Surrounded by an overwhelmingly Westernized environment as a university student in North America, I often find myself thinking about how lucky I am to be an international student living abroad. I was born in Moscow, Russia, where I spent the first 11 years of my life with my Russian mother and South Korean father. My family then moved to Amsterdam, where I lived during my teenage years and ultimately finished school before moving to New York to pursue film at Tisch. Although I’m currently a first-year film student, I know now that I would not have taken full advantage of my educational endeavors as an art student had it not been for my international background. Despite difficult experiences and a long struggle with my identity, I have now come to embrace my roots and advocate for others do the same.
One of the ways I have come to understand my place in the world is through film. Despite being exposed to films of various cultures throughout my life, Russian films have stuck with me the most. Growing up in Moscow, as a child I was spellbound by the compelling narrative structure, the witty, dry-humored Slavic dialogue and the historical and artistic significance of Soviet films from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I was particularly enthralled by the work and stylistic eye of Leonid Gaidai, who was responsible for beautifully whimsical works such as “Kidnapping, Caucasian Style”, “The Diamond Arm and Operation Y” and “Shurik’s Other Adventures.” Watching these films enabled me to maintain an Eastern European artistic narrative and stylistic viewpoint.
I was always fully immersed in an open-minded, international environment, whether it was in my day-to-day life in Moscow and Amsterdam or during my years of education in international schools. I grew up with the expectation that my diverse background and experience would be met by everyone wherever I’d go, which was exactly my mentality when I came to the U.S. During the first couple of months, I experienced an extreme amount of culture shock, mainly due to the comments people made after they’d ask me where I was from. I encountered many stereotypical generalizations and misconceptions about my being from Russia: did I drink vodka religiously, know Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin personally, ride bears in my spare time? I soon learned to always say I was South Korean instead of just Korean, as often times I’d be asked whether I was North Korean and whether I knew Kim Jong Un. And worst of all, when I’d say I lived in Amsterdam, I’d be asked whether I loved legalized marijuana, legalized prostitution and oddly enough, cheese.
I soon grew anxious that everyone I’d meet would ask me such blatantly stereotyped questions, and thus formulate biased impressions which stemmed from the way Russian and Korean people were portrayed in Hollywood films. I was left wondering if people would decide whether or not they liked me based on the cultural assumptions they’d automatically construct about me as soon as I told them where I was from. My appreciation for foreign films had always helped me bolster my understanding of the world and opened my eyes to cultural environments I might not have previously grasped, and as I entered my new life as an international student within American education, I realized the value that foreign art and cinema might provide.
I remember that shortly after I moved, I decided to just say I was from Amsterdam when asked where I was from, instead of explaining I was a Russian and South Korean person who lived in Amsterdam, which confused people too much. By doing this, I began to belittle the unique identity I had once felt so proud of. I grew tired of the stereotypes and the geographic ineptitude that showed itself when people asked whether Amsterdam was in Germany or in the U.K. and whether I spoke Danish or Dutch.
But it took this experience of an identity crisis to make the decision to view my diverse identity, experiences and exposure to different kinds of cultural art as a privilege. I came to an understanding that an international education and artistic upbringing should not be taken for granted. As an international student in a predominantly Westernized world, I consider it my responsibility to attempt to further advocate for art outside the Western canon. Had it not been for my multicultural background, my insistence on advocacy and change would not be as strong.
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Email Anna Lee at [email protected]