Thursday, July 2, 2009

Russian Speaking Immigrants, Part I

Tom Carter from Opinion Forum says: "Clarissa, I lived in Moscow for three years (92-93 and 95-96). The first time I was there, I was working in the American Embassy. I was constantly implored to help people get visas to the U.S. When I explained that I had nothing to do with visas and couldn't help, they still kept asking. The second time, when I was with a private company, same thing--most people I met wanted to know how to get a visa and if I could help." Tom's comment reminded me that I've been planning to write about Russian-speaking immigrants for a while. This is a community that I know very well for obvious reasons.

Tom is absolutely right when he says that literally crowds of Russian-speaking people were obssessed with the idea of emigrating (pretty much anywhere, but especially to America) in the years when he was there. Now, people are less desperate to emigrate but there are still quite a lot of former USSR citizens who want to leave.

Nevertheless, Russian-speaking immigrants find it a lot more difficult to adapt to their new countries than other immigrant communities. I'm especially familiar with the Spanish-speaking community (again, for obvious reasons), and I have to say that the difference is striking. Russian-speaking immigrants are often deeply unhappy in North America. Many of them dream about making enough money to be able to go back home, some of them eventually manage to do that. With very few exceptions, they feel best in Russian-speaking anclaves you can find in any big North-American cities. I know people who have lived in North America for years and have only been outside of the Russian quarter a couple of times. Very few Russian-speaking immigrants manage to develop a circle of friends that goes outside the immigrant community. The highlight of such an immigrant's life is going back home once every couple of years to brag about his or her beautiful life in America. This, of course, means that their peer group is still back home.

This is not a generational thing. I know people who were brought to North America very young and still have a lot of trouble adapting. When I was teaching in Montreal, I was once approached by a daughter of a family friend who thought that, since we knew each other socially, I would give her the answers to the final exam I was administering. She honestly failed to understand why I refused, or why I was angry about the request.

So why do Russian-speaking immigrants have so much trouble adapting to life in their new country?
My answer to this question is coming in the next post. :-)


Anonymous said...

We train a lot of Russian clients in our accent reduction course. The Russian accent can be a barrier for a lot of immigrants. Without realizing it, a speaker with a Russian accent does often have an intonation pattern that falls at the end of the sentence. He is my frieeennnnddd, is said more abruptly, He is my friend. The result is a direct and unfriendly tone.
In own first experience working with a Russian, everyone in the office thought Tetiana was unhappy and a bit mean. Of course, after 6 months we built up a relationship. Now we are good friends but her accent still puts people off when they first meet her.

Anonymous said...

Russian immigration is not that homogeneous. There are a lot of Russian immigrants who are pretty happy in North America. And those who are unhappy do not necessarily think that they would be happy back in Russia.

Clarissa said...

I'm sorry but I know the community very well. I'm only describing what I see. People who have been able to adapt and are ok in their new countries are very few and far between. I would love to see things being different and as soon as I do, I'll go and celebrate but not for now.