I think I’m finally beginning to get Russia.
This entire time here, I’ve had such a hard time connecting with people. The people on the street, in the bazaar stalls, my relatives, they have all grown up in such a different way from me. And it’s not just a matter of living in different means, although I can’t say that getting used to toilets that flush with a dying whimper (and ones where you can’t even throw toilet paper) has been fun or exhilarating. I feel like growing up here gives people just such a different mentality — people are hardened by life, they’ve come to expect that the world is out there to steal from them, to cheat them, to be harsh to them. And honestly, in a way, they are right. In Russia, there is no way for sincerity to get you ahead in life.
And yet, in the bleakness of it all, people are incredibly welcoming. Every relative that I visited (despite chiding me about my weight, my pescatarianism, and my thick-rimmed glasses) has welcomed me with open arms. They’ve all set out elaborate feasts (under the guise of inviting me to ‘tea’ naturally) and have gone so much out of their way to make me feel at home.
On Tuesday, I spent the night at my great aunt’s house. I was honestly kind of dreading it. Almost all the relatives I visited insisted I stay the night, but I had only agreed to stay with an aunt whose home I had stayed at so many times before. My great aunt lives alone and I had no idea how I was going to spend an evening with an 76 year old woman without being bored out of my mind. I obliged, however, because her husband — my uncle — had just passed away on May 7th and I think she’s been having a hard time dealing with being on her own. Within minutes, she told me that visiting my family once every four years is not enough, because they are the only family we have left. She told me that no matter how good our lives may be in America (I didn’t have to white-wash things for her, she understood that there are very few reasons to go back to Russia to live), that going back to family is incredibly important. She also told me that I can’t forget my Muslim faith, which really begged the question, do I have a Muslim faith? I was raised an atheist and even my family back in Russia can only consider themselves Muslims by proxy. They bend the rules and traditions to their means, frequently serving straight vodka at dinners because Muhammad only forbade the drinking of wine. But at the same time, this is part of my heritage, the language was once my own. My great-aunt called me balam that entire night, the tatar word meaning my child, and feeling that level of affection from someone who I have only met a few times in my life was incredibly touching.
When all is said and done I come to Russia and play the role of the granddaughter, of the sister, of niece once every four years, but it’s not enough. My grandmother has grown unaccustomed to having guests at her house, because her only two children and their children are in America, while her sisters’ kids all live in the same town. I know she is proud of us. Her entire home is littered with photographs of me from the time I was a small child, up until college graduation. But I can feel the sadness behind the way she pours me mint tea every morning. She’s not used to having family around. She knows that every time that I come visit her may be the last time I will see her. And feeling that has been absolutely devastating.
Thanks for this interesting insight into the people of Russia. I’ve never thought of their mindset till now. And that’s so touching about your grandmother keeping photos of you from childhood. Family is precious! Best of luck to you and happy travels! 🙂
Thank you! 🙂 I definitely didn’t expect such a culture shock, since I lived there myself for 10 years, but seeing family made it all worthwhile. I’m moving to Shanghai in a month, and I’m sure the culture differences there will be even more prominent, which is slightly terrifying
Marta Frant says
Is there a superstition in America or China that you shouldn’t sweep/mop/vacuum the floor in the evening? All my relatives have one. So when I’m tired after cleaning the house in the evening, when I want a little support (I don’t claim I deserve some praise) after all this routine, the last thing I want to hear is: “Ты нерадивая хозяйка! Кто же вечером пылесосит?!”
really? that’s so weird! Americans tend not to sweep at all (because people wear shoes indoors, which I don’t really like)
Marta Frant says
Yes, I find it weird too. I don’t understand why we should follow all those strange superstitions. Moreover, I think if you believe in it, it works. If not, nothing happens 🙂
Reblogged this on Skipping Customs and commented:
In lieu of everything that has been going on in the US, I feel like I have been going back to this post in my head, thinking of what it means to have been an immigrant to the States, what it means to have something that is part of my heritage but something that is not part of me be persecuted by the country that I love, and what it means to no longer understand the country I was born in.
Your comment of 5 Feb. touched me. I’ve moved from the US back to the country of the grandmother who raised me. I have actually never really understood the US, but it’s even more incomprehensible now. I hope things are going well for you in Shanghai.
I plan to read more of your site. Which I found in the course of a clean out effort–I’m unsubbing from newsletters I don’t read anymore. I’m not supposed to be collecting new ones! But here you are…
Thank you so much for reading my blog! It’s such a crazy and overwhelming experience to live abroad and live between two native countries and I am so happy to meet other people who are going through similar experience.