I am glad that my son’s first Barbie is the Halloween Barbie – that way I can tell him that her vapidity and lack of realistic measurements is just a scary costume. To us, children growing up outside the U.S., Barbies were the cat’s meow, an indication of all things fancy and a way to compare our parent’s class to that of other families. When naked ‘pupsiki’ were all we could afford, Barbies symbolized a ‘better life’, a life many of our parents sought when emigrating to the U.S.
Now we’re here raising our own children, figuring out ways to balance status markers with values we’ve picked up along the way as American teenagers. To some, there is no contradiction – life is about working hard to buy that which most prominently will signal to others that we’re quite well off, quite successful, thank you very much. To me, however, some traditions are better left in the past. There is little place in our lives for Russian-Armenian paradigms of family dynamics, sexist and archaic by nature. My sons aren’t groomed to be ‘real men’ who are to be providers with 2.3 BMWs when they grow up. They are not raised with upward mobility as a goal or with ‘hard work is your cross to bear’ representations of character.
They are raised to be citizens of the world and to be social justice activists. They are told their integrity is worth more than dollar signs, their happiness more than others’ opinions of their so-called deviant ways. Ours is a home where they grow up without limitations of gender identity or sexuality developments - a home of freedom even if tempered by reminders that ‘the world outside’ and ‘your grandma’s culture’ are different and not in empowering ways.
And so there will be many contradictions in their life. They too will wonder what their Russian-ness means and what their being American citizens represents given the ever-shifting world. Perhaps they will even raise my grandchildren, children of a future where I hope the Barbies of today will be obsolete. All I know is that when one’s ethnicity or culture is held as important enough to think that it’s better than others or when either is conflated with a boundless drive for money or power, we’re doing it wrong. I want to do what’s right by my children instead.