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Editor’s Diary: Moscow expats and “going native”

I met an expat lady at GUM, Moscow’s fanciest department store, the other day, and wound up horrifying her.

She had asked me for directions in Russian, and I had noticed her accent, and spoke to her in English. We wound up talking.

Things were fine, until I realized that she was assuming that I must have come to Moscow attached to a foreigner husband. I corrected her – doing a fairly crappy job of explaining my complex biography – but I was friendly. What happened next pretty much floored me. “So it must be really hard, without a husband here, I mean,” she said.

I told her that, well, no.

“But don’t you miss American men?” She asked.

I told her that I miss specific people – and that I miss my life back in the States, but I am also happy where I am. And happy with who I’m dating. She didn’t seem to believe me, at which point, our conversation began to eerily remind me of one I had this spring – but isn’t it horrible, being surrounded by Russian dudes day in and day out, blah blah blah…?

I tend to be open with people, even strangers, but this openness comes at a cost, and one of those costs is people repeatedly telling you how you should feel about something. I also feel that expats, ones that specifically choose to stay inside a certain bubble, tend to be especially set in their ways – and any challenge to how they perceive the place they live in can be met with disbelief, if not outright hostility.

“You’ve gone native!” The woman exclaimed – an odd thing to say to someone like me, whose first language is Russian. I suppose she needed to say it, in order to be able to classify me somehow. It was not that different from the remarks I hear from certain Russians, about how I have “sold out” to the nebulous “West.”

“Well, I suppose it’s easier for you,” she concluded, and smiled indulgently. Yes, Moscow is generally easier for native speakers of Russian, people who have Russian blood, etc. But coming from her, it sounded like an insult.

Before we parted ways at the exit, the woman also told me that she doesn’t have any female Russian friends, because they tend to be “so shallow.” I wanted to tell her that perhaps she is looking for friends at the wrong places (certainly GUM isn’t an excellent location to form profound, philosophical bonds with fellow human beings), but I didn’t. I felt curiously empty after our conversation. I didn’t want to have to prove anything to this person. I just wanted to go home and draw a bath.

It can be pretty damn hard to be a foreigner. I learned as much while living in Amman, Jordan. This is why I don’t judge people when they tell me about how they don’t really enjoy Moscow, for example. But it also gets my back up when the same people who don’t blink when they encounter a Western man with a Russian girlfriend either act supremely weirded out by the idea of someone like me dating a Russian dude, or attempt to “explain” me dating a Russian dude by pointing out my own inherent Russianness – as in, “us normal people would never do that, but hey, I guess it’s alright for you!”

Russians themselves do it too, of course – in particular, women who are somehow convinced that marriage to a foreigner will solve all of their problems, from financial to existential ones. They consider me an idiot – or possibly insane – for not marrying an American dude (or a Brit, or Frenchman, or whoever) when I had my “chance”. I don’t know what to tell them, really. Trying to convince them that I’m not an idiot would be doth protesting too much.

People are paradoxical. They tend to speak in broad generalizations, but they only ever assign very narrow categories to their fellow human beings. I’m not that much different from anyone else in that regard, really, but not fitting into narrow categories does leave me feeling a bit on the margins of things. From these margins, I regard the world wistfully. And then I go and draw that bath.


Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She's the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.

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