Fancy a ride on the love train? Here's a book for this Holidays Season! 'Loving an Alien' is a riveting collection of intimate interviews with brave women who crossed the cultural divide and loved to tell the tale. Vive la diversité!
If you're into global travel, romance, life lessons, the do's and don'ts of an intimate relationship, how to manage your in-laws, how to finesse your outlaws, how to raise rootless, bi-lingual, 'third culture' kids, then snuggle up with 'Loving an Alien'.
In a remarkably candid series of Q&A's with twenty-seven women of different nationalities, Angela reveals what makes a mixed marriage tick ... and how to keep the love clock running.
We’re happy to bring you the second part of the interview Angela has with Jennifer.
You can find the first part of this interview right here.
Excerpts from book:
Jennifer & Volodya
American + Russian
“Now I look at it as though I made four trips to Mars!”
Angela: You now have two children of your own – a son of fifteen and a daughter of twelve. How has growing up within two cultures influenced their lives?
Jennifer: Well, first of all, I gave them both Russian names because they carry my husband’s surname and I didn’t want any weird combinations of East and West, David Karamyshev or whatever. So, they ended up being Nikolai and Sasha. Sasha’s name is actually Aleksandra because my mom Sandra passed away the year before she was born. That’s how I end‑ ed up picking ‘Sasha’; it sounds similar.
Angela: What languages do you speak at home?
Jennifer: English, but perhaps I should explain why. We waited ten years to have children and during that time, my parents paid for Volodya to go to college in the United States. My father told me, “We cannot allow you to start married life and him having no prospects.” That’s where my parents were such good people. So, Volodya studied at college, got a Bachelor’s degree in DC, and started working. Now he’s a computer network manager at a medium‑sized non‑profit. Point being, he’s never really studied English, we just started speaking it at home because he really needed to perform at college and in the workplace. And once you start, it becomes a habit, especially over ten years. When we had the children, we were in the habit of speaking English at home.
Angela: How good is your Russian language?
Jennifer: Not as good as in the old days when I was traveling over there regularly. I’d studied Russian in college, and for my Master’s degree, and then I went on for my PhD so my Russian was still pretty good. But by the time we had children, Volodya found conversing with me in Russian quite frustrating – he couldn’t get past my grammatical errors! So we decided not to speak Russian at home – although it probably would’ve been good for me to keep my language up.
Angela: Does Volodya speak Russian with your children?
Jennifer: I begged him, basically, to teach them Russian! I told him, “You know, you’re a native speaker, and even if they don’t understand all the grammar, they’ll still be able to say something.” But Volodya is just lazy! Frankly, he’s a stereotypical Russian man, in that whatever happens in the home is the mother’s responsibility. So, he just didn’t do it, he just wouldn’t speak to them in Russian.
Angela: How do the kids feel about that?
Jennifer: It doesn’t seem to matter to Sasha who just perceives our cultural differences as kind of funny. But Nikolai is a bit resentful that he didn’t get to learn Russian. He started German in sixth grade – because the school that our kids attend doesn’t offer Russian – and he said, “Why didn’t you just teach us Russian?” So, I’m a little bit ashamed. I do feel we didn’t give them the opportunity but knowing my husband, and how frustrated he gets trying to have an environment where Russian is spoken at a level he appreciates, I think it would have made for very difficult family relations! And one of his excuses is that you don’t need to be working hard all day at your job, then come home and basically have to teach everyone your native language, right? I understand his point of view.
Angela: Fair enough, but if he had spoken Russian with the kids as toddlers, it could have been quite basic yet still correct in terms of grammar?
Jennifer: Yeah, I tried! And I tell them now, “I’m really sorry, I couldn’t do that for you, my native language is not Russian.” So, that’s where we are. I think Nikolai will probably try to learn Russian, especially if he ends up at a college where it is offered.
Angela: How much interest do your children show in Russian culture in general?
Jennifer: My husband and my son share a love of soccer – Volodya coached Nikolai’s team for a number of years. They watched the World Cup together and are planning to go to Russia for the World Cup in 2018. My son thinks that’s cool and he wears his Russian soccer jersey to school. He’s very proud of it.
Angela: And Sasha?
Jennifer: Actually, she plays soccer too but her father has never been interested in her team, he never got involved with it and doesn’t talk to her about it. In general, she seems to treat her Russian heritage as a kind of personal oddity. She carries his name but kind of ignores the rest, at least so far.
