Eldest Immigrant Daughter Bridging My Family’s Language Barrier, One Filthy Russian Idiom at a Time
My family may not get much of my writing, but our mutual appreciation for ill-advised sexual mayhem transcends language.
This is Eldest Immigrant Daughter , a column by Ruth Madievsky that explores diasporic identity through digital culture.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but the Russian version of “have your cake and eat it too” is “eat fish and sit on a dick”
So began one of my first viral tweets, fired off during a break from revising what would become my debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy . The novel centers on a young woman who falls in love with an allegedly psychic Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union. The narrator is herself of Russian Jewish descent, and Russian idioms figure prominently in the book’s exploration of family legacies, toxic sisterhood, and queer coming-of-age.
“Eat fish and sit on a dick” encapsulates my favorite aspects of my first language: its irreverence, its inimitable humor, its poetic wit. Russian idioms are impressive for their ability to be equally funny in Russian—where eat and sit rhyme—and in English, where the phrase’s deadpan absurdity is its own source of humor. Any two incompatible activities could have been compared; how the fuck did we land on fish eating and dick sitting?
I can’t remember how or when I encountered this particular linguistic miracle, but I know who I learned it from: my parents. Dana and Michael are respected health care professionals by day and a living library of the Russian language’s most unhinged expressions by night. Growing up, you could get away with saying basically anything in my household, so long as it was funny. Which is why I’ve known the Russian word for cunt longer than the one for vagina . It’s why, at thirty, I still don’t know the word for penis and hope I never enter a situation where dick or pee-pee won’t fly. And it’s why, when I visited Russia in 2019, I apologized to a shopkeeper for making a mess of her matryoshka dolls, not realizing that the word we use for mess at home actually means whorehouse .
My parents are a bottomless repository of the darkly funny and the irreverent. My grandparents and extended family too. My own sense of humor, which leans obscene and chaotic, was crafted in their image. It’s rare for us to have a long conversation that doesn’t end with me learning a new idiom or a ridiculous, un-fact-checkable story. Did my great aunt really bribe an airline official to seat her belowdecks, with the cargo, on a full flight, to make it in time for her sister’s wedding? Did my grandfather actually brew moonshine from a chair leg? With my grandparents, who don’t speak English, an extra layer of absurdity stems from the holes in my early elementary school–level Russian. Like so many other first-gen immigrants, I’m proficient enough to communicate, but my grammar sucks, and my vocabulary is limited to words I learned at home. On top of growing up in different countries and belonging to different generations, my grandparents and I can only understand each other when we cut out the nuance.
At home, my family spoke mostly in Russian when I was little; in my teenage years, as we got further out from our immigration, the balance shifted toward English. My friends would get a kick out of my half-English, half-Russian phone calls, where I punctuated strings of words they didn’t understand with asshole and pizza bagels . With my parents, I can always revert to English if I don’t know a Russian word. But with my grandparents, we talk around the word, try to define it in context, and give up half the time out of impatience. It took me years to explain to my grandmother that, yes, I’m a pharmacist, but, no, I don’t work in a pharmacy. (This is hard enough to explain to English speakers, and I’m not convinced my grandmother understands even now.) The mystery is mutual—my grandparents’ stories are full of formal words whose definitions, when I ask for them, are comprised of even more formal words. Was my grandmother an astronomy technician or a bureaucrat in a geometry department or a clerk at a polyclinic? Who’s to say! So much of our relationship involves skimping on the details, accepting that we will only ever understand each other in broad strokes.
This trip was where I learned iconic expressions like “You can’t sit in two chairs with one ass.”
In 2019, I visited Moldova and Russia on a family trip for the first and only time since we immigrated. I began collecting idioms in an iPhone note, where I also documented our dizzying itinerary and the idiosyncratic details I knew I’d otherwise forget over time. This trip was where I learned iconic expressions like “You can’t sit in two chairs with one ass,” “I need this like a rabbit needs gonorrhea” (I had previously been acquainted with its cousin, “I need this like I need a dick for dinner”), and my wholesome favorite, “tender ice cream” (the Russian version of calling someone a delicate flower). These expressions are a gateway to family stories, like the time some Moldovan hanger-on pursued my mother (“I wouldn’t shit in the same field as him”), or why my great-great-aunt stayed with her crappy husband (“A fire poker for a husband is better than no husband”). They also encapsulate a post-Soviet Jewish orientation toward life, a sense that anything—no matter how dark, absurd, or nakedly traumatic—is possible. That humor, while not an antidote, can be something like a narcotic.
I’ve continued adding to this iPhone note each time I learn a new idiom. Reviewing the entries now, I’m struck by how clearly my poetics have been shaped by growing up around these expressions. Similes are my go-to poetic device, and most of my poems leap from one outlandish association to another. They may not literally rhyme the way so many Russian poems and idioms do, but, as poet Matthew Zapruder theorizes in his book Why Poetry , they “conceptually rhyme.” My parents’ favorite poem of mine is one that features a bee fucking a rosebush. My family may not get much of my writing, but our mutual appreciation for ill-advised sexual mayhem transcends language.
A funny idiom can’t resolve linguistic, cultural, and generational distances, but the delight I feel when I hear a new one roll off a relative’s tongue—and their delight at my outsized reaction to something so commonplace—is its own kind of joy. My grandparents are too old to become proficient in English, and I’m too busy to devote the time I’d need to significantly elevate my Russian skills. For the most part, we mutually lack the patience to speak to each other in the painstakingly roundabout way required for deep comprehension. We settle for giving each other the SparkNotes version of our lives. I could sum up everything I know about my grandfather’s former career in a sentence: He has a PhD in something agriculture related and managed a Moldovan vineyard.
