Being an expat in Sri Lanka, I often get questions from locals about my background and how I like the country. I love to reply with “And you?”
“Where are you from? “From Russia, and you?”
“Do you like it here, in Sri Lanka?” “I do, and you?”
No one expects to be asked if they like it in their own home country. That’s what makes it fun. Yesterday a girl from my dance class asked how I like Sri Lanka and I said that by now it’s like second home. “And do you like it here?” I asked in return. “Eh…I am planning to move next year”.
She reminded me of myself at twenty two, eager to conquer the world. “Anywhere, but Russia!” was my motto. I didn’t want to “go to” as much as I wanted to “go away”. It didn’t matter where, just away from my routine, from early morning bus to work where one feels like a sardine in a jar, from -30°C in winter, from the fact that my friends were moving on with their lives, getting married, having kids (yes, being married with kids at the age of twenty two is fairly common in Russia), and I was stuck in the same place.
Ok, I had a preference, I would have loved to go to Europe, like all Russians do, but Europe didn’t want me. So I ended up in Sri Lanka. What was supposed to be a six-months internship turned into one year on the island, and then another year in Brazil, and then back to Sri Lanka, and on to USA, and back to Sri Lanka (“Back to Sri Lanka” should be the name of the theme song of my life). And now it’s been eight years away from my Motherland.
When I came home to visit parents in those first years of long-term traveling, I felt… good about myself, slightly superior even to other people. “Oh no, I don’t live in Russia, I just came down for vacations, you know… I live in Sri Lanka, actually… yea, the island, beaches, palm trees, sun all year round and all that jazz…” No-one had to know that I hardly ever saw the ocean because I had to work on weekends and was getting paid $300 dollars a month. Doesn’t matter, I live abroad. Abroad is better than home, not just better — cooler.
When people asked me if I miss Russia, I replied that I miss my family and friends, not the country per se, and it was the honest, from the bottom of my heart truth. I never thought of moving back, in fact, that thought terrified me.
After three-four years of traveling, my thinking moved from “living abroad is cool” to “living abroad is normal”. I come home once a year for a month, and this is life now. Not good, not bad, just how things are. I didn’t try to stir the conversation with my hairdresser/manicure lady/random taxi driver towards the question of where I live. I actually stopped telling unknown people all together about me living abroad, because answering the same questions became tiring.
After eight years of being an expat it hit me. I am homesick. I don’t just miss my parents, my best friends, or the taste of borsch. I miss driving in the countryside and seeing nothing but steppes and forests for hundreds of kilometers. I miss feeling in my body how vast and incomprehensibly enormous my country is. We have a word “neob’yatniy” in Russian which I loosely translate as “unhuggable” — so vast that even if you spread your arms at full length, you won’t be able to hug it. I miss that feeling.
I miss sitting in the kitchen till the wee hours of the morning with my best friend, drinking tea and talking about life. I miss the freshness of a crisp winter morning and those -30°C that I ran away from. I miss eating cottage cheese with jam and sour cream every morning or at least the opportunity to be able to do it. I miss dark as the earth rye Borodinsky bread with caraway seeds, although I actually hate caraway seeds and always scrape them off.
I miss the beauty of classical Russian language with its never-ending, running like a spring, long sentences that have more punctuation marks, than words; and the whole intricate world of Russian swearing, an art form in and of itself. I miss being able to say “shall we?” while flicking my neck and expect my friends to understand we are going to drink tonight.
The feeling is more than that of missing something, the feeling is of disconnecting from my roots. The bitter realization that I don’t really know what’s happening in Russia right now and I don’t mean the political side of it. I don’t know what songs everyone’s singing at the moment, what stupid memes everyone’s quoting, what TV series everyone’s watching, what restaurants everyone’s praising, what celebrity everyone’s hating on. The little, seemingly unimportant things.
I come home to Ekaterinburg and see new buildings popping up, girls wearing sneakers (what happened to high heels even when you are taking trash out?), and take-away coffee cups —none of that existed when I left. When someone asks me how things are in Russia and what people think, I realize my answers are about eight years old.
All of a sudden, my Russianness is in question. How Russian is one if he (she) didn’t live in Russia for eight years, but only occasionally visited for a few weeks at a time? Is there a time frame when you can be still traveling and Russian, but after a certain point of no return one’s Russianness starts trickling away? And can I accumulate that lost Russianness back by taking longer vacations at dacha and eating more pickles?
