Julia is a Muslim woman of Tatar heritage, currently living in Chicago. She speaks of her struggle to find balance between excitement and criticism surrounding American culture. Julia’s story highlights the importance of critical thinking, independent opinions, and the courage to question the status quo. This story was recorded and produced in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
“I was born in Siberia, in a small town. The name of the town is Tobolsk, in the Tyumen region. I’m Tatar (T-A-T-A-R), of Tatar culture and Tatar nationality; I want to compare it to Native Americans in the United States, we’ve been [in Siberia] as a tribe and as a culture for, like, over eight hundred years, I want to say. People don’t know about this culture in America at all, but we are a very big culture in Russia and we are Muslim. So, the difference…I mean, I grew up being bullied, to be honest, most of my childhood. You know, especially being a Muslim at the same time, it was really interesting to grow up. So, you know, the cultural difference was huge: we have a different language, we have different musical culture, we have different foods (a little different from Russia)–even mentality, and how we look at life a little bit differently, too.
I used to be very quiet, but it made me stronger because – I am really grateful for that, it made me a much stronger person because I wanted to prove that how you look and your religion does not make you worse or better. I know how it feels when people misunderstand who you are, and pre-judge. This also definitely made me want to get out of the Siberian small-town, because I was convinced that there was something more out there in the world; [the world] cannot be just this closed-minded world that I was locked in.
I think the culture itself in America, if we talk about actual Americans, what I don’t like is that a lot of Americans (like actual Americans, not immigrants, but people who live in places like Montana, Iowa, Idaho, even going deep into Wisconsin), they don’t even know about the world. They just watch T.V. and barely know anything that’s really going on. They don’t even want to travel, they barely get out of their city, and it just blows my mind. They barely get out of the city to even travel to a different state. And I’m like, you’re in one of the best countries in the world…what’s up with you? (laughs) Seriously! And then another thing I don’t like about these “true Americans” is that they do believe everything that’s going on on T.V. sometimes, like they don’t question it, they almost brainwash this allegiance, to keep it safe. I don’t know, it’s just my observation.
One of the first things that I didn’t vibe with is that a lot of Americans are, I want to say, fake. Fake, not in a bad way I guess, but it is fake; what it means is that we have this very precise, distinguished feature of character in Russia, even if we don’t smile, we are honest about our feelings, and what we think. We are straightforward most of the time, and we hate backstabbing; we say what we mean, and we’re pretty tough like that, you know? So even in the work environment, we’d rather look you in the eyes with an angry face, but it will be honest, you know? So I appreciate that. However, it does have some side-effects–but still, I think Americans are smart about smiling, you know, to keep it positive, to keep things smooth, it’s not a bad idea. I like the smiling part because smiling, psychologically, kind of helps everywhere. But, what I don’t like is that it kind of transitions to being fake, so you never know what’s really real when you’re dealing with Americans. This is the culture clash; this perception in a lot of things, how we do business, how we deal with things at work and everything.
So I wanted to say that, but let’s focus on positives. There are so many positives! Even living in Chicago (I’ve lived in the Midwest all my life), just the culture pots–I love it, there’s just so much progress in this country, especially in big cities. Progress, motivation, challenge, competition: the best of the minds come to this country because it takes a lot of courage to do what it takes to stay in the country and make it, you know, really make it, and follow your dreams. You become someone for your own self, and start from zero, and do something with your life. I think everybody who immigrated to America…I give them credit instantly, because to do that, I think it is fun and awesome.
Make your own opinion. Always have your own opinion about everything, even if everybody says ‘you’re wrong.’ Make sure that you believe in you, you believe in your own self and your own opinion. Don’t believe everything people say on T.V.–even your friends. Question everything; not because you don’t trust it, but because you want to make sure that you are not a follower, you are a leader. Make your own path, follow your heart, and be courageous, no matter what.”