My Russianness

October 31, 2010 § 3 Comments

I should really be studying right now…  But, last night something kind of amazing happened, so I feel like it deserves a few moments of my time to document it in history. Ok, so maybe it’s wasn’t like anything super amazing – at least not what you think. No, I didn’t fall madly in love with anyone and/or spontaneously awake with all of my SQL/SAS problems solved. But, I did decide that it was time for a little break. And, a few of my classmates and I put studying aside for a while and met up for a Russian dinner/movie night, instead.

I know I mentioned the Russian girls before, way back in the beginning – during my more pissy days. I do admit that there are still times when I struggle a bit with keeping the right russian/english ratio balance around here – but all in all I’ve managed to find good friends in them, so in reality it’s a kind of blessing.

It’s as if I’ve traveled to an entirely new place, only to learn to be my old self – the original, Russian self.

Every day of my interactions with them, I learn new slang words – they laugh at me for not knowing, ways in which I am indeed so russian, and of course a myriad of ways I’m not.

But as far as cultural journeys go, I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that this lesson is unavoidable and without coming to terms with my Russian past, I indeed can not go forward.

 

 

And so, we made pel’meni. Not from scratch of course, as that would take a long time. But it was amazing to see all the different ways in which we are alike – the foundation of our so-called sisterhood is based on the simplest of things…

ingredients for salad, so staple…  love of sour cream, universal…     our humor, so much the same.

We’ve already planned a date in the future to make Borstch – finally I’ll get an authentic recipe!

 

But, last night we kept it simple – we ate, we drank French wine and giggled over random things.

 

It was kinda funny though, I’ve never been to a dinner party where the topic of conversation ever ventured into the world of kasha making… or discussion of favorite stockings and boots. I have really found my people, haven’t I. Just add a future scavenge for orange eggs in the country side and life will be complete.

On the other hand though, there were of course those pesky differences. Those moments when I stayed quiet for lack of having the right words (most certainly how they are when we speak English) or when I’m being explained something because I’m not in the know… still of course, nothing but a foreigner.

But, who cares – foreigner or not, we see the world in similar colors and that comes with such a better view. I was reminded last night of all that it is to be Russian…   it is to be resourceful (Foil can do magic when you need it to), it is to be frugal (‘One Yogi tea bag can surly make three cups of tea’  – and you better believe we had CUPS and CUPS of tea) and it is to use laughter to diffuse any hardship that life can bring (There was much laughter). Indeed then I am Russian.

But of course, the best part of the night, the one that brought my entire life full circle it seems, is when we watched Eat, Pray, Love…. dubbed in Russian, NO LESS.  From the hilarity of cultural translations, to the idea that Julia Roberts was somehow Russian… and even more amazingly, that her story… is really my story… I found myself in the crossroads of my entire life – my past, my present and most certainly my future – all of a sudden – meeting in one place. In that moment, I was challenged to own my Russianness , reminded of my own journey that brought me here, and inspired to complete hers…   Of course, from experience as well as what the movie would suggest, it is true that running from things in this fashion is not always as productive as one would hope … and often leads life to come full circle, but by the time I get all the way back to the beginning – it will indeed be a fresh start. And in the meantime, I’m full-circle, back to the beginning, of being Russian and starting that journey, all over again.

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An Ode to Crossing Cultural Barriers

October 8, 2010 § 1 Comment

This morning, while searching for some work documents on my USB drive, I came across my old Peace Corps essays and couldn’t help but take a peek…

It’s hard to believe they were written over 6 years ago, an entire chunk of my lifetime away. I couldn’t help but share. But, before I do, I must say this….  it is too bad it never happened, but I probably wouldn’t have been of much help back then anyway. I would be much more valuable in that sort of capacity now. May this dream of mine live on…

—-

Cross-cultural Experience

*Peace Corps Volunteers must be open to ideas and cultures different from their own. Please provide a statement (between 150 and 500 words) that gives an example of a significant experience that illustrates your ability to adapt cross-culturally. You may draw from experiences in your work, school, or community in the U.S. or abroad. Please include the circumstances of the experience and dates.

I was born and grew up in communist Russia, in St. Petersburg, during a time when the power of the people depended on a wonderful sense of community. Their bond and dedication to each other at a time of poverty and misery was one that few words could convey. The atmosphere was warm and caring, but not always happy.

