounced onward. Arriving in the northern villages, we dove right into our kids' program. We unpacked outside in a park. Curious children played nearby, watching us. We got out our puppets, baseball bat, Frisbee, and balloons. Soon all the kids who had been hesitant a few minutes ago were learning to throw Frisbees and chase fly balls. We talked to the owner of the little house next to the park, and he allowed us to plug our speaker into one of his electrical outlets.

I was up first, to welcome the kids via an orange-haired puppet with green skin. I took my place behind the curtain and got on my knees with Mr. Green on my right hand. The park's ground was surprisingly uneven, and I couldn't find a space without tree roots. Soon the music was on and the program began. And so did the feeding frenzy. The bugs in the Russian taiga and the surrounding villages are not just terrible--they're like killer mutants. As I struggled to stay in place the mosquitoes, gnats and horseflies fed on my lower legs (why oh why didn't I wear long pants???)

Into the 2nd skit and we had forgotten that we needed all staff to perform, and there was no one to hold up the informal puppet stage aka blue-flowered bed sheet. We quickly recruited my two sons, aged 6 and 8. My dear Sam, the 6 year old, could not understand the delicacies of this task, and constantly lowered and raised the sheet. I overcompensated with my puppet and the children giggled and snickered at my puppet bobbing up and down. Our 2nd microphone stopped working and so the 1st one was passed back and forth between the huddled and squatting puppeteers. The mike was hurriedly shoved to my mouth for my line and my lip received a jolting shock of 220 Russian volts.

Our puppets sang and danced as the tree roots ground into my knees and the mosquitoes and gnats called their 3rd and 4th cousins to come and eat at the feeding bonanza. We found another willing volunteer to hold up our sheet after Sam ran off to play and left it flapping in the wind. After we finished our program I stiffly stood up, willing the blood to return to my extremities below the knee. The team began to pack up our equipment, looking in vain for the baseball bat that had been carried off when we were occupied with the program. My right eyelid had been bitten by gnats and was already starting to swell (it stayed swollen for 3 days.)

I smiled weakly to the kids and was ready to go home and lick my wounds...but then one girl after another came up to me to talk...to take pictures. They hugged me and joyfully took children's Bibles. They asked if we would return the next day. Other team members were also talking to thrilled kids. They had loved the show. Teenagers had even stuck around through the puppets' songs, and wanted to talk to us now afterwards. It was a success. Even though I'd had my worries and concerns, and the program had not gone very smoothly in my opinion, I loved it too. From the moment I slid my hand into the green-skinned puppet and began to tell silly jokes into the microphone, I knew I was right where I belonged, doing exactly what I was created to do--to share stories with children--to tell them The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tangerines, Balloons, and Missions

What does it mean to be a missionary and a mom? What does that look like in my life? Are there days when I am one or the other, or do the two run together and blend like yellow and red becoming the color of tangerines?

My desire is for my kids to treasure the values that we pass on to them, while catching the vision too for evangelism and mercy ministry. This means including them in our work as much as possible. We do this by sharing with our boys about what we do, having them join us in prayer, and sometimes bringing them along on different projects (their favorite part!)

A few summers ago I was thrilled that my then 6-year old was joining us to do a village kids' club program. He couldn't contain his excitement, sitting in the back seat of our mission's van, as we bounced down deeply-rutted remote roads. The back of the vehicle was packed to overflowing with puppets, prizes, a limbo stick, and a helium tank for balloons.

We pulled up to the village school and 100 smiling kids of all ages surrounded our van. My son helped us unpack all our stuff into the school's gymnasium. He soon found some other boys that rivaled him in exuberance, and they began to run around the gym together.

Content that my son was enjoying himself and participating, in his own way, in our project, I busied myself with setting up. We began our program and shared with the kids about how each person is special and valuable. We talked about respecting one another, regardless of physical appearance or mental ability. I was very busy leading the program and organizing the puppets, but I could see my son out of the corner of my eye and knew that he was OK. We had a rousing game of limbo, followed by a question and answer time, that soon grew chaotic. For every correct answer to one of our questions, a child earned a balloon. My fellow missionaries worked quickly to fill up the red, yellow, and green balloons with helium to meet the demand. Soon we ran out of balloons and passed out candy until our bags were empty.

As the pandemonium died down, I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Your son is crying." A young girl pointed to the corner of the room. Alarmed, I hurried over and saw my son, turned toward the wall, sobbing.

"What is it? What happened?" I asked. Had he been wounded?

My son turned his wet face toward me. "I knew all the answers," he said, tears dripping off his chin, "and had my hand up the whole time, and you never picked me. I wanted a balloon too."

