By Marina Palenyy
I have a hard time writing about teaching in the Bronx. The problem is, my thoughts are constantly self-editing. So much of my time I spend reorganizing my own observations, and debating in my mind what is objective and what is perception and where I overanalyze or underperform or whose perspective I’m utilizing and whose approval I’m seeking to justify my conclusions. What does it all mean?
The problem is, I am at war with myself. I cannot write rightly about working with immigrants (and their neighbors) in the Bronx because I still don’t understand myself as an immigrant. I spent so much time in the comfort of my bubble back in California, where I could enjoy both the benefits of having a sizable Russian-speaking community with their stories and legacies, and in the same breath slip back into the lingo of the midtown hipster, discussing coffee brewing methods with another 1st gen multi-generational home Ukie kid that rides a fixie and reads Bukowski like me, and no one would raise a brow. It’s what we do: we play chess and sip iced coffee and when mom calls, we answer in Russian and everyone smiles big when they hear you.
Both worlds were merging for me so naturally that I never had to bat an eyelash in wonder at being able to claim both of them simultaneously. As a white immigrant, most Americans simply found me charming. Aside from a few bad Russian accents and a couple Russian-mail-order bride jokes, I never had to cringe about my background. Americans didn’t understand where we came from and we didn’t expect them to - it was none of their business why we ate meat jello and had our own sauna in the backyard that my father build with his own two hands (twice), or why we had to compete with other Russian dads about whose sauna was the hottest, or whose salvaged car was most expensive looking.
When I came to the Bronx, I was appalled at myself. What I hadn’t realized was that I did not even know that I was white. I had forgotten that I traded out my cultural currency and by some measure had already become what I spent my whole life imitating. I became white.
I did not know that.
The truth is, most white immigrants are chameleons. Since the moment they step into an American social circle, they could choose to begin to blend in with their environments: their pronunciation alters a little, you can hear their consonants soften, the impact of their tone fluctuating and regulating itself to match the comfort levels in the room; their gestures and facial expressions at first caricature and later smoothly emulate their American counterparts so effortlessly and seamlessly that you begin to proudly collect those compliments that once sounded so sweet and seductive to my own ears: “Your English is so good”, “I didn’t realize you weren’t born here”, “You speak better English than even me, haha” etc. Those words used to mean the world to me. I wanted nothing more than to be white, but I didn’t know that.
The thing is, for many Russian-Americans, this dream could very well become a reality: becoming a doctor? Just work harder than the next guy; work like your father did when he had to get the visa papers, work like your mother’s hands kneading the dough, remember her varicose veins rightfully earned after a lifetime of field labor. Work and see what can come out of that toil. You want to own a business one day? Bust your a** and you’ll get there, no quitting allowed. PhD in Comparative Literature? Not as lucrative (disappointing) but at least you get your parents bragging rights.. it’s the least you can do.
Many of my Russian brothers and sisters can scoff at a mere teacher, though women are more likely to be encouraged to enter the field because it provides training for later raising of children. My own brother for many years has compared our salaries, boasting that he could earn the same wages as me while working for the government at a 9-5, while watching Netflix for hours with his feet on his desk, taking an hour lunch break while stashing $$ away for an early retirement. He was cruising through life and getting his salvaged Lexus — White Immigrant Life Hack 101. According to Russian immigrants, it’s a no brainer. I was a fool for exerting more energy than I was getting paid for. My brother knew — you can’t cure idealism in an uncompromising schmuck, so he conceded to further ridiculing my terrible life choices, successfully ingraining within me a life’s worth of self-doubt and internalized skepticism which would later both cripple and evolve me through hours of painful introspection. Straight out of a Dostoyevsky novel.
But Ivan was not wrong. Teaching was never going to make me a model immigrant. All it ever did for me was expose me to even more injustice that this nation never needed to concern me with, because as a white immigrant, I could be a chameleon. I could still get my dream, the dream that my parents sacrificed so much for me to reap: whatever my hard work + education would add up to. All I had to do was keep my head down and and stay white and all would go according to plan.
Originally I got my romanticism from my father: that’s what you get when you read literature to your children before bed, friends — you ruin their lives and make them study humanities in college. I had so much curiosity and natural hunger for intellectualism, my teachers never had enough extra credit to keep me satisfied. I remember reading short stories in my textbook during English class just to keep myself entertained. Now that we have internet on our palms, I can google them, all the good guys: Chekhov, Tolstoy, you know for nostalgia’s sake, then later Salinger, Hemingway, Plath, short stories about war, short stories about love, poems about loss, about coming of age. etc. etc. etc. I wanted and needed even to know about everything. I remember the envy I felt for Solomon who got to request wisdom straight from the hand of God, but later paid for it by having to carry this burden for the rest of his days. Now I can see maybe I would have asked for another gift..
My dad, the hopeless romantic, was proud of me to tears. His English teachers in adult school were so kind to him, a “lowly halfwit.” I loved my dad with all my heart and more, but I knew he ruined my life when he infested my heart with the love of stories, with indulging me in the hunger to know just why. I have an addictive personality, so I knew books were a life-long commitment and the sentences in them would crawl their way into my thoughts where I would turn them around and around inside my head and ask and ask and ask… what does it all mean?
As a kid in Ukraine, I knew what a country waking up from coma looks like. At least on the small scale of our little town that was still too shell-shocked to speak its own language, after 60+ years of Soviet oppression. My 1st grade class was the first in decades to study in the mother tongue, but outside those walls people still walked around in stupor, placing their emphasis on all the wrong vowels like a patient whose memory is just barely coming back.
Forgetting Ukrainian was the first skin that I shed as a white immigrant.
Very unlike my dad’s tearful celebration, my mother’s concern is to marry us off. Predictably, intellectualism doesn’t go too far in this undertaking, but that woman’s work ethic does not let up. Every year on my birthday I disappoint her, adding a little more desperation to the sound of her prayers to God for the fulfillment of my soul by the addition of the lost blessed half. My mother doesn’t know that when I read the Greek myths about creation of man, and god scattering halves around the world to come and find each other, that I turn that same sentence over in my mind. . . what does it all mean?
When I came to the Bronx, I didn’t know I was going to be surrounded by so many other immigrants. I didn’t even know it was possible that we had such wealth of representation in such tight quarters. We had Jamaicans, Dominicans, Ghananians, Nigerians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Senegalese, Haitians, and more. We had teachers from all over but many were white. So when I came to the Bronx to teach English, I learned that I too without a doubt was white. Without disrespecting my own roots and my birth certificate and my mother tongue, I was forced to honestly admit that I had been enjoying every privilege known to white women, that I could put on the persona at any time it would be convenient for me, just to switch it up at the next turn, take it off like a robe when I come home. I can acknowledge or deny the binary nature of my identity. As a white immigrant, I really can be whoever I want whenever I want. I can morph into the company I keep when it suits me, and I can just as easily drop the pretense when the shame or association with whiteness becomes too inconvenient. The problem is, like Baldwin says, “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” And what life did I lead? And what life would I lead?
I am the most privileged immigrant because I have the option to enjoy aloofness and detach myself from other minorities, distance myself from my own countrymen, I can withdraw myself from painful pasts, mine or theirs. I can live quietly and make no noise and continue to patiently prosper without the blame of the white man. I can let other people fight their wars and participate not at all, because only a fool takes up arms against someone else’s enemy. This is how European immigrants shed their skin and become white.