I Don't Look Anything Like My Name, But Is That Really A Problem?

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When I was in university, a professor called my name. I stood up, but he looked through me, expecting to see someone with a more common Russian appearance.

It took interference from my classmates for the professor to put my name and my face together. Back home in Siberia, a Native Sakha having a Christianized name was nothing out of the ordinary. My polytheistic ancestors had no objection to adding one more God into the pantheon in the XVIIth century.

Who knew that outside the native land, the squinted eyes and moon-like faces would clash with the Russian-sounding names.

It wasn’t the first time that the combination of my face and my name had raised questions.

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An American student who came to Russia on an exchange program asked me who named me and have I ever been to a residential school. I didn’t know at the time what the residential school was. As far as I could understand, it was a school where children of native people had been given new names and educated.

The notion was too foreign to comprehend, so I explained politely that my mom had named me after her favorite English literature professor. And yes, I was in a “special” physics and mathematics school, which Natives and ethnically Russians alike had attended.

“Were those Russians orphans?” the American asked next, confusing me further.

One of my high school classmates was an orphan of mixed heritage, and my Russian friend technically had parents but lived in a foster home for a long time. Was that information relevant to the question? I wondered.

My unawareness of schools segregated by race, ethnicity, social status, or sex made it impossible to figure out the context.

As a person of color and a woman born in the Soviet Union, I had a different perspective.

I haven't experienced systematic racism and sexism at Saint-Petersburg State University, as the following anecdote will show. While doing my Ph.D. thesis, I heard the rumors spread by a fellow doctorate student that a protege of the department head had cut the line and disrupted the order for thesis presentations.

The gossiper said that this well-connected relative of the Dean would be a real problem for the rest of us, ordinary folk. It seemed unfair, and I wanted to know who that person was. Only when the exact dates were announced, I realized that the person in question had been me. Should I say that I had no connections with the Dean or the decision-making board but was eight-month pregnant with my second child?

As a side note, when the Iron Curtain fell and a previous Dean, whose name shall remain unnamed, came back from visiting the US; among the wonders of the free world, he mentioned that only in America he realized he was white. The unattractive, bespectacled, bald-as-a-knee professor looked as shaken as if granted the crown of Miss Universe.

Things were different for people who looked like me in North America. My Canadian friend of Korean descent once said that she envied the white girls’ light hair when she was in elementary school because they seemed superior.

I nodded knowingly, feeling like a fraud. In my elementary school, I sat beside a poster on the classroom wall with my photo in the center, surrounded by my five light-haired subordinates forming the Red Star points.

I was an “A” student, and no one made me think that my ethnicity or features could hinder me from achieving my goals.

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I don’t mean that Russians “don’t have a racist bone in them.” 

I had my share of teasing and names calling. Once I visited my friend living in a small village when a boy had followed me along the street, pulling his eyes to make them look squinty. My ethnically Russian friend was distraught and chased the boy away. She was the one I mentioned earlier raised in a tiny foster home, where the native Sakha headmistress had been called Mom by her white pupils.

I forgave my little tormentor many years later when I met my future husband. I was the first Native the boy had seen in person, and my husband-to-be happened to be the first person from the Caucasus I saw up close. If my face was the moon, his was the crescent, and I couldn’t stop staring rudely at his big nose and his narrow cheekbones. I was just a little more reserved than a child to make faces expressing my astonishment.

Still, I couldn’t relate when another acquaintance of Vietnamese descent said that she felt underrepresented by Canadian media for her whole life. She said that not seeing the faces like ours — she made a gesture including me — in books, films, and posters make us feel excluded and alien. This time I didn’t nod.

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When I was a child, I didn’t know that I should relate only to people that looked like me. Ivan, the golden-haired Prince, would be my hero, and I would travel with him on a Big Grey Wolf. I would see myself as Mowgli, Thumbelina, or Eric from the Karlson on the Roof.

The appearances, nationalities, and genders didn’t matter if the story and its hero spoke to my heart.

Let me be clear: I’m not against diverse representation. Knowing more about other people’s history, experiences, cultures, and believes will expand our minds. Different faces, colors, and races make the world beautiful because one color is not enough for painting the whole picture, Malevich’s Black Square being the exception.

I want people of all backgrounds to feel proud to be whoever they are. I’m sorry that minorities were abused and oppressed. My heart goes to aboriginal peoples who went through the horrors of residential schools.

Nevertheless, I believe that our bodies are the costumes for our souls and nothing more.

All our features, squints, and noses are irrelevant to the bigger picture. We are in this together with all our flaws, prejudices, cultural and other differences.

Ultimately we are the sack of bones and a few pints of blood. I don’t understand why it is so important what color the cover is?

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Nadya Semenova is a bilingual writer and a native Sakha from Sibera. She has four books published in Russian, and her English essays have appeared in Reader's Digest Canada, and Upstreet literary magazine. Follow her on Medium.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.