“Throughout my time in Russia, I am seen as a marvel and an oddity. I am but an eclectic collection of seemingly disparate identities–Russian, Armenian, Ghanaian. My tongue easily curls to roll my R’s like any real Russian would. And yet, I stumble as words tumble awkwardly around, while I try to keep cool and prove that I belong. “
Day two of my first time ever in Russia — I find myself struggling to remember the path back home from the bus stop. I search eagerly for a sign, a hint of familiarity, but it escapes me. I hesitate, pausing long enough to be recognized as a foreigner, though I know my dark brown skin has already betrayed me.
They are sitting far enough that I do not view them as a threat. And yet, as soon as they start calling out to me, my heartbeat quickens. I inhale sharply and forget to exhale for a second too long, feeling the tight pressure of my gulp of air pressing against my chest.
“Africa! Africa! Africa!”
They jeer at me from afar, and I feel their bulging eyes following me as I quicken my pace. Hot tears rush to my eyes. I hold them back just enough but a single drop manages to escape. I bite my lip in an effort to remain strong.
As I walk, my mind floats back to the airplane- Aeroflot. Even before I landed, I was marked as other…
The flight attendant asks me in broken English for my drink order. I respond tersely– “Coke, please”. I watch as he interacts with others around in me in Russian. He returns again a little later and asks what I would like for dinner.
I respond swiftly and confidently in Russian. This time he stops, staring wide-eyed. He is incredulous. I feel the eyes of my Russian neighbors trained on me as they too discover my secret. I speak Russian!
I finally land at my host family’s house. I enter to find my host sister sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea.
“How was your day?” she asks me in Russian.
I cave and tell her about the drunk men yelling at me on the street. She laughs it off and tells me not to pay attention. But it’s difficult for me to ignore the yells and jeers. How do I pretend not to notice the constant staring? How do I pretend not to hear the whispers in the marshrutka (a Russian mode of public transit, akin to a minibus)?
I thought I would feel at home in Russia. I have returned for the first time to my motherland. I expect to find the familiar warmth of my mother’s arms and my grandmother’s sweet kisses. Instead, I am reminded of my outsider status at every twist and turn.
How does an Afro-Russian feel at home amidst the disbelief?
Under the sky of my Africa, I find Pushkin, the father of Russian literature. His African roots all but white-washed, they try to forget about his black great-grandfather. But they cannot erase his curly hair and dark brown eyes. He occupies a space in the margins, simultaneously familiar and yet so foreign. I share the liminal space with him as both an outsider and a znakomstvo (someone who is familiar to you/ an acquaintance).
Throughout my time in Russia, I am seen as a marvel and an oddity. I am but an eclectic collection of seemingly disparate identities–Russian, Armenian, Ghanaian.
My tongue easily curls to roll my R’s like any real Russian would. And yet, I stumble as words tumble awkwardly around, while I try to keep cool and prove that I belong.
Russia is my unfamiliar home–a foggy, half-formed memory of a brand new place I have only just met. At times, I feel so on edge, trying not to cut my tongue against my chattering teeth. But there are those soft moments of familiarity that carry me through these long two months.
It is in those tender moments when I find myself singing along to Russian melodies I have loved since childhood that I feel at home. It is in those moments of peace and certainty that I am my free black self in Russia.
Leona Aisha Amosah , Washington DC
Add Leona Facebook: Leona Aisha Amosah