When it comes to answering relatively simple questions about identity, many find it unrealistic or somewhat uncomfortable to reduce their experiences to a few words. It's not uncommon, since the world has always had people who move across borders, languages, customs and tradition. So how to explain who you are? That's what Karina Sotnik explores today on This I Believe. Karina Sotnik is a software engineer, a business woman, a mother and much more.
I believe there are no simple answers to questions like "where are you from?" or "What do you do?"
Take my example... "Where are you from?" always make me cringe, because I know exactly how the conversation will progress from there. Someone hears me rattling away in "a foreign language" with my husband, my kids or my friends and inevitably asks: "What language are you speaking?" "Russian," I answer.
"Oh, so you are from Russia?"
At this point I know that, circumstances permitting, I will have to take a little time to explain myself. You see, even though my family lived in Latvia for generations, and even though my family language is Russian, I am neither Russian nor Latvian. I am, as my husband - a professor - puts it so eloquently, a "Russian-speaking Latvian Jew."
This statement always raises an eyebrow: "What does Jewishness have to do with any of this?" Well, you see, in my passport, growing up, in the space marked "nationality" (yes, Soviet passports had such a space) I was defined as neither Russian nor Latvian, but rather as "Jewish."
For me, Jewishness is a culture and an ethnicity, and not so much a religion. I have rarely set foot in a synagogue - to the sincere dismay of my "real" Jewish friends here.
While I love the Russian language, love to read and speak it; and while I set the table like a true Latvian (tablecloths, napkins, the whole thing) - at the deepest level I am Jewish...
I find myself in the similar situation when faced with the 'What do you do?" question.
Hmm... I have an engineering degree and I used to work for software companies in Silicon Valley... However, I relocated to Philadelphia 8 years ago and opened a high-end linen boutique. Sort of a switch from one type of software to another, literally, a soft-ware. Now, after the recession brought me to close the boutique, I advise companies on how to expand their business internationally. Try to summarize that in a short, witty answer. My situation is hardly an isolated case or a product of the recent era of globalization. Think of all those ancient Christian Arabs who lived in Jerusalem... Or take my good friend Ligia - a Romanian-born Israeli French transplant to Philadelphia and prominent architect, turned professor, turned therapist, turned published novelist.
My pre-teen children, if asked the same sort of question, will cheerfully tell you that they are Russian-American-Christian Jews. They don't see anything strange about it, and neither do many of their classmates.
I believe, therefore, that we should stop asking impossible-to-answer fill-in-the-blank questions, like "Where are you from?" and "What do you do?" Those are for census forms and Soviet passports. Instead, we should ask more open-ended questions, like "What is your story?" This I believe.