What Immigration Is and Isn’t (An Immigrant Story)

by Timothy Messen


Two people sit at a table, a small table barely large enough to seat three people but it’s already crowded enough with two people and their dinner plates, empty and half empty beer mugs, in the smoking section of a strangely hip Russian restaurant-bar styled after some шестидесятник apartment (strangely hip – strange because most of my Russian places revolve around the JCC[1] and Russian General Store of suburban Houston, profoundly anti-hip in the most petty bourgeois of ways – but also not expensive enough to be a gastropub) in the Eastern quarters of Berlin’s Kreuzberg, a couple of hours after an anti-TTIP demonstration just across the river Spree on the former GDR side. My friend gingerly stubs out her cigarette, looks up at me and smiles softly, anticipating the delivery of yet another half-baked contorted speech act in response to a question I can already predict, because it belongs to the leftist meet and greet protocol. She leans back.

“Na…?” she hums gently, just barely loud enough to be heard over the din/clang/chatter typical of such establishments, heavy on drink and light on food.

V: “When did you become a leftist? Most Americans that I know don’t associate with the Left I don’t know many Russians personally, but the Russians here in Germany wouldn’t dare associate with the Left… Boah, I know you’re neither an ordinary American, nor an ordinary Russian, whatever das sein soll but still… why the left? When? No one is born a leftist… Personne est né gauchiste, on devient gauchiste.

T: I think it was in middle school; oh, please bear with me, I can tell my response won’t be straightforward. As contaminated as my sense of the authenticity of affect is, for better or for worse, by my postmodern ironic stance and its own snobbist sensibility, I will still try tell my story in the cliché format of a conversion story, a birth, rather re-birth story, how I was born again to see through and past neoliberalism, how I came to accept the Left as my savior, but not lord, how I came to find that collective salvation comes from individual salvation if I may try to reconcile Tolstoi with Marx. Every good story must be a conversion story. I just made that up, but why not?

Middle school, that’s when I first realized that I could consciously choose to reject America, that rather than attempting to conform, there was much more satisfaction in criticizing, in voluntarily staking out the position of outsider, even if it was often more contrived than trying to fit in. Boah, some of this, no, well what I mean by rejecting America is rejecting the me that America could have made me, collectivity rejected in favor of another subjectivity, leading to another alternative collective? … most of this can’t be untangled from my elementary school years of switching from one school to another (because we moved a lot), playing social catchup with the cool kids, however kids become cool at the tender age of 7, 8, or 9. Hmh – now I’ve strayed again, digging deeper and thoroughly digging past the middle school years and I’ll have to be careful not to end up giving you vague dreamlike notions of my past, whose fictive nature (I mean the retrospective teleological narrative I’ll inevitably impose on them) I cannot begin to fully disentangle from what actually happened. Life and literature in the shadow of Proust and Tolstoi. Back to middle school. Or no, let’s leave it entirely, or almost entirely. What’s important is that I had a French friend, born in France, but raised in the US, an Indian friend, born in India, raised in the US, an Iranian friend, born in the US and raised in the US, an Italian friend – you see the picture? 7th graders who lived immigration at the most one generation removed and who toggled back and forth between home and school, between French/Bengali/Persian/Italian and in my case Russian and then American-English. Rather than assimilation, there was another kind of solidarity on tap.

V: What kind of solidarity then?

T: The solidarity of alterity, of différance, of speaking one or two or three languages but none of them being mine, haha! Je parle toutes (ou presque toutes) les langues, or aucune n’est la mienne. Okay, no, aber ernst. I shouldn’t wash myself clean of my sins, before confessing them. I was and am anti-American, and that was probably the beginning of being left, simply resenting the aesthetics of America, the malls and fashions and musical tastes of my peers. That was my beginning as a leftist. I hated or rather at least looked down on the mainstream culture, along with all of my friends, and along came Obama, yes it was 2007-2008 and I became “political”. So I became politicized and my tastes had a more profound meaning than just being a nerd or not liking Lady Gaga’s music or whoever it was that was dominating the Top 40 back then. It was first an aesthetic rejection of America – refusal to listen to its pop music. For example, I remember me and my friends would go to these middle school dances and then segregate ourselves, we would choose to mill about on the sides, literally on the fringes, mocking the lyrics, the dance moves. We felt alienated, but rather than attempting to reconcile the alienation we chose to exploit it – in some ways this was the easiest path to take – “and I’m proud to be alienated, because at least I know I’m free”. It allowed us to not have to agonize over learning the rituals of America and of our peers, instead we could form our own rituals, exploit the liminal and make it central for ourselves, make our own liminal position a central one. Maybe Obama’s biography (not that I ever read his memoirs, what Dreams from my Father and Audacity of Hope?, I mean the actual events of his life) made it particularly convenient for us, what do I know about my middle school friends anymore, for me to plant roots in the left, as weak as the Democratic Party is as a left institution… still it was left compared to George Bush, a laughingstock, 100% purebred American good old boy… verstehst du, was ich meine?

