"Today I went to Ilana's house. We had fun. She has a Doberman Pinscher. His name is Rex. Ilana knows Russian. I did not have any homework except look up two words in the encyclopedia. I got a B in math. That's my lowest grade but this is the progress report so it doesn't count. So far I have straight A's except for math. In Spanish, I am the only one who got an A. I have to go now, bye."
Jennifer met her first international friend in Foster City, California--Ilana. Ilana's family immigrated to the United States from the communist Soviet Union. Ilana had serious green eyes framed by thick black lashes. She was very pretty but she never dressed in a way to draw attention to this. This was during the "heat" of the Cold War between the United States and Russia which lasted from 1945 to 1991. World War III felt imminent. Russia played the bad guy in a lot of American movies.
The 1985 movie Rocky IV simplified the Cold War into a boxing match between two men. The kind American boxer, Rocky Balboa, is pitted against the huge, scary, heartless Russian, Ivan Drago. In the movie, Ivan showed no mercy. He killed Rocky's friend, Apollo. Rocky's angry desire to avenge his friend's death was acceptable since Ivan "started it" (seriously, how old are we?).
Jennifer never forgot Ivan's girlfriend, beautiful and heartless herself. She was everything a woman wasn't supposed to be--bony, super-tall, unfriendly, childless, cruel and competitive. Rocky's wife was loving, nurturing, small and curvy, gentle and a mother. This movie did NOTHING to help Russian-American relations. The portrayal was unfair and untrue. Sadly, this kind of thing continues today. Now it is Middle-Easterners who are the movie villains. An Arab with a beard can send a shiver down an American spine. If only life were so black and white...
Ilana's family fled the Soviet Union. They came to America for freedom. They were met with distrust, fear and sometimes hatred. It wasn't until Jennifer was much older that she realized why the family had a Doberman. Dobermans at the time were devil dogs, thanks again to Hollywood vilification. No nice family had a Doberman! As an adult, Jennifer put together the stories Ilana told of vandalism against their house, physical attacks against her and her brother and ostracism to equal the fact that the dog was probably there to protect the family.
Jennifer remembers asking them why they didn't have a Russian last name. They explained that they legally changed it so that Americans could pronounce it, spell it and to hide their Russian heritage when filling out paperwork. The family name is now gone, absorbed, assimilated, forgotten. The Cold War never amounted to military violence but that doesn't mean it was without victims.
February 4, 1982
"Today nothing happened. Every once in a while I feel a burst of responsibility then it goes away. Like writing in this diary, I don't know how long I'll keep it up. Tomorrow Ilana's coming to my house. Maybe to spend the night. Well bye. P.S. I have to water the plants."
February 5, 1982
"I am going to spend the night at Ilana's house. She came over and played today. Steve was bugging her. I am beginning to Hate Steve more and more. Well bye."
Jennifer remembers how cruel Steve was to Ilana. He called her Russian like it was a bad word. He did not trust her. He said mean things about her country. Ilana was a wise girl. She took this bad treatment with adult resignation. Jennifer did not. With a perpetual soft spot for underdogs, Jennifer was furious at Steve. She wished she didn't have a crush on him! Meeting Ilana took all the fear out of Jennifer about Russians. She loved Ilana's family. They were so kind to her. They took care of each other. They braided Ilana's hair every day, all their food was homemade, babushka (grandma) lived with the family--Jennifer envied Ilana.
February 6, 1982
"I played with Ilana all day. I learned how to walk on stilts and to jump on a pogo stick. Well I have to go now, bye."
February, 22, 1982
"Today I went to Ilana's. She moved but now she lives closer. I did my homework. I left my purse at Ilana's. Well bye."
February 23, 1982
"I did not have math homework today. I rode to school with Ilana. We saw a disgusting movie in Miss Jung's class. The Eskimos killed caribou, skinned them, they screwed off the heads of the caribou and they ate the eyeballs. (yuk). Well bye."
Jennifer had practically moved in with Ilana's family. She liked to pretend Ilana was her sister. Ilana's parents were Olga and Boris. They were young for parents and attractive. Jennifer could tell that Olga had been quite beautiful as a young girl. Boris was not like most American dads. He was not affectionate or friendly, but he seemed like a good man nonetheless. He did not make friends with his kids' friends, he did not bargain or plead with his children to behave, he did not roll his eyes in pretend protest when his wife gave him his "honey do" list (because she never gave him such a list). He was like a king. His word was law! The home was very predictable and safe.
Jennifer started learning Russian words. Most of the play was at Ilana's house. Probably they did not want Ilana playing at a home where there were no parents present. Also, Ilana was tortured by Steve and Steve was over at Jennifer's house a lot. The Cold War went both ways:
March 2, 1982
"Today me and Vladimir, Ilana's brother, got in a fight. He threw sand at us and it got in our hair. I rubbed sand in his hair and he tried to kick me and missed but I kicked him hard then pulled his hair. Later he pushed me in the grass on my nose, then he threw a ball at me and hit me in the nose. I pulled his hair and threw rocks at him then went home."
Jennifer remained friends with Ilana but the constant playing stopped after this. The friendship was better for Jennifer than it was for Ilana. Today Jennifer sees things from Ilana's parent's perspective. Jennifer's home was not a safe place for their daughter, Jennifer engaged in violence with their son, Jennifer was unsupervised--Jennifer was a bit wild! Ilana was a good girl. The parents did not encourage the friendship to continue after the fight. It slowly faded...
Jennifer remembers telling the family over borscht one day that they were really nice for a Russian family. She said she didn't understand why people were afraid of Russians at all. The silence that filled the home when she said this was probably deafening to everyone but Jennifer (a girl who, to this day, can't keep her foot out of her mouth!). Ilana's mother commented with a rather severe expression that Jennifer didn't understand anything. Jennifer had never seen Ilana's mother angry and Jennifer had just paid her a compliment! (or so she thought.) Ilana's mother was right, Jennifer did not understand anything.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.