by Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & Senior Women Fitting In & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & V & lt;/span & ictoriya McFarland's adult ESL class meets three days a week in the basement recreation room of the Lincoln Heights Garden Apartments on the South Hill. The 20 warmly dressed retirees who crowd around the long folding tables on this chilly Wednesday morning threatening snow are all Russian-speaking religious refugees. They are mostly women, too -- only three men among them. You may have seen some of them, perhaps at Costco or Wal-Mart, and you probably guessed they weren't from around here. The exuberant patterns of their head scarves and knitted hats, their unstudied mix of prints and colors, and not a speck of make-up masking the lines on their faces -- all suggest a lack of self-consciousness unusual in American women.
Three of these lively, opinionated older women have volunteered to stay after class and talk to the "Americanski" reporter, with 30-year-old Victoriya serving as interpreter. Sixty-nine-year-old Lyubov Meroshnik emigrated from Ukraine 10 years ago and helped many immigrants pass the citizenship test during the three years she taught the class. Victoriya says, "She doesn't let me make mistakes!" Yefimiyia Bayrak, 59, is from Moldova and has been studying English for eight months. Vera Kolosova came from Kazakhstan and has spent six months in the class.
The hardest thing about not knowing English is not being able to speak to Americans, fellow Christians in particular, to help them understand the Bible properly, says Yefimiya, and not being able to talk to the friendly American neighbor who tries to chat with her. They've used the tools at hand to learn English on their own, too, including watching the news on TV, borrowing language instruction tapes from the library and using the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. To get even this far, of course, all of them had to master the Roman alphabet. Yefimiya says she had an easier time because Moldovans use it rather than the Cyrillic alphabet. They agree the biggest challenges are correct pronunciation and unfamiliar grammar, as when converting a statement ("You are hot") into a question ("Are you hot?"). Questioners in Russian, instead of reversing the word order, use inflections to make the meaning clear.
Though they are reluctant to venture anything that might be taken as criticism of their adopted country, these immigrants, like any such group, have noticed a few things about American culture -- good and bad. American people are very hospitable, they say, and always wear a smile, which has taught them that "even when you are angry, you should smile." Don't Russians smile? They explain that Christians, persecuted for so many years, were afraid to be happy.
Women, they have noticed, are more independent here. Of the three, only Lyubov drives a car and Vera and Yefimiya explain that women back home rarely drive. They were surprised that women of all ages drive here -- "even grannies!" says Victoriya. Vera says that her daughter drives her sometimes but "mostly I walk." Yefimiya, who has no car at all, used to walk all the way from her apartment on the South Hill to take English classes at the Institute for Extended Learning on North Monroe.
Vera thinks, "it's not quite right," how well family pets are treated. "It seems like American people like dog or cat more than children." Back home, only a valuable farm animal like a cow might be kept in a house to keep from being stolen. Yefimiya also has some thoughts on the American style of child-rearing. Parents are too permissive, she says, not giving enough "healthy punishment." Spanking, for example, should be meted out more often.
American families are less close-knit, too. Only Lyubov, who has been in Spokane the longest -- 10 years -- has seen four of her five children disperse throughout the States, with just one son left in Spokane. "In Ukraine, we all lived in one city, even when grown-up," she says. However, even these very religious older women agree with Victoriya that clergy back home often tend to abuse their power; they like that the clergy's influence here is not as strong.
Though they remain largely separated from their adopted country by language, these Russian elders are well satisfied with America on the whole and feel it takes good care of seniors. Yefimiya says, "They treat us like kings and queens!"