When Poles Turn into Chinese, and Armenians Turn into Russians

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The other night I was at the gym where I involuntarily eavesdropped a conversation between two women. One of them was telling the other about how someone had mistaken her as Chinese,  even though she was from Poland. The other woman then answered that it was surprising as she didn’t look Chinese or Asian at all.  They then talked about how some Americans don’t know the difference between various ethnicity groups.

It was a pretty interesting conversation and I could completely relate to the Polish woman.

While nobody has ever thought of me as of a Chinese, people have often asked me whether I was a Turk, Jew,  or Russian. I can understand when Americans take me for a Turk or Jew. After all, we are from the same region and many of us do look alike – black hair, brown eyes, Middle Eastern nose! But a Russian? Excuse me?

The Russians who have seen me will probably laugh when they read this post. Why? Because no Russian will ever look like me! That’s just genetically impossible.

But for some Americans I automatically turn into a Russian once they learn I am from a former Soviet Union, or they hear my Eastern European accent. At times, I get a little bit upset when my national identity gets blurred. However, at the same time, I don’t think I can really blame Americans for not knowing the difference. After all, people here are not well taught about the other former 14 nationalities of the Soviet Union.

Wrong History Textbooks

Most of American history textbooks I’ve read only mention Russia when referring to the Soviet Union. I still remember how upset I got during one of my classes in the U.S. The reason is that our textbooks mentioned, “22 million Russians died in the World War II.” I raised my hand and exclaimed that the information was inaccurate. The truth is that among those 22 million, there were also Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Belarus, Kazakh, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Azeris, Moldovans, Kyrgyz, Turkmen. The accurate statement would be, “22 million Soviet people died in the World War II.” Do you get my point?

Yes, we were all in the Soviet Union, and yes, we had common Soviet cultural traditions, but we have never been Russians. So, dear history textbook writers, please don’t blur our identities!

Wrong American Movies

Another major contributor to blurring former Soviet and Eastern European identities is Hollywood and American TV. I always wonder why movie producers almost never bother to hire some sort of an expert in Eastern European culture.

Some of the movies get to the point of absurdity to the immigrants like me. One of the most ridiculous American movies I’ve ever seen is One in the Chamber with Dolph Lundgren. The film actions are taking place in Prague which is (as usually it happens with Eastern European cities in American movies)  full of bloodthirsty and violent criminal syndicates. What is most hilarious about this movie is how the filmmakers completely blur the ethnicity of the characters.

The names of the characters are a complete mess. One example is the name ‘Vlad Tavanian.’ If you know nothing about that part of the world, let me explain to you why this is so bad.  ‘Vlad’ is a shortened version of Vladislav (not Vladimir!) which is a Slavic name, while the surname ‘Tavanian’ is  Armenian last name. To add to the confusion, the character is a Chechen, who are neither slavs, nor Armenians….

Dear filmmakers, please, hire decent experts in Eastern European cultures!  Saying Vlad Tavanian is a Chechen name is like saying Sarah Johnson is an ethnic Korean name – not likely.

As someone who grew up with a rich and well-taught knowledge about different countries and ethnicity groups, Americans’ inability to differentiate one culture from the other often makes me upset. I can’t blame ordinary people for that, but I can and do blame textbooks and media.

Hopefully, this will change some day.







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