Tuesday, February 01, 2005

home away from home

Here's the personal statement I wrote for my law school application. Nothing much, but it was fun to choose some stories to tell:

The proposal came after a game of Frisbee on the day before my 20th birthday in October 2001. We managed to squeeze in our wedding over Thanksgiving weekend in November. In December, I graduated from college. In January 2002, my new husband and I packed up our wedding gifts – as many as would fit, into suitcases; the rest, into storage boxes – and moved to Moscow, Russia. I looked forward to a new life with my new husband, even as I left behind any semblance of the life I had known.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had hired my husband for a year-long contract position as a Russian linguist, and I was suddenly transformed into a trailing government spouse. At the time, I spoke hardly a word of Russian and could only barely make my way through reading the alphabet. We arrived on the coldest day of the year – it hurt to breathe – and settled into our sterile studio apartment on the 9th floor of one apartment building among many, about two kilometers away from the Kremlin. On the streets, blending in as I did with my Slavic features and fuzzy shapka hat, surly babushkas took me for a native and accosted me in rough Russian, demanding directions to the nearest metro station or asking when I expected the next bus. I struggled to somehow communicate that not only did I not know the answer to their questions, but that I lacked the language ability to tell them even if I did – but they usually turned away in exasperation before I got very far. In that land of bleak winter days, fierce pessimism, and an entirely unfamiliar language, I felt as if it wasn’t possible to be any farther from home.

Our local church congregation of Russians took pity on me and made me an assistant to the girls’ youth group leader. Sasha spoke English very well and had even lived in Salt Lake City for a while. However, this arrangement soon fell through when Sasha stopped coming to church. After four months in the country, I suddenly found myself responsible for running meetings and teaching lessons to these young women – in Russian. The group of six young Russian women took it all in stride, generously assuming there was a real, coherent message behind my lessons delivered in halting, half-mangled Russian weighed down by cumbersome religious vocabulary. With their help, however, I had soon gained impeccable pronunciation and passable grammar.

In the meantime I started work as a private English tutor, and crammed into dank metro cars in the bowels of the city with hundreds of other commuting Russians to visit my students around the city each afternoon. Before long, I could direct the babushkas to the nearest metro station and complain just as long and loud about how the buses never ran on time.

A summer vacation trip took my husband and me to Berlin, Germany. One evening, after a long day of sightseeing, I went to what seemed like every internet café in the city. I was on a deadline for the latest issue of the embassy newsletter, of which I was the editor. Not one of the internet cafés had the particular software I needed. Finally, in a remote corner of the city, I walked into a smoke-filled coffee shop that had a few computers in the corner. Wearily, I prepared to ask the arch-looking girl behind the counter in rusty German if they had what I needed. Somehow, the Russian words found their way to my tongue quicker than the German, and I had spat out half the sentence before correcting myself.

The girl’s eyes lit up. “Viy govoritye po russki?” she inquired rapidly, and without waiting for an answer began chatting happily with me in her native tongue. Relief washed over my exhausted soul. Here was someone I could talk to! Here was something familiar! I had never felt so close to home.

Now we live in Damascus, Syria, a place as different from Moscow, Russia as it is from my home in Portland, Oregon. It’s a place where everything – ice cream, bread, corn flakes, and soap – is sold by the kilo. It’s also a place full of surprises: the first time we bought facial tissues, I opened the box and was shocked to find a half-mangled toothbrush inside. This time, I’m the wife of a Fulbright scholar, since released from his government service. By the time we return to the U.S. this summer, we will have spent the majority of our married life living overseas. My friends write me emails from the U.S., talking about their lawnmowers and pet cats, while I search the city for a store that sells tortilla chips (no store does) and try to figure out ways to dress and act that will make me invisible to Arab men and their taunting (it’s not possible).

I found a job teaching English courses at an organization called Amideast. My students are Syrian teenagers. For some of them, I’m the only American they’ve ever met. They speak heatedly about their frustration with their image in the western world. They struggle to overcome their forced guilt-by-ethnic-association with radical Muslim or Arab militant groups. In class, when discussing the recent fighting in Fallujah that temporarily favored the insurgents, one of my students slipped and said that “we were beating the Americans.” Anass quickly corrected himself and everybody was able to laugh about his mistake, but it seemed to strike at a common undercurrent of confusion.

Anass certainly isn’t radical – he’s a normal, educated Syrian teenager. He works hard at his English studies and listens to Metallica more than my own brothers ever did. One day he brought his guitar to class. In exchange for letting him leave early to go to a rehearsal, I had him play us a few songs. His first choice was a classic, morose song by the Lebanese civil war icon Fairouz. The students clapped their hands to the familiar rhythm and even sang along. As the song came to an end, they begged for another. This time, I heard not the horse-hoof clip-clop rhythm of a Middle Eastern song, but the familiar chord progression of the opening strains of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” Anass knew the English lyrics by heart, and sang them with an intensity that seemed to indicate he even knew the meaning behind them. At the chorus, the whole class joined in the singing, and I found myself surrounded by Syrian teenagers singing a classic American song, in what was to them a foreign language, and doing it better than I ever could.

Home had never felt like this before.

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