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Saturday, July 6, 2013

One year American anniversary: So, where are you from?

Burgers and the Trump Tower, of course.
It's been a year since we moved to the US! We had lunch with Ben's parents today and we all agreed that time just flew by. It's still so clear in my memory: we all had lunch on our way from the airport, it felt just like today, it was very sunny and a bit breezy, and I had huckleberry lemonade because it's what you're supposed to get in North Idaho.

Our first Idaho lunch on the way from the airport.
It's no news to anyone who knows us or is familiar with the blog that we love it here. We're very lucky to live in such gorgeous place with Ben's family in town (and they are the best in-laws I could ever hope for!), good jobs, little Sonya bunny, a nice apartment, and lots of fun activities in the area. The main downside (and from the very first moment we decided to move we knew it'd be the toughest thing) is how far my family is and how much I miss being around them. I'll just stop with this thought right here before my eyes get so wet that I can't see the screen.

Our first kayaking trip and my first chimichanga.
I decided that since I don't need to really discuss how cool it is here or convince anyone that we've been enjoying the American life so far (and all the Reese's peanut butter cups -- yes, still obsessed with those!), I'd finally write about this one thing that kind of bothers me... When people bring up Russia wherever I go. There are dozens of different scenarios but generally it goes like this: I say "Thank you, you have a good day, too" (as I'm buying something at a store and getting ready to leave) and the person gets very excited and says "Where are you from?"  "Russia," I respond. "I knew it! My friend in Seattle had a friend from Russia!"

It's generally absolutely inoffensive, sometimes I get a good laugh at what people say to me after the "I knew it" part, but eventually, after a year, it just gets old.  I wanted to write this post to finally get it all out of my mind and maybe change my perspective on it, but also as an encouraging note for people in the same situation everywhere around the world.  I want to remind myself and everyone living somewhere other than their country of origin that it's nothing personal, it happens to "foreigners" in every country, just because, you know, people are curious and they like to talk.

I really don't like when people talk about my accent.  The thing is, it's not a strong accent!  I've been speaking English for a long time, and I lived in the US for nearly 9 months before moving more permanently last summer, and I do speak English well.  Of course, I do make some mistakes and I have slight accent, but trust me, I'm working on it! And it really discourages me when I talk to someone for a long time and then they suddenly get excited and say: "Where are you from?" - "Russia" - "Oh, I knew it! (no, you didn't!) You have such a cute accent! Say something else with your accent! Aw, so cute!" Yes, lady at the insurance company, I'm looking at you! Last time I had to go to their office, she saw me entering the door and yelled: "Aw, the Russian girl with the accent! Say something!" Like seriously? This actually makes me feel like an exotic zoo bird that is meant to entertain this lady with my cute accent.

Let me clarify something: as a traveler or tourist in a foreign country, you might be asked where you are from and people might say you have a cute accent as well, but you usually have in mind the eventual end of your trip and return to your home. Which is probably why I never minded people asking or taking interest in me as a foreigner before. When I meet people in a hostel or somewhere traveling, I ask them about their home country, too. And of course I don't mind sharing the fact that I'm from Russia with friends, or answering honest questions about Russia or anything else that comes as a natural course of conversation. As an expat, though, I don't like to have my "foreignness" highlighted, and I'm actually scared of being a "forever foreigner" in my new country. Whenever someone asks "Where are you from?" I feel that I am an alien here and don’t belong, while actually I am trying to call the US my home.  It's not the same to have a personal conversation with somebody about myself as a person who happens to be Russian as it is for someone to ask "Where are you from?" and then follow it with a long stream of fun facts, stereotypes, news items, etc., etc.

I guess as annoying as it sometimes is, the "Where are you from?" question from the strangers is still better than some of the things that people who I know say -- "Oh, Katie, last weekend I went here-and-there and I met this 45-year old stay-at-home mom of 5 who lives on a farm with her husband who is a hunter. She is from Russia! You should definitely meet, I even got you her phone number, call her!" I can't even tell you how many times I heard various versions of this offer for the last year. And it doesn't matter that I never said I'm looking for Russian people to be friends with, or I don't have friends, or even the fact that this brief description points out that we have absolutely nothing in common with this person from Russia except that she/he/they are from Russia! And I was born in Ukraine, after all! 

Ben and I were joking today that I need to print big infographics with "Fun facts about Russia" and "Did you know? Russia edition" and pin them to the wall around my desk at work. I really like my co-workers, but when I hear: "Oh, Katie, did you hear.. did you know..." and then some fact or person or event from the news about Russia, it upsets me. I understand, they don't mean anything bad, it's just me being fed up with hearing it so often everywhere like everyone feels like they need to connect to me on the fact that I flew in here from Russia. 

