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¿…a ver, y tú, de donde eres?

Michael Zeitlin's story posted on March 09, 2009 at 12:00 am. Michael emigrated from Moscow, USSR to Washington D.C., United States in 1975

Now, I lie. I lie, all the time. I do so inevitably and invariably, as in, it cannot be helped. Whenever asked, where I am from, I take a short, deep breath and proceed to lie.

It used to be different.

I used to answer truthfully… if reluctantly. Reluctantly, because the question irritatingly underscored that in spite of all the years in the United States there was still some trace of an accent that begged the question.

Russian, I used to answer. Knowing full well that this answer was more than sufficient. In the country where everyone seems to be from some place or another, elaboration is rarely required.

It was somehow soothing, in a small victory kind of way, to know that the questioner was compelled to ask, as opposed to making an educated assumption on solid cultural inference: Boris and Natasha of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame.

If the questioner was kind by nature or in a generous mood, he or she would add: "Wow, it does not sound Russian, at all". I always tried to take such complements graciously and did not feel it was necessary to elaborate that I had been living in the country for over a decade and considering that I arrived as a 13 year-old child, there really is no excuse, short of retardation, for having an accent, at all.

Retardation may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I could claim early onset of puberty and absolute tone-deafness, thus missing out on total aural assimilation blissfully granted to all innocent children and musicians…a reward for purity, as it were.

At 13, my thoughts and deeds were relatively pure still, and the accent I eventually developed (or kept) was not so much a burden as a boon… …sometimes……well, often…and depending on the company. But given a choice I would have preferred to turn it on and off at will. And given further choice I would have opted for something vaguely Caribbean.

But, no one asks me where I am from anymore.

-/-/-/-

Now the question is: "…a ver, y tú, de donde eres" ?

This is because I live in Spain now. And as one would expect, in the cradle of surrealism, things get more interesting.

Barely touching down in Spain, I discovered that when speaking halting Spanish I naturally continued to have an accent. But now it was a horrifying, ear-twisting, tear-inducing, teeth-grinding, throat-clenching, full-blown American accent. Something misbegotten and nasal was escaping from my mouth; simple short Spanish vowels were transformed into sonorous diphthongs of symphonic complexities; and, the trilling Castilian Rs came out as something wet and insipid.

These same insipid Rs that cause immeasurable anguish to billions of English learners all over the globe, I conquered half a lifetime ago and now when I needed them back, they were in deep hiding.

No one ever asked me where I was from anymore, it was … redundant. "American, right?", followed by an affirmative cringe.

My American English may have never sounded perfect, but only after an exorbitant amount of alcohol did it sound flagrantly, if slurringly Russian. Now, however my American accent preceded me like a flag at Iwo Jima, every time I said "Buenos días".

To add insult to injury, my first stop-gap job in Spain was to teach English. And if god forbid I was to prove good at it, I would then be churning out hundreds of unsuspecting Spaniards speaking perfectly bastardized British english with a vaguely slavo-balto-teutonic inflection, by way of Rocky/Stallone south Philly.

"Buenos dìas", I would greet my new class.
"American, right?" they would inevitably conclude.
"you bet!" I would reply.
"what mean juv et ?"
"It means yes, a definite, emphatic yes. Now all youz can sit down."

I did prove to be a good teacher, but not that good. Most of my students will go through life, boardrooms, pickup bars, and international conferences sounding like dignified Speedy Gonzaleses.

-/-/-/-

American is good. I like American. I have no problem with American. I prefer being an American to just about anything else, short of Caribbean.

Still tone-deaf, well into middle-age and filled with filthy thoughts that now at least I could share with my irritatingly pitch-perfect, cellist wife, I spent a few years comfortably being what I am, an American.

But as time went by, my Spanish vowels found their approximate length and the robust Russian Rs worked their way to the friendly Castilian surface. And one day, it happened:

"Australian, right?" someone ventured.

Now, it is a point of pride and good manners among many expats not to disabuse their well-meaning hosts.

"yeah, mate!"

