…but really, how to talk to foreign-born Americans in general.
Like a very large chunk of Eastern European immigrants in the United States, and in New York City in particular, I moved here with my family in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Iron Curtain was lifted, finally allowing us to escape. I was just a kid and my “formative years” are split with a solid emphasis on the American side.
However, while I identify as a New Yorker first and foremost, having grown up and lived here for 20+ years, my developmentally-challenged vocal cords betray an unmistakable trace of a foreign accent, and my fair complexion and facial features read as some sort of European and sometimes as Middle Eastern, depending on what make-up I’m wearing and what color I’ve decided to dye my hair that month.
This puts me, and countless others Hyphenated-Americans with whom I’ve traded “growing up immigrant” war stories over the years into a kind of cultural orphanage – we’re children of neither the Old World nor the New, not really belonging to the immigrant community, and generally ostracized by it and our families for being “too Americanized” and having all the wrong values and belief systems. And yet we’re always being forcibly distanced from and reminded of our “foreignness” by those having so many of the same early life experiences as us simply because we weren’t born here like they were.
Internally, we are Westerners – we think and speak in English, and share a common cultural history with the natives, having grown up listening to, watching, reading, loving, and being influenced by the same American media. Most of our friends are American or fellow early-childhood immigrants who identify as American. We date, fall in love, and marry almost exclusively outside our birth culture. All those nice feelings of belonging in the United States, however, end swiftly upon meeting someone new in a bar or at a party. It all starts innocently enough:
— Where are you from?
— No, but where are you REALLY from?