Did I mention people at parties/barbecues/bars? There was this guy who we met at a couchsurfing meeting last fall, and then recently he came to a bbq at our mutual friend's: 10 of us were sitting around a table when he enters: "Oh, hi Sarah, long time no see, how are you? Hi, Ben, haven't seen you since fall! Oh, and you.. let's see... Masha? No? OK, Natasha? Olga?" - and he just keeps dropping all the possible names he heard were Russian. You don't remember my name, it's OK, just let me tell you I'm Katie.  Don't, oh, don't just be like "I know you're Russian, that's the only thing I bothered to remember about you, so I'll just proudly pronounce all the Russian names I know since I'm so culturally educated and worldly." Very rude, sir.

There is no right or wrong on this topic (except for you, mister cultural fail), I can talk about it a lot since we live in a small town in North Idaho and foreigners are just not very common here. I just feel like it's a part of my first-whole-year-in-another-country experience, and I wanted to write down what I feel and think now, so I can compare it to the situation in a year or five. And as I mentioned in the beginning, it doesn't make us any less happy or excited about being here and I'm thankful for this fun last year of my life.

One year later family lunch and a nice umbrella stick in the middle.

24 comments:

Matthew Pike said...

I'm glad you guys are really happy and you have in in-laws so close. I do envy a lot of what you guys have, not in a bad way though in a more aspirational way. My goal is to move your side of he pond, I'd regret it if I didn't try.

Shucks that's rubbish. We get it when we come to America but like you said, when you're a visitor it can be expected and seen as a novelty. Most people just think England is the UK and pretty much only heard of London. It's easiest for us to say we're from a town near Manchester but really it's about 65 miles away, people's general response is "yeah I've always wanted to go to London". Doh! Wrong side of the country.

This was a pretty interesting and deep post I must say but needed to be said. Enjoy your weekend guys.

meoce said...

Idaho always looks so beautiful! I love all the photos you take, and it makes me want to move there, but I am really enjoying life in New England. So at least an Idaho visit is in the books. I can kind of relate to you, but not completely because I don't have an accent. I moved to CT from CA, and am one of the few non-white persons in this tiny town! Last summer I had a co worker who also happened to be tan skinned and someone asked her "So where are you two from? You and your sister, are you from Spain, or something?" Hhahaha, um no... she is part middle eastern, I am part mexican and we both happen to work at this store in this tiny town.

Hope that you are having a lovely Idaho day!

gladley said...

This is a really interesting post, and something I've thought about myself. I get told "you're so quirky" and I just want to reply "no, I'm just British."

I don't mind being a forever foreigner as long as people realize I grew up in a different culture and will always have different mannerisms. And actually, I get it less now I'm a Brit living in the USA as opposed to being English living in Scotland.

So yeah, I just wanted to let you know that I empathize! It's great you're loving it a year on, I just celebrated my expativersary too :)

Robin said...

I'm glad that you have had a mostly positive experience here.

I think it's VERY rude for others to talk about your accent and even ask you to say things in it! I would start asking for money when they do that. Tell them that if they think you're a performer, they need to pay you. :)

bailey k. said...

Oh my goodness. I LOLed at the name part. "Olga? Natasha?" Nope, it's Katie. What an idiot!! I know that this isn't really the same, but I have a friend who is 7 feet tall. When people meet him or see him, they always say "You're tall!" Like he didn't know. Hah. And then they tell him that he should play basketball. So silly.

I do wonder, though. If I'm genuinely interested in the culture you grew up in, and the place you grew up in, what would be the appropriate question to ask? Are there people who ask the question, "Where are you from?" that haven't annoyed you and turned out to be really cool people with really engaging conversations?

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Mat, thanks for your comment! I know what you mean about people saying you're from London! I've lived in Moscow for the last 11 years and it makes it easier for me to explain where I am from: I say "Russia", people ask "Where in Russia?" like they know any other places, I reply "Moscow, the capital" - and they get happy that they've heard of it :-) I'm originally from a town in Ukraine and I lived in Saint Petersburg for 5 years, but I never even mention it, people want to hear Moscow when they hear Russia.

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Marissa, thank you for sharing your story! I agree with you, it must be more of a small town thing than a country or people thing.. I guess, in small towns people are friendlier, more talkative, are not in a hurry as much, and it kind of results in lack of anonymity when you stand out one way or another from the main population.

