14 November 2006

Russian friendship: reflections at the 3.5-month mark

If you’ve asked me lately how things are going, you've probably gotten the same answer I can't help giving everyone who asks: I'm making friends with Russians!!!! The number of exclamation points varies, but the sentiment is the same – this is definitely the most exciting thing that's happened in the last four months. (Sorry, Djanik.)

This is partly because, as they warned us, making friends in Russia really is the hardest part. The dorm system here doesn't help (the foreigners and the Russians are strictly segregated), nor does the fact that I have my own small safety net of other Americans and foreigners (helped along by the dorm system) to fend off loneliness, nor does the fact that I'm a teacher and I spend my day with students who aren't accustomed to the idea of chilling out with their professors. Nor do any of the cultural differences I've mentioned before (see post "Cross-cultural friendship and other disasters").

So it seems like a minor miracle that I have any Russian friends at all, which makes it feel like a victory every time I hang out with them and enjoy myself. But in addition to this, it's genuinely exciting to have Russian friends because Russian friendship is so different from American friendship. It's hard to explain the differences without resorting to the stereotypes of the Russian and American characters that are by now extremely tired-sounding to me. But since most of you, my readers, are not Americans living in Russia or studying Russian, these stereotypes probably won't be as tired to you, so I'll indulge.

The thing that I've noticed most and like the most is that Russians are a great deal more open than Americans. The veneer of politeness that can be hard to get beyond in all but the closest American friendships seems to disappear a lot more quickly here, which means that you're freer to disagree with each other openly without any sense of stepping on each other's feelings, freer to show both approval and disapproval of each other's actions, and freer to express all of your emotions, along with the kind of concern for each other's welfare that Americans seem to reserve for either family or romantic relationships.

I've read a lot of American reactions to this Russian trait, and they can be both good and bad. As a people, we expect the average adult to know how to take care of him- or herself and treat each other as such, so this constant worrying over whether friends are warm enough (eating right, getting enough sleep, able to purchase groceries on their own, the list goes on) sounds a lot like nagging, especially if you're not expecting it. And it does bother me some of the time, but I often find it charming. The other part – the openness in expressing negative opinions – is more difficult for me to deal with, but also funnier. For example:

Lyuda: So, why did you cut your hair?
Leslie: Oh, I'd had long hair for a long time and I wanted to know what it would look like short. But you know, I'm not sure I like it. I think long hair looks better on me.
Lyuda: I agree! When I first saw it, I thought, "Leslie! Who is the awful person who has done this to you?!?"

Yeah. I'm pretty sure none of my American friends would ever say that. But Lyuda then gave me a hairdryer (apparently she had an extra one lying around) and advised me to buy some mousse – a fine example of Russians' ability and willingness to look after my well-being in unexpected ways.

I spent most of Sunday hanging out with two of my students, Lena and Irina, and Lena's boyfriend Sasha, a ship painter. It was nothing too special – we went to the movies, sat in a café for an hour or two, and walked on the набережная/naberezhnaya, Vladivostok's version of a boardwalk – but at the end of the day I felt such a happiness in my heart (I can't believe I just wrote "such a happiness in my heart" – I think I'm turning into a Russian) and an intense satisfaction at the knowledge that my wellspring of love for Russians seems to run at least as deep as my wellspring of bewilderment and occasional frustration toward Russian society. This is definitely a good thing.


Anonymous said...

I was kind of wondering about the mousse and the hairdryer. Good thing somebody is looking out for you, whether it's a cross-cultural experience or not!


Anonymous said...

I remember much the same thing in Moldova (an obviously Russified culture). Alexei and Ili were fanatical about caring for our well-being, even for the ten days we were there. Alexei gave me one of his best hats and insisted I take it, because men should not go in public without a hat. He was deeply concerned that I would look undignified and people would get the wrong impression of me.

I love the billboard. Real manly work!

Love ya

Anonymous said...

Oh, your post really pulls my heartstrings. I had much the same reaction to making Israeli friends -- much more open and less concerned about what I think is actually a lack of caring disguised in that "veneer of politeness" that so bothers me about Americans.

I guess I should be a little miffed to see I don't count as a Russian friend, but only a little. :-)

Are they teaching you to cook Russian foods yet?

I disagree with your friend -- your hair looks way better short (at least in that one pic).

happy for you!