Five ways I’ve become American without noticing

Henri Matisse. The Dinner Table (1987)

By Zhenya

December 12 marked 21 years since my family moved to America. I was 13 when we left Moscow, and it was already the mid-1990s, so we had missed the massive wave of emigration of just a few years earlier. We did, however, benefit immensely from all the little ways that US Jewish communities had worked out to help new immigrants acculturate.

In the years since our move, I’ve acquired not only American citizenship that proves it on paper, but also a deep sense of belonging and pride (the last year notwithstanding) in America. And I’ve also unconsciously absorbed aspects of American culture and behavior that now feel second nature.

Here are five:

1. At a recent dinner party, I stood out because I automatically transferred my fork from my left to my right hand after cutting a piece of food. The hosts were both of a more recent Russian extraction than me, and I noticed that they continued to eat with utensils in both hands, without putting the knife down. As a kid, I was ruthlessly taught good manners through constant reminders and occasional knuckle raps, so I’ve been wielding a fork and a knife like a pro from an early age. I never place my elbows on the table, I chew with my mouth closed, and I still hold the fork with three fingers, like a pen, rather than the full-fisted way I’ve seen here. But somewhere along the way, eating with my right hand rather than my left became unconscious. It’s like the old, possibly apocryphal, story about the Soviets figuring out who’s an American spy by their table manners.

2. I smile at strangers. My face automatically transforms into a smile when I catch a stranger’s eyes on the street or in a store. A Russian proverb says, «Смех без причины — признак дурачины» (Laughing without reason is a sign of foolishness). Same goes for random smiling. When I went to Moscow nearly 12 years ago, I’d already learned this habit and had to school my face into a more somber expression while riding the subway or shopping.

3. I’m conscious of my clothing in that I never wear the same thing twice throughout a week. When we first came to America, my cousins – who had been in America for four years already – sat me down and explained that it’s important to not wear the same thing. Our closets were fairly sparse during my childhood, so just like everyone else, my sister and I wore the same thing multiple days in a row. Here, it was a timely reminder to not just be clean but project the appearance of cleanliness.

4. My everyday life revolves around the English language. It’s often easier to think in English, and it’s definitely easier to explain my work in English. My family is bilingual: my husband is a fellow Soviet-born Jew, and our kids first learned Russian before going to English-language schools. We read to them largely in Russian. But as they move through school, they cannot switch back to Russian as easily as earlier in life. Their best Russian is usually on Sundays when they’ve had a full day of mostly Russian-only communication to help their minds switch. Still, I often think it would be so much easier to respond in English when my son tells me about a school project or when my daughter babbles about her walk in the park with her preschool class.

5. I speak up and believe that change is possible. I’m of the generation that caught the very tail end of the Soviet Union, though I wasn’t grown enough to be fully conscious of the glasnost and perestroika era. I became an adult in America, and my worldview is essentially American. I believe that government should actually represent the people who elected it; I believe in having a voice in the halls of power; and I believe in the rule of law.

Still, there’s one way in which I’m immutably Russian: my favorite holiday is New Year’s Eve. And even 21 years later, it’s still a production with olivier, vinegret, sprats, red caviar and champagne. My son has been learning the secrets to chopping all the veggies; my best friend and I co-host a dinner party in which we introduce our American friends to the magic; and I still revel in giving and receiving presents on January first.

So here’s hoping my two identities continue to live fairly at peace with each other.

Happy 2018! С наступающим! Пусть год собаки принесёт вам верных и любящих друзей!

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