Suddenly I had a flashback of 3rd grade. I saw myself raising my hand and waving it for every question, and hearing the teacher say, "does anyone OTHER THAN ERIN know the answer?" I was crushed. After a while, I just stopped raising my hand at all.

"I'm so sorry," I said. "You're right. I should've picked you."

I hugged him and dried his tears. He quickly forgot his misfortune and ran off to play. But I didn't forget. What a lesson I had learned!

As much as I want my son to be a member of our team, and participate in our projects, he is first and foremost a little boy. A little boy who wanted a balloon.

As I navigate this adventuresome life of being a mom and a missionary, I am still learning. Learning how to balance. Learning how to blend the right proportions of reds and yellows in life. As I reach out to others, I hold my own little ones closest to me.With God's grace, He is teaching me how I can share His love with others, while keeping my own children my main mission.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Prison, Banana Bread, and Marriage

People always ask me two things: how did you end up in Russia, and how did you meet your husband? In honor of recently celebrating nine years of marriage, I decided to answer the 2nd question in this blog post.

It's impossible to tell our story without first telling his. Rashid was born in the republic of Karakalpakstan (today located in Uzbekistan) in the Soviet Union. His Ukrainian mother and Russian Tatar father had both moved there with their extended families to work in the booming cotton industry. Rashid grew up headstrong and determined, driving his teachers nuts and forcing his school director to say she had never met such a boy in her 20 years in education. He found himself a bad group of friends and often got into fights with other boys.

When the Soviet Union fell apart in the 90s, Karakalpakstan was hit with financial woes, as well as ecological disaster. The Aral Sea had shrunk to 1/3 of its original size, due to over-zealous irrigation, and the cotton fields were polluted with unregulated fertilizers and pesticides. The health of the region plummeted as the water became dangerously dirty and the infant mortality rate shot sky-high. Rashid's baby sister had been born sickly, and the family decided they would move to Ukraine, which had been known as the "Bread Basket" of the Soviet Union.

In Ukraine, like any place after a revolution, there were also financial difficulties as one collective farm after another went bankrupt. Rashid's parents were hoping the change in scenery would help him find a better group of friends, but he was soon skipping school and hanging out with a bad crowd. One day in their village they saw a Volga--not the river, but the car. There were few cars in the village at all, and the Volga was the coolest car of them all. Rashid and his little brother hotwired the car and took it for a joyride, then left it a few blocks from where they'd found it. The car, it turned out, belonged to the county prosecutor. The boys were arrested for car theft, and Rashid received a sentence of 4 years.

Rashid soon found out that life, even in juvenile detainment, has its own order and he did his best to get in with the "bad guys." In prison he was in constant fights, so he was often punished and sent to solitary confinement. He figured when he got out of prison he would become a part of the Ukrainian criminal underworld, what Russians refer to as "bandits."

After he had been in prison for about 3 years, he found himself repeatedly stuck in solitary confinement. Finally he was put in there for 3 months. After a while, even his hardened heart began to despair. He began to think. A lot. There was nothing to do in there but think. They even folded up your bed during the day so you couldn't sleep. Soon he began to go back over his life. He realized he had done nothing his whole life that he could be proud of. He thought of his mother and how she wrote him tear stained letters, begging him to wisen up. He realized he was nothing, that nobody wanted him or needed him, and even society thought him a burden. He began to think if he could just change his ways, maybe he could do something helpful for people like become a surgeon. He asked the officers for books and they brought him books from the prison library. He began to read book after book, teaching himself how to speed read, but the emptiness inside of him grew and grew.

One day he remembered how, as a child, he had seen his grandmother reading a Bible. After she had laid it aside and left, he grabbed the book and started to read it. His uncle then came and took it away and said, "That's not for you to touch. That's the Book of Life." That phrase "Book of Life" now stuck in Rashid's head. Maybe that book, he thought, will help me to change my ways. He asked the guard for a Bible. He brought him a little Gideon's New Testament. Rashid quickly sped through it, understanding nothing. He decided to read it again, slowly. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with what he read. He felt like he had been searching his whole life for what was written in this book. And more than anything, he was sorry for the way he had lived, and he wanted to live like it said in the book.

Rashid came out of solitary a man changed. The emptiness in his heart was gone. His fellow inmates couldn't believe the change in him. They began to call him "Batushka" or priest. No longer did he hang out with the hardened criminals. Although that can be punishable in some cases by death, they left him alone and almost seemed to respect him. When he was released from prison, his parents were in shock. The neighbors also heard that he had become a Christian and they came too to see. His neighbor kept saying "I can't believe it's you. I just can't believe it's you....you're so different."