Life was not masked by an impersonal smile and relationships were not fake or forced. The sense of community in St. Petersburg, during my childhood, was genuine and raw. People didn’t pick and choose whom they lived with or who they helped, they cared about those that lived around them, in the next room, on the same floor and in the same building.

Their lives, their families, their values, their morals and their views of the world were closely related and so were their needs. Even if, politically speaking, the country was sinking, there was something very comforting about the fact that they were all in the same boat.

However, their experience was very different from mine, in that my family was not Russian.  My grandparents were originally from the United States and only moved to the USSR in the late 1950s. While their lives were novel-worthy and their resilience a source of constant inspiration, this bit of difference between ‘us and them‘ had an enormous impact on how I perceived the world.

My entire life it seems has been a cultural journey, which I can’t help but treasure and hold near and dear to my heart. My first language was English. My mother was a linguist and dedicated an incredible amount of time and energy teaching me English songs and rhymes when I was little. When I went to nursery school at the age of six, I did not know any Russian at all and spoke nothing but English in the home. When I was seven years old a wonderful man came into my mother’s life and shortly after moved in with us. However, he did not speak English, and so out of respect, neither did we.

Like a child’s attempt at pig-Latin, English became our secret language, one that we used to convey messages to each other on a crowded bus or a noisy train. This bit of knowledge that separated me from my classmates served as a source of identity as much as discomfort. To the entire community of people who were alike, our family was different.

Whispers and faint echoes of gossip often accompanied me to school. We were revered and scrutinized all at once. On occasion, some of the kids would shower me with compliments in exchange for a few swear words – of which I knew none – other than the occasional “Jiminy Cricket” that my grandmother mumbled under her breath in the kitchen.

I grew up considering myself an American, perhaps because, there in Russia, I was.

It was only when I came to the United States that I was forced to realize the degree of my misconception. Suddenly, somehow, during my twelve-hour flight across the Atlantic, I had become Russian.

Anyone who has ever had to experience a journey that involves adapting to another culture knows well that it is not easy. It is a process that rips you open and demands of you to look inside yourself. Beyond learning the language at an adequate level, coming to the United States required a lot of strength and patience of me. Culture is not something one can read about in a book or prepare for like an exam. Quite different from a language barrier, crossing a cultural barrier is about learning to listen and observe the world, as if for the first time.

As I began to accept my new American culture as my own, I realized that however hard that experience was, it empowered my life with an assortment of skills that will accompany me from here on out. Skills, that are the very reason that I have completed a degree in Psychology and Social Behavior and will prove invaluable in the Peace Corps and in my futures studies.

The ability to learn by observation, continuously adapt to new experiences, tune into cultural expectations, communicate and, of course, listen.

Last summer after ten years in the country, I visited Russia for the first time.  The trip reminded me of an incredible dream filled with smells and sights that were dormant inside my mind. Before I left for my trip to Russia, I was worried that it was too late to reconnect with my past. I worked so hard at becoming American it seemed impossible to turn back time. Yet, in a tight, tear-filled embrace with my old neighbors, family and friends, it occurred to me to think like this…

… culture is not to be claimed or owned by anyone, it is a living, breathing, ever-evolving entity that has room for everyone who is willing to give it time.

fingers typing away…

March 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I get this urge to write… I feel like I have so much to write about, but as soon as I get to a pen and paper, or login into one of my many less than active and not followed blogs, I seem to lose all steam. The urge comes and goes, but its reason is the same… to get it all out. All these feelings and fears…. breathes, un-inhaled, thoughts avoided and words un-spoken. I want it to come gushing out of me like a flood, but the gates, they are sealed shut and only dropplets come pouring out here and there.

where to start…

perhaps we can tackle the issue of culture first, as it’s the most prominent thing on my mind at the moment. I just listened to a two part podcast on TCKs and the woman spoke of how important journaling is. She says, even if’s not your thing, just write it down… ok. write it down girl, get it out…. you’ll feel better.

but what do I have to say about it? where does one even start when it comes to something so big? is there a beginning here? am I searching for the right words, or just words…

I feel like i’m in a transition right now… again. again, meaning always. never setteled, never happy enough, never it seems, at peace. And, what’s worse, is that the times in my life when I have felt at peace, very much had to do with other people and love and well, people that have left me… and according to TCK expert, we TCKs don’t like to be left…  well, who does you say. but, it seems that we don’t like it so much so, that we leave first, and sometimes (and here I’m really talking about me) sabotage the hell out of the good things that we could potentially have just so that we can stay true to the way we feel most of the time.

