Early in the semester, we ask students to write about their personal relationship to a conflict: how their identity may have impacted this relationship, and how they customarily respond to conflict. Here are two examples, one by a Russian student attending college in the U.S., and another by an American Jewish student from California who stretched his boundaries by visiting a Palestinian friend’s home—with John’s responses.
#1 by M.
Growing up, I often considered myself different from my friends. I was Russian and they, mostly, were not. Many of those that were “Russian” (either first or second generation) had less linguistic proficiency and fewer experiences to frame their knowledge of the culture. As I grew up, I accumulated more of American culture into my identity and lost that extreme sense of connection to the Russian community because I became less Russian than my grandparents or their friends for example. High school broadened my feelings toward this even further. In high school I had a classmate that was an international student from Russia. He read fluently, wrote fluently, knew the history of Russian better than I and even spoke English with a Russian accent. I couldn’t compete. As I began to learn more about him and his upbringing I realized that I was not Russian. I was not American, but I was definitely not Russian.
This struggle of disassociation, lack of likeness and absence of understanding from the community that I was surrounded by lead me to separate myself. I was always taught to be critical (perhaps a Russian trait), but at the same time was taught to engage in my surroundings and participate in new opportunities. At this point my confusion escalated. I had spent my childhood separating from American perspectives, preconceived notions, and cultural limitations. I thought at the time that I was instead sticking to my Russian identity and the traditional outlooks that came from that. I began to grapple with the idea that perhaps the identity that I was clinging to was neither one nor the other. I was perpetually returning to a middle ground. A place where I was allowed to have deep rooted cultural values that drove me away from the norm, but at the same time embrace the customs, traditions, and social expectations that existed in front of me every day. I will forever be struggling to balance and embrace all of that, but at the same time struggle to figure out who I am inside. Is it possible to be someone different than what I participate in, or am I what I do and where I am physically? I often attend Russian celebrations and festivities and feel comfortable there. I do, however, notice that I am not limited to the perspectives of either culture. Do I truly see both perspectives or have I become a watered down version of the Russian child I used to be, because I have spent my life assimilating into American culture?
The “in group/out group” concept seems to relate differently to this part of my identity. Thinking analytically, I think I feel “in” and “out” of both the Russian group and the American group. When surround by a predominantly American population, I feel foreign. I feel as though I would not want to be misunderstood as American or expected to have “American” values. I think it would even be enough if I was perceived as foreign, considering that I notice myself relating to many foreigners in that way. Simple concepts as “political correctness” and “privacy” don’t exist in the Russian culture and in fact no such words even exist in the Russian language. On the other hand, when interacting with Russians, I notice myself standing out in terms of sensitivity to these same concepts.
Part of this struggle has resulted in me shying away from labels and expectations, worrying that I could not fulfill either one. Dissecting my personality into fragments of the two cultures has allowed me to blame my perceptions and tendencies on the culture in which I notice them. Instead of fighting against or embracing certain customs based on my own personal views, I choose my views based on the common perspectives of one of the cultures. A more complicated example of this is education. Russian culture values a college degree because education was socialized. Any average citizen that had self-respect or aspired to be successful went to college. Furthermore, anyone that did not strive for success was an embarrassment and a fool. College was simply a means of acquiring a profession, a step that people took to get somewhere in life. That destination that would then provide their livelihood and ascertain a level of acquired intellect. In American culture, a college education is also expected, at least among most middle class communities. The concept of college here is just that, a concept. It is treated as a state of mind, a place and time of personal growth and development where young adults go to discover who they are and who they will become. Perhaps this is a result of resources or lifestyles, but Russian culture maintains a very task oriented approach. Students would enter a college that would lead them to proficiency in one specific field, since general education was addressed and accomplished by grade school. Choosing to go to a liberal arts university and yet maintaining the “means to an end” mentality was definitely a combination of both perspectives.
On one hand, many of the strong values in both cultures have influenced my life choices in a positive way, but on the other hand, were those choices ones that I really wanted to make? Did I choose a liberal art university because I was seeking a diverse track, or did I simply regret the limitations of my grade school education? Essentially, my struggle is one similar to the question of nature verses nurture, except in this case it is nurture verses nurture.
I like how you open your paper by pointing out the distinction that you felt even as a child between you and your friends based on your Russian heritage. Interesting how this sense of identity as a Russian has shifted, particularly moving towards feeling more like an American when contrasted against a friend who remained much more connected to Russia.
