My parents are from Eastern Europe, and I'm a first-generation American. Throughout my life, I've battled between embracing my cultural heritage and being ashamed of it. As I child, all I wanted was to be “American.” I hated that my name was different from everyone else's. Our customs and traditions were a little different, too.
As I grew out of my embarrassment, I began to truly embrace my culture. As a junior in college, I was eager to take Russian because I wanted to learn how to read and write in the language I grew up with. I loved that class because it really provided me with the opportunity to learn about and truly appreciate my culture.
I felt sad that I had spent most of my life hiding that culture from other people. So now, I'd like to share some lessons I learned from simply being lucky enough to grow up in a household involving accents and fun traditions:
1. My family included my cousins, aunts, uncles, second cousins, etc.
My family is quite big. Well, my immediate family is tiny; it's my mom, me and my dad.
But, those aren't the only people I think about when someone asks me about my family. I think about both sets of grandparents, all my cousins, my uncles and aunts and even my second cousins.
I'm even close with my second cousins twice removed. Family celebrations like birthdays always had everyone somehow related to me coming over to celebrate. This allowed me to appreciate every single person in my family.
My grandparents were also my rocks. They even took care of me while my parents worked.
2. The elderly are to be respected and revered.
For some insane reason that I will never truly understand, our society doesn't appreciate the older generation. Those who are 65 and older get a bad rap.
I was so lucky I was able to grow up around my grandparents. My grandma would take me to the park and the pool. She taught me how to cook and bake. I was her little sous chef.
My grandpa picked me up from the bus stop and watched TV with me. He encouraged me to pursue figure skating.
They had incredible stories to share. They had lived through World War II. Being Jewish in Eastern Europe at that time was frightening. My grandma lost a brother. My grandpa's story is also incredibly fascinating. I don't know all of it because I was only 12 when he passed away, but the little I do know is terribly intriguing.
Apparently, he was captured by the Nazis. Somehow, he escaped by stealing a Nazi's ID and uniform, just so he could save himself. I'm lucky my mom knows the whole story. But even just hearing these snippets from his life really allowed me to appreciate and understand all the sacrifices my grandparents made for my entire family.
3. I learned the power of acceptance.
This lesson might be my favorite. Because I grew up so differently from other people, I can now appreciate every culture and tradition I come across. I don't judge a book by its cover because I know how unfair it is to be judged for a name or culture.
I remember that when I was in school, after people would ask my name, their immediate next question would either be “Where is that from?” or “What does it mean?” I can appreciate their curiosity. However, the conversation would typically end after I would respond with, “It's Russian. I don't know what it means. My parents are Russian, and they needed a name that started with a Z.”
I always felt like they judged me after I mentioned that my parents were from Russia. Because of those experiences, I'm now able to not be judgmental of other people's cultures. I accept all people as they are.
I am beyond grateful to have been raised in a unique household. I totally believe my experiences of being a first-generation American have made me the person I am today. I wouldn't change my background for anything in the world.