July 20, 2019

Brighton Beach: A Snapshot of the Ex-Soviet Diaspora



Brighton Beach: A Snapshot of the Ex-Soviet Diaspora
Brighton Beach Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. Tiffany Zhu

They say if you want to really understand a place, you should visit its grocery stores. Brighton Beach, New York, is no different. Located on the southern tip of Brooklyn, Brighton Beach has earned a reputation as New York’s Russian enclave (or one of them, anyway). Nicknamed “Little Odessa,” it has a substantial population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many are of Jewish descent; almost all speak Russian, if they are not themselves Russian.

Upon arriving in Brighton Beach, I wasted no time heading for the Brighton Bazaar. Unsurprisingly, the grocery was bursting with Russian goodies. Тульские пряники? Check. Packaged рулет? Check. Five varieties of freshly made, self-serve blini? Check, check, check, check, check.

Тульские пряники at Brighton Bazaar
Тульские пряники. / Tiffany Zhu

But make no mistake: this was nothing like your average Russian grocery. For starters, there were only two shelves of sushki, whereas one grocery I visited in Petersburg had an entire rack of sushki. More subtly, not all the food here was Russian. The candy shelf sold a mix of Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish candies, with Roshen (Ukrainian) and Ptasie Mleczko (Polish) dominating the shelf. And whereas a local grocery could count on the presence of local brands, here big companies divvied up the sections. Roshen and Yashkino comfortably split some two-thirds of the рулет aisle.

This coexistence of immigrant identities was visible everywhere in Brighton Beach. I had lunch at the Café at Your Mother-In-Law (more succinctly У тещи in Russian), a cozy Uzbek Korean restaurant. I ordered their signature dish, kuksu (a beef noodle soup made with pickled vegetables), but the menu also offered borshch, pelmeni, and chicken tabaka. Most of the guests were Russian, but to my right sat a gathering of Central Asian friends, one of them occasionally leaving to talk on the phone in Russian. Latin music played over the speakers.

Kuksu at Café "At Your Mother-In-Law"
I’d never had kuksu, even in Russia. / Tiffany Zhu

America is said to be a “melting pot” because of how immigrants become sown into a greater American culture yet retain their uniqueness, like patches on a quilt. I would also argue that, as part of the “melting pot” experience, immigrant identities melt into each other. Are you a Russian Jew or Russian Orthodox? Are you an Armenian from Azerbaijan or an Azerbaijani from Armenia? This is dearly important to you, but the new country doesn’t care. The new country lumps you all together as “Russian-speaking, therefore Russian.” Immigrants become bucketed together involuntarily – but it’s not entirely involuntary, either. If you’re a new arrival in America, who better to seek out than other immigrants, who may not come from the same place but are also just trying to land on their feet, like you?

Through this tacit (and mostly unconscious) social contract, people who might never have met in the old country come to live, eat, and shop side by side.

***

Don’t let the moniker “Little Odessa” fool you: This is, without a doubt, America. Shameless jaywalking and endlessly honking cars, both of which are epidemic in Brighton Beach, are staples of New York living, just like in St. Petersburg. The architecture, meanwhile, looks like that of any American beach town. Squat, short houses, functionally designed shops – they have those in Santa Cruz, too.

Street corner on Brighton Beach
Brighton Beach architecture. / Tiffany Zhu

After lunch, I visited the St. Petersburg Bookstore, which sells not just books, but also gifts and toys. As in any Russian bookstore, there was a prominent stand of Russian classics – Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Pushkin. But, unlike your typical Russian bookstore, there was also a stand of Russian classics in translation. In the same aisle, there were books about Russians in the US, and Russian-language guides to the American immigration process. And there was a shelf of books for Russian learners. Many of the buyers probably study Russian as a foreign language (like me), but many may well be heritage speakers wanting to better speak, read, or write the language of their childhood.

Guide to U.S. immigration on bookshelf
A guide to U.S. immigration for Russian speakers. / Tiffany Zhu

Indeed, the St. Petersburg Bookstore has something for every part of the Russian diaspora family. For the parents and grandparents, there is an aisle of Soviet film DVDs and a shelf of mini-books filled with Russian proverbs. Meanwhile, for the kids, there is an induction into the bilingual diaspora life. Through the bookstore’s toy and children’s book sections, I could trace the linguistic evolution of the diaspora child: from a baby whose first words are spoken in their parents’ language, to an elementary schooler picking up English as quickly as they forget their heritage language, to the teenager who can order food in their heritage language but can’t really do much else.

The back of the store displayed brightly colored alphabet posters with sound, to help babies learn Cyrillic. Many of the toys for older children were imported from Russia, featured Russian characters like Snegurochka, and had Russian-language packaging. But once the kids knew how to read, English plucked them away from their Russian-speaking mothers’ arms. I found the entire Harry Potter series, plus a hilarious prank book, all in English. There were a few shelves of Russian-language young adult fiction, but if kids here are anything like the diaspora kids I grew up with (I say this as a Chinese-American), the only kids reading those are the goody-two-shoes who go to language lessons every week and get praised by their parents for being “real” representatives of the mother country. Meanwhile, everyone else heads straight for the prank books. We’re in America; who needs our parents’ language?

Children's section at St. Petersburg Bookstore
Zoom in and you’ll see: English alphabet primers, Russian alphabet primers, English math workbooks, Russian toys, and the speaking Russian alphabet posters. / Tiffany Zhu

While I was in the Brighton Bazaar, two kids were chasing each other around in the back. Their mother chastised them in Russian, and then the kids started asking for dessert in English (a classic diaspora experience). I wonder if the kids are going to keep speaking Russian when they’re older. No matter what happens, though, the St. Petersburg Bookstore has something for them. If they don’t learn to read but want to discover their mother country’s classics, they can read the classics in translation. If they’re learning to read, bilingual editions of short stories await them. And of course, fluent readers can skip straight to the originals. Regardless of how close you feel to Russian culture, there’s a place for you here.

***

In the Russian cult film Брат 2 (2000), the hero briefly stops in Brighton Beach. As he walks down Brighton Beach Avenue, the camera pans to the store signs. Put yourself in the shoes of a Russian audience: Each sign has words in both a familiar and a foreign language (Russian and English). "What are these stores exactly?" wonders the viewer. Are they Russian, but masquerading as American, or vice versa? Later, the hero buys a car from a Russian Jew, who claims that “We Russians look out for each other!”, only for the car to break down outside the city. The incident seems to scream (with a heavy-handed dose of anti-Semitism): “Don’t trust Brighton Beach. They’re not real Russians.”

Barabanov, the film’s director, is staging anxiety on the big screen here – anxiety at the mixing of Russian and “other” cultures, American, Jewish, or otherwise. Be that as it may, it’s his loss if he doesn’t think Russian culture can coexist with others without losing its authenticity. Every immigrant knows the struggle of acculturating to a new place while keeping the memory of the old country alive. What remains isn’t any less real than the original culture. Brighton Beach may stand as a testament to how identities evolve over generations, but it is also a testament to the endurance and adaptability of Russian culture.

Brighton Beach boardwalk
The Brighton Beach boardwalk. / Tiffany Zhu

 

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