Likewise, the details of my life—what I actually do as a clinical pharmacist, why I chose to specialize in HIV, pretty much everything related to my writing—is inaccessible to them. I can’t share my novel with them or explain the premise of this column. But I can tweet a ludicrous Russian expression they taught me and report back that 22,000 people got a kick out of it. When deep understanding isn’t an option, trying to include them in the facets of my life that will always be mysterious to them is the next best thing. Or so I tell myself. If I really wanted to include them, wouldn’t I translate my work into Russian? Wouldn’t I take language classes, read Russian books, do the actual fucking work? In theory, I love the idea of making this effort. But when I have a choice between squirreling away an hour to work on my novel or painstakingly explaining to my grandparents the esoterica of the publishing industry, I choose the former, easy. The inability to make ourselves fully known to the generations before us is part of an immigrant child’s inheritance. In the words of one of my favorite English expressions: it’s a feature, not a bug. There’s a reason they call our condition “diasporic loneliness” and not “diasporic fun times.” Can you blame us (me) for self-soothing by milking our families for platform-enhancing viral content? For telling ourselves we’re honoring them, as opposed to mining them for what we want and semi-ignoring the rest?
Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. My family has never called me out on any of this and seems to enjoy feeling included in my writing life. But it doesn’t sit easily with me that the only time I put my back into bridging the understanding gap is when the situation directly benefits me or when I’m pressed into a corner. A few years ago, when I wanted to try my hand at translating a Marina Tsvetaeva poem, I asked my grandfather to explain the lines I didn’t understand. Another time, a man in Russia translated one of my poems and asked for my thoughts. I enlisted my grandfather in determining whether the man had done a good job, and together we drafted an email providing our feedback. Then there was this past Thanksgiving, a holiday we usually spend at my mother-in-law’s. My parents and brother were out of town, making me the only person there who spoke my grandparents’ language. I felt a duty to keep them entertained and to serve as a cultural liaison between our families. This too is the immigrant child’s inheritance, particularly the eldest immigrant daughter. We are translators, attempting to bridge cultural and language gaps between our families and anyone outside our culture that we, somewhat paradoxically, have never successfully bridged with our families ourselves. At Thanksgiving, my grandparents, intellectuals that they are, tried to engage my husband’s family in a conversation about Russian literature. This is how I ended up telling my husband’s ninety-four-year-old grandmother that Nabokov “collected broads.” “ Big philanderer,” I said with a wink, only to realize thirty minutes later that my grandmother had actually been talking about butterflies.
Bottom line, we just want to know that the other is okay. Everything else is just details.
Sometimes I think these experiences are more special for their failures, that each failure represents an ongoing attempt between me and my grandparents to make ourselves legible to each other. That continuing to fail each other symbolizes our commitment to making fools of ourselves in the name of love. Bottom line, we just want to know that the other is okay. Everything else is just details.
There are idioms that remind me of the experience gulf between myself and the older generations of my family, like “If he doesn’t beat her, he doesn’t love her,” and the army adage “If you can’t, we’ll help you; if you won’t, we’ll make you.” Idioms that reiterate that, even if my Russian were better, there’s still so much I wouldn’t understand. I’m afraid to ask what was going on in my family’s lives when these expressions were deployed. Expressions like “A fire poker for a husband is better than no husband” are a lot less funny if you don’t assume they’re sarcastic. In the case of my great-great-aunt, she seemed to have taken the advice. Even my favorite idioms like “I need this like I need a dick for dinner” and “There’s no need to sew a sleeve onto a pussy” are a critique of frivolity, of ornamenting our lives with unnecessary indulgences that will breed only complications. Maybe it’s unfair to suggest that Russian idioms favor stability and endurance over fun and resistance more than any other language. Maybe I’m cherry-picking the idioms that rub up against my own diasporic loneliness. If there’s a Russian version of “Follow your dreams,” I’ve never heard it. My whole adult life has been a balancing act between obeying the immigrant dictum to hold down a stable day job and—by choosing to seriously pursue the arts—sewing sleeves onto pussies.
Taking non-Russian speakers on a joyride through the language’s most colorful expressions is ultimately a side project. Connecting with my family over the similarities and departures of our shared cultural experience is the real work. At times, these pursuits can feel at odds with one another: Bridging cultural and language barriers requires nuance; social media is allergic to nuance. Trying to have it both ways is my version of eating fish and sitting on a dick. The woman attempting to sit in two chairs with one ass? It me.
Turning my family inside out to see what treasures fall out isn’t a new thing for me, nor for most children of immigrants—or writers. Sharing the shiniest of these treasures on social media is the more recent dopamine source, particularly when people from other cultures comment with their own experiences. My “eat fish and sit on a dick” thread introduced me to the Slovak version of this expression, “The wolf eats, but the sheep stays whole,” and the (extremely French) French version, “to have the butter and the money from the butter.” I love sharing these with my family. I love when teaching each other new things is bidirectional, when it’s not just me sucking them dry. And they love my hunger to understand each other better, even if my motivations aren’t always pure (if you like this essay, you’ll like my novel!). I doubt we’ll ever succeed in making ourselves as legible to each other as we’d like. But when a perfect expression is deployed at the perfect moment—when one of us is haphazardly driving, and another shrieks, “Watch it! You’re not transporting potatoes”—the walls between us recede, if only temporarily, and we see each other clearly. We realize that we always have.