31 October 2006

Cross-cultural friendship and other disasters

(Note: at my parents' prodding, I remembered that I wrote this essay a week ago - a week! where is my blog-posting dedication?!? - and decided I might as well post it. Sorry it's been so long! Life here continues to roll on, although I'm finding that I get busier and busier with each passing week (that's a good thing, so far). In other news, HAPPY HALLOWEEN! No costume for me this year, but I'm wearing my orange sweater in honor of the day.)

One of the reasons I often gave when people asked me why I wanted to move to Russia for a year was that I felt that living in a foreign culture is the kind of broadening experience that can really change your perspective on life, turn you into a different person, yada yada, and that everyone should take the opportunity if they have the chance to.

This is obviously just a spiel; tired, trite, obvious, the kind of thing every traveler trots out when faced with someone who doesn’t understand why you’d choose to go somewhere where there’s no hot water six months of the year and all the cold water has to be boiled to avoid giardia and you’re fifteen time zones away from every one of your friends. But it has the virtue of ringing a lot truer than many spiels, and it’s turned out to be less trite than I gave it credit for. So I stand by it.

I’m just at the point in my stay where I’m starting to feel a whole lot less like a tourist. This is true in several ways; most obviously, I don’t get lost every time I leave campus and I now know how to send mail to the U.S. and where the safe ATMs are. Less obvious but more important is the fact that, while I’m still not at the point where I could say I really understand Russian culture, the culture – specifically, the ways in which it really, meaningfully differs from U.S. culture – is becoming clearer to me. By meaningful differences I’m referring to the ones that are less visible than, “Oh my god, most of these people have never eaten peanut butter! And they’re surprised that I’m 22 and not married yet! And they think by letting their child sit on the floor I’m risking that he’ll catch the flu or become sterile!” (Although those – except maybe the peanut butter one, which should be unsurprising to all but the most sheltered Americans – are certainly interesting in their own rights.)

Anyway, the upshot of this, especially in the context of attempting to make Russian friends, is that I’ve gotten a good dose of realizing just how important culture is. That sounds really dumb. But what I mean is that I’m realizing how important having some sort of shared culture can be in shaping our interactions with people. For instance, I only recently came to terms with the fact that as long as I keep using a smile to signal friendliness and politeness (the typical American use for a smile), many Russians are going to think I am shallow and fake.* (Haven’t decided yet whether this means I’ll change my ways – I think training myself to smile less would be very difficult.)

More meaningfully, I’ve realized the extent to which your culture gives you a belief system. When you meet another American, you obviously can’t assume anything about, say, religious or political beliefs (the kind of beliefs we usually think about), but you can and do assume other kinds of beliefs: for instance, a belief in the value of self-reliance and individualism that’s so ingrained in our culture that most people (including me) probably don’t feel like they really have it until they come up against a group of people that looks at individualism differently. As another example, it’s sad but true that when you meet another American you can’t assume anything about his or her beliefs on the subjects of racism or sexism. But you probably make an assumption about what beliefs that individual will espouse in front of relative strangers. It would be shocking for someone to say something like, “I hate black people and think they’re intellectually inferior to whites,” in a polite or especially an academic setting. Here, that assumption is out the window. The rules of what’s ok to say and what’s not ok are completely different. I’ve been floored several times by comments that people I like very much – students and professors both – have said things that in America would be either inappropriate, uneducated, or flat-out ridiculous.

This presents a problem. Your gut reaction in these situations is to start disliking the person, much as you (that is, I) would pass judgment on someone in the U.S. if they made the above comment. But you know that’s not right somehow. It’s especially hard for me with the rampant anti-Chinese racism here. Those beliefs are not ok with me, but these people live in a culture that tells them those beliefs are fine, acceptable, and even the norm, to say nothing of justified or morally correct. Can I blame them for that? I don’t think so. But how to foster tolerance? Is it appropriate to say straight-up that those beliefs aren’t acceptable to me? (This is L’s strategy, but I’m not comfortable with it, especially in the classroom.) My current MO is to always argue when appropriate and use culturally unbiased arguments (that is, nothing that begins with something like, “In the U.S. this would never…” So what? Why should they care what it’s like in the U.S.?).

Anyway, all this is interesting to me. Making friends here requires time. And patience.

Speaking of time and patience, I spent five hours last Sunday shopping for a winter coat with some of the nicest, most concerned, generous, and patient people I’ve ever met. They hardly even knew me, and they drove me around to different markets and stuffed me into about fifty different coats trying to find the warmest, best one. (This was a student from my Wednesday night adult class and her husband.) It was really touching. We finally found one that has an amazing, enormous fur-lined hood that makes me look like Jane Eyre/Little Bo Peep/the cartoon oysters from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland/a daisy (opinions, you see, differ). And starfish-shaped buttons. (Sometime maybe I’ll write about what being in a foreign culture does to your sense of fashion, because it’s… interesting.)

