Preparing to come home from Russia, I was in a mood to focus largely on the things I was going to lose upon leaving. Unsurprising. But once I got here, I was taken by surprise in rediscovering things I had lost by leaving the U.S. and am now regaining.
I was afraid that coming back to the U.S. would mean losing my Russian self and everything I had gained while I was there, reverting to being the same person I was two years ago when I set off. That, of course, didn't happen; experience has left its mark on me, and being in the U.S. doesn't erase that. Instead, it lets me keep what I've found and pick up the pieces I shed when I left. There were aspects of my personality, it turns out, that really did get lost in Russia.
One of those aspects was language. In Russia, I began to lose hold of the ways I define myself through language. I'm not a particularly eloquent speaker, but I'm a linguistic creature nonetheless. I really enjoy playing with language, appropriating language, observing the way my lexicon and manner of speaking changes depending on who I'm talking to, crafting written sentences to convey what I mean in the loveliest way possible. Speaking Russian all the time and speaking English primarily to non-native speakers really ties your hands linguistically. My Russian is not as expressive or varied as my English, and my English-to-Russians is not as expressive or varied as my English-to-Americans. Of course, I had my (few) American friends and this blog, but I was still speaking "as myself" in English much, much less than I do every day here.
I bet that's one of the reasons Seth and I were good friends (or much better friends, anyway, than two such different people would likely have been if we had met in the U.S.); we could talk to each other in a way that we couldn't really talk to anyone else. Usually that phrase is code for "we could divulge all our secrets and hopes and fears to each other," but here I actually mean it literally. We could bring out our full lexicon, constructions, mannerisms, humor, intonation, slang, cultural references – in short, all the tools in our linguistic toolbelts - and know we were being understood.
(Seth and I had different approaches to how we used English with Russians; from what I saw of his interactions with them, he kept on using those tools even when he wasn't understood, while I used a kind of pruned-back, twiggy English, shorn of markers of my unique idiolect. I can't say which approach is better, really, although I'm inclined to say that I went too far.)
Anyway, I've been generally dazzled by how bright, deep and complex the linguistic milieu is in my native land. I get to use all the tools in my toolbelt all the time now, and (to mix metaphors) my serves are almost always returned. I now draw immense pleasure from things like writing academic papers and from the way conversation flows in a group of people. I miss speaking Russian - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot - but I'm pleasantly surprised by how much donning my native language makes me feel like I'm in my own skin again.