Angela: Has either of your children visited Russia?
Jennifer: Not yet. Russia is such a dicey place to get to, although Sasha might disagree.
Angela: How do you mean?
Jennifer: We went up to Brooklyn one weekend to visit the relatives. On the following Monday, Sasha’s kindergarten teacher asked her class, “So what did you do over the weekend?” And Sasha said, “I went to Russia.” So the teacher said, “Huh, really? Over the weekend?” And Sasha goes, “Yeah!” So, later I get this email from the teacher, asking me: How did you guys manage to defy the space‑time continuum? And I wrote back: We went to Brooklyn! That’s basically the extent of my daughter’s familiarity with Russia. But, seriously, so many of Volodya’s relatives have emigrated to the US that there’s basically only one family left in the Moscow area that we would visit. Volodya has been back to see friends but finds it dislocating because the Russia he knew has gone, vanished. The last time he traveled home was two or three years ago, and he came back and said, “It’s just a completely different place!”
Angela: How has he adapted to life in the US and what does he miss from home?
Jennifer: For most daily‑life issues, Volodya has adapted well to American society, to the different way we engage in business and commerce, and to our office routines. He’s changed his orientation to what we do and I don’t think he misses working in Russia. What he does miss are the social gatherings with food and drink. He definitely misses the food so there are a couple of Russian dishes that I cook. We have a Russian community in DC and a Russian food store near where we live. There are central Asians who have a thriving business – they make little meat pies and Russian ravioli. Volodya buys bags and bags of those. I think he misses his friends more than anything. He grew up in a single‑parent household, his dad was gone by the time he was thirteen and so he was a very independent young man. His friends became his primary group; he spent a lot of time with them. I think he misses that camaraderie. He has some Russian friends who immigrated to Florida and he’ll sometimes visit them for a long weekend. We both miss gatherings of friends and relatives who are no longer with us.
Angela: How do you get along with Volodya’s extended family on the East Coast?
Jennifer: I went up to New York for his mother’s funeral this past August; her entire family was very welcoming of me, although at times they treat me like this sort of circus freak, frankly, and they either speak very LOUDLY, or very s‑l‑o‑w‑l‑y, as if they think I’m deaf, although actually I understand almost everything they say. But they’ve all been so good to me – very welcoming and complimentary. They ask what I do and where I work. I don’t go into details, I tell them I’m an administrator at a private university in DC, but I can see they’re thinking: Wow, a scientist at NASA? You’re the smartest person we know! So that’s very nice. I’m different and I’m ‘other’, but I’ve never felt like an outsider, just the opposite – they’ve accepted me and I appreciate that very much. Some of them so desperately want to have a connection, that they’ll exchange Christmas cards with me and that’s very different to the relationship I had with my mother‑in‑law. For her, the dynamic was basically: You stole the man in my life!
Angela: Are you still in contact with your old friends from Russia?
Jennifer: I don’t have that many friends over there. Russians have a saying: You know a lot of people but you only have one or two real friends in a lifetime. So basically, when they consider you a friend, they’ll do anything for you and they’re definitely much better at keeping in touch than I am. So, I appreciate that very much.
Angela: What else do you appreciate about the Russians?
Jennifer: There are aspects of Russian culture that I very much admire but I think I just find Russia a very frustrating place right now, you know? So, sometimes it’s hard for me to separate current Russian politics and what’s going on in Russia, from the fact that, for example, I had never been to the ballet or an opera before I started studying over there. I mean, I come from cultured people who appreciated artistic and intellectual things – my mother had a Master’s and my father was a medical doctor – but there were so many experiences I had in Russia that were just … lifelong … and impressed upon me an appreciation for the people and the culture. For instance, sometimes we’d visit the World War II monuments in Leningrad and find out all about the famine there, or we’d travel to the Babi Yar monument in Kiev for Jewish citizens who were executed when the Nazis came in. There’s just so much suffering in that culture, in every museum we went to, and so many lessons to be learned that I can’t help but feel a deep and lasting respect.
I appreciate having had those experiences and being married to someone who understands and appreciates them, someone I can talk to about that kind of stuff.
Angela: You found your soulmate. But had you ever thought about marrying a foreigner?
Jennifer: No, I was young and stupid. For the longest time, I honestly thought I’d marry someone I’d meet in college, or at least while I was in college, but no, I never really thought about marrying a foreigner. I think it was just the timing.