28 October 2006

Posts, or lack thereof

So, it's been a while. I don't have a real post right now, but I just wanted to check in, say hello, and promise that a "real post" is coming soon. And I'll add that this morning I accidentally participated in a vaguely nationalistic school lecture on how Russian is a mighty language which should be respected, cultivated, and protected by all Russians (including - and this is the part that goaded the linguist in me - the ones who are currently busy speaking minority languages like Buryat that are frankly in a lot more danger of disappearing than Russian is...). But afterwards we got to go to the seashore, where I found some nice shells, so I consider myself about even on the day.

20 October 2006

The new hair...

Because I'm short on internet time, I'll refrain from commenting and just give you the pictures.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

and After
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Edit: ok, I caved and bought more internet time (addicted? maybe...). So I will offer the following commentary:

First, the second picture is not entirely representative of the new 'do, since I took it right after I had it cut, and of course the stylist did all that blow-drying and combing and gel stuff that they always do. I own neither a blow-dryer nor gel, so it never looks quite like this, but it looks ok nonetheless.

Second, what do you think? I'm still not sure how I feel about it, but I think I like it. For one, I look a bit older, and as Boris Sergeevich reminded me, that's still a good thing when you're 22. (Someday I should write an entry about Boris Sergeevich.) For another, one of the reasons I cut it is because with long hair I just put it into a ponytail or a clip all the time anyway, because I didn't like the way it looked when it was down. The stylist, however, was adamantly opposed to me cutting it short and kept trying to convince me that long hair was better (two things she kept saying were, "Long hair is so much more feminine!" and "Won't you miss having long hair?" (That is, вам не жаль? which I understand to mean something like that, although it may actually mean "Won't you regret it?")). This was a little weird, since she herself had short hair. (Dyed brassy blonde, for a change from the typical maroon.)

Also, my hair is at least twice as fluffy now as it's ever been before, which is exciting and a little weird (I have thin hair, so when it's long it lies pretty flat).

17 October 2006

"When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple..."

Appparently, the Russians have taken Jenny Joseph's sentiment to its extreme, in that old ladies here don't just wear purple; they dye their hair purple. Lavender, to be more specific. I've seen this on several different women here (always exactly the same shade), but I was particularly struck by the vivid tresses of a woman I passed on the way to the internet cafe (and by the fact that she was wearing lipstick that was a perfect match).

I think my grandmother, an active member of my hometown's Red Hat Society, should try this out.

I haven't seen any younger women with purple hair, though, because they seem to be too busy dying it the kind of vivid maroon you see sometimes in the U.S. on someone who was going for a rich red-brown but missed the mark by about two miles. Except here, it's done on purpose.

So the reason I'm contemplating this is that I have a hair appointment in about two and a half hours. I've been toying with the idea of cutting my hair short since August, and I've finally concluded that I'm not going to be happy until I find out what it looks like. I actually thought about selling my hair, since there's ample opportunity to do that here (and admittedly because I was being romantic/dramatic and imagining an entrance like Winona Ryder's in the movie version of Little Women when she bursts into the kitchen and reveals that she's sold her beautiful chestnut locks to support the family). But it turns out that the requisite 30 cm you need to have to sell (40 cm if dyed or gray, which my hair fortunately is not) would leave me with only an inch or two left. And that's not what I'm going for.

So despite the fact that I'm not going to be satisfied until I find out what I look like with short hair, I acknowledge that this is a horrible idea. You see, the above-mentioned dye jobs aren't the only way in which Russian hair fashion differs from U.S. For one thing, rat-tails (you know, the kind the third-grade bully had) are popular (on women and small boys, but not men, it seems), as are mullets and mullet derivatives. If not for the fact that I found a picture of what I want my hair to look like, I think the risk of accidentally coming out with a rat-tail or a mullet would be too great (especially since my haircut-describing abilities are pretty weak in Russian). But I did find such a picture, so off to the парикмахерская/parikmakherskaya (a ridiculously long word that I suspect must come from German, like most ridiculous Russian words (another example: шнурки/shnurki, which means shoelaces)) I go.

However, the picture I'm taking with me is a side shot, so there's still a chance that I'll end up with some godawful bangs or something. (I'm hoping hand gestures will be enough to prevent that.) In any case, if the stylist appears to be reaching for a bottle of dye, my plan is to start running.

10 October 2006

You don't say no to Ludmila Petrovna...

Ludmila Petrovna is the head of ИИЯ, the department I "work" for at the university. I forget whether I mentioned her here before, but I don't think I did.

Basically, she scares the pants off me.

She's a very commanding person, and the first time I met her (under less-than-favorable circumstances, since at the time no one, least of all me, knew what I was doing here) I actually thought she hated me. In fact, she didn't - she just has a very no-nonsense demeanor and that peculiar Russian(?) conversation style that only permits one person (namely, her) to ever say anything.

Anyway, I was in the department today when I ran into her. She informed me that she needed to talk to me after I was done with what I was doing. Uh-oh. I figured I was about to get canned, or at least chewed out for not being a good English teacher or being underqualified or something. I can see Ludmila Petrovna really ripping into someone if she found out they weren't doing their job.

