Lost in Translation: A Russian-American Love Story

Michelle Togut

Michelle Togut resides in North Carolina with her husband and pets. She has worked as an adjunct professor of history, contributor and writer, and small-firm attorney, among other things. These days, she's trying to sell real estate. For fun, she reads political blogs of all persuasions, practices yoga, drinks wine, hikes, reads, and volunteers for a local animal rescue.

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14 Responses

  1. zic says:

    This is pretty wonderful, Michelle.

    We are so shaped by our cultures, and yet we can integrate that into new culture, recover (or not) from where we came from.

    We lived in Brookline, MA for many years, our children went to school there. Brookline has a a lot of non-native English speakers; mostly because it’s a bedroom community for the universities and medical centers in Boston. Each of the primary schools focuses on specific ESL language groups; our school was focused on Chinese and Russian students.

    Each of my kids, in 3rd grade had this happen: Russian kid comes up, and says, “You do this, or I’m going to tell the teacher you did this other thing.” And that other thing was, of course, a total fabrication.

    Both kids came home, hysterical. Not so much because of the threat to tell the teacher something bad, but that the thread was completely made up, and how do you defend yourself against such a false accusation?

    It made me very, very sad for the things those children’s parents went through, and you do a terrific job getting at what that experience was, and how comical (in the classic sense) that can be.


    Many happy years ahead.Report

    • Michelle Togut in reply to zic says:

      Thanks for your kind words, zic.

      Your story about those kids doesn’t surprise me. Truth seems to be a much more elastic concept in Russian culture. The Russian seemed to think nothing of it when his kid lied to him. I remember one conversation where he seemed to have almost a perverse sense of pride in his child’s ability to construct tall tales, whereas I thought he should call the kid on the carpet.

      We had a lot of disputes about child-rearing, especially when my stepson lived with us full-time. But that’s a whole other post. Let’s just say the word “boundary” is not in The Russian’s vocabulary.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    We’ve a dear friend who married a Russian woman and, one night when we went over there for dinner, we discussed culture shock and she explained to us that “All Americans are crazy.”

    Everyone at the table nodded.

    Anyway, she explained to us that Americans never shut up about religion. Even the atheists!, she complained, talk about religion day and night. She told us that, in Russia, everyone is Orthodox and nobody talks about it.

    (She also thinks it’s silly how Americans are always smiling. Apparently, only idiots and Americans smile all the time.)Report

  3. Kim says:

    To the Japanese mind, saying “no” is unforgivably abrupt and rude (to the point of being something only a child could/would say).
    It is fascinating to read another reason for not being as straightforward as Americans expect.Report

  4. Chris says:

    Michelle, this is wonderful, and your description of Petersburg made me wonder if you or The Russian have ever read any Victor Pelevin, and specifically, Life of Insects?Report

    • Michelle Togut in reply to Chris says:

      I haven’t, Chris. I’ll have to ask him.

      Something else to add to my reading list.Report

      • Chris in reply to Michelle Togut says:

        Michelle, it’s a novel about Russia in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, as Western businesses came swooping in like vultures on a corpse. It doesn’t paint a rosy picture of post-Soviet Russia in the 90s, or of those western business people.Report

  5. Zane says:

    This was both beautiful and fascinating, Michelle. My partner has spent much time in post-communist Romania, and we have many friends who are Romanian immigrants. The need to be circumspect and observant seems powerful for many of them too.

    Not to hijack this discussion, and not to compare living in the closet to living under Stalin or Ceausescu, but some of those traits are also lived by folks who spent much of their life as closeted lesbians or gay men.Report

    • Michelle in reply to Zane says:

      It makes sense that folks who lived in the closet for quite a while would tend to be circumspect.Report

      • zic in reply to Michelle says:

        Seems to me that there are many types of closets; and close-cultural encounters are sometimes awfully good at revealing the ones we don’t really see as closets at all; like feeling free to criticize authority, or to trust it, too.Report

  6. James Hanley says:

    you could almost hear his Russian accent from the computer screen.

    I know exactly what you mean. I have a student who came to the U.S. from Russia when she was 11 years old, not knowing a word of English. She is very intelligent and quite fluently bilingual now, but her writing sounds Russian. It’s that curious lack of articles. We do a bit of that in American English, “going to church” or “to school,” but not consistently; we don’t to “to hospital” (as, I think, the Brits do), or “to market,” “to game,” etc.

    Years of living in fear of the secret police make Russians hesitant to state their ideas explicitly, and they often seek a veiled or subtle way of conveying a thought.

    Hmm, not the Russian who sat on my dissertation committee. I think everyone who knew him could have wished for a little more of that in him, as he was damnably brusque about his opinions. Then again, I suspect he was somewhere on the spectrum and not quite aware of how he came across socially.Report

  7. Johanley says:

    Having only met the Russian once I distinctly got the impression that he was very deliberate and guarded in his thinking and speaking, moreso than a lot of other immigrants I know. As the daughter of immigrants myself, I would also agree that when I am around family and the primary language is Dutch, there is a different vibe in our interactions but the openess of the Dutch culture has made it easier for James to feel a part of this. I suspect if my family had come from a culture with some core differences this may not have been the case.Report