Next time it was German, and then Irish, and of course a few awkward misunderstandings along the way.

And then one day, it came, point blank:
"…a ver, y tú, de dónde eres" ?

This is a very different kind of question. Simple, direct. No semantic rope ladders, no syntactic escape hatches. No one is asking for good manners. They just want to know where I am from.

I know perfectly well what is being asked, and I know equally well what an acceptable answer should sound like, but somehow I am suddenly not sure what that answer is.

"Americano." I venture. And it is all over. Worked just fine! What’s the big deal!?

Except that I know that I just lied.

-/-/-/-

"Ruso", I venture next time… much to the same effect.

And I know that I just lied, again.

I do not mind lying like this. It is not malicious. I do not wish to deceive anyone. On the contrary, I simply do not wish to burden anyone with a complicated answer to a simple question.

I could elaborate, I could say: "I am an American of Russian origin" and this answer would work just fine in America. But I live in Spain, and here these words are so convoluted as to be meaningless.

Spain is a wonderful country, glorious in its day. But the past 250 years were a horrible mess. Spain as country and as a culture has spent its entire industrial history in an isolated misery. Only now, finally and definitively it is rejoining the world. The Spaniards know only in theory about the horrid convulsions of the past century and its aftermaths that sent millions running in all directions. 

Spain is a remarkably homogenous country. Immigration is a vague, distant concept around here. Suffice it to say that Andalusians from the south of the country are commonly referred to as immigrants or even foreigners when they arrive for work in the north of their own country. Spain was in the long last spasms of its isolation as Indians and Pakistanis moved en masse to England, the Algerians and Africans escaped to France, Kurds resettled in Germany, Jews abandoned Russia, and central Americans moved north.

"I am an American of Russian origin" is pretty much self-explanatory in America. Most Americans may not be aware of all the political and historical baggage that goes with the claim, but they know instinctively that this is just one more chapter of many in the history of the modern world, just one more of those.

Here, "I am an American of Russian origin" would inevitably invite questions, some out of mere politeness, some out of genuine interest. And then I would have to start explaining by saying first that, "well, actually I was born in Russia…" …And I would get no further.

"Then you are Russian… obviously" they would say. And there would be no moving them. Because this here is Spain and not America. And unless you are in America, the rules are different:

You are either from here or you are from elsewhere. You are most welcome to be here, more so if you are white and self-sufficient. You can live here, you can learn Spanish, you can work here, you can raise your children here……BUT you and they are not from here and that is a simple fact that no legislation or title of citizenship will change.

If I felt compelled to press the issue and insist that I am an American, I would have to explain that America is not like the rest of the world, that in America:

You are pretty much by definition from elsewhere. You are most welcome to be there, more so if you are white and self-sufficient. You can live, you can torture the English language, you can work, you can raise your children……AND, for better or for worse, they will be American – all legislation and title of citizenship made irrelevant.

-/-/-/-

"…a ver, y tú, de donde eres" ?
"Americano" I say choosing heftier of the half-truths. And leave it at that, please do not make me explain it again.

"Australian, right?"
"yeah, mate!"

One day, if lucky:

"Jamaican, right?"
"Yaw, mon!"


It would be a gross over-dramatization to say that somehow I live a lie, or suffer from an identity crisis of some painful sort. On the contrary, it could not be clearer to me.

I was 12 when we left Russia. I speak the language. I vaguely know its history. I follow its current spasms and turbulations with anxiety. Russia is an infinite source of curiosity for me. It forms a great big chunk of what I am. But I never lived there. I never lived in Russia. I was a child. I lived in my family, on my street, within half a square mile that encompassed home, school and the football pitch – the entire universe.

A few more years and that would have changed. I would have grown up.

And I did, but that was in America.

I was born in Russia, I live in Spain, I inevitably speak funny, but more then anything else I am an American, simply because…

…when I meet proper Russians and they wax and wane nostalgically about the banks of the mighty Volga river, I know what they mean. I know this river’s topography on Russian land and in the Russian soul, but, as they speak, in my mind’s eye it is the Mississippi that I see.


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