IMMIGRANT SONG: From Russia With Love ARTHUR SHKOLNIK My father works harder than anyone else I know. He immigrated to America from Moldova while he was still in his early thirties. He came to this country with nothing more than the clothes on his back, the brain in his head, and the lint in his pockets. His propensity for math and science took him down the career path of an engineer; however the company paying his way through school went belly-up. He never finished his degree, but continued with his craft and became a private contractor and electrician. He never had the option to finish school; his primary concern was taking care of a young, dependent family.

That meant running a convenience store in North Philly. It meant delivering pizzas. It meant taking grunt work he was clearly overqualified for, and making a living any way he could. Growing up, our formative years were dramatically different, so even though I’m his son, I have a hard time relating to him. Unlike him, I wasn’t forced in to the military at 18. I never had to stand in line for bread. I never had to share a room with six other people, or ration something as abundantly common as toilet paper,  but to him, such hardships were once reality.

Unlike my dad, I am no good at math or science, and grew up right here in Philly — a stone-cold capitalist. Most children can look to their parents for relevant life experience; although I could never come to him with practical questions about day-to-day life, I did (and do) look to him in developing my values. Despite by no means being a Buddhist, my dad is in fact a large believer in karma. In many ways I consider him to be overly-idealistic and seemingly unconditioned to the harshness of the world, but I cannot argue with the results of his actions in terms of how far he has come harnessing only the power of his own mind and will.

I can’t help but recall a situation  from my childhood – a microcosm which I think effectively demonstrates the kind of man he is. A newly arrived Russian family from overseas was staying in a duplex my parents owned; this couple was apparently struggling to find work and pay the monthly rent they owed. The man, who didn’t have the necessary funds for my father, instead offered him a gold watch. My dad empathized with the man and took the watch. As soon as he got home and my mom found out what happened, she went completely berserk and made him go back and return it; she told him to either come home with the money or evict the tenants.

Being a child at the time, I thought my mother was being completely heartless, and in many ways she was; she has always been an excellent businesswoman. I can now see, however, that my mother wasn’t necessarily wrong, but that doesn’t mean my father was, either. He didn’t do what he did to teach anybody a lesson, or because he had motives of personal gain. He acted on what he believed, choosing to follow his own chaotic moral compass when deciding what was right. There have been times where he was hired for a job, and the clients either refused to pay him outright or only payed a portion of the sum agreed upon. Rather than go through the frustration of taking the deadbeats to court and hounding them for money, he once stated to me that ‘the money will find its way into his hands one way or another,’ and that it was nothing to worry about because these people will inevitably want someone honest and fair who will do the job right. This sounded ridiculous to me the first time I heard it; after all, he did the work and earned his payment. At the same time I can’t argue with the results of his beliefs and actions, as there have in fact been many clients who found they desired his services again, and ended up paying all of their debts in full.

One might not assume much about his intelligence based on the way he speaks, which is admittedly simple and unique compared to a full-blooded Standard English dialect, but I’m so used to hearing him talk that it’s difficult for me to look at it as anything more than “the way he talks.” When asked how he learned to speak English, he became noticeably embarrassed and answered “I just picked it up. I had to.” Recently we had a casual conversation about a topic he can’t help but get enthused about: work. We discussed the increase of residential homes converting to solar power, and I couldn’t help but notice — he simply doesn’t fully pronounce words with all of their rigid points, instead letting them flow. Instead of saying “this” he will say “dis.” Rather than saying “I,” he says “ah.” and instead of “the” he says “duh.” These are only a few minor examples. Most of his words are lacking fullness in their voicing.

His sentences are all mixed up, with words often being moved around. He’ll say things like “My guys they driving van.” Sometimes he will add words unnecessarily, for example, when he was telling me about solar power he said “the panel needs a exposure to the sun.” Of course, I knew what he meant, but I can tell sometimes he frustrates himself when he is trying to structure a sentence by long gaps filled with “uhhhhh…” and “ahhhh…” Oftentimes it feels like, when speaking English, he is trying to arrange his thoughts the way he would in Russian. When my father sees people putting in the effort to follow one of his conceptually complex and grammatically jumbled sentence constructions, he will often make sure they understand by ending a thought with “Arite?” or “Know whatta mean?”. Since his first language is Russian, he’s no doubt comparing and contrasting with English constantly, similar to the way I automatically translate Russian to English in my head. Another unique quirk is his innate need to shift from English to Russian – his own form of Spanglish. This becomes even more apparent when halfway through an English sentence he will go in to Russian and then again back to English to end the sentence.

