Monday, August 04, 2008

Where I'm Writing From

A post-trip reflection:

I often feel like an imposter when I write about all things Russian on this blog. Sure, I’m from Russia and I speak Russian, but consider: I left that country when I was nine; I don’t really follow Russian news or politics; my Russian is riddled with English words, phrases and slang; I have a lot of trouble writing in Russian (I can read it, but much slower than English); and, as a coupe de grace, I really don’t know much about Russian cooking. Reader, I’ve been leading you astray.

Yes, you can read about borsch and blini on the blog, but I don’t cook them very often. I don’t know how to make vareneki or kulibiyaka or kulich or even everyday fried potatoes and kotleti. Truth be told, I’m not really interested in cooking or eating these foods. Too high carb, too greasy, too much work.

I’ve built a chunk of my identity on being “Russian.” I’ve written dozens of school and college essays on my “multicultural” identity. Teachers and admission counselors are suckers for that sort of thing, you know. I’ve based my blogging projects on Russian themes, a good niche opportunity. I don’t know of any other English-language, Russian-themed cooking blogs (although the Russian-born writers of Beyond Salmon and Sassy Radish feature the occasional recipe).

When my train rolled into St. Petersburg this past July, I felt jittery with excitement and anxiety, like a baffled tourist in a foreign land—-which is exactly what I was. Should I take the bus or the tram? Which one? Where do I buy the tickets? How do I validate them? Where’s the Hermitage? How much is 100 rubles in dollars? (Not much.) Within four days, I was told that I don’t have the fortitude for life in Russia, that I wouldn’t be able to re-adjust if I moved back (I won’t) and even that I have an American accent (a stinging and untrue accusation--I may speak ungrammatically at times, but I don’t have an accent).

So I may be from Russia , but I’m not really “Russian.” I certainly wouldn’t be considered Russian had I stayed in Russia , not with a Jewish father and a Tatar mother. I’m not really Jewish, either—neither my parents nor distant relatives in Israel could muster much enthusiasm for our possible move to that country, and I’m on a vague, mostly disinterested periphery of Jewish life here. My mother’s Tatar background is a mystery.

Neither am I 100 percent American—I speak Russian at home. I like beets and herring. I grew up on Marshak, not Dr. Suess. I tell people that I’m from Milwaukee , but I’ve also spent stretches Madison , Wis. , and in Ohio . I’ve attended nine different schools before I graduated from high school. I’m from everywhere and nowhere.

I know there’s a hint of self-pity in what I’m writing, but I’m mostly ok with being a cultural and ethnic mutt. I don’t have much use for introspection and identity politics. It’s just that every once in a while, like when looking over old family photos or talking with people whose relatives aren’t scattered throughout three continents, it makes me a little sad.


Diana said...

My dear you are not an imposter! If it weren't for you I'd have never known about Spartak and the other Russian stores in Milwaukee. You helped me find my poor homesick husband find some reminders of home. You are a Russian you just happen to live in the United States. I am only "Russian by marriage" and have had to adapt to a totally different culture and cuisine.:) My husband will have lived here 3 years this November and when we went back to see his family last March he felt like you did as well. It's a totally different world compared to Wisconsin. . We are attempting to raise our children in a mix of both cultures. It isn't easy since my Russian is very poor yet and my 2 year old daughter understands more Russian than I do plus my husband is disappointed that she speaks more English than Russian right now.:)
I do recommend you learn to make vareniky. My husband and I love making the potato mushroom kind. It's a lot of work but they beat the frozen ones any day!
I guess what I am trying to say is be proud of who you are.

emma said...

i discovered your blog a few months ago when i was looking for a recipe for tvorog, and i've been keeping up with it sporadically ever since. never made a comment before, but i found this post - i don't know, poignant, i think. i have a similar background so i understand how you feel and i empathize.
and also, thanks for all the yummy russian recipes! you've inspired me to make tvorog, eat more beets, pickles and smoked fish, and think back to russia with more fondness and nostalgia than i had for a long time.

Yulinka said...

Diana--I'm glad my blog is useful. :) I'm not really Russian anymore, but I'm not quite American, either. I don't dwell on this much, and most of the time I actually enjoy it. Anyway, once you leave a country or culture, you can't really go back. It'll never be the same. I may give vareniki a try this winter. Do you know of a good recipe?

Emma--Thanks for taking the time to write. Comments like yours (and Diana's) make my day. I don't really feel nostalgia for Russia, and I'm not quite fond of it--mostly I have a tourist's or a hobbyist's curiosity. But I do love my beets and herring and pickles.

