In August after my 11th birthday my life changed drastically. It was sort of, cut in half. And it has taken me until my mid- to late twenties to begin reconciling it and finding a place in my present for my past.
Until that August, I was a wholly Russian kid. I had just finished my 4th year of public school, I had lots of friends from my class and my neighbourhood, and felt really integrated into this life. I had just finished my first year of dance classes, and really loved them. I was also just on the verge of becoming more of my own person – with interests, friends, some kind of social life, emerging beliefs, etc.
I felt like I belonged, possibly more so than I ever have since then. Things were simple, and easy, and good. (Of course, my parents did not feel this way – you’ll find out why if you do some research into the state of the Russian economy at the time).
What is a bit surprising to me now, reflecting back, is that I have absolutely no memory of wanting to travel or being too curious about life outside of my hometown. I was exposed to Germany a bit, through having to participate in a pen-pal set-up through school, and on another occasion I exchanged a few e-mails with an American girl named Kelsey. My dad and older brother helped me put together an e-mail in English, and also helped me translate her response (something about a planetarium! What else do 11-year olds discuss?). E-mail was still clunky and new back then, so the virtual cultural exchange didn’t last long.
My dad, however, was always seemingly dreaming of emigrating to the US. He always talked about it, read bed time stories to us from American literature (I remember fragments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe), would start up Beatles sing-alongs in our flat (we areee living in a yellow sumbariiiineee…), and brought us exotic presents from his periodic trips to visit friends in the US (one of these presents was a fridge magnet of the earth, which I accidentally melted on a lamp in my room and then tried to hide my crime for days).
In 1997 my dad finally made his dream come true. He told us that we’d be moving to the US.
This seemed exciting to me, although I of course had no real understanding of what this meant (I was thinking: YAY, Beverly Hills!). He and my step-mom left for Kentucky on December 5, 1997, and my brother and I would join 8 months later once my parents got situated, found jobs, and created some stability. I still remember how that night felt really clearly – it was so memorable. We stayed up late waiting for my parents to head out for their flight, into the exciting unknown, a new life (in a country where people wear white socks!). I remember seeing the full suitcase and the excitement, nervousness, and a smorgasbord of emotions that could be felt by everyone in our home.
My brother and I indeed joined my parents the following August. We made our own journey into the unknown, via a long, torturous 8-hour flight to Chicago. And when we stepped off the plane my new life began. A very different life, I think, although there’s no way I’ll ever know what my life would have been like had I just stayed my previously wholly Russian self.
The next few years were consumed by the journey of integrating into a new society, new norms. It was really exciting, everything was shiny and new, and was almost like being in a hazy dream. Things were seemingly real, but also sort of not.
At the same time I was quickly losing all my Russianness. I wanted to fit in very badly in a pretty homogenous Kentuckian society, where being foreign was an anomaly (someone in middle school once asked me whether there were trees in Russia…), so I actively shed all the Russian parts. I learned English, got rid of my accent, and started doing all the things that American kids do. By High School, most people couldn’t tell I was Russian, until/unless I told them. I felt proud of this – I seemed like an American!
From the time I left Russia at 11 to adulthood, I only got to visit my original home once – when I was 16, for just a week. (I visited again briefly at 24 and 28.) But by then I already felt like a complete foreigner there.
But I also didn’t feel COMPLETELY American. Despite my attempts to fit in, I still felt different from my high school and university peers. So after finishing university I moved to DC with hopes to find a more diverse community where I’d feel more at home. This was semi-successful, but as you can see – it wasn’t enough. This is what eventually brought me over to London, where I am now.
London is geographically a happy medium between Russia and USA, and I’m finding that culturally it is also the middle ground. In my three years of living here, I’ve met lots of Russian people and have enjoyed getting some of my Russianness back – by speaking Russian more frequently, reading and watching TV in Russian, and introducing myself as a Russian-American, rather than only as an American. I’m also now just a 4 hour flight from Moscow, and could choose to go and visit easily!
Reconciling these two very different lives, and then throwing all the other travel I’ve done on top of it, has been quite a psychological journey. But one whose complexity I love, and that makes me who I am. And through the last few years I’ve met so many other people with very mixed and interesting backgrounds in terms of nationality and countries of past residence. And so, at last, I’m feeling very much not alone in this. I love meeting other global citizens and that our world increasingly allows for people to become so well travelled and internationally aware.