Angela: How do you mean?
Jennifer: I was so young and impressionable but I thought I was the most mature twenty‑two‑year‑old who ever walked the earth! Now that I’m almost fifty, I look back on that and I think: Oh, my God! You know, it’s a little embarrassing. It was just that we met and I found him so intriguing. I was in love! As often happens, you travel to another culture for an extended period, meet somebody and start a relationship. You’re in love with them but you’re also in love with every‑ thing, you’re in love with that moment. I think that was a big part of it. I’m grateful for my experiences and believe you should never regret anything, but there are days when I wonder: What was I thinking? Because it has not been the easiest path in life; I don’t know if I’d married an American it would have been any different.
Men and women have very different attitudes towards family, marriage, and relationships, but my husband is very stereotypically Russian in that everything to do with the kids, everything in the home, that’s something that I have to take care of, right?
Angela: Why is that, do you think?
Jennifer: Russians have a very different definition of ‘marital partnership’ and there are times when I can’t help but wonder: Would things have turned out differently if I’d made some different decisions? I don’t know if my parents had a sense of that. They were pretty upset but I think they just thought: This might not work out very well so we must do everything we can to help. I look back and I’m so grateful, because my has done well in the world and that would never have happened if he had not gained a college degree.
Angela: Do your brothers still think marrying a Russian was ‘the coolest thing’?
Jennifer: I have to say, Volodya is very close with all of them but in particular my youngest brother, and you know, now that my mom is gone, my dad is actually pretty close to Volodya too. I’ve had a lot of chats with my dad about challenges that I face at home and it’s difficult for him. His loyalty is to me, and he worries because I’m his only daughter and he wants me to be happy, but he’ll say, “This is really hard for me because Volodya has been a member of our family for almost thirty years.” It’s kind of interesting that things should turn out this way, because I think my parents were like: This will never last, this is going to be a disaster. But it hasn’t been! And I think my dad rightly takes some pride in the fact that he helped.
Angela: If your daughter or son wants to marry a foreigner, what will you say?
Jennifer: Hmm, let me not try to dodge your question! I wouldn’t tell them to not marry a foreigner. I would say, “Here’s some of the things I learned, about being married to Daddy, that I would want you to think about before you take this leap. So, you know, just wait and see what happens.”
Angela: Can you give us an example of something that you’ve learned?
Jennifer: Well, yes. My husband was one of those draft‑dodgers who did not serve in the military and so he had to get special approval to leave Russia after we married. In other words he paid a bribe in Moscow. That means I didn’t have the opportunity for him to visit the United States before we married or before we completed all the documentation for him to emigrate. So, I think one thing I would tell my kids is: “Do not just engage in a romantic relationship in the other person’s home culture. Engage in the romantic relationship in your own culture too and see what the differences are.”
Angela: Why would you advise this?
Jennifer: Because what I did appreciate, and could not have appreciated, was that over there, in Russia, I depended on Volodya for so much: he knew how to get things done in the Soviet system, which was difficult to navigate. He was one of these streetwise trader guys who had money, as opposed to many Soviet citizens who didn’t, and he got things done. He planned our wedding at the restaurant and paid for everything, and so on.
Angela: So far so good, but are you saying things went differently in the US?
Jennifer: Well, when we moved over here, he was completely dependent on me and so all of a sudden I’m the person who has to make everything happen. I mean I could do that, I was a functioning adult even though I was only twenty‑two, but it changed the entire dynamic of the relationship, you see? And again, it was almost as if I had been on Mars, had this love affair with a Martian and now I come to my home country and I’ve got a Martian to take care of, right? The way I visualized how we would be, after marriage, was based solely on how we had interacted in his culture. How we interacted in mine was a bit of a shock. So, I’d tell my kids: “Just make sure you experience those kind of situations, so you’ll understand and know: OK, I’m going into this with my eyes wide open.”
Angela: One of my sisters went through something similar. She met a nice guy in a country that was neither his nor hers, they fell in love and married there. Everything went well until they moved to his home country where he transformed into a different person. They divorced, eventually. Your marriage has fared better, but since you use the word ‘Martian’ I assume Volodya has sometimes seemed like an alien from another world?
