Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Language Blockade

(Julia writing) They buzzed his hair. As bald as a bowling ball, poor little guy. They are now dressing him in tights (similar to tight long johns with feet), wool pants, a t-shirt, flannel shirt and a sweater. And a bald head. Can this Mama just say that she can’t wait to take this child home? With the tights on he cannot do anything with his feet. We tried to protest the first day he came out wearing them, but to no avail. “He’s cold,” they said. Umm - NOT ~ Rob and I were both shedding jackets that day. We sit in a sunny spot. His cheeks were red, not from cold, but from heat. Nevertheless, the tights stayed. We kicked a blow-up ball until it was pierced on one of the never-ending thorn bushes. We rolled the truck endlessly until that too became boring. Finally, we figured out that if we push a pen into his sleeve and place it between his thumb and fingers, Aaron can write with his hands. Oh, the joy! The look on his face as he drew on the write-on, wipe-off board was priceless. He expanded his letter repertoire to include a wobbly E (for Elijah) and A (for Aaron). Of course just plain scribbling was the best activity of all. So perhaps the tights were a blessing in disguise. But not the egg-bald head.

Our court is in two days. There has been much behind the scenes activity on our behalf and for that we are very grateful. Please continue to pray fervently for the judge and the process. Our translator/facilitator returns tomorrow, so we will try to post specific requests then. Our desire is to give the most updated information, as things seem to change quickly here.

(Rob writing) Traveling to Eastern Europe is not like a holiday jaunt to France or Germany, where nearly everyone knows a bit of English. The “language barrier” metaphor does not suffice to describe what we encountered when we arrived here. Our language problem was far more than a mere barrier, like some hastily strung barbed wire fence manned by a few sleepy sentries. It was more like a blockade, a heavily fortified stone wall with armed guards and spotlights.

We arrived here with precisely two barbs in our language quiver, “da” and “nyet.” Formidable as those may seem, they didn’t really carry us very far at all. We couldn’t call a cab because we couldn’t read our own address, or pronounce the name of our destination, or discuss when the cab was needed (even the word “now” has about seven syllables here). We couldn’t manage well at the stores because we couldn’t read the labels or understand the totals when the cashiers read them out (thank goodness for digital calculators!). We walked everywhere we went, laughing at our own stupidity, hoping for indulgent and helpful smiles from the locals. More often we received blank or even hostile stares. I decided that I had better get on with the language study I had so far neglected.

For this task I had only eclectic equipment: a child’s picture book with 1000 illustrated words (no English), a phrase book for adoptive parents (only transliterations, no Cyrillic alphabet) and a one-way dictionary. Our hostess has a two-way dictionary, but even so, I CAN’T LOOK UP NATIVE WORDS. I’ve learned the sounds the Cyrillic letters make, but I don’t know their names or their order in the alphabet, and none of my books tell me these things. I can sound out the words in signs and newspapers if they’re not too hard, but I can discover their meaning only by accident. Sometimes they sound like their English equivalents, but far too rarely.

Here’s an example of the way I learned one word, “bolshoi.” I first saw the word beside a picture of an elephant in our illustrated children’s book, so I assumed it meant “elephant.” It took me a while to connect this word with the well-known Russian “Bolshoi Ballet,” because the pronunciation is a bit different from what I’m used to hearing in English. When I finally made that connection, I thought the description “elephant ballet” was highly uncomplimentary to those elegant young women who dance on their tiptoes. I was looking for a better understanding of this word, and I found it when I looked at the 2-liter size of orange juice we brought home: it, too, was “bolshoi.” The light came on, and I knew at last that “bolshoi” meant “big.” But then I thought, ‘what an unimaginative name for a national treasure: “The Big Ballet.”’ Finally, I considered synonyms, and arrived at my present understanding: it must be “The Grand Ballet.” “Bolshoi” must mean both “big” and “grand.” I am ashamed to admit that this process took several days to complete. If it takes me that long to learn a word like “big,” I must literally be years away from becoming conversant.