I was moved by the way you highlight the struggle with holding the middle ground and I’m wondering whether you in fact have integrated two traditions or have just watered down both—that you are both in and out of both groups at the same time is a remarkable awareness, and one that is ever more common within this increasingly globalized world.
Nice reflection also on your relationship to your university education, whether it is a broad American or focused Russian approach. Of course we have to wonder whether this sense of angst over these differences is part of your Russian upbringing as well, as you said, your critical approach. Thank you for sharing this deep and ongoing struggle with such complex questions of identity. Harosho!
#2 by K.
As a student of Jewish and Israeli descent, on a superficial level it may at first seem obvious why I chose to attend Brandeis University. While I grew up in a fairly diverse community near Los Angeles, I had from an early age been exposed to Pro-Zionist sentiment through friends, family, and social media. Although I had traveled a few times to Israel to catch up with family, I had never fully been exposed to intense Zionist and at times Anti-Muslim propaganda until I reached Brandeis freshman year. Posters and social media comments clogged not only my Facebook and twitter news feeds but also my own opinions on the conflict itself.
Last week in class, when our assignment was to bring an object or symbol that represented our own specific tie to a heritage or conflict, I noticed that many students chose to bring a symbol pertaining to Judaism and the Israeli Palestinian conflict. What captured my attention the most however, was T’s symbol that represented her pride in her Palestinian heritage. The next time I decided to meditate, I aimed to find compassion for the people of Palestine while reflecting on a personal anecdote of a time when I had made a Palestinian friend while visiting Israel.
The last couple of weeks I have learned that meditation is a personal process which is unique to every individual. For me, reflecting back on a personal experience or anecdote allows me to achieve a “good mind” or state of calm or compassion. Ultimately, reflecting on my experience visiting an Arab section of Jerusalem allowed me to clear my mind of any overwhelming Zionist rhetoric I have been exposed to at Brandeis while pushing my own heritage and biases aside to feel compassion for a struggling group of people. As I sat in my room with the lights off, my mind began to drift to delicious smell of lamb kabob cooking on the streets of the Arab quarter of the holy city of Jerusalem. I remember this summer day vividly, since the leader of the Jewish trip I participated in explicitly told us not to wander into the Arab quarter of the city, yet my curious mind led me there anyways. Just as I was ordering a beverage from one of the market vendors I made eye contact with a boy named Ahmed. At first we struck up a light conversation about basketball and the NBA. Eventually, our conversation approached deeper territory as we discussed Gilad Shalit and the state of affairs between Palestinians and Israelis. While I expected to hear Ahmed’s account of how Jerusalem and other parts of Israel belonged to the Arabs, Ahmed’s perspective was quite the contrary. Ahmed pointed to Al-Andalus and medieval Spain in which Jews and Muslims were able to live peacefully amongst each other. Later that night, Ahmed invited me to a family dinner in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. Despite our civil and amusing conversation I was still skeptical but I decided to take a chance and accept the dinner invitation. When I arrived at the village, marked by shanty houses and poor electricity I was greeted by Ahmed’s warm and generous family. While Ahmed’s house was run down and could barely fit the 13 people living there, I soon realized that while Palestinians’ living conditions were beyond poor and distraught compared to Israelis, both communities shared a great sense of pride and commitment to family. Overall, my experience visiting Ahmed and his family not only gave me a greater sense of compassion and empathy for the economic tribulations of the Palestinian people but also allowed me to distance myself from the Israeli Palestinian conflict and instead allow me to connect with my new friend and his family on a spiritual level based on a deeper level of respect.
I’m surprised to hear the kind of propaganda that you feel you have been exposed to since you got here. This was a very powerful idea you had to meditate about: reconciliation with Palestinians, specifically one person and in general. I suppose lamb kebab, or any other of a number of treats from the old Arab quarter of Jerusalem would be good for stimulating the desire to make peace! (I didn’t get a chance to go sample my favorite Palestinian sweet, kanafeh, on my last trip to Jerusalem). It was very courageous of you to accept Ahmed’s invitation to dinner, and in this case you were greatly rewarded by your instinctual trust with a very important cross-community experience. I wonder where your feelings about all this will go, in the weeks ahead in this course and in your time ahead at Brandeis.