“Living Outside My Native Tongue” Club

I have this fantasy one day I will be in the elevator (or anywhere) and Russian-speaking people will talk about me without knowing I understand them and I will turn around and surprise them with my exquisite command of Russian curses. This has yet to happen. At our last Gogol Bordello concert, I found myself surrounded by fellow Russians in midlife crisis partying with this crazy rock band. I hoped this would be my moment of glory; maybe they would make fun of my pink hair (too old for that hair color, lady) or perhaps they can laugh at my inappropriate butt shaking? Or else they can gasp at the shade of magenta on my lips or my cut-up shirt? (I did it myself!) I urged my husband to play along and we can trick them into thinking we weren’t American (or Russian-speaking). I suggested he use a foreign accent when speaking to me; as if you can hear anything at a concert – and HELLO, no one is watching me; they’re entranced by the skinny, almost naked, sweaty guy dancing around the stage with his guitar. Guess what happened? The band came on stage and I forgot all about my Russian fantasy.

Obviously, I know what it’s like to live in a country where I am fluent in the language. The signs on the road, the TV, the radio; everything is in English and I understand it without a second thought. I also comprehend Russian in this way (although maybe at an 8th-grade vocabulary) yet I have never been to a place surrounded by Russian speakers. I often imagine traveling to Kiev to see where I was born. I was four years old when we left and I have not one faint memory. I have stories my parents have retold again and again etching themselves on my memory but they are one-degree-removed memories. Sometimes I shut my eyes tightly and think I can actually recall the story as it happened, and instead I rehash it just like they have countless times. There’s the one about my bedtime procrastination. As the story goes, I wanted something to sleep with and after rejecting all offers of stuffed animals and appropriate toys, I settled on an empty matchbox. In all the years of hearing the story, I hadn’t realized it was a matchbox because they kept referring it to it as a “karobachka,” just a little box.

I don’t remember the Russian supermarkets or the bazaar. No matter how many times I look at old photos, I can’t remember the day in the park where my family of three, exists in a historical moment of euphoria. I can’t remember the weather or the smell of the flowers in the image of me, wearing a modern 70s shift dress while my mother crouched down beside me. I don’t remember getting my ears pierced no matter how many times I’ve heard the story but I do feel like I can taste the vanilla ice cream we had in the subterranean ice cream parlor. To this day, whenever I eat French Vanilla ice cream, I get a sense of deja-vu.

As hard as I try, I cannot remember the feeling of being surround by the Russian language everywhere I went. People have given me the Israel comparison. They say if I ever go to Israel, I will be amazed at what it feels like to be surrounded by all Jews. I have felt this in synagogue and I anticipate feeling entirely out of place no matter how Jewish I am, as I do not speak Hebrew.

Living in New York City, I could easily rectify this with a quick jaunt to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I’ve been there sporadically throughout my life, but never as a resident and never as a wanderlust visitor of the streets. At times, Russian nightclubs have summoned me for birthday parties celebrated with unlimited vodka and obnoxious dancing. Once or twice when my son was younger (and I was braver), I took the one-hour subway ride to the beach in Little Russia. He even enjoyed the homemade piroshki the old babushkas sold right on the street, out of their colored coolers in front of their buildings. While I relished the Russian symphony around me, it never delivered the dose of nostalgia for which I longed. The older generations of self-absorbed Soviet immigrants didn’t notice me or my half-Asian son. I rotated from front to back, working on my tan, played loudly with my son, and frolicked like a child in the water and still never any judgmental commentary into which I can interject my witty Russian response.

What will happen if I finally visit a Russian-speaking country? I’ve lived in America for 37 of my 41 years (90%); nothing about the modern Russian culture will feel like home to me. Everything about me, including my freedom to feel like I don’t belong, is American. It’s ironic I would yearn to be surrounded by a language representing a country we felt forced to flee. My Russian fantasies should remain where they are; in my imagination. I do not harp on any romantic notions of returning to my homeland, but maybe I should visit Brighton Beach more often.



4 thoughts on ““Living Outside My Native Tongue” Club

  1. My friend and I had a conversation about how if you are mixed race or a certain ethnicity but live in a different ethnic society, we have very enmeshed identities. I don’t know if what I just said made sense. I mean like, she is half white and half Asian. People often ask if she feels “more white or more Asian”. She can’t split herself up in that way, she feels she is both. Her entire identity is built on being both. I am a mix of Taiwanese and Malaysian but I grew up in Australia. I am the product of all those specific circumstances and all of the stories rehashed to me; I identify with those stories even if it is once removed. I don’t identify as an “Asian who happened to grow up in Western society” or a “Western person who has Asian features”, it’s not those categories at all but it’s the meaning in the stories. These things become such an integral part of our story and are so innate.

  2. Every day, another page, another year, another chapter to our stories. The more complex the subject, the better the story, right? I love the cultural meld. Thanks for reading! Keep on keepin on!

  3. “I have this fantasy one day I will be in the elevator (or anywhere) and Russian-speaking people will talk about me without knowing I understand them and I will turn around and surprise them with my exquisite command of Russian curses.” – Ha. Not a fantasy for me. I am tan and don’t look Russian at all so this happens in NYC all the time. I love surprising people.. – Katya

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