Not Wanted

Russian passport is probably one of the most difficult passports to live with. By “difficult,” I mean “unwanted,” “unwelcome,” “suspicious,” or even simply “uncomfortable.” Once you cross the border of the Russian Federation, your main identity document becomes more like a problem or nuisance, rather than your safety bag or a golden key that opens any door. In fact, most of the doors (or airport gates) remain closed and reluctant to let a Russian citizen enter a new world.

I was refused entry visas two times in my life. The first time happened when I was 14 years old. I got invited by my mom’s American friend and colleague to go to the USA and to study English at some summer school. I was excited beyond words! First time in the English-speaking country, first time flying across the ocean, first time seeing the world I mostly saw on TV before. And my FIRST reality check in life: the world does not want me as much as I want it. I was 14, and the American Embassy in Moscow looked and felt like a prison: multiple metal detectors, several checkpoints, hundreds of security officers, almost religious silence in the hallways, and orderly formed columns of people, trembling before an interview. I am not sure about now, but at that time people were not allowed to bring anything except for required documents: no cell phones, no food or drinks, no tissues, nothing at all. And the whole process of going from one checkpoint to the next one took literary HOURS. I was exhausted by the time it was my turn to proceed to an open window and meet an officer. Hours and hours of waiting and 10 seconds of presenting your case and receiving a harsh “NO” from the visa officer. The verdict: “Not enough proof of ties in your home country.” When the stern-looking officer gave me the document with a stamp of denial, I did not understand what had just happened. I came out of the embassy, blubbered something to my mom (who was waiting for me for hours outside!), and remained silent for the rest of the day. It was like a mild shell shock for me. Only later it hit me: I was not wanted in the USA. I felt guilty, but did not understand of what.

The second time it happened with the Japanese visa. I was living in Taiwan and pursuing my Master’s degree at NTU. My friend suggested going to Japan for a couple of weeks, and I got immediately excited to visit the Asian food mecca. It was 2011, and I was confident that visa process would be a breeze. I did not have to come for an interview, and I thought it was a good sign. Even easier. Imagine my shock when I opened the envelope with my documents and, for the SECOND time in my life, saw the stamp: denied. It turned out that Japan did not really welcome many Russian tourists at that time. They were more willing to give visas for business purposes or in those cases when private invitations were issued. I was not prepared for the second refusal. I realized that I could never get too comfortable or relaxed, being a Russian and holding a Russian passport.

With years, the visa application process has become a “regular” roller coaster of repeated emotions: stress, anxiety, feeling of being unwanted, the need to always “prove” you are not a criminal, spy, or illegal. Every time I want to travel, I need to undergo this nightmare. I cannot just pack my things spontaneously and romantically fly over to Paris with my boyfriend. Nope, there is nothing romantic in having a Russian passport.

I am now in the process of applying for a Schengen visa. I cannot really predict the outcome. It is a new experience every time. At the end of the day, I will either have a visa stamp in my passport or another visa story to tell to my friends. Either one will be fun 🙂

Fiction or Not?

Do you think reading fiction is obsolete?

With such an abundance of audio and visual material nowadays, reading itself is struggling to keep its niche. We watch everything. We listen to everybody. It is a visual turn in culture – it is a digital age. During the day, we do some reading: scrolling down news, checking emails, and peeking at social media posts. With so much information intake every day, our brain refuses to keep working at night. We often opt for watching another episode of this new TV show or for aimlessly streaming YouTube videos about cars, fashion, food, or design. It is relaxing and easy. It is what everyone else is doing after a hard day of work, we think.

Reading practice is slowly becoming an endangered species. And reading fiction, particularly, feels almost extinct. Why read fiction? Many people told me that fiction was useless. It does not give you direct practical advice on life. It does not teach you about present realities. It is imaginative and, hence, unrealistic. It is boring. If it is good, it will probably be adapted to screen, so why bother reading it when in a few months, there will be a movie? Recently my boyfriend was genuinely surprised when he heard me laughing my head off while reading a fiction book. It was strange for him to see me peacefully reading a book, having my solo experience, and then all of a sudden cracking up with laughter and breaking the solemn silence of the room. Yes, I told him, fiction can make you laugh. In fact, it can be as funny, if not more, as a TV comedy.

It is sad that fiction does not have the same status as it used to be. Out of my 85 students this semester, only 10 said they were reading fiction occasionally. What about the rest? Very often people do not like fiction books because they had a bad experience before. They might have hated their English teacher, or maybe they were forced to read the books they did not want at school. They might have just picked the wrong book at the store and developed a dislike for literature in general. Or they failed at finding their genre and style of writing. They got disappointed. They did not give it another try.

Fiction literature deserves a chance. Once you find the right book, the right author, and the right moment in life, you will understand the power of fiction. It can give an experience no other medium can. Fiction is only fictional until you read it and make it real for yourself.

Game of Thrones

some SPOILERS ALERT!!

Are you excited to watch the final season of Game of Thrones, coming out this Sunday? The whole world is waiting. The city billboards are screaming with the images of the beloved characters. The newspapers and magazines are reminding us to organize a GOT movie night on Sunday. Friends, colleagues, family members are all making their best predictions on the plot development. Who is going to survive? Who is going to be murdered? Tortured?

For years, I was wondering: what is this whole fuss about? I was very skeptical about this show at first. Medieval ages, fantasy, dragons, violence, politics, zombies. It looked very dark from the trailer. It seemed too far from reality. It did not appeal to my aesthetics. I decided it was not for me right away. It was also sort of a protest from my side initially. Everyone is so obsessed about it. Why should I be? I have better movies and TV shows on the list to watch.

I refused to give it a try for years. For eight years. Until last month. I decided to commit to Game of Thrones and understand for myself whether it was THAT good as everybody was saying. It did not take me one or two episodes to get attached to the show. It took me the whole season to realize that I was constantly thinking about the show. It was always on my mind. I was listening to my students in class and thinking whether they watched GOT and what side they were on. I was relieving the moments of the craziest or most touching scenes in my head. I was asking myself: what would I do if I were Arya? Or Sansa? Or Khaleesi? How would I feel if I were tortured like Theon? Would I appreciate my life more if I were resurrected like Jon Snow?

Game of Thrones is not just a fantasy. It is not a medieval romance with love stories and poetic fights. It is not even about politics alone. This show is a profound exploration of the human psychology. It is a reflection on the human inner desires, deepest fears, drives and ambitions, vulnerabilities and anxieties. It tests our imagination: what if our craziest fantasies are realized? It tests our belief in humanity. It questions our understanding of morality. It invites us to believe in the impossible. It opens our eyes on the monstrosity in the world.

Game of Thrones is not about Khaleesi or Cersei or Arya or Jon Snow. This show is about us. It is about you and me. It is about our friends and enemies. Our fears and desires. We can see ourselves in these characters. They are us. And we are them.