The Russian make-up brigade

Early in January, I spent a weekend at a planning retreat for Limmud FSU Canada (it’s the first ever Limmud FSU in Canada, and yes, expect to hear more from me about it soon). We were all asked to bring an artifact that spoke to our Russian selves, and as part of the identity-digging activity that accompanied the artifacts, I ended up writing a series of vignettes about some of the more awkward “Oh, I guess I’m sorta Russian” moments of my childhood. They were hastily scribbled and sometimes barely remembered. I thought I’d share one below.

This took place in high school, in the early 90s. It was just as the first waves of post-USSR immigrants started to arrive in Edmonton, clinging to the last remnants of an old life, old fashions, old values…

Russian women and make-up, prairie style

My friend S, whom I’d known since elementary school, asks me one day: “These Russian women – what is with their make-up? It’s so gaudy. All that blue eyeshadow. Tell me, why do they dress like that? Really? Why?” I shrug, because what do I know about “those people” and why is she asking me? Like I can explain them?

But I laugh and snicker because I’m supposed to. Because I’m embarrassed and I don’t want her to notice. Because I can’t figure out whether I should have an answer for this question. Or what that answer might. And then we move on to other gossip, because we’re high school girls and everything is temporary. But even as I brush it off and try to puzzle out what do “those people” have to do with me, I’m both embarrassed for them, and, somewhere, though I don’t want to admit it, I realize I’m ashamed for myself at my behaviour. I try not to think about my own Russian extended family who had recently arrived and whom I loved very much (I finally had family!).

And now… All I can think of myself is ‘how foolish.’ Of course we were young and foolish, but how utterly small-minded to think that this mattered. That people had left behind their homes, their lives, everything, and we were concerned about their fashion sense, about the make-up they managed to put on in the morning while trying to keep their families alive and fed and get jobs and register their kids in school. All this, but the blue eyeshadow. So small and so petty.

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