Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Thick Skin

For all of those who want to fit into a new culture, my advice is: grow a thick skin. If you land in New York, grow a rind.

New York is a great city, but it’s a tough city, too. It is also a city of immigrants and impatient Gothamists who often don’t have the time to listen to yet another foreigner’s accent.

My biggest problem during the first six months in New York was isolation. Back in Russia, where my dissident parents had a bad, but vast and famous reputation, our phone never stayed quiet for long. Someone always called, someone always rang the bell. We seemed to have been connected to every iconoclast in the country, and there had been plenty of those. In New York, our phone sat silent for days. It was friendship and human interaction that I missed the most. I felt like a tree that had been pulled out of its soil and stuck into a rocky ground forgotten by the sun and the rain. Yet, I was determined to grow my roots anew. Slowly but surely, as I met new people and made friends, that unnatural void began to close.

The other problem – a much harder challenge to meet – was language. I got off the Boeing with a somewhat improved high school version of British English with an injection of a three-week crash course in American lingo. The articles, tenses, and verbs were still in a chaotic mess inside my head, and my ear was as deaf to the Brooklyn slang as it would be to Latin. The loss of tongue instantly transformed me from a well-read intellectual with a caustic sense of humor into a wordless creature with a depressed look and desperate eyes. Desperate for an intelligent conversation, for a joke, and for brain food. Depressed because I felt I would never master chit-chat in this new language, let alone writing a beautiful sentence.

During the first six months, I studied my new life in silence. I only opened my mouth to ask for directions when I was hopefully lost, and to tell a pizza guy what slice of dough and cheese I was buying today. I knew it wasn’t the best way to learn a new language, but this was my culture shock. I was ashamed of being a dumb immigrant.

A helpful family committee took part in picking out my new occupation. Computers were hot, IT jobs were plenty, and they didn’t require an extensive vocabulary. “You don’t need to talk to anybody,” a relative said. “You sit in an office and write programs all day. It’s a perfect job.” Three years later, with a diploma in Computer Science mocking me from above, I was perched at a massive mahogany desk inside a Wall Street skyscraper, writing code instead of words, gnawed by a depressing feeling that life was passing me by. I wanted my tongue back and I wanted to write stories.

By that time, my English lexicon had grown and I started to question the disheartening postulate that people don’t become bilingual after fifteen. I began taking writing classes and workshops, going to literary events and putting together critique groups. At work, I switched from writing computer code to writing technical documentation. After reading a book, I wrote down and memorized every word in it I hadn’t previously known. I loved theater so I became a regular at the off-Broadway plays, listening and learning how playwrights expressed their characters’ complex emotions in the language I was determined to master. I hired professional editors who taught me to break my long, whirlwind Tolstoy-like sentences into the precise, razor-sharp modern English. It took time, more explicitly, years, but my perseverance paid off and I began to see my work in print.

A few years ago, during a trip to Brighton Beach, the famous Russian enclave of New York City, I suddenly realized my expatriates stopped speaking Russian to me. They no longer recognized me as their own. I was surprised, but not upset. I figured I have completed my journey into my new culture. Snapping back into my old one was one sentence, one joke and one wisecrack away.


  1. Wow, how similar are our lives, albeit being from different countries? You moved here at 15?? I did too! I also came with high school british English that I knew how to read/write but not speak well. It was a trying time at first, but I got through it by watching sitcoms and practicing with my cousin. As for writing well, I am still working on it. :)

  2. Lina, I was already amazed by your ability to write so well in your second language, but your story is even more astonishing. Clearly it's the writer in you, with that need to express herself in English, that gave you the grit and determination to master the nuances of the language. It's a rare ability.

  3. An absolutely amazing story, Lina. I think Heidi hit it on the head - the writer in you had to come out, regardless of the language. What determination you've shown. A very inspiring and fascinating story. Imagine what will be in store for you over the next few years!