Excerpt from "Soviet Trees"The girls crowd around you, studying your face, your hair, especially your clothes. They scrutinize the words Highland and Riverside printed in goldenrod letters on your royal-blue sweat shirt. What do they mean? Are they a brand name? The girls demand answers. They ask you to repeat the words again and again. You’ve been taken captive by these anthropologists in the guise of Soviet teenage girls. Like all anthropologists, they see you projected through themselves. They don’t understand why you would grow weary of saying the words—Highland, Riverside, Highland, Riverside—like some tired incantation. As far as you’re concerned, whatever significance the words carry has been eked out on the third or fourth repetition, and you want to tell them that the words are now nonsense on your tongue, that you yourself have forgotten what they mean. Highland. Riverside. For the girl-anthropologists the words are redolent of freshly manufactured goods, and of freedom and dollars. They stare at your sweat shirt as though it provides a window into America, all of it, in its unimaginable wealth.
There a few things you need to know. It’s the summer of 1987, and you’re in Kuybyshev, a city closed to foreigners. The girls are Young Pioneers, and this is still the Soviet Union—but actually, there’s no still about it. Remember that. It simply is, for you and the girls, for as long as you’ve been alive, and for as long as your parents have been alive. To say it is still the Soviet Union is like boarding the Titanic for her maiden voyage, looking out at her massive decks, and thinking, Someday, I’ll remember this as the time when the Titanic was still afloat. How could you believe, standing on the deck, that either of those colossal ships, the Titanic or the Soviet Union, would ever go down?
You’re only twelve—remember that, too—but you’ve been put in the oldest group, with girls who are mostly fourteen, because you’re tall and precocious. They keep asking about what kinds of things you own, how much stuff costs in America, what the stores are like, and how much money your family has. They want a full inventory of America, from top to bottom, from side to side, as though America is just a vast storage unit full of material goods. You don’t know where to begin, but you feel like a celebrity. For the first time in your life, you’re popular, the star attraction. You suddenly have so many friends you can’t remember their names. They crowd closer and closer, trying to lay their claims on you, trying to see what an American looks like. They comment on your American face, which leaves you stunned. Americans have always commented on your Russian face. It’s turning out you look like no one at all. It’s turning out that your amalgamation of Russian and American features has made you only uniquely yourself, unlike anyone else, which is the last thing you want. You’re twelve, remember. You want to shout—but I’m Russian like you!—though quite clearly, you’re not. Quite clearly, you don’t belong here. The hot heavy press of the girls in the cramped humid room renders you an exotic cornered animal whose fate lies in the hands of your captors. And quite clearly, they haven’t finished sizing you up yet. They haven’t yet decided what to make of you.
They demand to know, among other things, how you got here. To get into the camp you have to have a pass, and in order to get a pass, you have to have connections. You explain that your mother was able to get you a pass through her former college roommate, who is connected to the trade union. The girls seem dubious. This is a camp for future Soviets. It certainly is not a camp for American girls, even American girls who don’t believe they’re American, who think they’re Russian, which is the kind of American girl you are.
In your slightly awkward Russian, you tell your unlikely story: that your mother is Russian and your father American, that they met in graduate school in Leningrad, that you were born in Kuybyshev and lived there with your Russian grandparents and mother and aunt until you were three. And then you left with your mother to be with your American father in a fantastical place called Riverside, California. Yes, you’ve seen the Pacific Ocean. Yes, you have a river of sorts, but it’s puny—often just a dry riverbed—compared to the Volga,. Yes, that’s the unlikely kind of rivers you have in America. And you have unlikely trees—palm and navel orange and avocado and eucalyptus—and unlikely stores, too, where, yes, it’s true, you can buy just about anything you want, as long as you have money. Yes, Highland is the name of your school, but you don’t know why. You know the names for many things in America but don’t know why those are their names.
To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.