My classmate Tamara was insistent. We needed to stay for the Olympic games in Moscow in the summer of 1980, in order to approach foreigners and ask for some chewing gum. I still remember her training us how to do it. You approach a foreigner with a smile, a ten years old Tamara said, raise your eyes so you can look into their eyes directly, and slowly ask in English: “Uncle, would you have any chewing gum, please?” Her mother, a medical researcher who visited international conferences, taught her how to ask for chewing gum. There was no chewing gum in the USSR.
For us “foreigners” were all American. It did not really matter whether they were from the US or not. The fact that Americans boycotted those Olympic games did not stop us from imagining them coming and providing us with things. Being quintessentially “American” meant wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans, putting legs on the table, speaking loudly, and chewing gum. Oh yes, and sunglasses. How to become an American? Get some gum and start chewing. Of course, it was also an appalling and rude thing to do. Any properly brought up young person knew that. But that was the whole point, to be transgressive. Tamara was the most outspoken member of our class on matters of style. Every morning she would make comments about our clothing and appearance, positive or negative. I always felt it was not very Soviet of her. Just when she also told us that gum is a form of currency, we could exchange it later for other things we wanted.
Other classmates and I were stunned. Asking foreigners on the streets to give us chewing gum was a challenging plan. Not only we had not started learning English by then. The very idea of approaching a foreigner was a no-go and we all knew that. Foreigners were rare and not allowed to mingle with us. Moreover, everything was done to make us spend that summer outside of Moscow. I spent it in the south of Moldova working on corn fields (that’s another story). The Moscow Olympics memory for me was a carpet that my parents brought from Moldova. It depicted the symbol of those games, a Russian toy bear, Olympiyski Mishka, in green and blue colors, and hung in my room for decades.
Recently a different friend shared her chewing gum story. She spent that 1980 summer in Saint Petersburg. One day, on a visit to the cruiser Aurora (famous for participating in the Winter Palace siege by the Bolsheviks in 1917), a foreign man approached her, smiled and offered some gum and candy. He said “hello.” Many thoughts crossed her mind: Should I say hello in return? Should I take his candy? Would it mean that I am betraying my motherland right here right now? One of her close relatives traveled around the world for work, but never talked about it at home. What would that relative say? Would I cause him any trouble by this contact with this foreigner? Can I smile? She remembers to this day how frozen she felt at the moment, a little kid with a country on her shoulders. As she was describing her feelings and their vivid memory, we were sitting at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow in the summer of 2013. We concluded that her ten years old daughter is unable – thankfully – to understand those feelings today. The girl speaks three languages that she can practice on a regular basis. And she can buy gum at any bus stop in Moscow. I asked what happened at the end, on that summer day on the cruiser Aurora. “I said nothing to him, but took the chewing gum,” she answered.