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On Makeup and Language

I was putting Christopher down to sleep when the new family Vladimir had met arrived. I lay in bed, the baby still nursing, wondering if I should put on makeup before I went down. I even wondered about changing my clothes.

Being well dressed and prettied up is important for a lot of Russian women. I know someone who will not let her husband see her without makeup. She goes to bed with it on, and does not allow him to see her face in the morning until she has reapplied it. I witnessed this once when we went camping – not just a little mascara and lip-gloss. She had on the whole nine yards at eight in the morning, after emerging from a tent. I have sat in a Russian speaking branch (a small congregation of the LDS church, around 50 people) and listened to women declare that we must always look like a princess for our husband. When I first met my mother-in-law, I was not just a little intimidated. She was casually dressed in tight jeans, red spike heels, and a rhinestone encrusted T-shirt. Her hair and makeup were both immaculate – this after an 18 hour flight.

So there I was, wondering – what kind of an impression should I try to make? Am I a provincial girl; simple, common, and not worth notice? Or should I go all out and show them there was a reason a desirable Russian man chose this American woman? Either way, I would just be a doll. My mother in law was also there, and everyone would speak Russian for the evening. My only real contribution to the conversation would be to nod, smile, laugh appropriately, and look pretty. But I was my husband’s wife and mistress of this house. Though that was all I would be doing this particular evening, I needed to be there at his side and be the hostess. So far, my absence was excusable, but it wouldn’t be for long.

It was 8:30 in the evening. I didn’t know they were coming until just earlier. Did I really want to put on makeup?  I checked in the mirror, and decided I looked okay. In fact, I actually looked pretty good. I took a breath and went downstairs to immerse myself in that language that is at once so familiar and such a barrier.

“Can I speak Russian?” the wife asked in that language. She didn’t have makeup on.

I was relieved, knowing I would have been overdoing it had I attempted the shock and awe tactics. It happens, every once in a while.

“Nimnoshka,” I replied – a little. I smile.

I helped to get tea ready, and we sat down at the table. Vladimir told stories, some of them even about me. I nodded. I smiled. I laughed. I even blushed once.

There are so many feelings an evening like this evokes in me. My husband is clearly proud of me. I’ve learned quite a bit of Russian, enough to impress his friends, but not enough to really be part of the fast moving conversations that occur. I often feel quite outside of things in my own home. I must admit that since my mother in law has moved in, this feeling has become much more prevalent. Such a resentment is never simple: I both console myself and berate myself with the fact that if I feel like an outsider, how must she feel? How much worse must it be for her, with only my husband and a handful of visitors who know her language?

It’s not always easy, combining cultures and languages. It is not always harmonious. But we manage to cover it with a veneer of civilization. We nod. We smile. We laugh. We get through it. And on the other side, usually, we find understanding.

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