There’s a tricky balance to writing well about expat life. Some people are so wide-eyed and enamored with their adopted homes that all they do is gush about how wonderful and fascinating and inspiring life abroad is. At the other end of the spectrum are writers who complain so relentlessly about the country they’re living in and the people who inhabit it that I want to scream, “If you hate it so much, why don’t you just GO HOME?”
My preference is for the expat writer who manages to discuss his or her second homeland with a sense of humor about its quirks but an appreciation for its history, culture, and people. My first exposure to this type of expat writing came from reading Kaiser Kuo’s back-page “Ich Bin Ein Beijinger” essays in The Beijinger magazine after I moved to China in 2005 (there’s a Kindle collection of his best columns, though I haven’t bought it yet). Other good examples of humorous China expat bloggers are Jeremiah Jenne and Imagethief, aka Will Moss (who has moved back to the U.S. and taken up residence in the foreign land of Silicon Valley). All three writers have a knack for describing the frustrating and often absurd elements of life in China, but without devolving into meanness or condemnations of China’s culture or its people as inherently deficient when compared to the U.S.
Jennifer Eremeeva manages to walk this fine line in her new “creative nonfiction” memoir of expatriate life in Russia, Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow. Eremeeva became a Russophile early on, falling under the spell of Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra as a teenager and majoring in Russian Area Studies at Columbia in the mid-1980s. As Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies changed the shape of Soviet life, Eremeeva arrived in Moscow to work as a tour guide. She’s now been there for over twenty years, marrying “HRH” (Handsome/Horrible Russian Husband, depending on her mood) and moving through a series of jobs in the tourism and PR industries. In 2006, Eremeeva switched over to writing full-time, focusing on “The funnier side of life in the world’s largest country,” as her blog’s tagline reads.
Lenin Lives Next Door is billed as fictional; as Eremeeva tells one of her expat drinking companions, “You can’t make this stuff up, but it lends itself to embellishment.” That goes for both the expats and the Russians, and Eremeeva doesn’t spare anyone her witty and withering glance. She skewers the American corporate wives who huddle in their gated-compound bubble, desperate to avoid anything that will remind them they’re in Russia rather than Ohio, just as readily as she mocks the nouveau-riche Russian couple who order an exact replica of an imperial dining room recreated in their ostentatious McMansion. As a long-term expat, Eremeeva has seen it all.
I, of course, read Lenin Lives Next Door through a set of eyes accustomed to life in China and looking for parallels. I was admittedly a little surprised to see how much Moscow resembles Shanghai, down to the expat book clubs that form and dissolve on a regular basis and the gridlock traffic that can make commuting time range from twenty minutes to two hours, depending on the time of day and whether or not a VIP has blocked off traffic to get somewhere. Russians, like my neighbors, are quick to offer a judgement of whether or not you are adequately clothed for the weather (though I’ve found this determination to be based on the calendar, not the actual temperature outside) and avoid iced drinks like the plague (on the apparent belief that the plague indeed comes from imbibing anything served under 50 degrees Fahrenheit). And heaven knows I’ve had the Chinese version of this exact conversation in 90 percent of the cab rides I’ve taken over the past nine years:
Driver: Where are you from?
Driver: Ohhhhhhhh … America.
Driver: You speak good Russian.
Me: Thank you.
Driver: Where is better—here or America?
Me: Here is certainly never dull.
Driver: I have a cousin who went to Chicago.
Me: You don’t say.
Driver: He has a house with five bathrooms.
Me: Why don’t you just drop me right here?
The only chapter in which she might cross the line from “amused tolerance” to “entitled complaining” is “Dachaphobia,” a litany of grievances against the dachas, or country cottages, that Russians flock to on summer weekends. On the other hand, I wouldn’t see the “vacation” in three days of mosquitoes, no air conditioning, and cold-water sponge baths, either. And Eremeeva does redeem herself by the end of the chapter, seeming to accept that dachas might be something she’ll never understand, but which are beloved by Russians.
Of course, living in a foreign country doesn’t require you to love everything about it, or eschew anything reminiscent of where you’ve come from. Eremeeva isn’t being condescending or anti-Russian when she writes about her disdain for a dish known as “herring under fur coat,” which she finds about as appetizing as I do chicken feet.* Expat life can be a struggle, between balancing your embrace of a foreign culture with recognizing that sometimes, you really do prefer things at (or from) home. Maybe we want to live “authentic” local lives, but there’s no shame in going to Starbucks. (Besides—that’s where all the locals are hanging out these days.)
“You have to really want to go to Russia,” Eremeeva writes, given the hassle of getting a visa and the bureaucratic complexities of remaining there for any length of time. And, as her book makes clear, you have to be both tough and flexible to deal with the challenges of living in Moscow (like the absence of Ziploc baggies). But while she pokes fun at plenty of things in her Russian life, it’s clear that Eremeeva loves the country and does really want to be there. And luckily for us, she’s decided to spend her time writing about the experience.
* I just searched for herring under fur coat on Google Images. I think I’ll take the chicken feet.