Work was scarce in the village. When a group of young people from a church in Perm, Russia came to vacation in his village, they invited Rashid to come back to Russia with them and study in their Bible School. "I have no money, and almost no belongings," he said, "I've only just been released." They assured him that he could work for his room and board. So Rashid left for Perm. He studied a year in the Bible School, and then stayed on, working and serving in the church.

OK for those of you who are still reading this very long tale, this is where I come in! I came to work in Perm in 2001. I worked with the local church, serving in their orphanage for street kids. The building that housed the orphanage was also a dormitory for some of the people at the church, including Rashid who worked making furniture, remodeling the building, and fixing and building all sorts of things. So I met him and knew him as one of the guys at the church.

In the fall of 2001 I got a phone call from another street kid worker, telling me that Rashid was sick in the hospital with tuberculosis. His condition was serious. He had contracted TB in prison, where it's an epidemic among the malnourished and perpetually under dressed (read--freezing,) prisoners. Rashid's TB must not have been treated completely, and now it was back.

The other worker and I agreed to visit him in the hospital. We visited him twice, bringing him vitamins and fruit, and both times he talked only to the other girl, and ignored me completely. I decided not to visit him again (what's the point of visiting someone if you're just going to be ignored??) But then one day, late in the evening, I got a call. I was so surprised to hear Rashid's voice. "Are you going to come back and visit me again?" he asked. I didn't even know how he got my number! I asked if he wanted me to come, and he said he did, so I said I'd come.

I began to visit Rashid weekly in the hospital, bringing him banana bread and other baked goods. The bus ride from my apartment was an hour and a half, so I wrapped the things I baked in several towels so they'd stay warm, and then prayed I'd find a seat on the jammed-pack bus so I wouldn't have to hold the pole and juggle banana bread for an hour and half ride. That winter we'd had a ton of snow. After I got off the bus I walked through a park to the hospital, where a path had been cleared. The snow on either side of me towered almost as high as my head. Rashid waited for me every Thursday evening, and as I arrived in the small TB ward, the other male patients would smile at me and start calling down the hall "Rashid! Rashid! Your visitor is here!"

Rashid would bundle himself up and then we'd go outside the hospital to the park and talk and talk until the last bus was ready to leave for the city. When Rashid was released from the hospital several months later, he met me with a bouquet of tulips and asked me to marry him. 

Our official wedding ceremoney, Skadovsk, Ukraine November 2, 2002
Since we're both foreigners (Rashid has Ukrainian citizenship) Russia refused to marry us. But we still wanted to have our ceremony in Russia, where we had our mutual friends. So we traveled to Ukraine in November 2002 to sign our marriage papers. Our civil ceremony was scheduled for noon, but there were no buses at that time from Rashid's village to the county seat. Rashid thought it would be no problem to catch a car, but we stood by the side of the road for an hour without a car stopping. I began to wonder if I'd miss my own wedding. We finally found a ride and made it to the ceremony just a few minutes late. They had waited for us, and as we stood in the lavish Ukrainian hall of culture, Rashid in jeans, and me in a corduroy skirt, with no marriage party, they began the ceremony. I understood almost nothing, since it was in Ukrainian, and at one point the lady stopped and looked at me expectantly. I didn't know what to do, so finally she said to Rashid "Translate for her!" so he turned to me and said "Will you marry me?" I agreed, and signed my Ukrainian wedding license in English.

On December 21, 2002 we had our real wedding at our church in Russia, with our friends, and even my parents flew in and a friend from college. That was nine years ago. Rashid has been free of active TB since he left the hospital. I am so grateful to God for my wonderful husband. Life is truly an adventure.
Our wedding, Perm, Russia, Dec 21, 2002.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dogs, Dumpsters, and Lunch

Once a week we make a hot lunch at our missions base and invite the men who live at the dumpster behind our building to come and eat with us. There are above-ground hot water pipes that run behind the trash area, and the men put their clothes and old mattresses on the pipes and sleep there. The pipes are a warm respite in the cold winter for those who are homeless.

While the girls and I make macaroni, hot dogs, and mugs of steaming tea, my husband Rashid goes out back and invites the men to lunch. Since Rashid was gone on a trip to the Arctic last week, I went outside myself, along with another guy from our mission.

With me leading the way, we wound around the dried out leaves and scraggy bushes down the path to the dumpster. I boldly marched up to the water pipes, where I could make out a figure slouched down and sleeping. I opened my mouth to call out to the man, but before I could make a sound a dog--black as night--came flying out of the air above our heads. He lunged for us and began barking and growling and showing his teeth.

