No country for a Russian-American like me

Trying to negotiate between my two home countries is like being the child of a bitter divorce

Topics: Life stories, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Crimea, Russian-American, Bicultural,

I immigrated from Russia with my parents when I was five years old. When I finally went back to visit, at the age of 11, it seemed like the saddest, most hopeless place in the entire world. It felt like nobody and nothing wanted to be there. The streets were littered with dogs breathing laboriously in the midday sun. The water in everyone’s apartment oscillated from scorching hot to icy cold with malevolent zeal. There was a massive, inexplicable hole in front of our dilapidated apartment building, which one had to hurl oneself over to reach the front door, then stand on tiptoe while gripping the handle in order to not slip into the pit.

Everyone I met seemed to be living in a dead-end zone, their eyes always looking down at their brown shoes in shame. My relatives spent hours obsessively peeling onions and mincing beets to create the world’s best borscht, only to ladle it onto my plate and mutter, “Sorry, I know it’s probably not as good as what you have in America.” They called me a “little Amerikanka” — a term expressed with a mixture of endearment and envy, suggesting the object is spoiled and fortunate, but still belovedly theirs. I would be asked, repeatedly, whether or not there were homeless people in America, whether or not there were unhappy people in America, whether or not there were stairs or whether it was all magical moving escalators, realizing quickly that for them America was still this land of golden dreams that, because it was unchartered and unreachable, was eternally pristine.

When we got back to our NYC apartment, the first thing I did was burst into the bathroom to turn on the faucet and rejoice at the simplicity of American plumbing. I rejected my heritage, my parents, my birthplace. To me, Russia was like that hole in front of our apartment — an inexplicable pit no one cared enough to fix.

So for 10 years I was just American, because it was easier that way, and nobody asked any questions. That changed when I was 21, and I lived there for a year while teaching at a language school in St. Petersburg. I fell in love with Russia, although “fell” is the wrong word because that love had always been there; it just bubbled up from my sternum as soon as I finally unscrewed it.

I loved the steely scent of its spacious metro stations, the fragrant scent of the pasture that would rush into the upper berths of rocking sleeper trains, the sweet scent of fresh zemlyanika in the inky newspaper in which it’s wrapped. I loved that Russians laughed at tragedy, scoffed at death and erased all existential problems with a philosophical, dismissive hand wave. I loved that, no matter where you went, you could always find Russians smoking defiantly in front of “No Smoking” signs and swimming in the exact part of the beach bearing a “No Swimming” sign. I loved how quickly people opened up and the overall atmosphere of domestic familiarity: asking a stranger on the trolley where to get off would often lead to him or her giving me intimate details about their recent breakup or upcoming divorce; when I lost my shoe in the metro, a random women gave me an extra pair and staunchly refused any remuneration; when I accidentally left my trench coat at home on a brisk day, several dozen people stopped me on the street to tell me I was an idiot and needed to put on a coat because otherwise I’d get a cold. It was both overwhelmingly endearing and incredibly irritating, the way that family members usually are. I began to love the hole in front of my building, because it was there, every day, like a loyal ground aberration, and because it was so familiar and because it was mine.

So when I returned to New York City, with my red and blue passports in tow, I began to answer the question, “What are you?” with the honest answer: Russian-American. And so began the problems that come with being what I call a Hyphenate.

Being bi-cultural is often baffling to people and identifying as such incurs a string of interrogations, including my least favorite question of all time, “Yes, but do you feel more American or more Russian?” (A question which really boils down to “Whose side are you really on?”) Because I inherently view everything from a dual perspective, it’s difficult for me to adopt the standard, binary way of thinking (i.e. “Capitalism is good, so communism is bad,” “America is good, so Russia is bad” or vice versa). But trying to explore issues in nuanced, multi-faceted ways has been enormously problematic, because when two subjects are placed in stark opposition to one another, as Russia and America are, people tend to dilute complex arguments to conform to their personal strain of moral outrage.

When I wrote an article describing my internal conflict with Russian dating customs, which I appreciated on an emotional level but rejected on a rational one, several of my American friends de-friended me on Facebook because it was “too anti-feminist,” while several of my Russian friends did the same thing because it was “too feminist.” Russian trolls reacted to the Russian translation largely by lamenting that a good Russian girl had turned into an “American whore,” while American trolls told me they hoped I’d go back to Russia and “get my teeth knocked out.” My frail great-grandmother in Russia never fails to muster up the strength to lift herself from her chair, point a finger and tell me I’ve “betrayed the motherland”; my American friends call me a “Soviet spy” in that “I’m kidding, but not really” way. I am always in an unwitting confrontation, either arguing for America to Russians, or Russia to Americans. I am always a “they” and never a “we,” a constant stranger in a familiar land, an eternal outsider. I am, put simply, too American for Russia and too Russian for America. And it’s lonely in the middle.

Being Russian-American is, as I’ve often said, like being the child of bitterly divorced parents, one who’s constantly caught in the crossfire of their “irreconcilable differences.” You try to mitigate their hatred of one another by explaining their motives, but neither wants to hear it, because the truth is that they’re comfortable in their hatred. I find myself defending Russia the way one defends an alcoholic parent, not justifying its actions, but trying to impart to people that they just don’t know it well enough, that it has a beautiful side, that they’re not ones to judge. Because I’ve always believed you’re only allowed to criticize what you love; what you hate, or are repelled by, you should endeavor to understand.

