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When kids teased me for being Russian, my mom had great advice

The author (left) with her mother, Maria Espinoza, at the Womxn's March on Seattle in January 2017.
The author (left) with her mother, Maria Espinoza, at the Womxn's March on Seattle in January 2017.

When my mom, Maria Espinoza, came to the United States from Russia at age 13, it was toward the end of the Cold War, and some Americans were openly hostile to Russians. 

Now, with tensions between the two countries again running high, I'm facing the same thing. 

I wanted to hear my mom's story from the beginning and to have some of my own questions answered. At first, my mom didn't want to do this interview because of all the anti-Russian sentiment in the media. But she finally gave in.  

Mom told me why her family left Russia and decided to come to America in 1988. She said it was complicated: "My parents were activists, particularly my mother. She was a writer who wrote literature that was very controversial. We were, I guess you could say, trying to connect to the West.

"We had some missionaries that came to our house, and my mom had friends in a political sector that were being watched by the KGB. They put is in a position of being refugees."

They fled to Italy for nine months before receiving asylum in Seattle. My mom left behind so much. 

"I think it was hard for me to leave Moscow," she said. "It was hard for me to leave my home. I had to give up my dog... I had to say goodbye to my dog and all my friends. I was pretty cool. I was a cool kid, and it was hard to be weird. I had to not be cool anymore and that was hard."

I can understand the pain she felt when she left behind her dog, because I lost my dog to cancer. Funny how I never realized how alike we are in our experiences, even if they were at different times in this life. 

And I understood what my mom meant when she said it was hard to be weird. This is something I've been dealing with since elementary school. Students called me weird because the Russian language sounds different from English, but I always heard it as beautiful.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Maria Espinoza with her dog she left behind in Moscow.", "fid": "137329", "style": "offset_right", "uri": "public://201706/mom-dog.png", "attribution": "Credit COURTESY OF MARIA ESPINOZA"}]]The kids at school didn't hear it the way I did. To them, it was open season to tease me. I remember when I was 10, one boy even drew a picture of a war between Russia and America, with Russian troops dying. 

I felt the heat of rage creep into my cheeks that day. I resented that kid for a long time. I grew up hearing stories about the Cold War and how bad it was. When that kid drew the picture, I figured out that there were still big problems between the countries. These moments continue to happen, like recently when a teacher made a snide remark about the Russian government in class.

The only question that stuck in my mind after all these years is: Why the dislike? 

"I think the dislike actually comes from government," my mom said. "I think it comes from political views. I think it comes from capitalism, socialism, communism and all of the divisions in politics. I don't think it has anything to do with people." 

My mom made me realize that people can't be blamed for something that the government has drilled into our minds, programming friction between our countries.

So I don't hate that kid who drew such a hurtful image for me all those years ago. He just didn't know. 

But then there's still the big question left to ask: Is there any possibility of Russia and America being on good terms? 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Maria Espinoza with her parents in the years before she left Moscow.", "fid": "137330", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201706/photo-1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit COURTESY OF MARIA ESPINOZA"}]]

"I don't think it's that simple," my mom said. "What rules this world isn't really people. It's government, money, power and politics. When it comes to the Russian and American conflict, it's been around for so long that it's almost adorable at this point. I don't even take offense to it."

My mom turned to me: "There will never really be — probably, Milla, in your lifetime — truths, and it's okay to have a friendly competitor in your life. I hope that America and Russia can find themselves to be that: friendly competitors."

It was a truthful answer I needed to hear. My mom has an encouraging message for other Russian-American family having a hard time with today's unsettling media reports: "If you choose to listen to hateful people, you will hear hateful information. But if you have resources of people that are thinking otherwise, you won't."

My mom means the world to me, and always knows how to make things right.

This story was created in RadioActive Youth Media's 2017 After-School Workshop for high school students at New Holly in partnership with Seattle Housing Authority. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter