'Where are you from?' He asks. I didn't want to speak to him in the first place, but I seem to be suffering from a pathological, smiling complacence. It's New York City, and 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 I'm trying to maneuver my way back to the building where I work, sweat beads dripping down my spine, the armpits of my white blouse stained. Oh my, that's not professional at all. Tsk. The man, the one who asked me where I'm from, is just some stranger. I had gotten lost again, because at lunch I just seem to run for my life, away from the building, not paying attention to what streets I'm following. I asked him for directions. My voice, despite having been honed into a plausible New England dialect, gives me away again. Sometimes it doesn't. 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 not true for millions of Americans either, but that's beside the point when it comes to fantasy. It's certainly not true for me, and 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'd been reading a poem, or talking at length about Talal Asad's 'Geneology of Religion.' After class she inevitably turns to me and says, very nicely, 'Where are you from?' Whoops! Busted again. The fantasy reel starts to smoke and burn, and my name is no longer Amanda. It's not even something like Michael, an unfortunate product of wealthy parents who wanted to be quirky and unusual, and named their daughter a boy's name.My name is Anya, and I was born in Moscow, Russia. My parents tell me that at first we lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment before moving to a slightly less tiny two-bedroom one. I only remember the latter, the subtle grays and greens of the world outside its windows; the sun is always pale and setting in my memories. We live in a cookie-cutter five-story building, the whole block littered with them as though some giant dropped a bunch of rectangular bricks, leaving space in the middle. That middle would be 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 containing wooden structures for children to play - some variation on Baba Yaga's izbushka, and a fortress-like construction that has a slide attached to one side of it. There are swings, too, and a sandbox.But for most of the time I'd spent there - from two to ten-years-old - everything was broken except the sandbox. Undeterred, my girlfriends and I would play there with our dolls and toy tea sets. A random memory - it is 1993, and I am looking up from the sandbox because of the terrible noise, like a hundred jackhammers, coming steadily closer. Tanks. A whole procession of them, trundling by. It later occurs to me that they were going to the center of Moscow to 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. The reason for this is not some feminist ideals on my mother's behalf; instead, it's the fact that my father is a Jew with a Jewish last name. My mother didn't want her daughter growing up in an anti-Semitic environment with his name. There are other things, too, but I will learn about them later, only after I move to America. Up until the move, I am a Russian child just like my schoolmates, regular as they are, save for that whole last name business and the vague knowledge that I'm a Jew. But that's not even so bad, because there's an Armenian boy in my class and his name is weirder than even my dad's.Then the move. I remember my excitement, even as we come to New York in 1996, during one of its worst winters. New York City is submerged in dirty white snow, gray entirely - its streets, its sky, its people and pigeons, all gray. We are staying in a ratty motel in Manhattan, the lock on its door 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 comlications. Since 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. Well, I'm an atheist. And what's worse, my mother is not Jewish. I am anathema to the Jewish community. I've never been to temple, I don't keep kosher, and I certainly don't know the Shema Yisrael in its entirety, a fact for which my deeply religious aunt scolds 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 my parents were born and raised in Russia. The facts are solid like my Jewish last name, like our leaving Russia on refugee status, like the fact that I have Ashkenazi Jewish blood running through my veins, blood that cares little for which parent donated it. There are memories, too, mostly from my father, memories of being called a '****.' 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, not technically Jewish by Jewish law. C'est vraiment degueulasse.'Where are you from?' The strange man asks me. 'Sweden,' I say.
Story posted on March 12, 2009 at 4:00 AM