There’s a new layer to people’s reaction when they find out where I’m from.
I’ve been in this country a long time and pass for native more often than not. But when someone new hears the foreign name the more forward ones will ask how I got it and I tell them. They’re always surprised. Usually it’s the happy discovery of something exotic. They’re delighted, intrigued. They ask if I still speak the old language and are impressed when I say I do.
It wasn’t that way at first. Seven and eight year olds don’t delight in others’ difference. I remember getting called a Commie a few times in school. But I mastered the language quick enough that by fourth grade few classmates could guess where I was from. I wasn’t proud or happy about my foreign origins either. The project was to assimilate as quickly and completely as possible.
I’ve failed utterly but few can tell. I pass, as I said before. For decades, aside from telling those who ask that I’ve never been back to my home country and never intend to, the question of where I’m from has rarely been of much concern to anyone but myself. That changed February 24th, 2022.
About a decade ago I briefly dated a woman who had a bizarre fixation on Vladimir Putin. She was American and would have identified as a radical left-winger, maybe even a communist, yet she belonged to a personality cult dedicated to the Russian dictator. I was amused by her fixation and chalked it up to mild mental illness. When I broke it off with her she screamed at me in the middle of a crowded Lincoln Park coffeeshop. It was an ugly scene. The coffeeshop has long since closed and I have no clue what happened to this woman. Perhaps she’s moved to Russia to fight for her hero.
I can’t pretend to understand why Putin continues to fight his hopeless war but have devoted many hours listening to Russian-language podcasts and reading Russian books. There’s a schism happening for intelligent people in that country. Many have left never to return. But unlike my family and others of their circle who decided to emigrate, few of this current crop could have predicted their exodus or have planned it. Many long to return but know the country they’ll find will not be the same one they fled. This is one of the reasons I tell people I have no interest in going to Russia. It helps that when I left it wasn’t even called Russia but the Soviet Union. I say I’m from a country that no longer exists. What can the new refugees say?
When people find out I’m from there now they ask cautiously about what I think about the war. Others ask whether I’ve been discriminated against or attacked for being from there. It’s a bizarre question for somebody from a minority family that left to escape ethnic oppression among other reasons, but that’s where we’re at. The other day I heard a historian trace a lot of Putin’s “ideology” to American right-wingers like Reagan. The homophobia, nationalism, et al. are similar for sure. It’s a small small world and there’s no telling what will inspire people.
At a time when multinational companies are changing their branding from Russian to Ukrainian out of hollow fear for losing prestige shelf space rather than moral conviction, I find myself diving into all kinds of media in my cursed mother tongue.
One of my favorite recent discoveries is the writing of Alla Gorbunova. I just finished her novel in stories, It’s the End of the World, My Love, which was recently translated into English. I recorded a reading of the opening story a few weeks ago; here’s another.
Listen to an epic talk I recorded with musician Mark Shippy in his practice space. Also, Mallory and I discuss the latest Scream movie, which we saw together in the dystopian neighborhood of Wrigleyville.
Finally, here’s a movie to avoid.