my Scarlet Letter…

October 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

As I’ve been on this total cultural exploration kick, I had this really bazaar thought the other day…

I was learning about TCKs, reading all these blogs and thinking about whether or not all people have this kind of difficulty finding their cultural voice, their right for citizenship and a place to belong. And it suddenly occurred to me, that if I was reading my life as a book in Mr. Weiss’ class (that’s Sophomore English for all you not in the know!), my book reports thesis would be about the fact that my Grandpa, knowingly or not, gave up his right to belong anywhere (or rights to any kind of citizenship for that matter: defined as being a member of any social, political or national community… ) – and inadvertently passed this burden on to me. Leaving me and the rest our family (whether or not they all feel that way)  without an actual  ‘community‘! –  that is in fact why I sometimes have a hard time belonging anywhere.  Because even though I can often find myself relating to stories of other TCKs, I still find there to be a difference…  A scarlet letter of sorts that always feels a little out of place, a little dirty, a little bit like a shameful secret, that may not be stitched to my clothes, but is certainly wearing thin on my heart…  one that I would want nothing more than to rip off like a band-aid. Maybe it’s time that I do just that. … some day soon I’ll finally write my own version of this story… one that could possibly bury this, once and for all… along with its badge of shame, and  finally allow me to come clean. Yours truly,  ~ Miss Hester Prynne

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… a disturbing sensation of in-authenticity.

October 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

I read this bit from a TCK blog today and just loved this line. In-authenticity for sure. Here in Belgium I am just foreign, at least the kind I can fully accept – no other explanations necessary.

‘…sometimes it is easier to be a [real]  foreigner. [The alternative, it seems] comes with an awful [sense of] paranoia and a disturbing sensation of in-authenticity.’

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.

Lessons in life, dating and ball dropping surgery

September 28, 2010 § 3 Comments

Picking up on social cues has been part of my (and any other TCK’s) daily living, since before I can remember. Living in an American family in Russia, living as a Russian immigrant in the US and now living in Belgium as ‘me’ – one thing consistently remains the same and that is the need to understand and observe everything – as part of the natural course of survival. It’s really no wonder then that my degree is in Psychology and Social Behavior and my career based entirely on observation, analysis and context.

But, while this life perspective comes naturally and doesn’t require much effort, it always fascinates me when I find myself in new social situations that I haven’t yet taken the time to understand. And here in Belgium, as expected, they are everywhere.

Yes, something like paradise... for my over-analytical mind.

The latest installment in my personal Flemish Cultural Immersion program (not to be confused, with Wallonia, or Brussels, or the German speaking part in the East, or the entire Belgian Country itself – as apparently there are very little similarities between them all) had to do with the already difficult art of dating, made even more difficult – apparently – by a completely lack of reference points.

I mean, gawd help me…  I have spent more time that I’m willing to admit reading insightful blogs, articles, talking to friends – not to mention, a tiny chariot of my own dating disasters (for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call anything that ends with me being in Belgium on my own, as obvious proof of that) only to realize that while some of that information might still be helpful in navigating the dating scene in Belgium, It’s only been a month since I’ve been here and I’m already convinced it will be a harder sell than I thought.

My most unfortunate lesson in this category, so far, all started when I first moved into my current flat and decided to get internet. Originally, I had gone to a few stores to scope things out, but the lines were long and I just wasn’t in the mindset yet to commit. Then, I ventured into Mobistar, got in line …and came across Tars.

That’s right – Taaaars. Is your ‘r’ rolling in the back of your throat…? Are you pronouncing your ‘a’ like you’ve just burnt your tongue…. Keep trying, I gave up after a while. But, however you call him, he spoke English and was about to sign me up for internet, so you could say I was in a good mood about it.

Apparently, a good mood and a general foreign helplessness is easily mistaken for something of the other… Within minutes, his name and personal cell # was on my contract (ya know, in case I have any problems and/or questions) and aside from the angry mob of people behind  me waiting to be serviced, everything ended on a pretty good note. That is, he signed me up for my plan and sold me a cell phone/sim card, which left me with two more things I could cross off my very long list… So Yeah, I guess you could say I felt very productive. I wasn’t however at all expecting the following…

The next day, as I was trying to figure out how to work my new handset, I realized I had a text message, that read something along the lines of this…

‘I am riding on thin ice here, as I could get into a lot of trouble and lose my job, but I just wanted to let you know that I was serious about showing you around. Hope to hear from you soon – Tars’

Ok, so maybe there was a tiny tiny part of me that was flattered, but also a little weirded out… honestly, if I was back in the US, there would have been no way in hell I would have gone with him anywhere. I mean, lets start with the fact that he works at a cell phone store. Then add the whole blond mow-hawk thing on top of his tiny tin-tin head and one of those weird bugger/pimple piercing things in his chin dimple …and well, if I could read the culture better  I would have guessed him to be a tweaker, maybe even gay (although that’s probably just because he was well put together – so maybe that was more of bonus). But the point is that I just couldn’t really tell what the norm was and after a day of slight boredom of finally being settled in my place, I decided that I probably need to be more open to things and texted him back. Umm, lesson learned.