Jennifer: Yeah, lots of times! I think if we’d married at thirty we would definitely be divorced by now, but the resilience and romanticism of youth enabled me just to take those difficult moments and say, “Well, we have this future together!” I can still remember particular dates we went on and how I was so much in love with him. Our hardest years were probably those first ten, without kids. Once we had kids, the dynamic shifted and all of a sudden I’ve got little people to focus on. Volodya and I just went on as we always had but I didn’t have time to disagree with him anymore about this or that because I had to focus on taking care of our kids. So, really, in those moments where I’d say to myself: Oh my God, he’s a complete alien! I’d also try to remember: Why did I get into this in the first place? And when I was younger, I kept thinking back: Oh, I remember the time we went to the Bolshoi, it was so beautiful and I was so in love with him! So, hmm, OK, you know, it’s not a mistake. But yeah, if I’d been thirty, I would’ve been like: Forget this! Life’s too short! I’m not doing this guy’s dishes for the rest of my life!
Angela: Are you saying that your cultural differences became most apparent in the way you approached family life and domestic responsibilities?
Jennifer: Volodya is an alien in a lot of respects, but in a way I’m used to that kind of setup, since Dad used to work eighteen hours a day, practicing medicine when I grew up, and was never home. Although Dad is a great and supportive father, he certainly didn’t help my mother at home; she was a stay‑at‑home mom, that was her responsibility. However, I think what’s different, in my life, is that I have a very demanding full‑time job. So, it would’ve been nice to have someone who would’ve picked up the slack at home. But, I can’t say that I think of Volodya as an alien just because of that. There’s a lot more.
Angela: For example?
Jennifer: Every evening Volodya listens to ‘Russia Today’, and watches Russian television. On the one hand, I doubt he would have become a US citizen if he had not been committing to the American way of life, but on the other hand, he’s very critical of US foreign and domestic policy, and comes at it with a kind of: Well, if this was in Russia… And I’m like: In Russia? Please don’t even tell me, no comparison! You don’t have to scratch very far to get down to that. He comes from another culture, a proud culture, and he’s not buying all this propaganda we throw at people. Another example is food. He’s fallen in love with Mediterranean food – we have a Lebanese and Turkish grocery store nearby where he buys himself stuff every week. That’s OK, but then I make this huge Thanksgiving dinner – you know in the States we have a tradition of stuffed turkey with mashed potatoes or whatever, all the trimmings. Volodya doesn’t eat any of that. Instead, he’ll just have his Mediterranean food from the store – it’s not even particularly Russian, it’s just… him! Whatever, it does make Volodya seem a little bit alien, at times.
Angela: Interesting about the food. I mean, turkey is quite similar to chicken, and Russians eat fried chicken, after all. Does he resent Thanksgiving, perhaps?
Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, he’s very much a free spirit, and so I think he does resent a little the imposition of a particular thing. I also think he just prefers the other food better and is pretty unabashed about saying so. My kids laugh at him. They’ll say, “Daddy, Mom made all this huge dinner! Come on, why are you eating that stuff?” And he’ll say, “Because I want to.” And they’ll go, “Whatever.” It’s funny. I suppose it could’ve been very divisive: That’s it – I can’t take this anymore. But it hasn’t turned out that way. It’s just one of those things, a cultural difference. It’s not a difference between Russian and American cultures, it’s just something that, if we stay married, I have to tolerate about him. It’s not the worst thing.
Angela: Does Volodya cook? Are there any Russian dishes that you both enjoy?
Jennifer: When we first got married, he was used to having a woman cook for him all the time, so he had to eat whatever I cooked and he was pretty good about trying things, adapting and not being critical. And I was like: Hey, this is what I know because this is how I grew up, right? He does cook a little bit, these days. Russians have a number of vegetable salads; many of the recipes include potatoes, some have beets. I had not eaten beets regularly until I started studying over there, and I love beets. So, basically, it’s a lot of salads, and those little meat pies and ravioli things that he’s been buying.
Jennifer: Yes, exactly, piroshki and pelmeni! We’ve made those together before. Russians love to layer butter and sour cream on them, and I do, too. I like fish but I’m not into pickled fish and all those foods that he really likes. They love sardines but I’m not into, you know, shashlik? Having grown up in Texas, barbecue was another commonality I enjoyed over in Russia. We’d visit people at their dachas and they’d tell me, “You’ve never had this before, but you’ll love it!” Then I’d try some and say, “Well, this tastes very familiar, because it’s kinda like barbecue, like we do at home.” So, actually, a lot of Russian foods were familiar to me and I was like: Oh, I get what this is. But some dishes I’d never had the occasion to eat before, and I actually liked them, and generally, I love food, so for me that was one of the great parts, not one of the barriers that we had to overcome!
