Ukrainian and American. I tried to be either one or the other; each seemed so distinctly dissimilar–-while I spoke Russian at home, at school I would mask any semblance of an accent. I changed my name from “Yuliya” to “Juliya.”
Finally, in elementary school, I made a handful of friends I could invite to my house after classes. My mother understood my need to appear “normal” and “American” among my new friends. Instead of playing our favorite Russian records, each and every time she would play the only English album our family owned: “Help!” by the Beatles. After “Yesterday” drifted from the speakers for the twentieth iteration, my newfound friends asked, “Don’t you know anything else? What about Britney?” “No…” “Christina?” “No…” I faltered and blushed, and amidst Paul McCartney’s calm voice, became known as “that weird girl who only listens to the Beatles.”
We tend to relate things temporally, stringing events together like beads to make sense of the past. I did not know it at that moment, but those melodic refrains and my friends’ tentative smiles stayed with me.
Many years later, I traveled to Istanbul as part of a study abroad program. It was not only the farthest I had been from home, but it was also a completely unfamiliar city, one in which I felt perpetually lost. In a cafe, a Turkish man’s face lit up when he heard I was from Seattle. “We are cousins, then.” He explained to me that Seattle is not just another foreign city; Seattle and Istanbul are sisters. I smiled politely, but I really did not have any idea what he could mean. Seattle is the city I grew up in, the corners and cracks I explored when I was just discovering myself. I longed to be free of it in the same way one longs to be free of oneself.
He must have sensed my doubt, for he looked at me earnestly. “Seattle and Istanbul lie on the open ocean, but are protected by the sound. This harbor allows us the freedom of the open sea, but protects us from its brute strength. We must be the same, with such hearts.” I wondered at that. Leaving Seattle for Istanbul, I thought I would feel more out of place, but the opposite had happened. When I was walking down wide, sunny boulevards, or dodging crowds in towering spice markets, through it all was the ever-present smell of the sea, a comfort and memory.
He was humming a tune. When I asked him, he said it was a traditional Turkish song. He cleared his throat, and began a refrain I learned too well. “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” My own throat tightened. There is some mystery in the world, some symmetry, and some understanding. The last thing I expected to find on the other side of the world was home.