What are you? Where are you from? No, where are you really from? These are all questions of which I’ve heard some variation while in both the U.S. and Russia. While in the U.S., there’s a certain level of disrespect inherent in having these questions asked by someone you’ve only just met, and at first it was hard to let go of that feeling while in Russia. However, there are some things about Russian culture that make this a far less offensive question than it would be in the U. S.- in fact, it’s actually a great way to break the ice.
Russia, just like the U.S., has a diverse population with people from several different ethnic groups and countries holding citizenship. However, unlike in the U. S., there seems to be less pressure in Russia to assimilate. Someone ethnically German whose family moved to Russia generations ago probably retains a great deal of their culture in their family life, and so knowing this about them also tells you a little bit about their life. The same would not necessarily be true if that person lived in the U. S., and leveling that question at someone has the unspoken implication that you’ve noticed something different about them- something off. Each time I’d been asked the question while in Russia, the asker had not been ethnically Russian. Rather than seeming like a way to question someone’s level of belonging, it seemed more like a way to relate on common ground.
Another major difference between Russia and the U. S. that made me more comfortable with these questions is the perception of second language learners. In the U. S. you can be derided for having a noticeable accent while speaking English, especially if your first language is Spanish. However, in Russia, every time someone realized I was a foreigner because of my accent they just seemed happy to know I was learning Russian and putting work in to better understand the language. Sure, there were a few times shopkeepers couldn’t quite understand me, but overall I found no reason to be anxious over having people know I was a foreigner. It’s definitely something that encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and helped me to shed my anxiety when interacting with strangers in public. In a previous blog post I mentioned how many stores and kiosks are set up so you have to describe or point out exactly what you want to the cashier in order to buy something. At first I avoided these because I was so anxious about being able to accurately describe what I wanted. During our last few weeks in Moscow I made an effort to find these types of shops specifically and to force myself to order exactly what I wanted and not to just pick something that was convenient to point at. Shopkeepers could usually tell I was foreign, but in every case they were accommodating and helpful, which definitely helped me to improve.
It’s easy to be put off by these types of questions, even if they may not seem offensive they are rather personal. However, in Russia they simply help you to get to know someone better and the people asking usually have the kindest of intentions.