Being “the Russian guy”



Mikhail Vrubel, Self portrait

By Ilya

“Where are you from,” is the most common question people ask me, as soon as they hear me speak. Despite having lived in the US for most of my life and being an American citizen, my accent is still there, stubborn and unyielding.  The only thing that happened to my accent over time, is that it has changed slightly, became less obvious in its origin.It is impossible to fully blend in, to avoid advertising the fact that I grew up elsewhere.  

I used to answer the question simply: “Russia.” It was not true in any sense of the word, except it told people that my accent is Russian, gave them a rough idea, and allowed me move on with the conversation. I was born in a country that no longer exists,  the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The country is now called Ukraine, but nearly every time I answered the question with “Ukraine”, I got a blank stare and follow-up questions. I did not want to teach a geography and history lesson. I just wanted to answer a simple question. So, I just said “Russia.”

Even if people knew what Ukraine was, or had me explain it to them, it still lead to inaccurate assumptions. When I say I am from Ukraine, people start assuming I speak Ukrainian and other things that are not true. I actually lived in a city in eastern Ukraine, not far from the border with Russia, and in my city, Ukrainian was barely spoken. Russian was the lingua franca, and Russian is the language I grew up speaking.

In college, I lived in a house shared with dozens of people. As I was usually the only person who grew up in the former Soviet Union, I was known as the “Russian guy,” though I am not, in fact, Russian, and never lived in Russia, and don’t have Russian citizenship.  It was much easier than explaining what I really am. The reality is I would never be able to pass myself off as “Russian” in either Russia or Ukraine. I am Jewish, and people who live in that region would be able to figure that out from things like my last name and the shape of my nose. My parents are Jewish, as were theirs, with ancestors living in shtetls in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and other places where shtetls existed.

But even if I tell people that I am a “Jew from the Former Soviet Union”, that still leads to inaccurate, if not unreasonable, assumptions. Though I am a Jew, I consider myself very secular, and I do not believe in Judaism.
“Where are you from?” is a question I cannot answer accurately, without explaining things I don’t usually feel like explaining to people I don’t really know. My identity is a complicated thing, and sometimes I envy the people who can answer it fully in one word. Nowadays, I just say “Ukraine” and move on. They can look it up later if they don’t know.

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