The Identity Series: Reflections of an “Inbetweener”

Sergey Podlesnykh/Staff Writer

For most of my Russian friends, I am “Sergey from America”. For most of my American ones, I am “Sergey, the Russian”. Eleven years of assimilation has alienated me from Russia, but still hasn’t brought me closer to America. I got stuck in a limbo, an “inbetweener” for life.

In 2009, my excruciating internal conflict of self-identification reached its climax and I found the courage to change what I could. I decided to leave my old Russian life behind and move to the U.S. permanently. My friends and family attempted to talk me out of leaving as they thought I was bound to fail because in the U.S. “I had nothing and would have to start from square one.”  I then turned to Bobby Dylan: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” 

I was brave enough to come to the land of the free, but eleven years later I am still trying to make it my home.

I was brave enough to come to the land of the free, but eleven years later I am still trying to make it my home.

My playlist represents my path: older Russian music I was listening to before my trans-Atlantic relocation and all types of American music representing my short tenure in this country. I celebrate some American and Russian holidays, I laugh at both Russian and American memes and I equally love borscht and burgers. At times I find it challenging to explain my other side to both my Russian and American social circles. I can never tell which side prevails, and often question myself like that zebra: “Am I white with black stripes or black with white stripes?”

Among other dilemmas, the U.S. Army brought up the questions of true affiliation and loyalty. I was once asked, “If we go to war with Russia, which side are you going to shoot?” I countered, asking if they would rather have their left or right eye taken out. Perhaps I never really wanted to choose because I am a combination of both. I might be loyal to the flag of red, white and blue, but the particular pattern remains a secret to me.  

With time, I made peace with my accent. Regardless of my American residency and education level, some weird Slavic sounds will always give away my origins. No amount of Coca-Cola, bourbon or Thanksgiving turkey can tweak my tongue and vocal cords. As I start speaking with strangers and words roll off my tongue, I am in essence rolling a die: sometimes my accent benefits me, but at times it betrays me. I realized I couldn’t change it, so I found serenity to accept it.

I am a weird concoction of unbridled Russian passion and rational American utility with a dash of Russian conservatism and American liberalism. I go through phases of seemingly sustainable harmony when I can put both pieces of this puzzle to good use, and painfully frustrating Cold War moments when I can’t make sense out of either one.  

I understand that my situation is not unique, and many first and second generation immigrants face similar issues of self-identification and marginalization. The ultimate wisdom I can offer comes from Leo Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We might pursue the same endgame of self-satisfaction and self-acceptance, but we all fight our own battles. Sometimes we are tilting at windmills, like Don Quixote, lacking the wisdom to know the difference.   

Maybe being an “inbetweener” is not a bad thing. Perhaps, it’s not the most inspiring self-identification, but it’s a self-identification nonetheless. My inner conflicts and challenges have molded me into the person I am today. In fact, my inbetweener status could be the secret source of strength that has pushed me through all these years.     

The world needs inbetweeners as well. Hopefully, I will find the serenity to accept that one day.

This article is the third in a series focusing on cultural identity.


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.

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