My bread is black. Everyone else’s is white. Theirs is generously lathered with peanut butter and jelly. Mine is open face, revealing butcher-cut meat, fresh greens and Russian spicy mustard. My dessert is a fig. It looks like a turd. I couldn’t be more embarrassed.
My New York City public school lunchroom is institutional. In this concrete prison, bartering goods accrues you status. But today, no one wants to trade lunch with me. They don’t even know what a fig is. Given how our city separates its kids from means of production, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had forgotten that their cheese came from a cow.
My parents are from the “evil empire.” Their decision to leave, while practically difficult, was conceptually easy to make. The regime in Russia circa 1973 would feed lies down the pipe of its state paper Pravda, which literally means “truth.” My parents would turn on their faucets to drown out the sound from curious neighbors, and tune in Voice of America on the radio. From this broadcast, they would hear stories otherwise banned inside their country. These stories told of an alternate reality: On the other side of the Iron Curtain, streets were paved with gold.
The sounds only got stronger, as copies of copies of copied Beatles songs reinforced what they had heard of liberation in a distant land. The sound quality was pretty bad, and so was their English, but faintly, my mother and father could hear:
Hey Jew, don’t let me down. Na na na na na na na, hey Jew.
Closed societies are structured on fear. The sound of VOA cut through this fear, offering hope. In a repressive society, my parents couldn’t succeed as individuals—particularly not as ones from an ethnic minority—so they fled to a country where they didn’t speak the language. Knowing one distant relative lived here, they arrived in America with only a presumptive address, scribbled on a piece of paper.
When Russia fell, so did the dichotomy between the good and evil states. The West won, and my parents had bet on the winning team. But assimilation was not instant as of December 1991.
I’d go to visit my grandparents in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, only to get beamed through a portal where everyone spoke Russian, and shop signs on the street were written in Cyrillic. Products in the markets were all packaged in Eastern Europe, with labels boasting pictures of happy peasants in babushka scarfs tilling the fields. I didn’t want to be what I ate. My parents came to be self-made. I was a bootstrap-pulling young American. I didn’t need this rocket to Russia.
But by eating like an American, I could become American. Processed foods, packaged in a thick layer of plastic? Bring it on! Genetically modified? Scientists cut out the bad genes. Americans were getting bigger, and so was I.
The main weapon in my fight was the hotdog. I luxuriated in the large Latin script letters on the packaging. And what could have been more American than a hot dog from Coney Island—especially when paired with apple pie? Yum. Yankee. These products’ reading Kosher was just a bonus fly in the face of the old Soviet oppressor.
My greatest enemy in culinary assimilation? Dill. Russians use dill as a garnish in almost all of their “exotic,” not-even-close-to-being-American food: Cow tongue, grilled fish with bones (not battered or taken from the freezer, like I saw on American television), liver, mashed potatoes and myriad mayonnaise-based salads.
Liver? In America, eating it was iconic evil. Serial killers ate it with a nice Chianti.
These freshly-prepared foods at home were laid out around a boisterous family table, coupled with the obligatory vodka. I’d defiantly make my way to the kitchen, toss a couple of franks in the microwave and watch delicious freedom spin around for a couple of minutes before my separate, sizzling dinner was ready. My family and I would exchange pointed glances over each other’s food choices, but proceed with the evening nonetheless.
Another holiday, birthday, funeral, wedding, and it would repeat. They had their old world food and new world lives. I had my new world food, but still couldn’t shake the old world.
The older I got, the further away the dissolution of the USSR became. The rosy moral veneer that the USA once had started to blur. When President Reagan firmly told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall, my parents had heard him loud and clear, running to stand by his side (like most Russians their age, they are staunch Reaganites). I watched my parents and their friends then become small American business owners, and struggle to live the dream they had been promised. More regulations, more taxes and an economy in decline? To them, these phenomena seemed like Communism rearing its ugly head in the USA.
Yet a younger me saw all this as just “old world mentality” rearing its ugly head again. I followed the logic: Instead of being communist, my grandfather was now Zionist. And instead of being a Red Pioneer, my Yankee parents and their friends were now embracing the party who flew the red, white and blue highest. Either way, it was opposite sides of the same coin: ideology. At least political arguments at home on this theme were interesting games of cat-and-mouse that helped develop my mathematical mind.
Though I didn’t understand it at the time, these home debates were my first exposure to logic frames. For immigrants, nothing is easy; not even making a point. So the people around me didn’t make it easy. I had to fight to be heard. A lot of the Russians I knew had living memories of the dangerous consequences of opinions: Revolution, killing, mayhem. In America, it’s easy to forget this. So as a young man, I sought a third path by which I could come to my own conclusions about ideology. I found DIY culture and made music in the punk scene. (Touring meant meeting like-minded people, but also eating lots of American diner food. Who knew that cheese fries and coffee went so well together?)
As a young punk, adults would often write me off, saying that I still had a lot to learn about politics and human nature. But this wasn’t the case in the technology field, where youth were (and are) seen as masters of the domain. The technology sector is meritocratic: The best coders learn quickly, and emerge soon after with the best projects.
But each user can contribute value to these projects, which reiteratively benefit all. This is particularly true with open source projects, where the code itself is public and manipulable. Democracy is thus written into the code, which is transparent, participatory and accountable. With everyone able to see them, any problems or holes get filled and fixed quickly. Even black-hat hackers (the dangerous ones) need a secure browser, and so they use the open-source Mozilla Firefox.
After college, I headed to post-Soviet Armenia to use technology to document a political and cultural shift so intrinsic to my identity. My Armenian friends had strikingly similar interests: They championed honest numbers and the uptake of concrete skills to help humanity. I ended up helping them found a youth action center. We taught blogging before there was even a term for it. We spread fliers, held gallery openings for our art and performed demonstrations in the streets. We even had a library, both digital and spatial. By using multiple creative media to spread local stories in a decentralized way, we spearheaded an early form of transmedia activism.
I’ve carried on this work in the US by starting a non-profit called (ambitiously and optimistically) Digital Democracy. We work to advance human rights by empowering grassroots groups around the world to use technology.
The food in Armenia is great—if nothing like the Ukrainian cuisine I grew up with—and my immersion in a post-Soviet country helped me understand a lot more about my family. My mom, for example, was always offering me tasteless vegetables from the immigrant markets. Overseas, I learned that Eastern European produce has a taste often lost in shipping to the States. To my mother’s joy, I now eat Russian food with the family and save my rebellious energy for questioning the facts.
In the East, I learned many Russian anecdotes. One that stuck with me is from when the Russians fought alongside the French during World War I. The Russian soldiers demanded their food to be fast food, since they had so many important things to get done. They shouted “bistra, bistra” in their native tongue, urging the French chefs to cook “faster, faster.” Now, French bistros are well known to many. And while I prefer to get my food fast so I can work more quickly, I have finally come to realize just how Russian that is.