The premise of our interactions was supposed to be of the ‘city tour/dutch lessonvariety… yes, at least I know how to draw these kinds of boundaries in theory. But, the day was getting late and by the time we decided to meet up it was obvious there won’t be much of a city to explore, but instead I’ll at least get to see a Ghent party. Now, when he said party – i thought, ya know.. Party. More people I get to meet, a cool pad I get to explore… something local, yeah?  Umm, turned out this was a little more like well, … a rave. But before we ever got there, Tars and I met up at a bar for some drinks.

We really only spent maybe an hour or two getting to know each other (pre-rave), but I can safely say it was the most unusual non-date, date conversation I have ever had… and I have had plenty of unusual date and non-date conversations, seriously.

For some reason, he felt compelled to tell me everything that there is to know about him (hey, i guess at least I didn’t have to get it all in small doses) – following up each statement with, I just felt that it’s important that you know this up front. The word ‘upfront’ itself, nearly sent me running for the door… Up-front? Up-front of what? My Dutch lesson…? or the city-tour? What exactly did this person think we were doing that I needed to know… up-front – that he was born with one of his eye on the side of his head, which had to be surgically altered (btw, this totally explains why I thought I saw a wandering eye at the store), or the fact that his recently moved out ex-girlfriend hate his other ex-girlfriend, or the fact that because he use to be a gymnast he is in great shape, that he smokes pot 4-5 a week and two packs of cigarettes a day (seriously, it was gone by the end of the night), that he makes 1500 euros a month (which is enough reason not to have to go back to school) and my favorite and most puzzling of all, that by the time his 6th birthday came around, his balls hadn’t dropped and they had to go in and drop his balls – manually… (procedure and aftermath described in horrific detail) ….but that of course everything works great!

After which, he unbuttoned his shirt and showed me a black constellation of stars on his white pasty chest from the day he was born (and some other weird symbol of something his father carved out of wood for his mother – ah, at least he loves family, an important tour guide/dutch teacher characteristic, i’m sure.)

Of course, all of this happened before we got to the rave – during which we got accidentally separated (sort of)  and I decided this was my great getaway moment – until of course, i ran into him on the way out. Oh, hi.

I only stuck around for another hour or so and then politely excused myself. But the texts and later email did not stop right away and I was getting worried that I might have stalker on my hands. I mean, the guy not only had my #, but my address and bank account and anything else you would need to set up your internet and buy a cell phone – brilliant. And I just wasn’t sure what the etiquette was…  or what to expect from someone like him (the last conversation we had, had something to do with beating the shit out of someone… umm, yeah.)

This of course, explains why I could not for the life of me get my Internet to work as I kept hoping my DSL box was in the mail and I wouldn’t have to go back to the store. But, alas it never did. So finally I decided to find another branch and see if they could help me. Within minutes it started to seem like they could… the guy started calling someone and a lot of Dutch later, there was a DSL box on the table.

Hurray – I was so exited. Finally, I’ll have internet!

Then, as the guy began to shuffle through my paperwork he noticed Tars’ name and number on my contract. ‘Oh, is this the guy that you dealt with before?’ Yes… I said, cautiously… but please don’t call him (I blurted out just in case). ‘Ah, you should be careful I think…’ he says. I really wanted to ask why, but instead I just said… ‘Yeah, I kinda got that, that’s why I’m here… ‘ The guy smirked and began to tell me about the other location, how it has a separate owner and that there’s a lot of fraud happening there and that while he’s never met this guy he’s heard crazy stories and would kick his ass if he ever did’  Funny.

But, seriously, I was just excited to get my DSL box and finally have a new store I can turn to for help. That is, until I got home and there was a friend request waiting for me from Store #2

…. Aaahhh. Seriously?! What do they think I’m gonna be like the new neighborhood Mobistar ho…. crap.

I think the lesson here is two-fold:

On one hand, it seems, that happiness, and a general openeness to the environment and culture is continuously leading me into situations that I would much prefer not to find myself in. How then to be excited, warm and open to people and experiences without making it appear as though you have other intentions – this it seems I will need to work on.

On the other hand, being open – especially to a new place and culture – requires a suspension of your old beliefs about social ques, norms and stereotypes – perhaps I’m being too closed minded by wanting to navigating anything the old way…

Anyway, I don’t quite have an answer for any of this yet, but thought I would at least share the story. Maybe at some point I can share the rest – oh boy.

