Language as trauma trigger

A collection of messages from adoptive parents

Misha and Ana, ages 8 & 6 when adopted, reacted in different ways. We tried to encourage them to keep using their Russian with each other (cultural heritage thing, second language, etc.). Ana was willing, but Misha bluntly refused with, "No! I'm American boy now!" He was older, had more of the bad memories and emotional baggage, and was also uncomfortable about others knowing that he was adopted (the two of which I'm sure were connected). Within 6 months, they were both speaking English exclusively and forgetting Russian. In fact, they don't remember anything but "nyet" anymore! To this date, Ana is very open about her Russian heritage and occasionally curious about her Russiam mom, but Misha gets irritated if it's even brought up and claims he has no desire to even know what's become of her (she was a very cruel mom to them). We've always tried to instill in them both pride in their motherland, but have just learned to be sensitive to each of their attitudes concerning it too.

Sveta cast off her Russian as quickly as possible, like a coat she didn't like. She has obstinately refused to be drawn into Russian in any way except when she has to do the inevitable country report on Russia every 2-3 years in school -- then, she asks how to write Russia in Cyrillic. She protests always being assigned Russia and asks why she can't have some other country, like Spain. She has several friends, whose families speak Russian in the home, and she cannot spend time with them -- they have to come to our house, because her behavior deteriorates dramatically after a couple of hours in a completely Russian-speaking environment.
She endured hell as a child -- in Russian. For 3 1/2 years, she lived with an abusive birthmother who spoke Russian. Then for 3 years she lived in a dismal and possibly abusive orphanage, where they also spoke Russian. Her therapist believes that most of the trauma Sveta has stored away in Russian and this protects her from having to endure it in memory now. Therapy has vastly improved her behavior, outlook, and ability to cope -- and suddenly, she has asked to learn Russian. It seems like she's ready for whatever is locked away there. But the fight or flight reaction to Russian may be a very real survival mechanism for some kids, not a failing of the parents.

If we run into anyone in public that speaks Russian, and they try to speak with my son, he completely ignores them, which irritated me greatly since I was, at that point, engaged in a vain effort to maintain their Russian. This behavior was especially strong in our younger boy, who learned English quickly. I remember him dramatically refusing to accept a cookie from a Russian speaking person, even when the nature of the offer couldn't have been clearer. I've since learned that this is common in adopted children. As part of the process of solidifying their new identifies, they almost always reject their first language when they acquire their new one, even when exposure to the first language continues outside the home. Their language experience seems very different from that of children who immigrate as part of a non-English speaking family. Such children routinely become comfortably bilingual. Not so with our Dietsky Dom alums.

After being home a month, the director of our daughter's Detsky Dom came out on a trip to the States. She was so excited to see the girls. Our daughters who only spoke Russian with us up to that point, refused to speak with her in Russian. She would talk to them and they would respond in practically perfect English, "We only speak English now." Sure was a surprise to us!

My sibling group of 3 adopted from Russia continued to speak Russian to one another for about a year after coming home. We spoke Russian to them at home as well during that time. Slowly, they began to dismiss us when we spoke Russian and acted embarrassed to speak it when in public. When spoken to by Russians, they would shy away and not answer at times.
They finally asked us to stop speaking Russian at all. We were told once that their Russian was technically called "Kitchen Russian" and was only spoken by lower classes of people as it was improper and showed a lack of education. Who knows? But they have now been home for 4 years, and the oldest two are the only ones who can even remember some Russian words. Sad, because we had hoped to help them retain their language, but we were unable to do it.

I have a Korean daughter. She came at too young an age to have much at all in the way of Korean. We have encouraged her to learn about her culture, her food, her history, etc. While she likes "kim chi," there is not much else she does. She doesn't want to learn the Korean language, she has no interest in going to Korea, she has no respect for the Koreans she knows, and she does not want to meet or learn anything about her birthparents. I think all of the above would be good for her. But at age 18, it is her decision. Maybe some day....

My kids were 11 and 12 when they arrived from Russia almost 6 years ago. I was in favor of them retaining their fluency in Russian. Yet, almost instantly they showed a very strong reluctance to speak Russian to strangers. They feigned ignorance. They pretended they didn't understand. However, there was no easy way to understand their aversion. Older son's best friend from
across the street was Russian, and they chattered away in Russian as my son did when he was in their family. My son had no problems there. Other cultural aspects of Russia were fine and they hung onto the food, the books, the history and so on....
It took many years before I learned that the real aversion was to people poking into their business (which of course all the Russians did once they realized the children spoke Russian). The thing they were the most sensitive to, was being adopted, not being Russian. They would do anything to keep people from finding out they were adopted. No matter how illogical or unrealistic this was (and is) to prevent, since we are quite a bit older than they are, and speak English fluently and without an accent while they speak English with a very pronounced Russian accent! But this fear has no logic. Even today, Lida fears to bring her friends home from school because when they see/hear me they will figure out she is adopted and "spread rumours" about her at school....however, she has no aversion towards the language itself, because she wants very much to return to Russia and take a year's intensive language course (in Russian) after she finishes high school....

We even noted while in the car that our son was nervously watching every car we passed, and seemed really anxious about some of them more than others. He was 8 years old when he came to us, and only knew two words of English, "American boy," which he proudly proclaimed! We learned later that he was even having bad dreams about people from Russia finding him and bringing him back there. He didn't want to associate with anything Russian, and the anxiety about certain cars, he later explained, was because he feared that some of them were from Russia! In his mind, the ones that reminded him of cars he saw in Russia were likely being driven by Russians!

Our children have been home for three years (they were almost 6 and almost 8 when they came home). Our son (the older sibling) told us only after they had been home two years that the older children in the detsky dom had told him that if he did not behave or if he cried, that we would send him back to the orphanage. He lived in fear for the first six months that he would be sent back any minute as he was having quite a lot of difficulty behaving and was having almost daily meltdowns with crying and tantrums. Only after much time and many episodes did he begin to believe they had lied to him and we were not going to be sending him back.
We had tried to have a friend, who was from Russia, speak to the children several times in the early weeks home to find out if they had any fears or concerns. But, hearing the language traumatized them further. They were sure she was there to take them back!