Updated: Oct 3
I didn't care about immigrants, I wanted to become an émigré. An émigré exiled from her home by a dictatorship or war. An émigré shuffling on cobble stone streets of midnight Paris, wet and with a head buried in the shoulders. An émigré writing nostalgic poetry for expat magazines in Berlin and London. An émigré with no steady source of income but many talents and connections. An émigré, venerated yet exiled.
When my father moved us to the U.S., we became immigrants. Immigrants because nobody forced us to leave. Belarus was a poor dictatorship but we were still clothed, fed, and did what we wanted. There was no big real reason to leave except for Dad's dream to follow his great grandfather's and grand uncle's footsteps. When they returned to Belarus from factory and railway work in Canada and the U.S., they became legends. Their earnings were so much they were stored in a large wooden chest. My grandmother stole a penny from the chest to make a wedding band. Land and livestock were purchased and the two men became some of the richest in the village.
Maybe it was the journey that pulled Dad in the same direction. His ancestors had to cross half of Belarus and all of Lithuania to get to a small port town in Latvia to board a Titanic-like ship. Then, the real journey began: two weeks in the ocean. Dad was attracted to the ocean, if only his mother allowed him to become a sailor.
When people ask me what brought me to the U.S., I don't know what to say. Poverty? We didn't starve. Dictator? He didn't do anything to us. The only thing that comes to mind is the cliché opportunity and a better future - the most unglorious words from a mouth of an immigrant. People want sacrifice and death. I have none. We sold our house, bought airplane tickets, and took a plane with comfortable seats and tolerable food to Atlanta. Two days later, we sat on my Dad's cousin's couch eating chocolate chip cookies and watching Forest Gump.
I knew I wasn't an émigré because I felt shame. I felt shame when my teachers and peers ignored me. I felt shame when my parents couldn't express themselves in English. I felt shame when people said, "Belarus? What is that?" No, I wasn't an émigré because if I was, I would write poems, compose music, and engage in intellectual rhetoric about the future of my country.
The way others saw me became my proof of how immigrant I was. I knew I was really immigrant when people pretended they didn't hear me when they didn't understand me, left when they saw me approach, and talked slowly and loudly in my presence. To soften the accent and my immigrantness, I stopped speaking in Russian, broke off friendships with Russian-speakers, and separated myself from my family, emotionally and physically. I even stopped caring about Belarus.
The American Dream turned out to be evil. It stole Dad from us and Mom from herself. It almost decimated my brother and consumed my sister. I ran. I ran to Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Iowa, with stops in France, Belgium, and Uganda. But no matter how far or fast I ran, my status never left me. In Iowa, my professor told me my Soviet education prevented me from thinking and, in France, my host mother called me only by "ma petite Bielorusien".
I've lived half of my life in the U.S. and I still feel immigrant shame. But it is not the same sharp and gut wrenching shame that made me cry and scream at my parents, it is dull and subdued now. It is the type of shame I feel when people ask if I'm from British Columbia or New York City. No, I tell them, I'm from Belarus. Can't you hear the accent?
I want people to hear my mispronunciations because I earned them. I earned them when I listened to the radio pressed against my ear for hours every day for a whole year to learn new words. I earned them when I translated all my high school homework with three dictionaries in my lap. I earned them when I was accused by my teacher for cheating on a quiz because I did better than the native speakers. I earned them.
I did eventually gained an émigré worthy level of sophistication but it had nothing to do with my accomplishments. I gave myself permission to pursue my talents only after years of self-convincing. Yes, I convinced myself, even a girl who immigrated for no big reason can still respect herself.