Saturday, December 1, 2012

I Want To Be An American Idiot

I have many times considered legally changing my last name. To what name would I change it? Why, to Berkov of course, the name of the Russian side of my family. (Those in my family who automatically inherited the name owing to well-established Western patriarchal tradition spell it "Berkoff." But because I want to be a little more accurate and closer to the original Cyrllic, I spell it "Berkov." And, fun fact, when my great grandparents first arrived at Ellis Island from St. Petersburg they spelled it "Berkow" - a very typical Russian faux-pas owing to language barriers). However, I've never been able to bring myself to actually change my name. One reason is that my father, the man who gave me the surname Hopkins, is dead, and because of this I feel a certain sense of honor and loyalty to his memory. Therefore I cannot just banish the name Hopkins (not to mention I'm no closer to my Russian side than to any other side of my family, so I do not wish to infer favoritism where there is none). I do however now incorporate, and will be doing so legally, the name Berkov into my given name. I want my Russianness expressed in my name as it appears. A name - the one thing that invariably labels us, and will continue to do so long after we die. Why? Because I want people before they even meet me to think: "Russian." I'll explain more as to why that is a bit later.

I've never felt any particular affinity to the name Hopkins (beyond the wonderful people who share it with me, that is). Berkov, on the other hand, represents for me a culture and a history to which I feel strongly attached. What about Hopkins? Is there a cultural lineage therein to which I feel truly akin? Well, to tell you the truth I've had to weave a bit of a tale in order to find the pride and meaning behind that all-too Anglo name (I've had to philosophically justify it to myself, that is. I don't mean I paid some ridiculous fee for an internet service to track down my family, although I'm a sucker so I probably will someday).

So just what is there to this Hopkins business? Well, as anyone who's read this blog probably knows, Russian is the culture to which I relate most. But in my blood I've also a great deal of English, and lesser amounts of Welsh, Irish, Dutch, German, and Cherokee (in other words, a very typical white-American mutt. All told, this North and Western European mix takes up far more of my blood than does Russian, actually). Hopkins comes from Britain (and it's certainly no secret that I'm a huge fan of British culture all around, as the Shakespearean title of this blog might have hinted to you. But really, come on - the British are just like Americans except they do everything better, with the notable exceptions of their self-defense laws, dentistry, and that most wretched and evil of transportation ideas: the roundabout). But here's the fun part: As British as the name is, many Hopkins have been on this side of the Atlantic for 400 years (as has another side of my family, the Rockwoods - and I've got the birth and death records of this line to prove it!) Not only that, but a Hopkins (Stephen) signed the Declaration of Independence! Some of my bloodlines goes back into the very embryonic stage of American history. We were American before there was an America. How's that for seniority!

Now, I make no secret of my contempt for what some people call "American culture." In fact, when people act and speak as though there is an American culture, and sometimes even speak of it as if it is a kind of ethnicity, I want to laugh maniacally in their faces. American culture? Please. Let me tell you something about the United States of America: it is the culture of no culture. And that is precisely what I love so much about it. Being American means having the freedom to be whatever I want, however I want. This above all is what makes me proud to be an American.

To be "ethnically" American is practically the same as being "ethnically" homo sapien: it implies next to nothing. What little it does imply, however, is a certain spirit (that very cliched but very true spirit) of liberty, and a very personal liberty. I am able to be as Russian as I want to be because our American government allows me to be. Sure, our current government is pretty horribly corrupt, but it still effectively protects most of my personal liberties pretty damn well. Luckily, it's not quite reached again the level of our historically worst, i.e. the fear and paranoia of McCarthyism (the tail-end of our ridiculous "nuclear family" phase when we tried to establish an American pseudo-ethnicity through assimilation of immigrants and WASP-oriented propaganda campaigns). Luckily as a country on the whole we've moved quite beyond that. However, the geographic and demographic regions who embraced and continue to embrace that sort of ideology are welcome to - that's what's great about America! And as much as I love my Father Russia, for as long as that paranoid ex-KGB usurper and wanna-be-Stalin Vladimir Putin is occupying the presidential seat, I'm not too keen on going over there to visit, let alone staying awhile. Russians, you understand, have a certain tendency toward the dramatic (you might have noticed this from the way I write about things mundane) and sadly this usually shows itself in our leadership in the worst way. So in America I'll stay. (And while I'm here, I might as well not shy away from my extreme appreciation thereof).

