“Where are you from?” he asks. I don’t want to speak to him, but I seem to be suffering from a pathological, smiling complacence. It’s New York City, it’s summer, and it’s hot as hell. I’m working as a paralegal in a Manhattan law firm, a job that I hate, because at this point in time I’m still entertaining the notion that I will go to law school and be a lawyer – an idea that I also hate, but one that I think will surely save me from a future that is anything but certain. Right now, I’m on my lunch break and trying to maneuver my way back to the building where I work, sweat beads dripping down my spine, sweat stains on my white blouse. Oh my, that’s not professional at all. Tsk.
The man, the one who asked me where I was from, is just some stranger. I have gotten lost again, because when I leave the building for lunch. I seem to run for my life – away! – and not pay attention to the streets I’m following. I had asked him for directions. I have honed my voice into a plausible New England dialect, but it gives me away again. It doesn’t do that every time. Sometimes, I pass. Sometimes, no one can tell that my accent is slightly off, a cadence here and an intonation there, and then I’m safe, I’m an American citizen and I was born and raised in a New Jersey suburb where my mother used to pack me peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches in a brown paper bag for my school lunch, and my friends and I would watch “Power Rangers” after school as light spilled across the floor of someone’s spacious suburban house. My name is Amanda or maybe Jessica, and my teeth are very straight and white….
Of course, none of this is true. It’s a fantasy for millions of Americans, and certainly for me. Much of the time, people can tell. I can see it coming a mile away, the puzzled expression in the eyes of some girl named Kathy or maybe Katie or maybe Kate in one of my college classes. I’m reading a poem, or maybe talking at length about Talal Asad’s “Genealogies of Religion,” and after class she will inevitably turn to me and say, very nicely, “Where are you from?” Whoops! Busted again. The fantasy reel starts to smoke and burn, and my name is no longer Amanda.
My name is Anya, and I was born in Moscow. My parents tell me that at first we lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, then moved to a slightly less tiny two-bedroom one. I remember only the latter, the subtle grays and greens of the world outside its windows, the sun, always pale and setting in my memories. We lived in a cookie-cutter five-story building, the whole block littered with them, as though some giant had dropped a bunch of rectangular bricks, leaving space in the middle. That middle was the yard I’d play in as a child. At the very edges of my memory, when I was just coming into consciousness, I remember the yard’s wooden play structures – some variation on Baba Yaga’s izbushka [cottage], and a fortress-like construction that has a slide attached to one side. There are swings, too, and a sandbox.
For most of the time I spent in that playground, from two years old to 10, everything was broken except the sandbox. Undeterred, my girlfriends and I would play there with our dolls and toy tea sets. I have one random memory: It is 1993, and I am looking up from the sandbox because of a terrible noise, like a hundred jackhammers, coming steadily closer. Tanks. A whole procession of them, rumbling by. I realize later that they had been going to the center of Moscow to a fire at the parliament building.
In Moscow, I’m almost like all the other girls, except my mother and I don’t share my father’s last name. That’s not because of any feminist ideals of my mother; instead, it’s to protect us. My father is a Jew with a Jewish last name; my mother didn’t want her daughter growing up with his name in an anti-Semitic environment.
There are other reasons, too, but I will learn about them later, only after we move to America. Up until the move, I am a Russian child just like my schoolmates, as regular as they are, save for that whole last name business and the vague knowledge that I’m a Jew. But even that isn’t so bad, because there’s an Armenian boy in my class and his name is weirder than even my dad’s.
I do remember the excitement of the move, of arriving in New York City in 1996, during one of its worst winters. New York City was submerged in dirty white snow, looking entirely gray – its streets, its sky, its people and its pigeons, all gray. We are staying in a ratty motel in Manhattan, where the lock on the door to our room is constantly breaking. Nevertheless, I’m excited.
In the span of about three years, I go from a clueless Russian girl with a heavy accent to a clueless Russian girl with a very slight accent. Oh, and I live in the suburbs now.
Then come the complications.
Because America is essentially made up of immigrants, whether first-generation or tenth, and because it is a melting pot, with its contents not exactly melted together, there’s a desperate need for its inhabitants to establish ethnicity (“I’m Italian,” says the American girl whose great-grandparents came here from Italy) and, of course, religion. And I, now bearing my father’s Jewish last name, am at a loss. For one thing, I’m an atheist. What’s worse, my mother is not Jewish. I am anathema to the observant Jewish community. I’ve never been to temple, I don’t keep kosher, and I certainly don’t know the Sh’ma in its entirety, which causes my deeply religious aunt to scold me. I don’t mention to people that my mother isn’t Jewish, because I know what I’ll hear. It’s what I always hear. “So you’re not really Jewish, then.”
What am I? There are facts, and there are memories. The facts are solid, like my frayed green Soviet birth certificate that lists my mother’s nationality as Russian, and my father’s as Jew. Both of them were born and raised in Russia. Or the fact that we are leaving Russia on refugee status, that I have Ashkenazi Jewish blood running through my veins, blood that cares little which parent donated it. My own memories, of sandboxes and tanks. And memories I’ve inherited, mostly from my father, memories of being called a kike. Memories of the crazy great uncle whose entire family was killed by Nazis.
And then there’s me. A strange creature, too Americanized for the Russians, too Russian for the Americans. (“Where’s your accent from?”) A refugee Jew by Russian terms, but by Jewish law, not technically a Jew.
“Where are you from?” the man asks me.
“Sweden,” I say.