Assimilation into new culture

By Yevgenia Ananyeva

While turning the pages of my diary again I discovered a few passages that shared the common subject of ex soviet immigrants and their assimilation into new cultures. As I read them I found myself thinking, "So, how does this beast look when examined closely? Is the main issue adjustment to a new environment? Or perhaps, survival in an unknown world? What about the constant fight for self-realization?

Taking the companion ladder at Sheremetevo airport in Moscow many of us didn't think about the huge life changes needed with a new permanent residence. We didn't want to think about finding employment or losing touch with our native culture and language. At first, the cornucopia of feelings and emotions connected to the adjustment is incomprehensible. Only long, sleepless, nights spent remembering your old, accustomed, life while questing for the new path can lead to the solution of this immigration equation. During debates at night with the most powerful opponent - ourselves, we tend to argue the perspective of what was lost more than what was found.

There is a popular theory in Western Psychology that attempts to ascribe stages of emotional expression to the experience of loss. It is called "The five stages of grief". The proverb recommends fighting fire with fire. Let's try to apply "their" theory to "our" problems. Here are the five stages:


After mooring to the Ocean shore we look closer at our new environment. At first, everything seems wonderful; huge palms, sparkling Hollywood, and chronically smiling people. After seeing the local sights we are inflamed with an unquenchable desire to adapt to local culture of life and work. We feel the necessity to find a job. We fumblingly type our resumes on the computer in the hope of finding our place in this land of plenty.

Weeks and months fly by and with no real job offers. Little by little we realize that nobody needs our perfect diplomas and Soviet references. We become annoyed and offended but life goes on.

Let's say that after taking language and professional courses we finally find a job. Our only hope is not to lose this treasure. We are trying to blend in and the process has started; the ice cracked. How can we think about the price we paid?
At first glance people here a very hospitable and helpful. You will not find a free ride even in America. You have to pay for everything. Shining with happiness we accept "rush" work five minutes before the end of the day and keep silent when we learn we will not be paid for the overtime. We bear it hoping for a better future.

It is hardest when they mock our heritage with comments like "You have such a cute accent!" It is our most exposed place. Latka, a character from the show "Taxi", was partly a personification of emigrants. Once he lost his accent for a few episodes. Actors do it while performing in movies. He became arrogant and selfish and his colleagues begged for the return of good natured, odd, Latka. Of course television exaggerates, not all Americans are "macho" and not all emigrants are good-natured duffers. But the accent problem is a stake in the hearts of first generation emigrants.

All these problems kindle fires of rage in souls recently brightened with optimism. Who is to blame? May be our own outlook? May be something else.


Fed up with our initial failures we get into a state of numbness I call "from letter to letter". Every note from home brings memories of the common events in the cycle of our lives. In the fall we must pick potatoes instead of our doing our regular jobs. In winter, cold wind blows in the windows, heat pipes break, and flu rages everywhere. In spring lilacs blossom and last bell rings in school. The summers bring mosquitoes and trips to the garden to pick mushrooms and berries. In this remembering the problems that made us leave seem not so scary. We may think, "We can survive." The whole country has lived with these problems for many decades. What is going on with us? We can't sleep but we don't feel any pain. Our mind tells us that we live in America and we need to deal with everyday problems here.

But our hearts combat our minds It is easier for our hearts to fly a thousand miles away to the country where people are depressed because of all the inconveniences in life but don't lose their sense of humor and ability to solve even hopeless problems. After dreaming about our past we see the reality leaking through the cheerful letters. We read news about salaries that are not paid for months, the senseless killing of journalist List'ev and politician Starovoitova, and the growing gap between rich and poor. We realize we have nowhere to run. We can either die in our sufferings or accept the reality as it is.


Our organism can't digest the idea of accepting this environment but loses the fight.
Little by little the pain goes away and indifference takes over. Then there is only darkness. Our souls shiver and become frozen. We can exist in this state until a push happens and loosens the bindings of our dried outlook. We all have our own "push": A new friend, or old one seen in new circumstances, a relocation, or new job. This shock is necessary before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.


We can not miss this light! The aspiration for life is a basic human need; what can we do? It is probably better to accept the reality. May be that is it, but such changes in our consciousness don't come quickly.
First we revise our values, looking for better soil for our Ginseng. We chose between going back to the painfully familiar problems of our Russian reality or blend into Western society. Each is equally difficult. Going back means we must admit our failure and one more time lose a chance to show ourselves. Getting used to our new life means to say goodbye to many habits; to get into awkward situations yet constantly learn something new.

Let 's say we choose to stay. Our inner voice keeps telling us we can lose our individuality in the fast river of American life. Excuse me, but can't we find a compromise?

Yes, we can. On solution would be to live a double life with a separation between official and private. The official life would consist of "on duty" smiles while our soul is frozen and conversations about American football when we are not interested at all. On the other hand life in America gives us the opportunity to live separately from our parents, study at the best schools, and go on vacation in any part of the world. Life behind the scenes includes listening Russian songs, reading books written in Russian, and communication with our friends through emails.

So, changing our outlook not only makes our moral dilemma less acute but also helps harmonize western reality with the Russian soul.

Years pass, many wounds heal, and we feel more at peace with ourselves. You understand that your family is here and this is now your home and it doesn't make sense to run through our past looking for happiness. Making peace with our surroundings we slowly blend in with this impetuous life. Some of us even became Americans without losing our native citizenship. This process is filled with excitement. Finally, we emerge in the naturalization interview after the long years of Green card holder status. When we are asked, " Who is the president of the country?" We still answer with the question, "Yours or ours?"

In spite of these curious incidents we are given the blue passport to a new life. We hold this thin book remembering the trials we had to endure without losing our individuality. Eventually the time comes when we need to look back and make some conclusions about the journey and hopefully laugh at the odd incidents that happened in the first years of emigration while bravely stepping ahead to meet these new, exiting, experiences.

Translated by Alla Musshorn

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