Q&A: Raising kids in two worlds and two languages, without a map

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Think raising a kid today is hard? Try doing it when English is not your first language, when you didn’t grow up with “Sesame Street” and “Goodnight Moon” and when you don’t understand basic cultural references — and when your own parents keep hocking your chainik because you don’t feed your kids the right food (meaning food from the Old Country).

That’s what East Bay resident Masha Rumer faced nine years ago when her first baby was born. An immigrant from the former Soviet Union, she had been in the United States for 20 years, since the age of 13 — happily married, a successful writer and completely bilingual.

But as she looked at her tiny daughter, she felt overwhelmed: How could she raise her to be a “good American” while also passing on to her the Russian cultural traditions so precious to her and her parents?

She looked around for a book to help guide her, and found none. None that spoke to her, at least. So she wrote her own.

“Parenting with an Accent” is the happy result. Published in 2021 with the subtitle “How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children,” this is not a book of parenting tips. Nor is it a compilation of comic tales of children embarrassed by their immigrant parents.

From her home in Alameda, Rumer spent four years interviewing immigrants (who spoke 18 different languages) and their families in 14 states, and she tells their stories with compassion, humor and deep intelligence, buttressed by sociological data and insights from psychologists and parenting experts. It’s tenacious journalism and a terrific read.

Oh, and she also gives us a bitingly concise history of U.S. anti-immigrant sentiment and policy in fewer than six pages, a heroic feat in and of itself.

There is no one way to raise bilingual, bicultural kids, she writes in her preface, no formula for rebuilding a home from scratch in a new land. “We are not an outlandish mob of aliens,” she writes. “We want to fit in, and we want our children to grow up safe, happy, and successful. We want to be treated as equals at work, at schools, and in our neighborhoods and not have to prove our worthiness every day. Okay, so maybe we also want our brood to speak a foreign language or two, eat lots of dumplings, celebrate all the festivals and declare a practical college major. Yet, as these pages will show, things don’t always pan out how we expect them to.”

Rumer will read from her book on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

J.: You were an immigrant yourself, and you’re also a child of immigrants in this country. Were your parents able to help you at all? Or were you basically on your own navigating this new world?

Masha Rumer: My parents, like many immigrants, were just trying to survive in this country, and not go completely broke and end up on the street. My father had a night job, they both were studying English, and we were poor. So when it comes to social adjustments, I would say I was on my own. They were always loving and kind. But, you know, when you’re trying to survive, and you’re barely sleeping as it is, and worried sick about the relatives that are still there, while the country and the economy is crumbling, you don’t have that much time to sit down every night with your children and talk about their feelings and see if they need a psychologist and ask how they like their lunch.

Were you in a better situation when your own child was born?

It was a little bit easier, because I was already American and I was married to an American-born partner, although he did not speak my language. When I was pregnant we moved across the country, from Washington, D.C. to Berkeley, to an entirely new city, a new community, a new job. I found myself feeling incredibly culture shocked all over again. Because suddenly, this identity that I’d developed over the years living in America didn’t seem to serve me. Out of the blue, I found myself wanting to speak my native language to my daughter when she was born. I found myself yearning for that sense of comfort that I had as a child — the cartoons, the music, the involvement of a large family, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, family, friends — and I didn’t really have that here.

And when I tried to connect with other local moms, I found an incredibly helpful community, but I still felt that something was lacking, and I was an outsider.

How did you cope with all this?

There’s very little support in the United States for new parents in terms of maternal health care, mental health care, not to mention paid leave from work. It’s a lot to navigate for anybody regardless of where they’re from. Eventually I started meeting parents who were also from somewhere else: the former Soviet Union, Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, all over the world. I found that I was able to relate to them on a slightly deeper level.

I found myself very carefully veering into conversations like: “Do you ever feel like you’re failing at passing your culture down?” Or somebody was talking to their mother and being criticized for, like, not feeding the traditional food or not making a certain stew a certain way. Or feeling the kids are not able to communicate with the grandparents. Or somebody was not able to find some kind of a dish for a particular holiday and feeling very down on themselves about that.

It wasn’t just about language and food. It was this very deep sense of failure, or confusion, or guilt, about not doing enough to connect to American culture and, at the same time, not doing enough to stay connected to their heritage.

Some people I found, they really yearned for that connection. Others tended to stick more to their diaspora community. But others didn’t want anything to do with their heritage and where they came from.

You write that it was very important to you that your daughter, and later your son, not just appreciate their Russian cultural heritage, but be conversant in it.

I actually didn’t speak to my daughter for a few days after she was born, which is really strange, because I didn’t know what language to use. I was completely mute. I wanted to say something like, “Oh, you’re such a sweetheart” or “Look at your little cute little cheeks.” But I found myself feeling completely fake.

Then I realized that Russian was the only way I could communicate authentically with her. But at some point, when I went back to work, and my daughter went to an American daycare, she no longer wanted to respond to me in my language. She responded in English, which I learned later is very common. No matter where the parent is from, the child wants to be like everybody else and not stand out. They just don’t want to hear mom’s weird language anymore.

Once I was reading “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” to her, one of her favorite books. It was a Russian book, but she would only refer to it in English. I’d say, let’s read the book about Mishka [diminutive name for a bear in Russian], and she’d say, “bear.” I’d say “Mishka,” and she’d say, “bear, Daddy calls it bear.” We were driving one time and listening to a holiday song in Russian, and she said, “I don’t want to listen to that song, I want to listen to the English ‘Jingle Bells’ instead. Daddy listens to ‘Jingle Bells.’” And I changed the radio station. I remember later that night, going into the grocery store and I had a hard time even picking out what to buy because I was trying to contain my emotions and not burst out crying. Because it just felt like such a rejection, such a lonely moment, that the world that I wanted to give to my daughter, which is not just language but everything that it represents, was kind of slipping away. Her rejection of the language felt like a rejection of so many things that I wanted to share with her. But I let it go and, as I described in the book, I no longer forced her to speak Russian.

You write that since those early years, both of your children have relaxed into Russian.

Oh, yes, it’s fine now. My daughter is 9 and my son is 7.

What have you learned from interviewing these immigrants from Iraq, France, Cameroon, and many other places? 

One in four kids in America have at least one parent who was born abroad, according to the latest statistics. That was shocking to me. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book, too, not just because of my own concerns.

When I looked around, I found listservs, books about how to raise a bilingual child, but they were very technical, very dry. There was nothing I found that was conversational, and nonjudgmental, and affirming about the immigrant experience, written from an immigrant’s perspective.

Since the book came out, a lot of the feedback I get is people saying that they find themselves in its pages, no matter where they’re from in the world. They tell me they can understand their own ancestors better.

That was really my intent — that this book should be a resource, warm-hearted, a way for people to understand themselves better and not feel so alone. As immigrants, our experiences, our search for a sense of place, for a way to navigate our multiple worlds, that’s something we all share.

Masha Rumer and Alina Adams

Author readings from “Parenting with an Accent” and “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Zone.” 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26 at Green Apple Books, 1231 9th Ave., S.F. Free. Both books can be ordered from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and at the event.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].