Another bit of Holland I can see from the window on the train as we approach it is that I feel like an outsider within what ought to be my own culture.
This idea has surfaced before and various ideas have been tried along with accompanying solutions to the discomfort of this.
There are the 2x2s, which are a culture unto themselves
There is the idea that I was being trafficked for sex while other little girls were watching My Little Pony.
There is the reality that I am just a very unusual kind of person with a more different view of many, many things than is average.
Somehow, they all felt sort of flat. They explained things, but not enough.
I have realized since coming here that people decide who they are like based on some very broad strokes. They then go about sharing and imitating based on that sense of “like-me-ness.” Here in Country X, it is probably broader because there are sort of only two kinds of people. Foreigners and Country X-ers. Both groups are friendly with one another. They even like one another, but there is a distinct sense I have sensed from them that they are two different kinds of people. Not just that they are different, but the see one another as different.
Other foreigners, frankly, fuck with my head, and I generally avoid seeing them because I can’t take the confusion they cause me alongside all my other confusions. They look at me as though I am like them and I look at them like they are peculiar, exotic creatures and the result inside me is way more WTF than I can manage.
Country X-ers are easier on me. This is partly because they are supposed to be different from me. The sense of not-like-me is syntonic. We look at one another like familiar, kind exotic creatures and all is well in my head.
But, if it came down to it, Country X-ers feel more like-me than other white, middle-class English speakers from developed countries.
What this has led to, I realize, is no real desire to construct a shared culture with people you expect to be like me based on the broad strokes everyone around me is using. This was the case in Los Angeles and it’s still true here. This has happened because the sense of like-me makes us want to construct a shared culture with others around us—and we almost always are doing this. When others feel not-like-us, we generally can’t be bothered to do that. We learn about them, perhaps, they learn about us. But we don’t come together in any kind of “us.”
It has occurred to me that my attitude comes from how I grew up.
Yes, I spent my days in 2×2 land. I spent long stretches in middle-class, white suburbia. (Albeit a very strange one, but that’s a topic for another post.)
But no particularly cared about me in those environments. I had no strong sense of connection to it. It’s not the place where anyone automatically smiles when they see me, just because it’s me, and they can’t help but be happy that I am there. It is not a place where I am nurtured much beyond meeting basic needs. The people I am closest to are actively destructive and the others are just, well, sort of distantly warm.
It’s one step up from growing up in an institution, and I cannot see why I would have ever had any real sense of belonging.
The place where I felt I belonged was run by the Russian mob. It is a criminal culture. It’s a destructive culture. It is an underclass and an underworld. It’s also strongly Eastern European: Russian and the former republics dominate that world.
I didn’t felt I belonged there because I felt I couldn’t belong anywhere else, although that is part of it. I felt I belonged there because someone stretched out her arms when she saw me and I could run into them as fast as my little legs could carry me and she could be relied upon to gather me up into them.
It didn’t really register to me because Natalya is only one person. You do form a shared life with anyone you are very close to, but two people are not a culture. It started to sink in how formative this was for me only when I began to realize she was everyone. She was grandmother, mother, sister, friend everyone. She was everyone because I had no one else who deeply, genuinely cared about me. I needed her to be everyone, and so she was.
But it’s a world I can never go back to. It still exists in some form, I am sure. I doubt the Vory V Zakone have given up on prostitution as an income. I cannot go back to visit.
It is both too destructive and too dangerous. I cannot go back even as an observer, not even as someone who might, for example, want to write a book about them—and people do that kind of thing. My mental health would fall apart again.
And I could, I know, experience other cultures that are similar or that converge on what I grew up in. I can spend time in an American Russian enclave, but foreign enclaves are as much about being a foreigner within a culture as they are about the home culture. They are different in substantial ways.
I could, it has been suggested, live in Russia for some time. But this seems out of the question. In my mind at least, Russia is much like Pakistan. A place with a wonderful, rich culture. A failed nation. The line between legitimate power and criminal activity is so thin you can’t even see it.
So I cannot even go back to see what it is that made me who I am. I cannot even say to myself, Oh, I do that because of this. As people do later, when they start to see their parents’ little tics start to come through or when they leave their home culture and begin to gain some perspective on it.
I have left where I came from, but I have no perspective on it. I don’t know what it is that continues to live in me. I don’t know what is criminal culture and what is Russian culture. I don’t know what is Russian and what is Natalya’s own little thing. I don’t know these things because I was traumatized in that world and my memory of it is full of gaps and distortions: I think and act the way I do to some extent because of the culture of that world, but my memory is not robust enough to untangle how. I also left when I was 13. I was in it long enough to be influenced by it, but not long enough to start having an adult ability to understand or remember it. And it’s also that I cannot go back. I cannot apply my adult mind to it now.
Because of all of that, Holland involves being someone who came from somewhere, somewhere very specific and very influential, and yet I don’t really know what that place was. I don’t really know how it shaped me or how it has made me who I am.
All I know is that I am from somewhere else.