As I already mentioned, my dad works as a contractor, and one of the things he taught me is to pace yourself and do things right the first time in order to keep from making unnecessary mistakes and having to exert extra effort just to fix them. He works with plumbers, roofers, carpenters, and many other craftsmen. Although most of these men know what they are doing, and they do it well, many of them lack formal education and speak in a laid back and grammatically lax manner whereas my father is particularly intelligent and well read. As a result of this general intelligence, he picks up and implements a lot of complex words and ideas when he learns new concepts. I’ll catch him using terms that tend to apply to mechanical devices, tools, or mathematical concepts, and stick them in to casual conversation. Words like receptacle, capacitor, amps, voltage, and many so esoteric I can’t remember or pronounce them come out of his mouth more commonly due to the frequency with which he’s presented the vocabulary in his day-to-day life. Since electricity has basically been his whole life and is what he knows best, it seems that he can throw around these words confidently in many contexts without thinking twice, such as when he superstitiously refuses to pour a shot unless the glass is put directly on the table because “the energies need to be grounded for proper conductivity.”

On the topic of alcohol, Russian and American sensibilities are completely at odds. Going to school, my full-blooded American friends were conditioned by their parents to look at alcohol as a deadly and dangerous drug, but even when I was eight or nine, I could’ve walked right over to the mini-bar and poured myself a shot of Vodka whenever I wanted – I didn’t. I didn’t because it was never made taboo for me. It was never hidden, it was never put on a pedestal, and to this day, I’m barely even a social drinker, taking shots only at family gatherings when they “make me.” Alcohol is basically food over in Russia, usually residing on the table right between bread and butter.

Despite confidence, intelligence, and professionalism, an individual with a thick accent will inevitably face hurdles based on their level of assimilation or willingness to assimilate to the pre-existing social system. I see my father as having had to work hard for all of the small things I take for granted, including language acquisition. I learned both Russian and English at a young age; I don’t remember putting forth much effort to speak well, however my father had to adapt to a new language as well as a political and social system that was alien to him well after his acquisition period. Although I find my speech more articulate (in English, at least), I know his intelligence and capacity far exceeds mine; the problem then lies in his ability to translate his knowledge in to English with eloquence.

The more I listen to him, the more I appreciate the quirkiness and quote-ability of his dialect (particularly for mimicry!) He has a few set phrases that he has kept over the years; if I say something that he finds surprising or shocking, he’ll almost always say “I don’t believe it!”, but it comes out “Ah don’ bilev it!” Or if he’s trying to express that he is following your idea, but wants to elaborate, he’ll say “Ah understand what you saying, but…”

I don’t see anything wrong with the way my dad talks, firstly because I grew up listening to it, and secondly because I have seen how little it has to do with his ability to perform; he is just as good as the next man, if not better for the trials and tribulations he faced becoming acquainted with the English language and way of life. I can see (and have seen) strict English speakers taking person’s with thick accents and divergent dialects less seriously, including not only my dad, but my grandparents, other relatives, and even friends. It’s an uphill battle, sometimes taking generations, but people still come here, to America with hopes of moving up from their current station in life. Maybe even more important is the desire and expectation that each succeeding generation should do better than the one before it; this is a mindset shared not solely by immigrants, but anyone chasing their American dream.The person that pours your coffee or drives your taxi could very well have been an engineer or a doctor in his or her native country, but the inevitable assumption is foreigners are less competent because it’s harder for us as English speakers to bridge the gaps of comprehension. Realizing it’s impossible to perceive another mind, let alone the nature of someones character without taking a real look at the person beyond our preconceptions is a start.

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