Written and photographed by Anastasia Traynin
“Where are you from?”
As with many other foreigners living in this country, this is usually the first question Koreans ask when meeting me for the first time. It was also often the first question strangers would ask when I was growing up in the USA. Being white and Western, my parents easily pass for the average American in the still-racialized USA, until they start speaking and the accents come out.
I was born in Moscow, Russia on June 22, 1987. After moving to Korea in 2012, I would learn that this was a pivotal month and year in Korean democratization history. Before that, living in a Russian family, I knew that June 22, 1941 was the day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, finally bringing Russia into the war. Our whole family first stepped foot in the USA in May 1991, during the big wave of post-Soviet Jewish refugee emigration, and our American history starts there. I grew up bilingual and continue to speak Russian with family. Yet, when the inevitable question comes up in Korea, I normally answer that I am from Miguk (미국; literally, the beautiful country”), the USA.
Lately, I’ve taken to answering bokjap-haeyo (복잡해요; It’s complicated). This may have something to do with two important events of 2017: the death of my grandfather, the family patriarch, and my three-week trip across Russia to commemorate my 30th birthday in the second part of the summer. After missing numerous family trips back to the proverbial motherland since my last time to visit back in 2001, I finally decided that this was the year for me. Luckily, I had a friend in Gwangju who was happy to make use of my Russian language skills and come along with me on this journey.
I was fully committed to not only visiting Moscow, but also boarding a train on the legendary Trans-Siberian railroad, the name given to the route between Vladivostok in the Far East and Moscow in the West. I wanted to go for much longer than three weeks, making multiple stops along the way as many travelers do. In the end, I made do with my vacation time on this round, taking it as a trial run.
Third class Russian train tickets proved to be relatively inexpensive, especially when reserved in advance, and since I split my East-West journey in the middle, I only needed two tickets: one from Vladivostok to Irkutsk and the other from Irkutsk to Moscow. In Vladivostok and on the first leg of the train ride, I was on my own and had plenty of time to read and reflect. I quickly realized that this would be a lovely, yet surreal trip: I had landed in a country where I was comfortable with communicating in the language, yet I was completely unfamiliar with the everyday customs, currency, and modern lifestyle. A simple trip to the grocery store or outdoor market was always a delightful adventure, discovering and rediscovering all the different types of foods and smells from my childhood that I had forgotten about – and some that I never knew. It was like waking up in the future, and in a way it was the future: the difference between the Russia my family left in 1991 and the Russia of 2017 must be as vast, and maybe more so, than that of the same time period in Korea.
Vladivostok felt like a strange and unique port city, complete with echoes of my current adopted country on both sides: imported used city buses from Busan, South Korean cosmetic shops, a Busan-style chicken joint, a North Korean restaurant, hidden North Korean migrant workers, and plenty of South Korean tourists. Though I found all this interesting, I was more than ready to move on and board the train. This is when I hit my first big travel snafu. It turns out that, unlike anywhere in the world that I have seen or heard of, the entire Russian train system operates on the time of the capital, Moscow. Unluckily for me, Vladivostok is a full seven hours ahead, which meant spending that extra time in the summer heat of the city.
Boarding a third-class cross-country train in the nighttime is a rather chaotic and disorienting experience. Yet I found that, whatever it may have been in the past, the current Russian train system is meticulously maintained, with hardworking and kind train attendants keeping time, regularly cleaning their appointed train cars, selling snacks and souvenirs, and resolving any issues that come up. I can recall only one run-in with the infamous Russian vodka drunkenness on the train, as both alcohol and smoking are now restricted on board. My friend and I were prepared for noisy travelers and a difficult time in this cramped sleeper train, yet the reality was that we had comfortable beds, sheets, and blankets, resulting in a restful travel sleep, even with people entering and exiting the train at all hours of the day and night.
Besides a few Korean families, my friend and I were the only foreigners – or tourists even – that I came across in the third-class section. Though I speak and understand Russian, it was hard not to stand out with reading material in English and a giant travel backpack. The people around us were mostly families with small children, couples, and a variety of solo travelers embarking on or coming back from their summer vacations, some spending time at the dachas, the ubiquitous Russian summer houses. Making conversation was difficult, as my language skills were of little use among the cultural confusion. Still, I managed to have one enlightening discussion, which further opened my eyes to the vastness of Russia beyond my somewhat limited big-city upbringing. As we passed through the Siberian region Buryatia, I learned of the Buryat people, related to the Northern Mongolians; the Old Believers, who lead a similar lifestyle to the Amish; the relationships with China and Korea; and also the sweeping social changes within modern Russia. Of course, all of these new findings mean that I have to return sooner rather than later.
I could write a lot more, especially about the emotional aspect of returning to the neighborhood of my birth in Moscow and our family’s first apartment. I have never seen as much constant ongoing digging and construction on nearly every corner as I did in this changed and rapidly changing metropolis.
I also never imagined how difficult it would be.
With the limited space, I will finish with a note about the real gem of our trip: pitching our tent for three nights in the forest patch at Olkhon Island on the western side of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake, located in southern Siberia near the Mongolian border. Though the town of Kuizhir and its surroundings have certainly become an overly developed tourist area with many visitors and the accompanying commercialization and environmental degradation, I cannot stress enough that this island and the lake are a must-see during any well-rounded journey to Russia. Olkhon Island is a bumpy six-hour ride from Irkutsk and a short ferry crossing, both of which are well worth the trip. The Buryat food, music, and shaman ceremonies; the purity of the lake water; the epic skies; and the sight and energy of the sacred Shaman Rock on the shore are amazing experiences, simply not to be missed. There is much more to see of Baikal that we did not have time for on this trip.
As for the ever-present question, “Where are you from?” when I am able, I do my best to muster patience and explain about my privileged history, in hopes that it may help others to understand that one person can have more than one gohyang (고향, hometown), and if they are lucky, feel “at home” in any place across this wide, wondrous world.
Anastasia (Ana) Traynin is the co-managing editor of Gwangju News. She has been a contributor to the magazine since Fall 2013 and has been living in Gwangju since spring of that year. After teaching for three years at Hanbitt High School, she became a GIC coordinator in May 2016. She has passions for Korean social movements, alternative education, live music, languages, and writing.