A Dried Herring, Please

I recently went back to my hometown in Queens for some grocery shopping. I stopped by a little shop in Rego Park where I was sure to find smoked salmon and Russian herring.

Bringing our shopping cart to the cashier, we were met with the usual question: Would you like anything else?

The tall sales-woman looked like a giant behind the cash register. She was elevated by a platform on the floor.

My mom, who seemed miniscule in relation to her, answered that she wanted a smoked salmon. Not too large and not too greasy.

The cashier, slightly taken aback, cringed her face. “Don’t you understand, young lady, that salmon is supposed to be big and fatty?” she spat in Russian.

This was the first in a very long time that I heard the native Russian tongue. At home, my family speaks a hybrid language, infused with words from Russia, Belarus, and Poland. I forgot the funny little things about the Russian dialect that always made me laugh. First, this lady, who was probably younger than my mom, called her a “young lady”. Addressing somebody as a “young person” is quite common in the language, but in the moment, when her tone was so sour and her face looked so disapproving, it seemed strange to use such a flattering phrase. The latter part of her sentence, however, was what really got me.

I chuckled at forgetting that “big and fatty salmon” was the standard amongst Russian Americans.

In an instant, my mom fell into the routines of Russian culture, where all ladies bickered if they shared differing views. She went on to tell the cashier about her profession in the medical field and that she knew the difference between food that was healthy or not.

With an unsatisfied expression, the lady went to look for a salmon. She soon returned and slammed it on the top of the scale.

Three pounds. Not bad.

“Anything else?”

“Yes, a herring,” my mom replied.

“Do you also want a dried one?”

Now, I wasn’t going to stand there and let my mom have all the fun.

“Yes, the driest and most lifeless one that you can find,” I answered.

What’s important to remember is that Russian herring, similar to the one sold in American supermarkets, is submerged in some form of oil. By nature, it has to be wet and somewhat greasy.

Our conversation was nothing but rubbish at this point, with each side ceaselessly trying to put the other down. It was pretty amusing, to see how even I changed my behavior when I was placed into that environment. If I was in an average store, I would not converse in such a way with the cashier, and I am sure that she would not speak with the same tone to her customer. It’s only when I descend to the basements of Russian supermarkets that I see the wild side come out of people. Perhaps it brings us back to the environment in which we grew up.

Assimilating to the American culture may be the dream, although full of toil and hard work. After being in the United States for twelve years, I had the firm belief that my family and I were fully integrated. It came as a surprise that lapsing back to our original behavior, even for a moment, was so easy and thoughtless.

People can adjust and change, but at their root, they always stay the same.

A russian herring.
Image provided by www.g20eats.blogspot.com

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6 Responses to A Dried Herring, Please

  1. Sifan Shen says:

    First of all, i loved the dialogue in this piece. It’s vivid and humorous. The dry herring joke is witty and funny. Secondly, I’m amazed at the scene when the sales-women slams the 3-pound smoked Salmon on the top of the scale. It really shows the arrogance of this character. It’s fascinating to hear this young sales-woman calling your mother “young lady”. Perhaps she wants to appear more authority. She seems to talk with a professor’s tone, addressing customers as “young lady”. Anyway, i found it interesting.

  2. rubinsammy says:

    I feel the same way! Some times I believe my family has integrated to the American culture. At other times, I still feel like we are the immigrants on the block.

    We buy food at American and Russian supermarkets.

    My family is not into herrings. But we are into caviar. That’s the only seafood we eat. Also, it is completely different from your family.

  3. Professor Bernstein says:

    A lively piece –I loved the exchange. I loved the fat and greasy herring! Funny and true, too.

  4. Yeuk San Shen says:

    The shift between culture is very interesting. I think I do this once in a while too– except that it is between Chinese and American culture. But I think people now try to incorporate their own definition of American culture with their own norms and values.

  5. Joseph Maugeri says:

    I like how you didn’t let your mom have all the fun. Tell that cashier who’s boss. It gives a nice glimpse into Russian culture and it is very interesting.

  6. tejjybear says:

    The type of conversation you had is similar to one I once had with a man in an Indian grocery store. He questioned my knowledge of Punjabi, and I promptly dismissed him. I don’t like it when people assume we don’t know anything of our cultures because we have assimilated too much, because it’s simply not true. I really enjoyed reading this piece, and can really relate to it.

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