By Maria Trotter
The other day I was on the phone to my mum and we touched upon the topics of gender identity. In particular, I was trying to explain the concept of non-binary to her. There was a lot of cross-cultural work going on of course – my mum was born and grew up in the Soviet Union, only to watch it break down and dissolve into chaos when I was very little still. She then had to adapt to the new Russia, a completely different entity yet again, never ceasing to go through rapid changes. I have only witnessed a part of this journey and trust me, it is quite hard to keep up!
As I was struggling to describe the non-binary concept in Russian, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t just the cultural barrier that I was experiencing – the language itself became a barrier and a constraint. Russian is in itself very gender-centric, similar to German and French but even to a stronger extreme; for example, we would assign genders to inanimate objects such as a table (“he”), a plate (“she”), but then a window would be “it”. It occurred to me that as we grow up within this linguistic environment, it must be having some kind of an effect on our psychology and our way of thinking. I know it from personal experience as I have learned a few languages and have observed just how much my barriers have expanded as a result. Being aware of this kind of constraint, I started thinking how hard must it be for a person to suddenly realise just how much they don’t fit within the environment they live in, if even the language itself refuses to give them any frame of reference to who they are and how they relate to the world around them. And how equally hard it can be to reach out of the cultural dogmas you grew up in and take a leap to accept a new concept or way of thinking – which is what my mum was trying to do on a call with me.
This conversation stuck in my head for a very long time; I remembered my own struggles when I was growing up and trying to find my place in the society that tended to be quite judgemental of that which is different and unusual. What is universal though, be it Russia or the UK, is our human nature and instinctive fear of something different. We like stability, we do not like our lives to be disrupted, we like to close our eyes and ears when the world around us is screaming change. But what we need to be is brave, what we need to be is kind and empathetic, what we need to be is accepting of the people as they are, without labelling or judgement. And also a bit curious and eager to learn, even if your own language tends to stand against you.
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