Family ties

25 Jul

Here in the States, the middle name is just that—a name wedged between your given and your family name. It could be a place where important family or friends are memorialized. It could be the seeds of a secondary character trait. But for the most part, to know someone’s middle name merely shows how close you are to that person.

I was reading a piece of Avengers fan fic (don’t judge) when I came across this line:

Loki shook his head, “Midgardians are so unusual. The very idea of surnames…patronymics simply make more sense. You are always your father’s daughter, but you may not always be your husband’s wife. Something as intrinsic as a name should not change.” Loki’s face became oddly vacant, “It is your identity.”

I had to close my laptop as I was slapped with one of those rare a-ha moments. I’d never considered the purpose of a patronymic before, but that made complete sense. And it made sense why it would be found in Russian culture and not in American.

My friend Morgan Tadych is abroad in Krasnoyarsk now and manages her own blog. Check it out. She wrote an article recently, that combined with the aforementioned fan fic sent me diving for my notebook and pen. Morgan has graciously accepted my invitation to write a bit for this article, so all twelve of you, please give her a warm welcome.

I’d like to take the time here to say that this, by no means, is to dismiss the problems that American families have. We have them. Russian families have them. There is no system, no culture that is better or worse than the other. These are simple observations made by myself, my friend Morgan, and neither of us have degrees in the subject in which we’re speaking.

And here now is Morgan!

Over Sunday brunch, I realize the Russian family is like a birch tree

On Sunday, I sat down to a huge brunch of fish, potatoes, vegetables, and beer.

At first, I was a little skeptical—it was far from my typical eggs, bacon, and waffles. I tried to explain to my Russian family that we had breakfast food for lunch on Sundays, but they didn’t understand why. I didn’t know the Russian for “hangover.”

They countered with telling me that on Saturday and Sunday, because nobody has to work, the whole family eats a big lunch together. That was as odd to me as eating eggs for lunch was for them, because so usually, Sunday brunch is quick—a bite of food between church and an afternoon of homework.

The strangest thing about the meal was that both my host sister, Masha, and my host mama were there—both enjoying themselves. They don’t always get along, but for that one meal, they were taking in the food and family.

Masha doesn’t always eat with my host mama and me, and when she does, it’s usually quick. She was at lunch with us because she had to be, because it’s just what you do on Sundays, but more than that, she wanted to be there.

Masha was enjoying listening to me explain American Sundays in less-than-fluent Russian, helping me translate a bit (she speaks minimal English) and asking me incredulous questions about our traditions. My host mama was happy that both her granddaughter and I were at the same meal for once, trying to get us both to eat more and just enjoying her family and adopted American.

I’d heard over and over that Russians are very focused on family from the other American students here (they’re constantly being brought to family activities and having food crammed down their bellies), but that episode was what really proved it to me.

Usually, when I sit down with my entire family at home, it’s forced and fairly awkward. Here, it was actually a pleasant experience, like it has been every time Masha or her cousin Anya shares a meal with us. The talk is always a little easier. The company, pleasant.

Maybe it’s the home cooking that keeps everybody’s temper and differences in check, but it feels like everybody at the table is there because they want to be there. There’s a slight sense of obligation, but it’s not the overpowering sentiment like it is in my family. The Russian cem’ya is the most important part of life for everybody—life here circulates not around work or friends, but around the family.

Spokes on a wheel. Axles in a vehicle.

I used to play with K’nex when I was a kid. Legos were awesome, but you can’t build a working Ferris wheel with them.  While constructing a Wheel to put London’s to shame, the instructions called for a white circle piece and long, grey spokes. In another set of instructions, for another contraption, the long, grey pieces were used as axles.

The modern American family is the white circle piece, to which the long, grey spokes attach. Those pieces can and do have identities that are not exclusively defined by the white piece: an axle, frame, wand, or blunt weapon.

I may be a member of my parents’ clans, may be a sister, but I am also a friend; sometimes (rarely) a girlfriend. I am a “writer,” “runner,” fangirl, explorer of worlds. I am an entity unto myself that exists simultaneously—but independent of my family.

Perhaps this unspoken concept of movable parts may be why the concept of adoption is ok and not so hush-hush on this side of the Atlantic. I wonder how the 2011 movie “Thor” was received by the Russians. It’s a tale where the antagonist is formed when his understanding of who his family is, and by extension, who he is, has been challenged.

To an outsider, especially the Russian, the American family may seem like a piece of shattered glass. But I’m reminded of Lilo and Stitch, a grossly underrated Disney film, by the way, if you haven’t seen it, you need to. In the last few minutes of the movie, Stitch, says, “This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.”

Despite—or perhaps in spite of—our grey-spoke-ness, our families are still ours: a possession as much as an identity.


One Response to “Family ties”


  1. More family – Updates « Blog Update You! - July 25, 2012

    […] Hello! This is just a quick update/addendum to my last post. My friend Sarah also is slightly obsessed with Russia and she runs her own blog ( – check it out!) Last week, she saw my post about the family and asked me to co-write a piece with her on the same topic. So if you’re interested to see a more analytic/American perspective, here’s the link: ( […]

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