02 April 2007

Dueling Identities

Academic eggheads like myself who study identity like to drone on about how "identity is multifaceted - individuals have multiple consructed identities." Don't worry about what that means - nobody really knows, including the people who utter such words.

Nonetheless, I find myself dealing with two identities at the moment, my Russia identity (not my Russian identity, as I would never dare lay claim to such a thing. I mean my identity in Russia) and my America identity.

In Russia I go to art museums and history museums on the weekends (at least when I'm not at Izmailovsky searching for Lenin busts). I go to the ballet and the opera. I listen to Prokofiev and Shostakovich while reading Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov. I go for evening walks on the Arbat because the golden light of the setting sun bathes everything in a warmth that is too beautiful to resist. I go alone because I am alone. Yet there is beauty, comfort, and retrospection in my solitude. Russia is my life and my life is Russia.

In America I go to Costco on the weekends so that I can barbecue out back. I'm a competitive skeet & trap shooter and shooting coach. I do a lot of fishing and a bit of hunting. I love to cook, doing everything from scratch. And yeah, I'm pretty good at it. I cure meats and make cheeses. I am rarely alone, and this is one of my greatest blessings because I've married a wonderful woman; I want to spend every minute I can with her. In the fall we pick apples. In the winter we play in the snow. In the spring we play golf. In the summer we barbecue and go to the beach. My life is ordinary. It is my life.

The point is that these two worlds seem miles and ages apart. It feels as if my physical presence in both is the only unifying thread between the two. Even that is tenuous, as I'm never in both at the same time. Laws of temporality have taken care of that one. Even the point at which the two should intersect - my academic work at my little desk in the political science department - isn't really an intersection. The desk is part of the other world, the American world, and though I may be reading about the Russian world, it is so distant. Too distant. A week's worth of intuition gained by walking the streets of Moscow have taught me more about today's Russia than all the reading I've done in the last three years. No, they are separate worlds and they do not easily intersect.

But the two worlds are about to meet. I'm leaving for the airport in 6 hours to fly back to the States for a brief trip home. I'll see friends, family, the wife. I'll cook and eat American, Chinese, Italian, and French food to my heart's content. I'll even being coaching at a national shooting tournament. My body will be there, but where will my head be? More importantly, where will my heart be?

I have a feeling that it will be precariously straddling the fence between my two worlds, between my two identities. On the one hand, I have looked forward to this trip from the moment I arrived in Russia. Let's face it - parting from your wife for 8 months before you've even reached your first anniversary is nothing to look forward to. At least not for me. My mother will tell you that I don't like change - I never have - and uprooting a very comfortable life in a little college town and exchanging it for one in a dizzying metropolis where I only understand part of what's spoken to me was never going to be easy. But I viewed it as something that had to be done. I would get through this hardship. Do it for the career. Holding onto the thread of this trip and looking forward to the comfort of my "real" life, if only for a couple of weeks, made February bearable.

And yet I came to realize that Moscow is my home now too. I do have a life here, and it is a good one. I was surprised to find myself genuinely saddened by the thought that I would be missing so many Moscow sunsets in the coming days. I will miss my strolls through the streets, cashiers that smile kindly when I stumble on my words, and even things like the screeching brakes of the metro as it pulls into the station. I know I'll be back soon, but I'm sad to leave Russia too. She is something beautiful, and she will be missed.

The fact of the matter is, Russia is my primary identity right now. It is the one in which my feet are planted, along with my head and at least part of my heart. The next couple of weeks will be interesting. I won't bother taking the rubles out of my wallet. I wonder what will happen when I try to pay for a "Coca Cola lait" with them. I won't bother taking the Moscow pocket atlas that's always in my jacket pocket. I won't bother taking my Russian keys (the funny 4-sided kind) off my keychain. I wonder what will happen when I try to stick it in the lock to my apartment.

And I wonder what will happen when I try to stick myself into my old life. Will I fit? Will everything fall into place like it was before? I've heard of reverse-culture shock before - the disorientation that comes with repatriation, and I suppose there might be some of that. After all, I'll be surrounded by people so distant from my world of the last several months. How could they possibly understand where I've been and where I'm going?

For there are no words that can do justice to an evening stroll down the Arbat, a cool spring breeze stirring the leaves on the cobblestones, swirling them around in circles until it gets bored and releases them from its grasp. There is no way to explain the way the pastel buildings seem to burst with surreal color as golden rays of the sun's dying light transform them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. And it is impossible to share the soft strains of a guitar whose notes float in whisps and whispers along the street, as if hitching a ride with the wind.

Such things defy words. They cannot be described; they can only be felt...


Field Commander Dinc Arslan said...

Oh then it is You, who are draining Izmailovsky all ther Lenin busts. I have a fine porcelain-like bust of Lenin. I may present it to you if you like.

Dr. Michel Bouchard said...

What you described is what we would call in my academic discipline reverse culture shock.