There was always plenty of food and laughter when we’d visit Masha’s* apartment. In her tiny kitchen, food would appear as if by magic from the small cupboards: sweets, salty snacks, filling meals of the most delicious Russian dishes. Guests never showed up to Masha’s with empty hands: from bags and pockets they brought forth bread and tea cakes and flowers to provide a little extra cheer.
Around the table, we’d gather as close to each other as we could. Knees knocking against each other, elbows poking sides as we reached for our teacups, we’d eat and laugh together. The jokes always started early, even as our dinner simmered on the gas stove. The singing occurred later as the tea was poured and the table cleared of our dirty, empty plates.
In Masha’s home, my American family discovered a warmth hitherto hidden from us by distance and culture and Cold War propaganda. Our friends shared their lives with us and taught us Russian idioms and Russian jokes and songs from their Soviet childhoods. And in that apartment, our Russian friends gave us a community.
I still think fondly about those times around Masha’s table. I miss those days. So much of my childhood was spent there. I studied for tests and worked on my homework surrounded by the comforting warmth of laughter and music. Masha’s home became a second home, and these friends were family.
We had cable growing up, a connection to the culture of our friends and family in America. Episodes of Friends ran every weeknight. I would watch and wonder at how the community I knew was not unlike that of the one on Friends, even though my community was made up of post-Soviets. I wondered too, if I might have a group of friends like the ones on my TV and the ones in my life when I was an adult.
I just didn’t realize how hard it would be to make friends as an adult.
As every good third culture kid knows, communities change. They are transient, full of “hellos” and “goodbyes”. Some friends take root in our lives; some are only with us for a season. Careers change, relationships change, and our community changes with them.
And community requires intentional living.
When I left Kazakhstan for a new life in America, I didn’t know what community I would find. I didn’t have a ready-made group of friends in which I could easily insert myself. Like the first day of kindergarten, I had to strike out and make friends on my own.
I hadn’t realized that as a child I had let my community define who I was. Suddenly on my own as an adult, I realized I didn’t have a strong understanding of my own identity. In my search for community, I made friends with people who seemed similar to the friends I had in high school, but these relationships often fell flat. They felt forced and unnatural.
I went back to Kazakhstan only to discover that Kazakhstan too had changed without me. The group of friends who had once met weekly around Masha’s kitchen table were now scattered across the world in search of their own new communities.
I moved to different cities in different countries. And in my search for friendship, I discovered myself.
Today I have a different community. Unlike the community of my childhood, it’s a smaller circle of friends. If Russian is spoken, it is in broken and mispronounced phrases my friends have learned on their own world travels. There are more board games today, and the only singing we do is when we play Rock Band, but there is still food and laughter and a love for culture. We tell each other stories about our childhoods, each different from the rest. We explore the world around us together.
It’s not like the community on Friends, nor like any I’ve witnessed in fiction. But it’s my community, where I can lay down roots. I know that this community is not immune to change, but whatever time we might have together will be appreciated and treasured.
* Name has been changed.