Living in New York as a Russian-American has become especially difficult in lieu of recent events, because there’s a bandwagoning effect that occurs when the media latches onto something, and hating Russia (not the government, or the foreign policies, but Russia as a whole) is now in vogue. I wake up every day to headlines like “Russia is a bigger threat than terrorism.” There’s a worrying increase in global discrimination against Russians, like the booing of the Russian contestants on Eurovision and this Russian teacher who was denied a job in Switzerland because of a flawed government she herself must endure (it’s a natural knee-jerk reaction, but you can’t fight prejudice and narrow-mindedness by being prejudiced and narrow-minded). Friends, who have without exception never been to Russia and know little about its culture, write Facebook statuses saying “I would jump off a bridge before living in Russia.” Colleagues I run into at parties, who barely know me, far less my political allegiances, greet me with sarcastic cries of, “Hey, congratulations on Crimea!” Everyone asks me, with squinted eyes of suspicion, what you-know-who is going to invade next, as though just because we’re both Russian, Putin and I have some sort of cosmic bond similar to Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. And it’s become absolutely impossible to mention anything remotely nice about Russia, like the fact that dumplings are delicious or that bathhouses are lots of fun, without invoking a snarky quip about He Who Must Not Be Named. And when I try to explain various situations from a Russian perspective — again, not justify or even defend, just explain — nobody wants to hear it.

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Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like most Americans are interested in Russian politics, but don’t really care about Russian people. Many still extol “winning the Cold War” and “bringing freedom to Russia” in 1991 without ever lamenting the fact that this “victory” plunged thousands of people into extreme poverty and starvation (abstract ideals are, after all, a luxury of the well-fed). There’s an overabundance of Russian thugs, villains and cranky landlords in Hollywood and a noticeable lack of well-rounded, sympathetic characters. And at no point when everyone was laughing about the famously yellow water or crumbling hotels in Sochi did anyone seem to stop and think, “Well, this is how everyday people live here.” There is by now a whole genre of journalism on the internet dedicated to ridiculing Russians, always written with the tone of “Oh, look how strange all of these funny, crazy little Russians are.” There’s no incentive to demystify why, for example, Russians hoard grocery bags (they cost extra money in Russian supermarkets) or hang oriental rugs on the wall (it’s for extra insulation and sound-proofing since Russian walls are thin); they are instead intentionally presented as snapshots of an upside-down world where everyone’s behavior is unequivocally wrong and absurd.

This surprising lack of empathy was especially evident in, of all things, the recent Muppet movie, part of which is set in a comedic version of a “Soviet gulag.” Twenty two million passed through this wantonly cruel system, tied naked to planks to be eaten alive by mosquitos or placed upon high chairs with stones wrapped to their legs to make them permanently crippled (and innumerable other tortures), all for coming to work late or accidentally leaving a sardine can on the wrong part of a newspaper or some other equally inconsequential act. I’m an advocate of laughing at past tragedies in order to show we have overcome them, but still, one couldn’t make “12 Years a Muppet” or “Kermit’s List” without an international uproar, so it feels like this cultural insensitivity is largely localized to Russia. In an age when people are working so tirelessly at dismantling stereotypes and prejudice, cultural stereotypes about Russia and the dehumanization of its people appear to be thriving and sanctioned by all.

Many of my friends and fellow immigrants, faced with the struggles of being a Hyphenate, have chosen to either repudiate their heritage or repudiate America, and there’s a lingering sadness to both. I refuse to do that, not only because I’ve spent too long constructing this identity in whose skin I finally feel comfortable, but also because I believe being bi-cultural provides one with an overall richer view of the world, because contrast is the best tool we have at gaining any real perspective on anything.  I never knew how much I loved America — its fluorescent diners that glow like beacons all through the night, its cozy chain restaurants in the shadow of monolithic shopping malls, its endless roads that disappear into an overwhelming vastness, its inspiring sense of possibility, its irrevocable good intentions, its functioning legal system, its genuine, indefatigable pursuit of life, liberty and happiness — until I first left, and I am never more aware of that love than when I go to a different country and come back.

When I received my American citizenship, at the age of 14, when I placed my hand on the bible and made my wedding vows to the USA, the only part I was uncomfortable with was when they asked me to renounce all allegiances to former countries. In a day and age when we recognize that the human heart has the capacity to love more than one person, why can we not acknowledge that it can and does love more than one spot on a map? Why does loving a country need to translate into intense nationalism, and why does this nationalism bloat into the megalomaniacal notion that one’s country is superior to all the rest? Why do we still engage in this arrogant tradition when we know that jingoism is the reason we have wars?

What worries me most about the way that the U.S. and Russia approach one another is not all the ridicule and aggression, but the extremism of their mutual negativity. You can either love Russia or hate it and anything in between confuses the opposition (the reverse is also true). You can either be Russian, or American, and anything in between makes you a double enemy. And it’s a very dangerous, slippery slope, because extremism is, after all, the root of all evil; it’s not the belief in itself that is the problem, it’s the abandoning of all human reason and empathy in the pursuit of that belief.

So I keep fighting and explaining, keep forcing myself to be an outsider instead of just agreeing with what each side says, because some part of me must hope for a globalized utopia led by cultural enlightenment where we approach the unfamiliar with empathy and endeavor to see things from another’s eyes. That is, as far as I’m concerned, the diplomatic duty of a Russian-American, the diplomatic duty of all Hyphenates, because up close, that little horizontal symbol appears to be a bridge.

Diana Bruk was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and raised in New York City. She is the managing editor of Brooklyn Exposed, and her writing has been featured in VICENerve, and more. You can follow her on twitter @BrukDiana.

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