Kaprian has nine children; the oldest is 25. Three of them were born in the United States, the other six in Ukraine. Alexei, now 22, was a year old when the Kaprians arrived in Fresno. His two sisters, Veranika, 17, and 15-year-old Tanya, were born in the States. Unlike most Americans of his age, Alexei has two young sons. He works full time as dispatcher for a trucking company and on Sundays preaches at church. Though he took college classes for two quarters, he's too busy for school right now, he says. "I might go back someday -- no time right now. I'm interested in real estate."
He graduated from Lewis and Clark High School but spent little time on school activities or sports. Alexei says, "I guess I felt like I'd have to make my parents pay for it." Instead, he was deeply involved in church activities, including choir and playing saxophone in the orchestra. At home, he adds, "There were always plenty of chores," which rotated among all the Kaprian children. In addition to housework, they were responsible for large projects, too, such as putting in a new garden at the house.
Alexei says he got into a lot of fights at school. He remembers kids tossing insults at him, such as, "You stupid Russian." He says, "No matter how long you live here, you still get picked on." So when it came to friends, "almost all the time friends [were] from church." His parents actively discouraged hanging out with people who weren't Christian. "They were really good about watching who we were friends with." And Mom and Dad found out when the kids strayed: "Every little thing that happens in Spokane, the whole city knows," says Alexei, smiling, "especially Russian-Ukrainian people." Between the ties of culture and church, "we're all together constantly." Even so, he says lots of Russian kids do fall away from the immigrant church because some parents are more permissive and American churches are less strict.
Alexei and his wife Zina met at church youth camp and started dating when she was 16. Since Zina wasn't permitted to go out, he spent time with her under her parents' watchful eyes. Girls are carefully chaperoned, he says, "especially until you gain the trust of the parents. If you're on your own too much you want to do other things." No one thought Zina was a particularly young bride, though, because Russian Christians feel 18 is old enough for girls to marry. Many wed by age 20, 17-year-old Veranika chimes in, and "most girls plan to marry Russian guys. Russian girls make good wives," she says, something even American guys know. But parents stress the importance of marrying other Russian Christians. Of her many cousins, only one has married an American.
As with any immigrant group, language can be a source of tension, and for these teens, peer pressure comes into it as well. "Americans get angry when they hear, like, you talking Russian with a friend," Tanya says. "They're like, 'Stop talking Russian; I can't tell what you're saying.' And we're like, 'Sorry, this is who I am.'"
At gatherings with Russian-speaking relatives, Alexei says, American friends can feel uncomfortable as the Russian flows around them and the jokes go over their heads. But despite the fact that Russian was her first language and the one spoken at home, Tanya says, "I can express myself better in English. It's fun to speak in Russian because that's our native language, but it's more comfortable to speak American." Veranika adds, "Yeah, my Russian's, like, really basic. I can't express myself as much; I sometimes can't find the right words to say what I want to say like I can in English. Even with my Russian friends, we speak half and half because we both understand it."