Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Russian English-Language Birthday Card

Katya made this sweet card for Natalia on her birthday. Setting aside the fact that "Corinne" wasn't spelled correctly, I love it. It is a perfect example of how Katya is growing up in two cultures.... The wishes she wrote inside are EXACTLY what Russians say to congratulate people on their birthdays.

It starts young--as soon as kids are old enough to talk, they start spouting these toasts--really! I mentioned when writing about Natalia's kindergarten party how you can easily imagine these little kids thirty years into the future saying the same things, accompanied by a shot of vodka! (That story got published in Aeroflot's flight magazine one month).

To an American, a lot of the syrop-y prose associated with holidays is often a bit much. Instant gag reflex. "You've got to be kidding" reactions. This is really true on Teacher's Day, when the kids in many schools spout over an hour of over-the-top odes to the adults... To Americans, I think, it simply rings as untrue and insincere--the way people often react to the poetry in Hallmark cards.

This poetry is such a part of the culture that one of the administrators in our school simply couldn't believe me that we don't have equivalents in English. She wanted to know the correct versions in English, so they could include them in school's festivities this year. She expected some long, verbose prose that kids use to wish their parents a Merry Christmas. When I deadpanned that kids simply write, "Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad!", she didn't think I was serious... I think she thought I was simply ignorant.

It was hard to explain why we don't say the same things... How sappy poetry written by others is interpreted as insincere in our culture, and can end up having the opposite meaning than that which was intended. We value poetry as poetry--but not in a greeting card, or memorized as rote greetings during an assembly.

Anyone else agree? Or is it just me?


The Expatresse said...

Ha! Half the time I just write

From Us [with our names]

on a card or gift tag or

Ho! Ho! Ho!
and our names on a Christmas card.

And *I'm* VERBOSE!

Susan said...

The Greeks have something to "say" for every occasion.
My husband is always asking "what do they say in English" I dont know, congratulations!?!
I love that about the Greek culture.

garnet said...

I absolutely agree that something just doesn't feel right about such expressions. We had a student a few years back who was always so over the top with compliments that I instantly didn't trust him and always had the sense I was being made fun of -- though he spoke the same way to pretty much every female staff member. Turned out there were plenty of good reasons not to trust him.

It is so interesting to see how Katya is merging the two cultures. Is she developing a sense yet of what goes in one and doesn't go in the other? For example, would she send such a greeting to a friend in the U.S. or would she know it wouldn't sound right?

bfedup said...

My son has spent the last 2 nights writing his cards for us for xmas, after reading this article I thought I would have a peek. It's exactly as you've described in his dad's he wishes him "lots of wins on the computer ", good health, that nobody does anything bad to him etc etc. It's just so sweet and so russian

Tina in CT said...

A very sweet card.

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Annie said...

I suppose you are right, but the lack of formality in our culture so often seems to reflect carelessness and a lack of care. If you spend TIME writing a poem, or thinking of something nice to say....you have at least spent the TIME and EFFORT, which is something even if the effect is canned.

I don't like greeting card rhymes because they are not meant for me; they are meant for thousands of people. But anything personal is appreciated. And a bit of formality is, too. (Not that I get any, mind you.)

Anonymous said...

What a great insight!! Couldn't agree with you more!

I love the fact that English is so informal by comparison to Russian! Sometimes I really can't stand the long-windednes and pomposity of my native language! I feel like all that flourish belongs in the classical literature - not in today's life.

Mihail said...

Very interesting reading! Comparison of different cultures give a fresh look.

All goods.

Henry said...

Growing up American and Russian, my mom always made me write long cards to friends on their birthdays, and I hated it, especially since I we were living in the US. It's funny how reading these insights in your blog remind me of my childhood and growing up.

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