In mother tongues

American Pie?

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“Саш! Hу что же это?!” 

Nine-year-old me nervously fumbled with the hem of my checkered blue uniform. My mother held up my spelling test between her thumb and forefinger, as if it were some nauseating insect to expunge from our household. 

“16/20? Why not 20/20?” 

Staying true to Russian parenting, my mother had questions if I didn’t get full marks. 

She quickly took notice of my flaring nostrils and watery eyes. Foreseeing a tearful end to the conversation, she preemptively struck: 

“This isn’t so hard! We’ll practice together.” 

And so my training began. Amid tending to my gang of stuffed animals and assembling Legos, I was tasked with scoring a 20 on the next spelling test — or else. 

Together we cut through the thick tropical jungle of English words, sounding out the strange and the silent. With her accent, every vocabulary word sparkled with mystery, like a magic spell. 

“People,” a particularly tricky word where I habitually switched the “e” and “o,” became a silent mantra: pee-OH-PEL. “Know” became “KA-no-wuh,” and “white” became “Wuh-hit-eh.” One of my favorites, “witch,” was interrupted by a hiccup of a “t” sound — “wih-TI-ch.”

On test day, whispering under my breath, I recited our enchantments. Presenting my mom with the perfect exam sheet, her Russian cheeks rounded with pride. 

“Моя умничка! Видишь? English is not that difficult, да? Hадо всегда учиться, learn new words, never stop.” 

Only later did it dawn on me that she’d used the same methods to memorize English vocabulary when she immigrated, sounding out the letters, dancing between the phonetic sounds. 

Our English-learning journey did not end there. As we practiced on grocery receipts and road signs, my vocabulary expanded, as did my love of reading. Our weekend excursions were to Barnes & Noble, where in true immigrant parent fashion she told me I could read as many books as my heart desired, all without spending a dime. 

Eventually, the student caught up with the master — Mama and I began to help each other. I credit my perpetual infatuation with anything literary to her. 

It’s kind of ironic: Mama taught me to love English, the language of a country devoted to undermining her culture. The United States diminishes her women to subservient “mail order brides” and her people to communist alcoholics, all stereotypes I encountered while reading in English. 

From stand-up to shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Master of None,” immigrant parents are defined by exaggerated, thick accents. Over time, I too perpetuated these stereotypes. I wasn’t sure how else to present her without her accent. She became a bear-taming, AK-wielding KGB agent. But this intimidating character was far from who my mother actually is. I felt the only way I could talk about her was through these caricatures.

My mother is perpetually in a gladiatorial battle with the English language. Sometimes a fumble transforms into an inside joke. Once, as I was curled in an armchair devouring “Harry Potter,” she passed by and remarked, “Oh Garri Potter! J.F.K. Rowling wrote such a good book.” Another time she kept mixing up “beach” and its less-favorable homonym. Her slips often have me on the floor, clutching my stomach and crying. 

When I was younger, Mama especially struggled with recalling certain English words. Sometimes I’d quietly withhold them from her, seeing how far off she could veer before I flexed my knowledge. To my younger self, it was a game — correcting her grammar in front of strangers, imitating her accent and pointing out minor spelling errors. Though she’d bashfully look down and laugh, when I recall those once humorous moments, immense guilt washes over me. She stumbled over the unfamiliar terrain of the English language, and I cruelly watched.

Today, I don’t dare correct her. I love to hear her conjure Russian-shaped English words: Behind the intended, rough American pronunciation, there’s the comforting, velvety softness of Slavic sounds. The way she says “bruise” (rolling her “r,” drawing out the “ui” sound) or “oil” (somewhere between “al” and “el” — it turns into its own letter). I think of her gentle voice: her wheezing laughter, the scant-yet-genuine praise, her animated encouragement, the well-deserved scoldings, all the “люблю тебя”s. She sounds like home.   

The other day, we tossed Russian and English words back and forth as Mama snipped the branches of our plum tree with silver shears and I typed away. Every so often she’d offer some ingenious idea. Something that would otherwise take me hours of mulling over to write out, she can express in a few well-chosen words. My mother strings words together more eloquently than I, both despite her lack of familiarity with English and because of it. She does not use fillers, speaking instead with intention, wisdom and purpose.    

Maybe this is why she somehow makes an appearance in everything I write. Before I know it, she’s over my shoulder, her voice asking me questions, playing devil’s advocate, telling me where to go with my pieces. She is with me, always, saying: 

“Видишь? English — it’s not so hard! Давай, давай, моя дорогая! Keep going.” 

Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]