  1. Rob's last paragraph here describes for me all the processes Mary's little brain went through to learn English. And she did it all OUT LOUD. Asking 100's of questions, repeating constantly "this, not that - that, not this" to get it all categorized in her mind properly. Every bit of the process being done out loud was exhausting for us at times - still is - she never stops asking questions, but it's also truly amazing and mind blowing how capable their little brains are. Rob, you just felt a touch of all the energy it will take your son to figure things out once he's home. :) Of course, he'll have a lot more HELP!!

    We are praying!

  2. If you are going somewhere and have a specific question, use an english to ukranian translator beforehand. You can copy down the cyrillic and bring it with you. Translators are not perfect -- sometimes awkward, but will get the job done. Here is one:

    Also, in Ukraine, smiling at strangers is not considered polite.

  3. Well, as far as Aaron's bald head goes-did they at least give him a hat? I thought he always had to wear a hat-now's definitely the time for the hat!!!
    As far as the translations go-grand is the only word I do know in Russian-so don't feel bad-good luck in court-we're praying for you guys every day!

  4. Would it matter to you that I am sitting at my desk laughing my head off? The Rob Report has taken on a whole new meaning for me now...shall we just suffice to say, it is bolshoi? I am sorry they cut Aarons hair. He probably looks like Evan now...whose hair is entirely too short. I have a new plan in place for my paperwork escapades...pray that it works. Some day we will get together and all roll our eyes together at this...as our kids play in the sand at the beach or something. And that is when you will have to remind me how in the world you found the strength not to drink yourselves silly when you are staying in a local "still". I guess it has occurred to you that you might be home in time to see the fall colors of Charlottesville throwing a grand confetti welcome home party? I can't remember when the leaves change, only the week they actually come out (second week of April, always for us). It is hot here, but cool at night now, finally. We went to Hilton Head in search of reference letters on a holiday weekend where the police station was closed....I am still writing off that trip as an adoption expense! Praying your days pass without fiascos that are undermining and that they serve to amuse you instead. Have taken the beach ball out of the bag that stays in constant state of fluctuation, though who knows if we are going to actually ever get to zip it shut and throw it in the car.?? Thinking of you all today, as usual. Love Cathy

  5. Hello,
    I can't remember when I started reading about your journey, sometime in June probably... I am a friend of Lilya's family and got hooked on all the adoption stories that her blog linked to. Amazing the gift all these children are going to benefit from. Anyway, every time you post I hope for good news. I thought it might help to know that people you have never met are reading, captivated... I also wanted to point out that I have enjoyed Rob's perspective... He cracks me up. (Though I had to employ my sci-fi expert hubby to translate some of the meaning of his report on the post titled "no pictures" back in August...) Maybe this has to do with the fact that many of these adoption blogs are written by the new moms... I don't know. Anyway, hoping tomorrow is a better day, and the day after that even better... and so on. Keep your chins up and keep plowing along!

    From Wisconsin

  6. All those layers! I wonder why they shaved his head?
    Of course he will also have to wear a hat from now on too. And once you take him from the orphanage, while you are in Ukraine, folks will watch to make sure he is covered from head to toe with no skin showing, including a hat on his head.... Our friends were in Russia to get their children and got into trouble when somebody saw their daughter's ankle under her pants while she was sitting. No stockings on a child is considered abuse!
    There is a Russian, proverb about smiling..... "If somebody you don't know smiles at you, they are not to be trusted. Save your smiles for those you know."

  7. We cahtted about the bald head last night Julia, so you know my take on it. hehe And the tights. Ugh!!
    Rob, thank you for your posts too!! I love your writing style... now where's that ukranian/russian/english dictionary... I've got some studyin' to do! Still ptaying for court!

  8. Rob, get your translator to write your "home base" address down in cryllic, along with a message requesting that you be taken there. That's what we did, and it worked--we'd just show it to the cab driver. ;-) Of course, that requires some trust, but hey, the cabbies Do want to be paid.

    I wish you had "Rosetta Stone"--that's a great program for learning. You could try www.mangolanguages.com we can access it for free through our library's website. I don't know if yours would have something similar.

  9. Kiersten has already decided to buy Aaron some toe socks for this fall and winter - that way his feet will remain warm, yet he will still have use of his toes. Won't be long now! We're watching with baited breath every day, and praying all goes smoothly and in Aaron's (and therefore your) favor. Hugs!!!


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