June is my birth month and may be for this reason the question of identity has been a lot on my mind lately… One of the most popular questions I got asked is: “Where are you from?” which is, when I simply answer: “Russia” is followed by the stream of questions along the lines - “where are your parents from (Grandparents, great grandparents and so on, it turns into a very long and not so fun game…) or people would stare at me simply and blurt out point blank - “but you are Asian” or sometimes they would very gently whisper to me the same thing, but in a tone of voice, that would suggest they letting me onto a little secret, makes me chuckle really, because, trust me I am well aware of the fact that I am Asian.
I usually end up going into the quick explanation routine. Yes, I am asian, but I was born and raised in Russia. I am half Kalmyk (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalmyks), half Kyrgyz (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyrgyz_people). Kalmyks are part of Mongolian brunch and they have been living in Russia since XVII century and Kyrgyzstan is a country in Central Asia that used to be a part of Soviet Union. This is kind of an" explain yourself in under five minutes" routine that I am doing each time (minus the wikipedia links, that I include here for you guys, so you can get a little more info, if you feel so inclined) most of the times I don’t mind it really, because I would love more people to learn about diversity in Russia and world in general.
This image of someone from Russia as a blond/blue eyed person is so common, I tend to get into funny situations at times where, I would show up and people would not know what to do with me. My very first trip overseas as a model was in Singapore. The agency send a driver to pick me up at the airport to take me to model’s apartment (before you get to excited I had to reimburse my agency for that ride, because nothing in life is free). The driver had minimum information to go by - my name and the fact that I was coming from Russia and evidently he was waiting for a Russian model and then I showed up. “Hello! It’s me”. He was not having it, he kept saying no, no, I am waiting for a Russian girl. It took me a minute to convince him, that I was the one he was supposed to pick up, I even showed him my passport, so he would be at ease, I think he was worried I am just some local girl, trying to score a free ride into the city.
Growing up in Russia in my home town of Tynda in a middle of nowhere I stood out. There were not many people looking like me, so my outsides didn’t match up. Kids could be mean as we all know it and in the kindergarten I was told that I am not allowed to play with the toys, because those were for Russian kids only and I was not one of them. I won’t be going much into details of bulling, because it is in a past and probably not worth wallowing in. Just going to leave it as it was rough drawing up. One of the sentiments that I have heard most was “Go home!” which was so confusing to me, because in my mind, this was home already, I was born and raised there so where would they suggest I was supposed to be going? One thing was clear that I didn’t belong and so within me, it started that unconscious search for Home.
Things got much much better when I moved to St. Petersburg, there my part time modeling career started and soon enough I was invited to go to Singapore. I had to google it, because I had no idea, where or what exactly it was. The first international trip, I didn’t know it back then but my search for Home turned into real, geographical play. Singapore was great as the first trip, so organized and safe and proper, everybody spoke english and it was easy to get around and one more thing it was in Asia. Finally I wouldn’t stand out.
There is something liberating about blending in and I really did want to just be one of. Then there was Hong Kong and China but the even tho my outsides finally matched, the insides (cultural background, the way of thinking, language) all of it didn’t match at all. Language is one of the biggest things probably, in my mind it is a corner stone for your identity, becoming who you are, understanding those around you… And once I opened my mouth it was quite clear, I didn’t belong once again.
The amount of Chinese tourists I disappointed over the years is amazing… They rush to me in NYC Subway, they look at me hopeful in NY Common Food Pantry (where I at times volunteer) one lady singled me out on a train going from Naples to Florence, here we were in a middle of Italy and she managed to find me, only to be let down, because I had no idea what she wanted or how to help her, I don’t speak Chinese… Believe me, I tried to learn, but failed miserably.
I used to displease taxi drivers in Shanghai. You see in China before Uber showed up it used to be hard to get around, google maps are practically non existent and to get somewhere you were supposed to at least know the cross streets of where you going and you would need to say it in Chinese or at least it was supposed to sound close enough to Chinese so the driver would know where to take you, naturally on one wanted extra hassle and effort, so the drivers would usually just drive past european looking potential passengers. So my friends would put me by the side of the road to hail a cab, while they hide in a back and when the taxi driver would stop he would be unpleasantly surprised - not only there were a bunch of europeans waiting, but the only “Chinese” person won’t speak a world of Chinese … we would always end up getting where we need to go, but the drivers were NOT happy with me. I would catch judgmental looks all the way.
Here I was again, my outsides matched, but it wasn’t enough. One more time I didn’t belong.
Then there was New York, where everything changed, although it didn’t seem like it at first. When I just got to NYC I was walking down the street on my way to meet my new agency, I was passing by some construction site and got an earful from construction workers, if you ever been to NYC you know that they always have something to say, my english was not so good at the time, so I didn’t really understand them, but the word I kept hearing the most was “gorgeous”, I had no idea what it meant, but in all my previous experiences I never been called anything nice, especially passing by on a street, so I immediately assumed that it was a bad word. I thought to myself - Great, not even a day here and I am already getting called names… Then I walked into the agency and was greeted by my bookers “Hello, Girl! Here you are. You are gorgeous “ I stopped short. It couldn’t be, they wouldn’t bring me all the way to New York to insult me in my face, may be it is a good word ? I goggled it later that day to find out what it means exactly. It took me a couple of tries, it is not an easy word to spell :) and well I liked that word.
NYC changed everything for me. It became home, the one I didn’t even know I was looking for. New York brought me absolute freedom. Here I could finally walk down the street without the need to hold my breath every time I pass by big group of people, the was no need to tense up or keep on looking over my shoulder. I could be whatever I wanted to be, no one cared and I loved it. In this great city my outside and my inside finally matched up.
I love this place so much and people who make it what it is. So if you are reading this, it is my appeal to you - be kind. Change good or bad it always starts small and it always starts within. So at this challenging time and in light of recent events, now is the time to recognize that acceptance, humanism, tolerance, kindness it all starts with us, so let’s allow ourselves and each other find a place, where we would belong and be who we are, free.