Who am I? Am I an American? Or am I the culture that my parents and family identify themselves as? These are the questions that I have asked myself my whole life, not knowing exactly what culture or country I identified myself with due to the fact that I was raised by a solely immigrant family.
In 1992, my parents were desperate to get out of the already fallen communist Russia, both having grown up in an oppressive and warring regime where they knew little of the outside world. After legally obtaining a green card, visa, and eventually citizenship, my parents and older brothers came to America without knowing any English or the culture because of the high anti-American propaganda they had heard of their entire lives. They thought that cultural norms from Russia would translate to the American culture, however, that was not the case and many repercussions of that fell back on me: the first person in my family's history to have been born in America.
Growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of Russian people, having been completely submerged in my family's heritage. But of course, I had always felt as if my family didn't understand a lot of what I wanted my American upbringing to be. From nursery school to 3rd grade, I attended a French school. With most of my first friends and school mates being from immigrant families themselves, I felt comfortable knowing that these kids and parents knew what my own family had gone through by coming to a completely new country.
However, from 4th to 8th grade, my parents decided to put me into an elite private Catholic school, which eventually turned out to be one of the most difficult times of my life. The parents of the students that went there were very self-absorbed and loved to stay in their own hegemonic groups, making it difficult for me to make friends with the kids of these xenophobic families. Later on, my mother told me of the many times during my schooling at parent-teacher or school events, she would be ignored when trying to make conversation with the other parents. This completely broke my heart knowing that the most important person to me, who risked her life and left her home country to provide an entire reality for her children, one she could never even imagine having when she was younger, was cast aside by people who thought that they were better than her. I was pretty much made to hate myself, my family, and my Russian culture.
I was also prone to a Russian custom I felt distant from and even resented growing up, which was being restricted to “feminine" activities. My parents never allowed or encouraged me to play the “male" sports that so many of my friends were participating in such as soccer, which I remember begging my parents to play. From the time I was 3 years old, my mom immediately put me into ballet classes, which then turned into gymnastics. Nothing was in-between. When the road turned into picking between ballet and gymnastics, I picked gymnastics thinking it would give me the sports passion I needed. Over the next seven years, gymnastics, which currently is the most popular sport in Russia for girls, dominated my life, but it wasn't always the best. It was, again, run by Russian people and participated predominately by Russians as well. I was always with these people that my family had tried to run from, which really made my identity crisis grow even more.
When Olympic Games or World Cups came around, I never knew which side to cheer for when it came to Americans and Russians competing against each other. I never felt patriotic to America, because in my home I only spoke Russian, ate Russian food, watched a lot of Russian TV, etc., but I also never felt close with my Russian side either since everything in my society was extremely Americanized. I struggled with the concept of what my home and heritage was versus the outside world where I was educated and socialized in.
After the September 11 attacks, American patriotism was at its height, which made me hide my “un-Americaness" even more. I remember flying to a gymnastics competition with my mom. My mom and I spoke Russian in the security line where a TSA agent instantly stereotyped us into getting our stuff thoroughly checked just because they heard a language that was not English. This really infuriated and hurt me deeply; not even the country where the soil I was born on trusted me.
Over the next few years, high school really let me make my own identity for myself. I figured out that you should be proud of who you are and where you come from because it colors your overall character, and my struggle with who I was let me determine what I wanted to become.