Ann said...

You're who YOU are, and that is unique and authentic. And I love your blog. So there.

irina said...

Hi Yulinka,

I just had to comment on this post. I used your Russian-Korean carrot salad recipe a few months ago with great success (it was the only one I could find with onion, and I would put onion in my coffee if I could), and just re-found it through google as I wanted to make the salad for a party.

This post really struck a chord with me. I'm Romanian, but left when I was six, spent two years in Israel, and grew up in Canada, and I know that feeling of being "in between." Romanian is my mother tongue, but I speak it with an accent, which is a pretty strange feeling. I haven't had my own kitchen for very long, but I realised the other day that I can make more Indian dishes than Romanian ones! It seems very wrong, but the Romanian ones are time-consuming, usually heavier, and even my family doesn't make them anymore.

Anyway, I've been toying with the idea of working my way through one of the main Romanian cookbooks, and your blog is inspiring me to do it. Some of the foods are the same too -- we make the same kinds of crepes (we call them clatite), and my grandmother always knows to make an unholy number at once, because even as a finicky child, I would eat six at one sitting!

Yulinka said...

Hi Irina--Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm glad you're starting a blog--I liked reading your first couple of posts, and will be checking back! I know what you mean about crepes--they're one of the few things I would happily eat as a child (my grandmother made them, too).

adele said...

You're a third culture kid. Welcome to the club; there's lots of us.

Anonymous said...

Hello Yulinka!

I understand somewhat where you're coming from. My father was a Russian Jew (last name Lyubinsky). My mother is Native American / Scottish. They had to put me up for adoption. That was in 1967. I started cooking and eating Russian food and reading about Russia many years ago, I don't know why. When I found my birth parents, I learned that some things must sleep in your soul, so to speak. Because up until then, I didn't know my father was a Russian Jew!

Anyway, I like your blog a lot. I'll be reading it from now on.


Yulinka said...

Adele--Third-culture kid... Hm. I will keep that in mind.

Hi Kevan--Thanks for taking the time to comment. Hope you find the Russian recipes you were looking for here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Yulinka,

Thanks for the welcome. You should see the wonderful wild mushroom harvest my wife and I are pulling in this year! Borovik, maslayata, and I'm not sure if they have this one in Russia so I'll use the English name: Lobster mushrooms. We may need to buy a second dehydrator soon! Where I work is next to the forest, so I go on my lunch breaks and pick more. On the weekends, we pick in different areas of the forest. I haven't seen anyone else out picking them, though there is a guy here selling some.


Anonymous said...

I've found your blog looking for a recipe for tvorog, but I was looking through the archives and found this post. I also left sankt petersburg when I was very young and am in your exact situation--not american but not exactly Russian either. I'm sure you've left this sentiment behind with this post but I just wanted to say that it's great to hear that someone else feels he same way.

Yulinka said...

Hi Anon-Thanks for taking the time to comment. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

Mariya said...


I find your blog fascinating. I happened upon it by accident (it popped up on Google when I was looking for a Russian pharmacy in Milwaukee, believe it or not). I can't cook at all, so the recipes aren't what attracted me. Instead, it was the the poignancy of your self-descriptions and descriptions of your experience. (I'm thinking, in particular, of the post on feeling like a stranger on a recent trip to Russia.) My family and I left St. Petersburg in 1989, when I was 10 years old. I haven't been back to Russia since, but my heart started beating faster as I was reading about your not knowing how to purchase a bus ticket in Russia, feeling in-between two worlds, using your immigration experience to ingratiate yourself with college admissions committees, etc.). I felt like I could subscribe to every word. I will definitely be returning to your blog whenever I need a nostalgia fix.

Julia (alias Yulinka Cooks) said...

Hi Mariya,
Thanks for your very nice comment. It's comforting, in a way, to know that other people feel the way I do. Did you find the Russian pharmacy you were looking for, by the way? There's one in Shorewood, on Oakland Ave.

Gail said...


I know you wrote this post, like 4 years ago, but I loved reading it.! I've been back in the U.S. after 4 years living in Moscow. I'm not Russian at all by birth, but feel part Russian from living there. I can understand how it is to feel a part of two worlds, but also a part of neither. Although I look and sound 100% American, there are things on the inside that no one can see or understand that are not fully American anymore. And I love many Russian foods! Although not all, since I wasn't raised on them from birth.

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