I think I’m finally beginning to get Russia.
This entire time here, I’ve had such a hard time connecting with people. The people on the street, in the bazaar stalls, my relatives, they have all grown up in such a different way from me. And it’s not just a matter of living in different means, although I can’t say that getting used to toilets that flush with a dying whimper (and ones where you can’t even throw toilet paper) has been fun or exhilarating. I feel like growing up here gives people just such a different mentality — people are hardened by life, they’ve come to expect that the world is out there to steal from them, to cheat them, to be harsh to them. And honestly, in a way, they are right. In Russia, there is no way for sincerity to get you ahead in life.
And yet, in the bleakness of it all, people are incredibly welcoming. Every relative that I visited (despite chiding me about my weight, my pescatarianism, and my thick-rimmed glasses) has welcomed me with open arms. They’ve all set out elaborate feasts (under the guise of inviting me to ‘tea’ naturally) and have gone so much out of their way to make me feel at home.
On Tuesday, I spent the night at my great aunt’s house. I was honestly kind of dreading it. Almost all the relatives I visited insisted I stay the night, but I had only agreed to stay with an aunt whose home I had stayed at so many times before. My great aunt lives alone and I had no idea how I was going to spend an evening with an 76 year old woman without being bored out of my mind. I obliged, however, because her husband — my uncle — had just passed away on May 7th and I think she’s been having a hard time dealing with being on her own. Within minutes, she told me that visiting my family once every four years is not enough, because they are the only family we have left. She told me that no matter how good our lives may be in America (I didn’t have to white-wash things for her, she understood that there are very few reasons to go back to Russia to live), that going back to family is incredibly important. She also told me that I can’t forget my Muslim faith, which really begged the question, do I have a Muslim faith? I was raised an atheist and even my family back in Russia can only consider themselves Muslims by proxy. They bend the rules and traditions to their means, frequently serving straight vodka at dinners because Muhammad only forbade the drinking of wine. But at the same time, this is part of my heritage, the language was once my own. My great-aunt called me balam that entire night, the tatar word meaning my child, and feeling that level of affection from someone who I have only met a few times in my life was incredibly touching.
When all is said and done I come to Russia and play the role of the granddaughter, of the sister, of niece once every four years, but it’s not enough. My grandmother has grown unaccustomed to having guests at her house, because her only two children and their children are in America, while her sisters’ kids all live in the same town. I know she is proud of us. Her entire home is littered with photographs of me from the time I was a small child, up until college graduation. But I can feel the sadness behind the way she pours me mint tea every morning. She’s not used to having family around. She knows that every time that I come visit her may be the last time I will see her. And feeling that has been absolutely devastating.