V: hmm… ojeh… and your parents, what did they think of this? You told me once, they became citizens and they vote mostly for the Democrats? Tim, you know der Mensch ist ein widerspruchliches Wesen, but you are aware of the irony? The son of immigrants…  give me the dates – just background – as a reminder.

T: Immigrated in 1992. I was born in 1996. They became citizens in 2006. So they voted first in 2008. Other dates? More background?

V: Das reicht erstmal. At home you always spoke Russian…

T: Ach so! Wait… I left out some things in this story. Namely, I didn’t always want to speak Russian. The switch between rejecting Russian and embracing it happened around the time of middle school, honestly I should give more credit to this French kid. You know, how the French make it cool to disdain? This kid made it cool to disdain America, and I said to myself, “Hey, that’s a lot easier for me to do” or at the very least more exciting, perhaps more authentic even, than trying to erase Russian. No, not more authentic, see authenticity is still attractive, but no to speak of authenticity misrepresents, because maybe I was only trying to emulate a new kind of cool. In any case, I said this to myself because up to then, especially when we still lived in Baton Rouge – ah yes, you didn’t ask but this is important, I was born in Baton Rouge in Louisiana and we moved to Houston when I was 8 and a half and only after that move did I learn to write and to read Russian because I started going to a weekend Russian school. But up to I couldn’t read much Russian and wanted more than anything to just be American.

V: So you learned the grammar much later than you learned to speak? Although who doesn’t learn grammar of their “Muttersprache” much later than when they begin to speak… or who ever even fully learns that grammar? But still you consider that Russian is an equal language to you as English? And what’s this French kid? I’ve got an idea, but talk more.

T: Sure. At least ideologically so. Ideologically, because the written language isn’t any better or more important, because you can speak a language without knowing how to write it. You know, I bet there were people in my family about 100 years ago that didn’t know how to write Russian and they were probably older than 8 when they became literate, if ever! Do I think starting Russian grammar a little bit later hurt me? Possibly, probably in some sense of being hurt, when some form of illiteracy is wounding when you live in a mostly literate society, mostly to my own sense of my inadequate Russian-ness today, of not being Russian enough… I wish constantly that I could speak Russian and write it better than I do but basically I’m fluent. And I wish I could speak and write and read English better than I actually do, I wish I knew American English idioms better than it’s possible to learn in a classroom… My grandmother accuses me of not loving Russia enough, of not being Russian enough, and to her I’ll never succeed in proving it, but indirectly I can respond to her accusations in pushing back against America, indirectly I can compensate by defining myself as a Russian-speaker, even when I know this self-definition is maybe a stretch.

English is all around me, with Russian I have to go out of my way to find a living Russian language. A language that’s not my home language, literally tongue of the home, the hearth, I had a prof at Dartmouth once talk about how he calls heritage speakers’ German “kitchen German”… maybe I’m a kitchen Russian speaker. I most certainly am.

And that’s the funny thing about my “immigrant story”. You see, I’m NOT an immigrant. I’m… a kitchen Russian, just as Russian as this “Russian” bar in Kreuzberg. And being a kitchen whatever entails a different kind of immigration, if it’s still possible to think of it as immigration. The day-to-day logistics of immigration looks like clocking-in to English-speaking America and clocking-out to the Russian-speaking confines of home. Except for the border crossing into America, where no one checks my documents, where I’m the only one who questions my legitimacy and makes sure (it’s a tick of mine, I always notice how long it takes before my Russianness comes up, probably because I’m insecure and need external validation, because I can’t speak to my grandmother in a way she would understand, because I say to others I am Russian and really address my grandmother to tell her I haven’t forgotten the родина, only that I have an ambivalent relationship to it) to say something along the lines of “Oh really? I wouldn’t know, see at home we speak Russian and do some Russian things, so the American domestic sphere is really a foreign one for me”. So then they, my interlocutors, ask questions to which I have no readily acceptable answers; “What’s your first language?” being archetypal of such questions. Does it matter if my toddler gibberish was Russian-accented? What if I spoke (speak?) Russian with English calques?

But I’m not an immigrant, I’m a bona fide American, blue passport schnell schnell through customs. Bona fide, whatever that’s supposed to be, was auch immer das sein soll… My parents, on the other hand, are (were?) immigrants, going through the permanent resident/green card hoops until 2006, when they joined me as owners of that navy blue passport (or does the passport own us?).

Hey! what if the US went full American and let people choose the color of their passport, kind of like customized license plates, but instead you could customize the exterior of your passport? Maybe I’d get a maroon-burgundy Russian one but with an American interior. I’d pay good money for that, for the chance to reject both America and Russia. I, unlike my parents, got a US passport simply because I was born there, specifically in the Baton Rouge Women’s Hospital. And that makes me American, when an American can be most at home in a Russian-speaking archipelago in the US, when America can be thought in terms of a negative image that never gets projected on to the big screen, whatever doesn’t make the cut in Hollywood.