Angela: How about religion – has it been a barrier or a commonality for you?
Jennifer: I’d say I’m religious, I’m Episcopalian, and when I was in Moscow, I’d go to the small Anglican church as often as I could. My mother‑in‑law was Jewish and even had ‘Jew’ in her passport. And like so many Jews in Russia, she was very aware of, and proud of, her Jewish lineage but completely devoid of customs or rituals because those had not been passed down, those had been prohibited, and Jews had been singled out as ‘other’. So, she considered herself Jewish but did not practice at all.
Volodya’s father was Russian Orthodox and when Volodya and his brother were little, their Orthodox grand‑mother took them away and had them baptized as Orthodox to save them from the faith, or perhaps fate, as she saw it, of their Jewish mother. So, that was an odd dynamic already. Over there, we married at the city hall, and over here, we married in an Episcopalian church in Texas. Volodya was pretty upfront from the get‑go, he was like: “I don’t consider myself a Jew or Russian Orthodox, I am who I am.” He was definitely not interested, so I’ve always gone to church by myself and now I take our kids. They’re both acolytes in the Episcopal Church – they carry the cross, the candles, and are involved in a youth group there. I think it’s a very important community for them. I’d say my kids are doubtful Christians; I don’t know that they’re agnostic but they’re at the age where they want to question, and one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that we encourage this. So, when they say, “I don’t know if I believe in God.” I say, “OK, but we’re still going to church and you’re still going to the youth group, and, of course, you can question, that’s what this is about.” But my husband never goes with us. My son will be confirmed this spring, and I don’t know if Volodya will be part of that. He doesn’t engage at all. I don’t know that he’s supportive, but he definitely doesn’t undermine it; thankfully he won’t tell them, “It’s stupid.” I think he gets what I’m trying to do: engage them in a community of thoughtful people who care about others, and, in as much as we talk in our home about religion, that’s pretty much what the discussion is about.
Angela: Live and let live, as it were. So, do you agree with the French expression, Vive la différence, or do you think we’re all basically the same?
Jennifer: We’re all different, definitely, but here’s how I think about my own experience: you can either appreciate the differences and figure out how to make them work, or you can absolutely focus on them and say, “This is something I can’t overcome.”
We can divide people into different groups, so many millions of different ways, but it’s kind of glass half full, glass half empty, right? And I feel like, even with the challenges my husband has presented and the things I’ve shared with you here, that all this has made me a better person. Volodya makes me think about things, and for example when we disagree about US foreign policy, I don’t come away thinking: He’s an idiot. I come away thinking: Hmm, maybe I should think about this in a different way? I’d like to believe I’ve had the same effect on him but I don’t know. If he answered your questions, you’d get a completely different interview! He’s a very proud Russian, I’d say. But I think differences are a good thing, diversity is a good thing.
My son is going to Germany this summer with his church group, and if he comes back and says he’s in love with a German girl, I won’t have a problem with that. You know, my daughter has already told me she finds African‑American men more attractive than white men, so, OK, that would be a cultural difference too, even though they’d both come from the United States. Differences are a good thing.
Angela: I agree, definitely. Finally, could you share with us a favorite recipe that you both enjoy?
Jennifer: Oh, absolutely, I’ll send you one of my favorite borscht recipes. I found it in The Washington Post. It’s funny because, when I said to Volodya, “Oh my God, they’ve published a borscht recipe!” he was like, “Oh, it’s gonna be horrible, it’s gonna be terrible.” And then I made it, and he said, “I hate to admit it, but this is pretty good!”
About the Book:
‘Loving an Alien’ is a collection of 27 intimate interviews with women of different nationalities, who all married foreigners. I ask them about their love for, and life with, an ‘alien’ man. All of their stories are inspiring, some are very funny, some are heartbreaking. These are brave women who crossed the cultural divide, despite the odds.
About the Author
Angela Nicoara grew up in communist Romania and has lived and worked in twenty countries around the world. She is based in the mountains of Transylvania with her favorite alien, five cats, two dogs, and the occasional bear.
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