Sophomore Sasha Kozhevnikova distinctly remembers her first few days of pre-school in the United States after moving to California from Moscow, Russia. With little to no skill for the English language, Sasha put forth her best effort to communicate with her teachers and find her mother. While over a decade has passed since the move, Sasha’s memories of her life in Russia until the age of four are a part of her daily life. Sasha will never forget that first day of school, when the feelings of confusion and desperation for familiarity that she had the day she ran out of her pre-school classroom in search of her mother.
“When I first came to America, it was really hard for me to understand what everyone was saying,” Sasha said. “I went straight to pre-school, and I almost didn’t speak any English… I still got really scared because I didn’t fit in with anyone else.”
Sasha’s first year was imaginably difficult as accustomization to the United States came with many challenges, notably the language barrier. Sasha recounts that as the most prominent endeavor that she had to tackle, but since she was so young, growing out of her initial struggle in pre-school was relatively simple. By kindergarten and first grade, Sasha already felt comfortable, especially as she developed her reading skills.
“My parents were always really afraid that I would not be able to learn English, but now it is the opposite problem,” Sasha said. “[It is] that I am forgetting Russian.”
Sasha, however, is still fluent in Russian and can read and speak the language. She and her family speak Russian almost exclusively while at home. She prides herself on her ability, and her parents are eager advocates of continuing her Russian education.
“My mom makes me take Russian classes outside of school to maintain my Russian,” Sasha said. “I find that it is easier to speak Russian when I travel abroad to Europe. Not even necessarily Russia. But just since people aren’t speaking English around me, I don’t feel the need to speak English.”
Even though she has now lived here for over 11 years, Sasha has traveled to Russia many times since the move, and she still comments that most of her best friends in the United States are Russian. She feels that they understand each other on a special level of cultural connection.
“I feel closest to my best friends, all of whom are Russian,” Sasha said. “I feel like that’s because our parents were able to be friends because all of them were Russian, and so they feel more comfortable and I feel more comfortable.”
However, Sasha feels lucky to have arrived here at such a young age. It allowed her to grow for most of her life in an American environment with Russian familial influences, and she recognizes the fact that for her sister, who was 14 years old during the move, the transition was much more arduous.
Sasha can sense a cultural difference within her life through the reaction of her friends and teachers who constantly ask her about her Russian heritage and her parents who believe that she has become quite Americanized. Sasha credits this to the fact that she speaks what she has dubbed as “Ringlish” at home, a lexicon created by a mix of both the Russian and English languages.
“When I’m at school, people say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re Russian!’” Sasha said. “And I feel Russian when I’m at school because I’m so different from everybody else and then when I am talking to my parents they say, ‘Sasha is so American!’”
Sasha has seen friends try to conform to societal norms and shun their first-generation status and diverse cultural background. While she can imagine the feeling, she internalizes plenty of fulfillment in her commitment to her culture. Finding common ground with her other Russian friends has taught her that being first-generation is something to be extremely proud of.
“I probably wouldn’t have liked being Russian if I didn’t have so many Russian friends,” Sasha said.
With hopes to hold onto her sense of pride for years to come, Sasha even promises that she will make an effort to carry on the culture into the lives of her own children one day.
“Whenever I think about having kids, I’m like ‘I want them to know Russian too! I want to teach them the culture!’” Sasha said. “I’m always so proud that I’m Russian.”