Part II: Soul Searching (a.k.a Cultural Confusion)

September 27, 2010 § 5 Comments

I didn’t want to muddy-up Part I with this, so I thought I’d make an entirely new section for it. Don’t read too much into this garbage either, only that from now on you might have the unfortunate opportunity to peek inside the compost pile of my soul, where things – a tad smelly and fermented, perhaps – ultimately nourish the soil, er.. soul searching…, that leads to better and brighter days.

While there were so many great things about today that I could mention instead, there’s one thing on my mind, in particular… that was a little bit of a surprise.  It really shouldn’t have been, as it’s something that always comes up

but somehow in 28 years of my life I have not learned how to properly deal with this, and am obviously being sent an extra special abroad version of this problem so that I once and for all – nail it. And I intend to do so – maybe with your help.

Ok, …and there’s a slightly whiny part of me that wants to throw my hands up in the air right now and say… wwhyyyy. Can’t I just be normal now…?

But hopefully, I’m better than that, so instead I feel like it’s just time to figure out a real solution to this problem.

The problem is this: I need to figure out a way to explain to people where I come from. My heritage, my background, my family… why I’m both Russian and not Russian, why I’m American and not American and Why I feel like neither and hate the whole suject. And, what struck me today was … wow, i really hate it.

You would think by now I would have a good answer for people about who I am and where I’m from – but the truth of the matter is, I don’t. Somehow I didn’t think that would matter so much here – I stand up, I smile, I say I’m from California, end of story. Yes, true – until of course, a group of us is walking down the hall together and 3 of them begin to speak Russian (something along the lines of – oh, you  know Russian, too? No way, me too, wow.. awesome, where you from…). At this point this isn’t directed at me, but as I walk to the side of them listening to the beginnings of their conversation – I literally had a deer in the headlights moment. My crazy thought process was something along the lines of this…

‘Omg, could I get away with not telling them I know Russian… I would have to lie for an entire year, I would literally have to stay away from them, just in case – what if it came out… surely it would, I’m a terrible liar. I can’t not mention it now, they’re right next to me… then they’ll really think I’m weird. Like, you’ve been able to understand us this entire time, wtf is wrong with you. I guess I need to tell them. Oh no…’

If I had had more time, maybe I would have thought about what to say… but, I didn’t. It was speak now, or forever hold your tongue.

Inside I pretty much felt like, life was over… at least the one I wanted, you know where I’m not Russian – (ok, maybe a little, but not like you are, trust me…  ) but took a deep breath and nonchalantly said ‘ oh, you guys speak Russian too..?!’ I tried to focus on the word ‘speak’… ya know, kind of like people here speak all kinds of languages. But it’s not that simple when you’re talking to your own kind… or something of the sort.

Who looks like a deer in the headlights now. They turned to me at first baffled (don’t worry girls, this ain’t no picnic for me either)… then one of them says, ‘huh, I thought you kind of looked Slovak’  – Really, you did..  hmm, maybe it’s airborne.

But really, the girls were very nice, they did nothing wrong… all this anxiety is mine to get over. But I just can’t figure out why it bothers me so much. Explaining myself turned out to be harder than I could have imagined… I tried to use words, like – lived, grew up, born – but somehow, they couldn’t distinguish the difference – so, you’re Russian, then? I guess I need to learn to say Yes… what’s the worst that could happen. So it’s as much untrue, as it is true… who effing cares. Shit, I do.

I particularly noticed how much I didn’t want to be Russian today as an instant clique formed (of which of course, as usual, I was on the cusp of). 4 people out of 23 speak a language that leaves everyone else out of the conversation and they’re ok with it – because they’re Russian! I, on the other hand, would much rather get to know everyone – because I wouldn’t belong in their clique anyway and it’s only a matter of time that they figure that out…  Granted they’re not Russian either, at least I’m Russian enough to know that – Siberia… no. Lithuania… no. Estonia… I don’t think so.

Anyway, after class a bunch of us went to lunch and this is where I distinctly noticed my cultural retardedness – I began to talk to the woman from Greece in line and found myself not only mention how much I want to go there some day (duh), but also that I’m quarter Greek. Yes, just trying to tip the scale a little bit. As a result, she saved me a seat at her table – right in between her and the Russians. The Russians all spoke Russian and there I was caught in the throes of a real cultural dilemma… do I engage with the Russians in Russian and leave the poor older woman who saved me a seat in an awkward position, or blatantly ignore the Russian conversation and continue to speak in English with this woman, about being Greek (Well, I’m certainly more Russian than I am Greek – what is wrong with me!)  Of course you know what I did, I don’t do that to poor Greek women.

But all of this, however silly it may sound – and trust me, I know it sounds silly – left me with a really icky feeling by the time I left campus. I really wanted this to be a cultural experience… one with immersion and different people of different origins and everything else. But clearly, the universe really wants me to get over this – for once and for all – learn to understand and accept my background. I just need a few buzz words, something that can serve as an easy explanation for which language was my first, what culture is my family and which heritage I identify with – um, Help.

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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