Saturday, November 21, 2009


My talented colleague Kola just published a tender and lyrical account of his recent trip to an African restaurant in St. Louis. When I read about how much Kola enjoys being in a place that reminds him of home, I feel profoundly jealous. I wish I could feel this way sometimes.

For some reason, however, my relationship with my place of origin is very different. Whenever I hear people in the street or in a store speak Russian, I go out of my way to avoid being recognized as a Russian-speaker. When there is no way out and I am confronted with a necessity to exchange a few remarks with my former compatriots, I always feel completely at a loss. It often seems to me that Russian-speaking people are only capable of comments that are either mean, sarcastic and aggressive, or that are completely incomprehensible to me. Like Alice in Wonderland, I often understand the meaning of each word they say, but fail completely to grasp the general meaning of a sentence.

Even though I love my native food, I am often reluctant to go to the restaurants that serve it. It's hard to digest even the best food in the world when you are surrounded by people whose behavior makes you ashamed of being part of the same culture. When I was in graduate school, I made several attempts to hang out with people from my former country but it was an unmitigated disaster. Somewhere in the first five minutes of the encounter, my former compatriots would manage to make some sexist, racist, xenophobic, or homophobic remark that would make my anger flare up and that would be the end of that cultural rapprochement**.

My sister is about to have a baby and she decided not to make any efforts to teach the baby Russian. It is with a great sadness that I confess that I really understand that decision.

** Here I want to note that these are not necessarily the characteristics of Russian-speaking people per se. This type of behavior has more to do with being a Russian-speaking immigrant. As I explained here and here, immigrants from the former Soviet Union find it particularly hard to adapt to their new countries. As a result, they compensate for their profound discomfort by lashing out in these aggressive ways.


V said...

Although I agree with many things you said, it is no fun to be on the receiving end of such attitude without any provocation on my part, just for speaking Russian.
I had such experiences couple of times (not with you, obviously, but you are not alone) when some Russians overheard me speaking Russian and switched to broken English. As if I cannot recognize the accent... :)
I am lucky, I can trump that by switching to Estonian and leaving them guessing if I am saying something mean about them or not. :) :)

Clarissa said...

It might be unfair, but even the possibility of meeting someone as great as you is not always worth a very big risk of meeting an unpleasant Russian speaker. :-)