Russian 101

People often tell me that I sound foreign. Frankly, I take it as a compliment and respond by baring my teeth with an oblique smile, although I would never typically do so in my culture. Then one compliment develops into numerous witty remarks, and the word “foreign” eventually becomes a coined label. I think in two different languages, have a strange accent, pick Borsch over Campbell's tomato soup, and wear a dress on a late-night Target run instead of a pair of comfy sweatpants. I am from a country described as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” by Churchill; I come from Russia.

In 2014, hauling six weighty suitcases, my family and I arrived to the state of everlasting sunshine, Florida. I was humble and scared to speak. Whenever I opened my mouth I vainly attempted to speak with an American accent, but instead it would sound like a parody of some downgraded stand-up comedian.

When asked about my nationality, I expect stereotypical questions regarding the culture. Is my thermos filled with vodka? Can I decipher Russian cursive? Then if a political discussion arises, people often ask me if I know how President Putin is holding up, or offer to discuss my opinion on the Russian masterminds who hijacked the 2016 elections.

“President Putin and I are great acquaintances and see each other everyday,” I jest, “I was also present when the hackers patented malicious code, initiating mass scale turmoil.”

Americans can love or hate the fact that I’m from Russia due to the tedious weight of history between our countries. I laugh at how Russia and the United States rival each other; this type of relationship reminds me of two siblings who compete for supremacy during puberty. “I’m faster. I’m stronger. I’m taller.”

I check the news everyday and still see articles claiming Russian spies poisoned another politician or attempted to smuggle chemical weapons. What happens if we set the stereotypes and historical connections aside and think about the United States as a whole? Being in a country of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, the United States welcomes numerous people. I have experienced it first-hand as an immigrant by bringing Russian culture and preserving my identity overseas.

I miss Russian cuisine while stuck eating greasy pizza. Grandmothers across cultures are universal in always trying to feed their precious children. My babushka, would always make Borsch (traditional beet soup) and Pelmeni (stuffed meat dumplings). As we sensed the luring smell of a freshly made meal, my brother and I would run from the playground, always fighting to be first, and then were scorned for not washing our hands. Good times.

A couple weeks elapsed after immigrating, I realized that American cafeteria food was not for me. I took my babushka to a supermarket, and we discovered that American land is fertile enough to grow some local beets. She made Borsch, and I never got assimilated to American food. Eventually, my friends started to come to my house for lunch and shovel down home-cooked meals. Many even learned how to say “please” and “thank you” in Russian.  

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I was paranoid that people in America hate Russians. It is always about a Russian villain in the movies. Like Rocky 4, where the consummate fighter Ivan Drago with his intimidating side glance and brutal Russian accent injects anabolic steroids and fights for the pride of communism. It doesn’t matter if Ivan is a villian in the movie, but what matters is that Ivan is a representative of a mysterious phenomenon: Russian soul. He is quiet and gloomy, prideful and defensive, sincere and sacrificial. Russian people don’t talk much and won’t give you a casual smile. Russians are a type of people who would give you their last meal if you asked, as well as give up their very lives for you.

In serious instances, like the Nazi-organized Leningrad Blockade, which lasted from 1941-1944, 800,000 civilians lost their lives. People survived off of 4 ounces of bread made from plaster and dust, and still found courage to fight back for two years. They even held a soccer match in the name of resistance. By the end of 1945, the death toll caused by WWII was 41 million people, according the Russian National Archives. A major key to understanding Russian culture is knowing its history.

It’s been four years since I moved to America, and I’ve changed. I’m proud of being foreign, although, sometimes, I can’t even say the word “foreign” correctly. I’ve grown to be a “Westerner”, still being able to preserve my gem of Russian culture. I developed a more universal mindset by meeting many people of different backgrounds. The most important lesson that the United States taught me has been that, regardless of one’s political interest and cultural background, you can find people who will appreciate you for who you truly are.



Raphael BerettaComment