Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Russian Tattoo by Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova's A Mountain of Crumbs was a riveting memoir (given to me by a dear friend who knows and shares my obsession for all things Russia), but this next installment is much more interesting.  In the USSR, teaching and living in communal housing, she meets an American man (there studying) who somehow, randomly, decides to offer to marry her so she can immigrate to the US. The randomness of it is strange, as there doesn't appear to be much in the way of romance.  It's not that she's a bad catch, he was clearly lucky to get her. But his attitude was that this was his "good deed for the day", and while they did get a bit acquainted there, it was clear this was not in his eyes a real marriage. His loss, but her gain: he's kind of a jerk.

Brought to the US, she is immediately confused.  Particularly by him, who has a steady girlfriend and job but seems oblivious (especially in that he saw the USSR and how she had lived) to her settling in a new country. Nothing is the same.  And he takes for granted that she will simply learn as she goes.  He even hassles her a bit about not fitting in or trying hard enough.

It's not so much the big cultural issues or that she's not smart: she's fiercely intelligent and he's actually pretty dumb.  But it's the little things: ordering at a restaurant, buying shoes (what size?), and paying with cash that confuses her and makes him think she's  not trying hard enough.  She gets a job in a steakhouse which is a world's difference from what she was used to: the endless side dish options and salad dressing choices (!!) all confuse her but she manages to make sense of it after time.

In the meantime, he's moved her back into his mom's house and basically cut her off.  Fortunately, his mother is kind and patient, but slow to understand the depth of cultural dissonance Elena is experiencing.  Nevermind that she misses her family too, and they can't possibly conceive of how unsteady her new existence has become.  How do you tell loved ones who have to share a kitchen with stinky neighbors that you can't understand the idea behind endless beverage refills?  

From there it takes off into how her new life blooms when she realizes she only has herself as a resource and she has to move forward, at the same time missing her family.  Inspiring, especially when you think you have a rough life.  I think it was the little details that were the most touching to me, as she genuinely has no one to rely on who can understand her exact predicament.  It's cliche to say she's stuck between two worlds but she truly was.

I can't wait to read her next memoir!

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