When Ben worked in Korea, he was one of a very few foreigners in his small town. He says everyone on a street would look at him all the time and say "Hello" and other greetings in English because they just assume everyone Western looking in an American (which was true in his case but it's still generalizing).
Just as everything, small towns have some really nice benefits for people living there, but it might be overwhelming to get too much attention wherever you go.
Have a great day, too!

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Gillian, Happy Expativersary to you, too! For how long have you lived here? I agree, if people are genuinely interested in where you grew up, but it doesn't limit all of the conversations to you being "from-not-here", there is nothing wrong about it. Thank you for reading and understanding! :-)

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Robin, hahah this is a great idea! But you're right, after all, I have a very nice experience here and my goal is to politely explain my feelings and not create any awkward situations, when I have to say "Oh, nice" but think "Ugh, again?!"
Have a great weekend and thank for reading and commenting!!

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Bailey, thank you for commenting! This is absolutely the same with your friend who is tall! This is exactly how I feel. The fact that I'm from Russia and I have an accent is something people can notice when they meet me and something that is just a fact, I can't really just change it. So pointing it out every time to me and telling me about the vodka, bears, Lenin stereotypes is strange.

There is nothing wrong with asking where I am from and being genuinely curious about it. I would be more than happy to discuss my home country, my life there, anything about it, if we're actually having a conversation. What I don't like and what usually happens, is that people just do a cultural small talk that defines me as a Russian, and they never care about the fact that I'm a person and there is more to me than just being from some certain country. It goes like this: "Oh, you're from Russia? I knew it, I heard about this guy who was skiing in Russia and fell off a cliff and died this winter. Did you know him? No? Hmm, strange, well, have a great day!" Let's talk like normal people talk: about hobbies, work, experiences and stories, then of course I wouldn't mind sharing my Russian life with you, and I'll ask you about you, and I'll walk away with some perspective on you as a person, and you'll do the same.

And of course, all of my friends know that I'm from Russia, we talk about it when it makes sense but they don't refer to me as "my Russian friend" every time, because I'm more than that. I don't refer to anyone as "my Montana friend" or "my Boston friend" like it'd define them in any way.

I hope it all makes sense when I write it. :-) And please don't feel bad about being interested in the culture, there is nothing wrong with it!

lanlettie said...

I so know what you mean in this post Kaite. I get that a lot, being the only South African in Spokane (that I know of). You know what we should do... tell people we think their accents are cute, it always surprises people that they too have an accent. Yeah, it's weird when people are like "say something", as if just having a normal conversation with me wouldn't suffice. The other day a lady asked me if I'm from South Africa, then how do I speak English so well... fail.
When I used to live in Vietnam it was way worse and way more entertaining too. People would point me out to their children when walking by, which was weird. Also, people would ask if I'm from Africa, why aren't I black, awkward.

The flip side for all this is that sometimes meaningful conversations happen and I get to talk about South Africa beyond it's crime reputation or Nelson Mandela. It helps with the homesickness every now and then.

Wow, that guy trying to guess your name is an idiot!

Really enjoyed this post, there were a few times I had to laugh out loud because I just so know what you're talking about. Thank you for sharing!

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Lanette, oh my.. the how you speak English so well question is just total fail. And the why not black is just unbelievably ignorant. Some people are so silly. You're right, though, it's always nice to actually talk to somebody about your country, when you know that they are interested or they care/can relate. This summer I met a couple of Ukrainian students in town (they are here to work in a hotel while on a summer break from school) - and it actually really helped with my homesickness to talk to somebody in Russian and about the common things from our home countries! I feel less of a stranger when I write to you now, too, because we laugh at the same things that only make sense in our situation. Thank you for your comment!!

Gwen Edwards said...

Thanks for sharing your feeling on this topic. It can be so hard to be the "outsider." We moved from Oregon to Hawaii 8 years ago and sometimes it feels like we will never fit in. I was actually just complaining to my mom about this today when she pointed out that she feels the same way, and she only moved from Oregon to Washington! That really put things in perspective for me, I think I would feel like the "outsider" anywhere except my home town. I'm glad you are enjoying Idaho, it is a beautiful place.

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Gwen, thank you so much! It is strange sometimes, isn't it? We're all in the same country, but it feels so different even when we move from one state to another!

Kelly {Sparkles and Shoes} said...

I can not believe it has only been a year, I feel like you are so well assimilated with our culture!

xx
Kelly
Sparkles and Shoes

Dannielle said...

