Expat is not a term I rushed to attach to myself. Perhaps because cosmopolitan or international seem like more inclusive terms that mirror my experience. Throughout my life I have felt that the international influences I encountered have given and enriched, expanding on and even melding with what was already there. Given the particular trajectory of those influences on my personal development, I’ve simply seen the whole process, including travel and moving to Germany, as a progression.
I have not denied or dropped anything relating to my roots, though I did go through a bumpy phase of placing them in the context of the new daily life I was building for myself in a new country.
A move to another city or abroad is normally something you build up to. The decision to do so does not happen overnight. Neither does the practical bit – having enough money for it and then actually relocating. Many consider relocating somewhere else to be such an enormous step (and it is), that in the general perception this enormity seems to be explained by moving with or for a partner. For me, before I even put the idea and then the decision into words, I think it all started with learning a foreign language. I grew up bilingually and then studied German in university.
The tool that ultimately enabled me to pursue living in Germany was also a reason to do so – I had invested a lot of time and effort into learning this language that was spilling out of me, and I wanted to immerse myself in it. I felt like I had done all I could do, for me, where I had grown up, and so I began looking at other opportunities. Because what I also always felt strongly about was not only taking as much as I could from a place, but giving back to it too through being a part of it, and the latter didn’t seem to be happening anymore in my hometown after a certain amount of time.
You arrive in a new place thinking you know who you are, but everything is put to the test. Or maybe you put yourself to the test. After my first few months in Hamburg I realized I had developed a new identity of sorts. And I wasn’t sure I liked it too much. It showed itself on different levels: feeling increasingly uncomfortable about introducing myself and facing confused reactions to my foreign-sounding name, even suggesting a nickname which I shed in the end (with relief, because it just didn’t feel like me); not sharing much about Russian things I liked; worrying about preconceived ideas before I would even talk to someone.
The solution to not losing yourself? Lots of self-reflection and quite a bit of overanalyzing. Plenty of reading various articles and blogs by other expats and travelers. First tentative, then increasingly open and memorable conversations with fellow international students (since I had moved for my studies) and colleagues outside of my immediate circle, who weren’t negative or condescending, but simply finding their footing in this city they had chosen or ended up in due to various circumstances. I kept communicating with people and being active socially, academically, later at work, and it opened up my world, my mind in ways I couldn’t have imagined, but that was precisely what I had wanted when I first started thinking of where to go in the future. Alongside all the aforementioned, the absolutely invaluable component in finding my way was my family.
I realized shyness was not an obstacle, but just a quality, so I started to talk to friends about my favorite Russian cartoons and stories as I would about anything else, with the occasional blushing and laughing. Everyone survived the experience and we still talk. I ask them the same questions they ask me. I stopped worrying about preconceived ideas – it’s not worth the energy. I learned that like-minded people are easier to identify than we think, because you feel it, and it’s not based on nationality.
You can keep all your layers, whether they are personal, national or international. There are no rules to say you have to pick just one. Creating a bubble of your home country abroad, though, is a mistake, because it is isolating. The trick is in the balance. There are plenty of things I like and cherish from the Russian culture, and most of them have to do with how women are treated: not asking her about her age, especially in public, consideration towards a pregnant woman’s privacy. I carry this appreciation with me and I consider the aforementioned to be entirely possible to discover in people because it is not restricted to being Russian, it can be given life through character or an internal decision. The same goes for the German experience, many parts of which mesh comfortably with my own personality – approaching time like a valuable commodity, being punctual, certain established phrases that make up polite communication, planning anything and everything. But again, this can be found just in an individual person too, whether they are German or not.
With respect towards the background I come from, and gratitude to every other place I’ve traveled to that has given me something to return with, I see my adopted hometown as an entity that has been good to me. This international life has continued making me who I am, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.