My high school friend said to me not too long ago, that I was the first person that she ever knew that was depressed… it’s funny, because when she said that I had to really think about whether or not she was right. I mean, yes I wasn’t happy and found many flaws with life and things… but I don’t think i ever felt like I was actually depressed. Ad now, after listening to this pod cost it’s become even more clear to me, that depressed doesn’t really apply to me, mostly because it’s the baseline by which i measure my life so far… only it’s not so much being depressed as some sort of time of unacknowledged grief, a sort of mourning that’s perpetually taking place. So the question then is, what is it that I am mourning?

I suppose I’ll keep writing to find out. I guess it all started when I was born. I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m pretty certain that I’ve been mourning my lack of identity since before I even uttered my first words. So I guess here’s where we start with my TCk exploration… my first words were in English, my mom read me english books and we sang along with Raffi… i’m pretty sure I learned the word spider from, there’s a spider on my floor and the word Sun from “oh mr. sun”… when I got to nursery school, i didn’t know a single word in Russian. The kids looked at me like I was nutts and I did a lot of playing by myself. Once I began to learn Russian thogh, At home, the rules stayed the same, “I don’t understand what you’re saying” my mom would say if I said anything in russian.. but this was all about to change. One day, I walked into my kitchen and there was a strange man washing his hands at the sink. I addressed my mother in English and she looked at me sternly and said, “say hello in russian”. And so, what seemed like from that day forward, we switched to speaking russian at home. At school though, it was already well established that i was a freak… ok, so maybe not a freak, but definitely different. Not only did I know some english, but our family were pretty much like aliens on the block…  we had an awesome but weird dog that understood only english and my granny who wold often ask for “milk” at the store. Our apartment was often filled with foreign visitors, magically appearing german chocolates and corn flakes from the U.S.A.. My toys were made out of alien unheard of substances like a stretchy latex monkey face and whined up musical crescent moon… and all the while it wasn’t exactly clear, why we were so different, or special and we certainly didn’t talk about it – except on occasion of course when, after a big party, i’d fall asleep on the couch in our two room apartment and overhear snippets of our story, that it seems that i’ve held on to my entire life…  as you see, when everything is a secret, and no one knows enough to explain anything, well, you just settle for tiny pieces you can call your own.

It’s rather amazing really, because even as I write this now, it doesn’t put itself into words. Over the years, it’s gotten so big in my heart – in our hearts – that it’s just too painful to dimish with facts and brievity. I think maybe this is why I’ve had such a hard time finishing the book. I’ve started reading it a million times, and I just can’t seem to let myself finish… maybe i just don’t want it to end, maybe knowing that it’s unread is in some ways soothing.  Wow, i have to say.. wriing this is rather painful. Could it really be that I’ve been holding this in all these years?

and that’s not to mention the real move to the US and all that came along with that… *sigh*

What struck me today, was mostly this… I guess I didn’t realize what an enormous impact my past has had on my ability to relate to people and maintain fulfilling relationships. It’s not to say that I haven’t, but it is in fact those relationships that mark for me the existence of peace and the idea of home – without them I am in fact homeless. Even as I look around my apartment, which I have spent more years in than I have in any other place since the age of 10, I don’t feel it to be home at all.

And, if we were to quantify my idea of home with relationships, then it would imply that my two long term relatinships were in fact more home to me than any real place has ever been.This realization, is in fact a very sad one, as one of those was a fake home, which I chose to leave free-willing, and the other was like home, slipping away, once again, i suppose. And, what’s worse, is if those two people really represent home for me, then the not having any contact with either of them, truly is like losing all purpose in life.

I guess I need to focus on building a new home, at least eventually, and perhaps one that isn’t attached to people, but rather places…?

So here it is… my friday night rant, tck podcast induced, internal exploration…

peace.

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