Fernand Leger, The Two Faces
I like being a stealthy Soviet immigrant.
I moved to the US from Belarus when I was eleven, and eventually, I almost completely lost my accent. Most people, unless they have an especially sensitive ear, don’t know that I was not born here. I also began to adopt American culture fairly quickly, by reading voraciously, listening to the radio, and watching American cartoons. And, perhaps because I am only half-Jewish, I don’t have particularly distinctive Slavic or Jewish features.
My parents Americanized perhaps more than other people of their generation, at least over time. That may be because they have one daughter born on US soil and one they brought with them from the Motherland.
By the time I got to college, I realized that I was still missing out on many things that people my age had in common. I was still half in and half out of being an American. So over the years, I tried to dive into all those things – watching Brat Pack movies, catching up on Star Wars, going to parties where ‘80s music was blasting at top volume.
Turns out I was still an outsider. In particular, this became clear when contrasting people who were first generation or immigrants themselves and those who’ve been in the U.S. for many generations. Some in the latter category forgot their immigrant roots and thought of themselves as “true” Americans, often carrying with that understanding the belief that immigrants were less than. Others enjoyed listing their pedigree, “I’m English, and Dutch, and German, and Italian,” they’d say. In college, when I met a Daughter of the American Revolution for the first time, I realized that some of the people sharing my college campus could trace their lineage back more than two hundred years. I, on the other hand, had vaguely heard about my great-grandparents and couldn’t tell you anything other than that they were Jewish or Belarussian.
When people realize that I myself am an immigrant, the questions begin: “What was it like living in the Soviet Union?” “Say something in Russian!” “Where is Belarus?” I’ve faced expressions of incredulity – “oh are you really?” “I had no idea,” “you have no accent,” “you seem so American.” Or – “I heard an accent but couldn’t tell where it was from;” “I knew your name wasn’t American, it’s so hard to spell.” These are all things practically designed to other the listener. Over time, I started to take a perverse pleasure from these – like I was hiding some juicy secret from people until I chose to reveal it.
These days, I enjoy listening to Russian-speaking people when they don’t realize I can understand them. I enjoy going to Russian stores and buying all my favorites and then speaking to the checkout people in whichever language they choose to address me. I enjoy “coming out” to my students as an immigrant, as one of them, when they probably view me as just some random white person. It’s fun to have a little secret.