But however much the "culture" of America as I see it disgusts me, I need not run from my Americanness. America is in fact a perfect representative of what it is to be human: we are instinctively selfish primates and we seek only to please ourselves and those who please us, preferably while getting more than we give. However, we are also pack animals, so despite our inherent selfishness if a threat comes from outside the troop we will unite fervently and ferociously until that threat is gone and then quickly go back to our blissful internal squabbling. (Yes, American flags were flown everywhere and a spirit of extreme patriotism reigned briefly after 9/11, but it wasn't long before our then-president started making decisions that put us right back into our usual camps of disparate sociopolitical positions). As it has been said many times before: Divided we stand! And that's the way I like it. I truly do love this country (or rather, in true American fashion, what this country is and does for me).

To bear the name of Hopkins is then to stake my claim on this country in which I live and will likely live for the rest of my life (although I have not totally ruled out a future as a composer or English teacher in Russia. I'll spend my winters in Krasnodar and summers in St. Petersburg. It'll be brilliant). The point is, I'm really as American as they come. I'm a Hopkins, a Rockwood, a Smith, a Roosevelt (yes, I am related to the presidents), and a Cherokee. I'm also the great-grandson of Russian immigrants who five years before the Revolution came to these shores to give their children (and by extension, me) a better life. It's the all-too-typical, all-too romantic American story.

Therefore, I shall proudly bear the name of Hopkins and all that it represents, American and otherwise. So too shall I add the name of Berkov, for as I've delved deeper and deeper into Russian culture I found something that I'd been looking for my whole life: an identity. I finally began to feel like I belonged to something - a feeling I'd been looking for and missing my whole life (and I mean from the time I was a very young child). It is adolescent, even infantile, but much like any social group, subculture, religion, clan, club, gang, or any other form of pack that a person joins or is born into, my Russian heritage has provided me with a lot of answers (both convenient and true) to a lot of my questions. Why have I been so moody my whole life? Because I'm Russian! Why am I so distrustful of everything? Because I'm Russian! Why do I have such a ridiculous sense of humor? Because I'm Russian! Why am I so cartoonishly passionate when I'm silly enough to fall for someone? Because I'm Russian! Oh sure, there's better answers to some of those questions (and don't you think for a second that I haven't explored them!) but my favorite answer is the one given above.

Afterthought: 

"But Daniel!" you may be thinking to yourself after reading the herein above, "Isn't labeling yourself and identifying with one culture over and against others isolating you from a more global perspective and understanding? Isn't that taking a step backward?" My answer to that is simple: Oh, shut up. I'm not interested in being progressive or enlightened. I'm only interested in what makes me happy. And if you were more interested in what makes you happy, you wouldn't feel at all threatened by what makes me happy. Humans, as I've said again and again, are pack animals by nature, and for once in my life I've decided to stop trying to deny my instinctive longings. I've found a pack that makes sense to me (ideologically that is. I'm sure that upon going to Russia itself I'll find that I like and dislike just as many of the people there as I do anywhere else I've been. Luckily, part of what's so great about being Russian is that self-loathing is part of the bag. And it's my bag, damnit! So I can even dislike Russians all I want and still be incredibly Russian. How awesome is that!) Besides, I don't think Russians are in any way a superior people - good God are we not a superior people - we just make more sense to me (and not much in this world does make sense to me). And in much the same way that I do not need or desire other people to have the same religious or philosophical views that I do, I don't need anyone to understand or even like Russia or Russian culture. For once in my life I've decided to consciously set about something with totally self-centered intentions. It's mine, and I'm going to keep it, own it, wrap up in it, and adore it. As for those of you who are true individualists, who think you've got no need of a pack, group, or some kind of communal identity - good for you. You managed to reconcile yourself to something that I and most other people cannot. Kudos! Perhaps you are the next stage in the evolution of humankind. But it doesn't make me happy to feel like an ape wandering alone in the forest. I'd rather have a troop that I can stay with and someone to groom me once in awhile. And, at least for the time being, that will just have to do for Daniel Berkov Hopkins.