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© 2017 The Strand Magazine

Post-Soviet Smiles: Identity in Transit

February 16, 2020

 

 

 

 

Transit: ‘The carrying of people or things from one place to another’.

 

Living in England for almost three years has distorted my sense of belonging to a certain national and cultural identity, one that is Latvian and post-Soviet  the latter being less of an identity itself but manifesting in the characteristics of Latvians). From time to time, I feel like I do not strongly belong anywhere or opposite, I feel like I belong to the confusion, namely when speaking with my post-Soviet friends who live in Great Britain. The Russian filmmaker Xenia Ohapkina puts post-soviet identity like this: you can undoubtedly feel which states had experienced a Soviet rule, despite nearly thirty years having passed. By trying to rationalise this feeling, she found common facial expressions, urban design, relationships between people and most importantly, the suppressed collective will of the people.

 

   Together with my friends, I can voice my confusions. For example, how our feminist ideals get diluted upon visiting our home countries. Whether this is a fear to be judged or cowardice, it has essentially created two Annes.  Yet I do not want to overemphasise the desire to relate to a specific experience of identity - diversity of people and culture are capable of adding beautiful meaning to our lives.

 

    I remember an episode from my first year living in England that illustrates the transition. My philosophy teacher would often jokingly ask if I was okay, pointing to me looking depressed, but in fact I was not depressed, just eastern European. Whether I learned to like smiling often or simply conformed, tens of months later I catch myself smiling more whatever the circumstances.

 

  Verbal and non-verbal forms of communication also constitute identities, as they are 'the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others'. Strangely enough, smiling, as a universal phenomena, is interpreted differently in each culture. Smiling when catching a stranger’s eye on public transport is considered normal in England, if not even polite and I must admit these norms are growing on me like moss. As a child, I would take a knife and scrape out the moss from in-between the pavement stones in my garden (if you haven't tried it, you should). Similarly upon returning home, I attempt to scrape off some forms of communication and expression.

 

  Sometimes, when I make eye-contact with strangers whilst on a bus in Riga, the corners of my mouth begin to rise but then I remember that I am no longer in England, I am left stuck with a weird facial expression. Soon enough, the subject I had attempted to exchange smiles with looks even more intimidated by me, even more than if I had smiled. Somehow I find pleasure in these moments of inner confusion, like having suddenly woken up from a vivid dream.

  Many have pointed out that in eastern European and particularly Russian culture, smiling too much or towards strangers is received as suspicious. A popular Latvian line in kindergarten was 'ko smaidi, bērnu gaidi?', this rhymes and translates among the lines of 'why are you smiling, are you expecting a child?'. The phrase itself has a connotation meant to induce some embarrassment in the smiler, as if that was one of the rare reasons a normal Latvian would smile. Though I am not painting post-Soviets as non-smiling peoples, we just reserve our smiles to those we are closest with.

 The non-verbal and verbal ways of communication (such as small-talk that is more rare in Latvia) have created perplexity about my identity. If my identity is in transit, 'being carried from one place to another', I have no idea what the destination is. Maybe the answer lies in refuting the need to attach labels to ourselves as a means to express identity. Many already practice 'labels' in their online identities and I intuitively doubt the benefit of it. I think our identities are big and ever-changing, and when confused I console in what the Romanian nihilist Emil Cioran said, 'We define only out of despair, we must have a formula... to give a facade to the void.'

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