Sunday, November 30, 2014

Foreignness

Xykademiqz wrote another wonderful and provocative post about how she hates when people ask her about where she is from. She finds it annoying; she suspects that people are trying to categorize her, and also hint that she doesn't really belong. All I can do is disagree again. It is my personal disagreement; I don't even pretend that it can be generalized, but my story (or my perception of it) seems to be different.

I strongly dislike Vladimir Putin as a person and as a politician, but I can't deny that his reign had certain positive influence on my life. He gave me a universal topic for small talk. Or big talk, if you have time and nerves for it!

Unlike Xykademiqz I can't talk about sports. I just don't know how they work; I tried, sincerely tried to understand the rules of American Football, but they elude me. All I can see when I look at this game, or even as much as think about it, is one constant never-ending concussion, dying neural cells and microglia activation, sprinkled with beefy machismo and gender stereotyping. I just can't stand it. I wish I could, but it doesn't work. Baseball is better, but I still don't know the rules. At least baseball has something to do with the evolution of humans; this fact puts me somewhat at peace with the existence of this game; but still I can't reasonably talk about it.

What else can one talk about? Weather is boring. We don't have a TV at home, and we don't go to movies, except maybe kids movies. Politics is largely off limits as a conversation topic in the States, and so is religion, which is really a shame, as at least these topics are interesting. What is left?

Xykademiqz says that she'd rather talk about work. Well, I tried, and got some very mixed results. I am a neuroscientist, and neuroscience sounds like an interesting thing: everybody can relate to it. About half of my conversants would typically share a story of their beloved one having a stroke, and ask for my advice, because they mistake me for a doctor. Another half would ask me about meditation, as apparently neuroscience of meditation was featured in quite a few NYT articles in last year or two. Both topics predictably baffle me; I'd like to say something meaningful, but I can't, as I don't know anything about either stroke or meditation. Maybe I'm just really bad at small talk (which is, by the way, most likely true).

Compared to all these options, discussing where I am from is a golden mine! An open vein with nuggets of pure gold lying right on the surface. From Putin we can move to the definition of democracy, or to politics of homosexuality, or the perils of propaganda - all the time staying safely away from local US politics; all on virtual Russian soil! And if you prefer weather to politics, well, Russia is perceived as a cold country (even though Moscow is actually not colder than Minneapolis; zoom out to see the plots). Another great entry point for all kinds of entertaining conversations.

Maybe in a few years this won't work that well anymore. Maybe in 20 years it will become annoying. Yet for now, I almost love when people ask me where I am from. (To be honest, I usually inform them first, because I don't want them to suffer and ponder hesitantly whether they could possibly ask me or not). Yep, I'm from there. No, we lived in boring Moscow, nothing special - I appreciate that you know that Russia is big, but unfortunately I can't claim being from some exotic part of it. But you know what? I'd really like to know what you think about recent events in Russia, as the perception of my former country is genuinely interesting to me. And if you can tell me about your origins, be it a small town in the States, or a small country in Europe, - even better! That's one of the most fascinating topics for a small discussion!

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