This girl-who's-never-had-a-dog-before-in-her-life froze in fear. The dog continued to jump and lunge at us, barking sharply and snarling, but the man slept on. I was too stunned to do anything, but take little steps backward each time the dog jumped. Soon we were pressed back against some scraggly bushes and could go no further. I began to call out to the man, whom I recognized. "Valera! Call off your dog! Valera! Valera! Wake up!" He sat up and looked at us groggily, as if he couldn't remember where he was. At this point the other missionary at my side sprung into action, and jumped between me and the dog, spreading his arms out to shield me.

A guard dog is a great, sometimes life-saving asset for a homeless person. The neighborhood is not happy that some men are living behind the dumpster, and a few weeks ago someone set fire to the men's belongings. They lost most of their mattresses and warm clothes. The men are alcoholics, and spend the better part of each day sleeping, so a guard dog's protection is a necessary thing.

Waking up fully, Valera said one quiet word to the dog, and he immediately backed down. He still growled and snorted a bit, but stopped lunging. After trotting in circles in front of us for another minute, he disappeared.

Heart still racing, I quickly invited Valera, who was the only man there that day, to lunch. The rest of our time together followed the usual routine: thorough hand-washing, prayer of thankfulness for the food, lunch and reading the Bible together.

As one missionary read from the life of Jesus, he stopped to explain how Jesus befriended and ate with tax collectors, who were hated in that society. But Jesus didn't care what others thought, and loved and accepted all people. Valera listened intently. "You've done the same for me," he said. "You accepted me and spend time with me, even though you know I'm a drunk. Thank you. I sincerely thank you."

"It's Jesus who loves all people, and told us to do likewise," we told him. "That's why we do this." Solemn, Valera nodded, rose, and left to return to his place at the water pipes.

We've been trying to get the men into shelters, but they often don't want to go. Perhaps it's the lure of being one's own boss, or maybe it's the excitement of living in the risky underworld of homelessness and delinquency. We placed one man in a shelter successfully, only to have him run away a month later from warmth and food and choose to live on the streets. Despite these discouragements and challenges like attacking dogs, we continue to reach out to the homeless, believing that God loves all, accepts all, and desires to rescue all.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Spitting, Babies and Beauty

Life in Russia is full of adventure, and since my eldest son has started public school, I am amazed at the new insights I've received almost daily into Russian culture.

A few days ago I was helping him with his reading homework. We were reading a skazka, or fairytale, and it was full of magic and superstition. "What's superstition mean?" my 7 year-old asked. As I struggled to define the word, I had a flashback of the perfect example that happened 6 years ago...

I was sitting on a hard bench in the loooong hallway of my neighborhood health clinic, trying to hold my squirmy baby boy. It was one of the first times I had taken him to see the Russian doctor, and I was nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing. Russians love systems and uniformity, and being a foreigner meant I was always outside the box--outside the system.

As we waited my bouncing baby boy cooed and gurgled to the babushka, or elderly woman sitting next to us. She smiled at him for a while, and then eventually shook her head and...spit on him three times. Well, ok, it wasn't real spitting, she fake spit. Just made spitting noises. She continued to smile through the whole thing, so I knew it wasn't meant maliciously...but still, did this woman just spit on my baby??!!

I didn't know how to respond, and she seemed to see nothing wrong with it, so I made a mental note to ask my husband about it later. Even though he is Ukrainian, the cultures are very similar.

That night he explained it to me: spitting is to ward off the evil eye. Supposedly if you have something of value, like a beautiful child, then others may become jealous. In their resentment of your good fortune, they may give you the evil eye--so that you lose whatever you have that is valuable. Thus spitting is a way of "tricking" the evil eye--such as if I spit on him, then it means he's not a beautiful baby, and thus no one will be jealous of him and no one will be able to curse him with the evil eye. I even heard stories later of it taken to such a degree in parts of this country, where a baby is born, and no one is allowed to say anything positive about the baby for the first year. Instead only insults are to be given as "protection." Spitting is not just for infants, but can be used as protection in any good occurence or windfall.

As I told my son this story he got hung up on the saliva ("it was pretend spitting, honey") and I again tried to make sense of this huge, fascinating, terrifying, and enigmatic country, that has been my home for 10 years now. I see how the father of lies can so twist our perceptions and escalate our fears that we proclaim something beloved and perfect to be hateful and marred. My prayer is this: Help me Father, to see the beauty in this great nation and people, and to voice it, compliment and extol it. Help me not to be intimidated by the pressure of conformity around me, but to stand for truth and love.