V: Wart, hold on, hold off with the flowery metaphors… must you think of immigration so literally? Can’t immigration also be thought in terms of arrival, encounter with and integration of the foreign? I mean not literal arrival on shore, getting off the boat or plane or train, because that happens only once, but rather the eternal arrival, the hermeneutics of eternal return and arrival? And for your parents, even with their American citizenship, as well as for you, even with your natural-born American citizenship, die wesentliche Frage isn’t about the singular event, but rather about the cyclical? It’s not about “between two worlds” or “zwischen zwei Stühle”, but rather being in at least two worlds and re-entering them and dialoguing between them. Immigration is a hermeneutics, verstehste?

T: Re-entering and dialoguing, of course… klar, yep yep yep. And that’s why it’s gotta be a question of language for me, it’s the decisive factor in how and why my “story” gets tangled up with immigrations. Language, because it’s an expression of these Aus- und Eingangspunkte (back and forth back and forth!) much more so than of any ontology. It’s a question of performance, of action, how do I want to be is decided by how I do, and most of what I do is say, speak, make sounds with my mouth… but which sounds! because the border between kitchen Russian and worldly English is permeable, fully permeable, and this subjectivity goes back and forth between languages and so there goes any kind of possible “authentic Self” and whether I’m implicated in immigration or not…

Silence. Well not entirely so. But we are silent, the two of us. The waitress comes up to our table, and as promised to V. I order in Russian in this time, two draught beers, she takes the order and in her “шесть евро семьдесят…» I hear something not quite Russian? She probably picks up on the same when I hand the seven euros over, «сдачи не надо, спасибо».

Having survived the light panic attack that goes with such seemingly normal interactions in Russian, I slurp the bitter foam (before it disappears) from the top and pick up from a point adjacent to where I left off.

T: And German, and French belong to none of those domains, those domains where authenticity, identity, Self, choose your weapon, whatever you call it, those domains where the “real me” is in play are not in play when it’s neither English nor Russian. They’re languages (and the societies where these languages get spoken) are my chosen languages, they’re almost truer to this authentic me, because I acted consciously when I chose to learn them. I choose to enter the dialogue with French and German, whereas English and Russian address me, while really dialoguing with one another through or even past me. I feel used, I’m a stage, worse a stage prop, when I’d rather be asking the questions… I’m less fluent in French and German than English, but in a different way also much more fluent in those languages because I haven’t got the expectation or the illusion that I’m a natural born bearer of a perfect language. It’s a psychological fluency despite the frequent grammar errors. I address the language freely, address myself and my interlocutor more freely, because in those languages the ambiguity of my thoughts and the reality surrounding me is necessarily apparent. It’s liberating to make mistakes at almost no cost. If I mess up while speaking or writing Russian, I receive to my own notion of Russian-ness, and once you start losing points there’s no way to crawl your way back, that shit don’t ever come off your transcript, there’s no way grandma will grant me the possibility of metamorphosing into a good Russian, because I’m already irredeemably fallen… American, der Feind. And perhaps I’m overly attached to these ideas and projecting a little too much on my sweet old Бабушка. I definitely am. But the imperative to prove my Russian-sein, my Russian-ness remains, because even complicated ambiguous states require articulation. I am Russian and I am not. Being American opens up being to being Russian, whereas being Russian excludes any other form of being. I hear Не забывай родину” from more-Russian Russians than me and in this refrain I hear “you can’t really be American”, but I know I can’t really be Russian and I, at the end of the day, wouldn’t actually want to arrive at a stable self-definition to the exclusion of my English language and American childhood, youth, life.

American is a political descriptor, it’s the blue passport, which one either has or doesn’t have. The whole mass media and culture is more global than American at this point. Hollywood is globalized, coca cola is globalized, blue jeans and so on and so on, whereas Russian is a nationality, it’s a culture it’s a language that tries to play by these old school, old world rules, it’s an imagined ethnic community, it’s an orthodox imagined community with all of the implications of orthodoxy, from religion to emphasis on homogeneity. Deviation is grounds for exclusion, because it’s treason to the founding principle of this community. And… uh… I’m deviant!?!

Aber… was ich sagen wollte. Du hast total recht, immigration isn’t a single voyage. We keep on arriving in this country, rather that country, the USA, even those of us born here… ah, there, because we keep arriving in its language its culture. And its languages and cultures rather, which are and aren’t ours, force me to imagine arriving in the culture and language of my parents, which is and isn’t mine. My boat just don’t know if it’s being ceaselessly borne back into the past, which isn’t even past, or the future, which even more so isn’t past, but more importantly into an inaccessible future, this future time by which I will have become more Russian, when not simply completely Russian. And so… it’s an immigration story I have to tell you, because that way, the Russian way, is visible as a fiction, but just out of reach. And for that realization I have immigration to thank.

V: Du, Tim, I’ll get the next round, but in exchange please promise you’ll cut down on the melodrama!

 

Note

[1] Jewish Community Center

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