I feel exactly like this, very well said! When I first moved to England I felt a bit like a celebrity as I live somewhere there aren't a lot of americans and people would constantly ask me where I was from. Almost three years on, when asked where I live I say England but they say "yes but your obviously not from here" so it's like to them I can never really call England home! I'm kind of excited to move to a bigger city (hopefully london) for a while where people are used to foreign people living there.

Dannielle | Chic-a-Dee

Ashley said...

You are preaching to the choir here! As an American in a small town in Japan, I am constantly dealing with this. At first it's sort of fun, but then there are days when you're just having a normal day, feeling at home and someone reminds you that you're an outsider. People assume I love McDonald's or can't use chopsticks all the time- I guess it's just a part of expat life. Dang you, human curiosity!

Anyway, misery loves company (I know neither of us is "miserable" because of this, I don't know how to rephrase it to just say that you're not alone :) )

Katia said...

Wow! This is a really new perspective I never thought of before. I used to work in a little french pastry store. It gets so monotonous to say the same "hi what can I get you today? is that going to be all? would you like a bag? ok have a great day!" spiel over and over again. So I would often try and start conversations with people - realizing they are from somewhere else based on an accent or them speaking another language was usually a good way to start one! I don't remember any negative reactions, but I never thought about it this way - that maybe they are very sick of hearing it everywhere they go.

Funny story - because of my name, everyone always asks ME if I'm from Russia. Always. Often it's russians (there are a lot in Toronto), hoping to meet someone with whom the can relate I guess. It gets a bit bothersome, but I usually laugh and say "No, just my name is. But hi, nice to meet you!" and we become friends, hehe.

xo
http://kittysnooks.blogspot.ca/

Irene said...

That's the downside of living in a small place, everybody will know you soon after you arrive even if you have no clue of who anybody is.

I don't bother that much when people ask me where I come from and note that I'm an outsider, after all I am but as long as I fit in and I feel at home, it doesn't really matter. But I also find it rather annoying when people ask me if I have met many Spanish people here in the Netherlands, or wherever ... as if I went to live abroad solely with the purpose of finding many new Spanish friends!

At least people seem to know something about Russia. For me, coming from Tenerife, it can get worse, as people have only seen photos from holidays brochures and usually ask me stupid questions like, if I could attend school there, if I've ever been to the movies or if my family has a real house and not only a hut by the beach ...

Take it easy and have a lovely weekend :)
Irene

Chestnut Mocha said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Irene! You're right, I'm not sure how to clearly put it.. It's OK most of the time, but when it happens again, and again, and again, it becomes too much. You can't even imagine how much I understand you on this: "as if I went to live abroad solely with the purpose of finding many new Spanish friends!" - I have a fresh example from yesterday!

I got to work and in my work mailbox I got an email from a client, who says it's not about their website, but she just met some lady with two teenage kids - they are from Ukraine and live in a town nearby with her American husband. She got her phone number for me and wants me to call her and become friends. Khmmm why..? Like what do we even have in common? Why do people try to match me with everyone from Eastern Europe they meet? So, I know what you're saying :-)

And the same kind of questions like yours about Tenerife! It's not that they actually know much about Russia, they heard stereotypes, or sometimes something totally weird, and think they know it and have to tell me. They asked me, too, how is that we have houses in Russia if we're so poor? Emmm... so wrong in so many aspects.

Have a wonderful weekend, too! Thanks for stopping by!

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Katia, you know I love your name :-) And I can't really imagine anyone getting upset at you at the pastry store. Also, you know, I feel like it depends on how big the place is: in a small town in Idaho it's annoying to be the only alien, in a big city with lots of tourists and expats from all over the place it wouldn't be such a big deal. Have a good weekend!!

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Ashley, thanks for stopping by! Yes, exactly, it must be a small town thing! Actually, when Ben lived in S. Korea, everyone asked him about hamburgers and McDonald's all the time. Life as an expat is a really interesting experience...)

Chestnut Mocha said...

@Dannielle, thanks for reading and commenting!! I feel you on that "not from here" thing! I get it pretty often.. I say "Sandpoint!", and a person says: "No, but where did you come from?" - why to push like that? Why to insist? It makes me feel like I'm a spy or something, and they will question me till they figure it all out haha Yes, my goal is to move to a big city, too :-) I hope your move goes smoothly and you enjoy your big city life!

Jess said...

Happy 1 year! That is exciting. I can imagine how it would get annoying and frustrating for people to act that way. Not to be like them, but it makes me consider how my friend from Poland feels! I will have to show her this post because you probably captured exactly how she feels!

America is lucky to have you :)

xoxo Jess
Foreign Room

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