A few years back I came across an article “The Problem with Where You’re “From” written by Jess of Notes of Nomads. One part of her post where she describes the way she is treated in her country of origin, Australia, after living in Japan for years, resonated with me:
“I feel a similar sense of denial whenever I visit Bendigo, the town where I was born and grew up, or Melbourne, where I attended university and began my working life. It amazes me the response I get from many people – those who feel that since I haven’t actually lived there for some years that this equates to having no right to a connection with these places. As if 24 years of my life in those cities, localities that shaped my very being and where some of most meaningful relationships occur, can and should be erased based on the grounds that I’m not up-to-date with the latest restaurant openings, or that my local accent isn’t as strong…
Then over in Japan, I have the opposite problem – you are here now but you didn’t grow up here or at least your physical appearance says otherwise. The “now” makes little difference when your ethnicity doesn’t match what is considered the “norm”. You’re not Japanese, therefore you’ll never be one of us…”
You are not here, not there. In your home country, you are not local enough because you don’t know the latest news, in your new acquired home you know all the news, but you are still not local enough, because you weren’t born there.
Being an immigrant never bothered me. I don’t mind not being seen as Sri Lankan or American, neither do I feel like a second-class citizen, as some of my friends describe it. I feel perfectly comfortable having a different skin color and a thick accent.
On the other hand, me being Russian and being seen as Russian is a touchy-feely topic lately which results in interpreting other people’s behaviors and words through the prism of my own insecurities.
I feel conscious discussing current affairs and the state of life in Russia with my not-so-close Russian friends because what do I know, right? I don’t live there.
A few months ago I had a heated discussion with my parents on Skype about some political BS, and when my dad said “to understand that one has to be a patriot” I interpreted it as “you don’t understand it because you are not a patriot” which made me burst into tears on the spot. I had to disconnect and make myself deliberately breath in and out for good five minutes to calm down. The crazy thing is that my dad doesn’t think I am not patriotic enough, but I guess I am afraid of it on some subconscious level?
And that is given that I do my best to stay connected. I read books in Russian, I watch Soviet classics, my wardrobe has some distinctly Russian dresses and three (!) original shawls from Pavlov-Posad, I even braid my hair!
In fact, and many immigrants will agree with me, you start following traditions of your Motherland more vigorously the further and the longer you are away from it. I mean… I make pelmeni from scratch! Something that wouldn’t occur to me if I lived in Russia and could buy a pack of pelmeni in any supermarket.
I also made my mom bake kulichi and put samovar on the table this year, because for the first time in years I was home for Orthodox Easter. Russians don’t casually make pelmeni, bake kulichi and use samovar in everyday life. They don’t have to. They feel Russian enough. They don’t even think of feeling it, they just are. I, on the other hand, try to use every opportunity to connect.
There’s a category of immigrants who, upon moving to a new country, create their own little home in a foreign land, refuse to follow local traditions or even learn the language. Brighton Beach in New York is a good example. You enter Brighton Beach — you forget that you are in the United States altogether: everything from street signs to price tags is in Russian and that is the only language you hear around.
But although the community of Brighton Beach is distinctly Russian (or better said — Soviet), I have doubts of how much connection it has with Russia today. Brighton Beach gave me a feeling of traveling back in time to Russia of the 90s, and not even nostalgia made it feel good. Besides, I never wanted to be one of those people who don’t assimilate in their new home. On the contrary, I was always willing to be open and accepting to the language and customs of the country that allowed me to be a part of it, if only briefly.
There’s a little bit of American in me with my views on feminism, racism and sustainability. There’s a Sri Lankan part too with my tolerance to spices and ants in my tea as well as an occasional unconscious head bob. There’s even a tiny bit of Brazilian with my love for dancing and three-hundred-episodes-long soap operas.
Does my heart or soul, or whatever part of me that contains my nationality, locality, connection to a country, has a limit? Is it something like a pie chart where if I carve out 5% for my Srilankanness, my Russianness should decrease by the same 5%?
I truly want to believe that my soul is more of an expanding universe than a pie chart. Wikipedia states that “the universe does not expand “into” anything and does not require space to exist “outside” it”, and Wikipedia never lies, right? If you are a physicist, please, don’t take this seriously, I love the romantic side of comparing myself to expanding universe — there’s no scientific grounds whatsoever behind this comparison. I like the idea of my soul expanding and not requiring space outside of it to contain all of my diverse localities. I want to be 150% Russian, maybe 5% American, another 10% Sri Lankan, 2% Brazilian, and I want the sum of 167% to be completely acceptable. Is it too much to ask?
This long-distance relationship with my Motherland is not an easy one, long-distance relationships never are. I should know, my husband and I are from different countries. On the one hand, my love for Russia is inside me and as such can be carried with me wherever I go. It doesn’t require any physical evidence or approval of other people. On the other hand, being immersed into the routine daily life of my country whenever I travel back always makes my connection feel stronger. They say long-distance never works. It did for me, once. I have to make it work once again.