No such luck. In reality, Ludmila Petrovna (a phonologist herself) heard through the grapevine that my "specialty" in college was phonology. She wanted to know if I would be willing to give a talk on phonological research to the department. In addition to discussing my research interests, it would be nice if I could also talk a bit about what I think the most important areas of phonological research are at the present time. Because of the title of this post, I agreed.

I am, perhaps, slightly more qualified to give this talk than a potato would be. But only slightly. The fact that phonology was NOT my specialty (although my senior project could, I guess, be considered phonological in nature) only scratches the surface of the multitude of reasons why, in the USA, I would not be considered qualified to give this talk.

We were warned about our "lecture appeal" at our orientation; a recent Fulbrighter to Estonia told us about how he found himself scheduled to give a lecture on Che Guevara. His hosts just assumed that, being American, he must know a lot about Che Guevara. (No, I don't follow the logic there, either.) I believe he used Wikipedia to get through it. At the time, I was terrified that something like that would happen to me. Now, I just find it hilarious.

In other news: Thanks, Ronli and Denise! I got my birthday cards from both of you today. It felt like my birthday all over again!

08 October 2006

A picture or two...

My "real" update is below ("The Ugly Side"), but to lighten things up a little bit, here are a few pictures from our trip to Russki Ostrov last weekend.

Russki Ostrov (Russian Island) is an island in the bay here. It's quite large, and is home to a now-decrepit fort that was built near the end of the tsarist era (in 1903). For much of the Soviet era it was closed to anyone but army personnel, and was used as a training ground. Now it's where Vladivostok's citizens go on the weekends to "have a rest" (a favorite English expression for the Russians I know) and pick mushrooms or wildflowers.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
I like the view in this photo. The walls you can see are parts of the old fort.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
The "ship graveyard" was my favorite part of the island. It was really still and quiet there, except the sound of some power tools coming from across the inlet where they were harvesting scrap metal from one of the ships. The contrast between nature and the junky, rotting man-made stuff gave the place a kind of surreal feeling.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
This is my favorite picture, just because it turned out so well. And because after seeing all the litter on the beach, it was reassuring to know that *something* can still live in the ocean there.

The Ugly Side

Disclaimer: I think this is the first post I could legitimately get into trouble with the university for writing. As a disclaimer, the following is my own account of events that I have no material proof actually happened. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it. If a university official informs me that this account is incorrect, I will notify my readers immediately. As an additional note, throughout this post, I use the term “Russian” to refer to an amorphous group of people who identify as ethnically Russian, which often includes people with some Ukrainian or Belarusian heritage but emphatically does not include every citizen of the Russian Federation. I also hope people recognize that I’m speaking in generalities; things I say here do not apply to every Russian, or even most Russians.

There was a Chinese holiday on Friday. I have to confess my cultural ignorance by saying I don’t know what the holiday is called exactly (Moon Festival? Lunar New Year? Something along those lines...), but that’s not important at the moment. The point is, several of the visiting Chinese professors who live in our dormitory were celebrating this holiday on Friday evening. They were having this celebration on the sidewalk outside the dorm; I’m not sure why, but it probably had something to do with the dorm’s absolutely-no-alcohol-ever policy. Anyway, the dorm is on our relatively closed campus, so it’s not like they were just on the street. Nonetheless, some (presumably drunk) Russian guys came up behind them, started chasing them and throwing things at them, and eventually hit one of the teachers in the head with a brick. Besides that guy’s very bloody head wound (no concussion that I know of) and some scrapes on a girl who fell down trying to run away, no one was injured. Which is good.

But still.

Racial and ethnic hatred is, I would say, a big problem in Russia. In Western Russia, the brunt of the xenophobia is felt by Caucasian people – that is, Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis – but many Russians feel dislike for all sorts of non-Russian groups, from Jews to East and Southeast Asian immigrants to simply any foreigner who clearly doesn’t fit in. Maybe some of you saw the recent New York Times article about the ethnically-motivated bar brawl in a village in Karelia that culminated in businesses owned by ethnic Georgians being vandalized (need I compare this to Kristallnacht?), and ultimately caused a large portion of the town’s ethnically Georgian population to flee to the regional capital. Or if you followed the news about the Moscow market bombing in August, you know that it wasn’t a result of warring between the Chinese and Vietnamese merchants there (as was first suggested), but was planned by a group of Russian nationalist university students. I also heard something about a Spanish student in Western Russia having recently been murdered, but I don’t know any details about that.

Russians give various explanations for dislike of immigrant groups; one excuse I’ve frequently heard is that Caucasian immigrants are involved in shady business dealings. I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s true, but I don’t think it’s the real reason for the hatred. I don’t have a clear answer for what the real reason is, but I think it has a bit to do with the instability caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, a bit to do with the continually poor economic situation for the average Russian (sure, the ruble’s gaining strength, but it’s all oil), and a bit to do with a long history of xenophobia here. (Alas, even Dostoevsky, one of my favorite authors, had some issues with xenophobia.) Perhaps it also has something to do with the “demographic crisis” (a hot issue here). The birthrate is critically low, and at least here in the Far East, immigrants are pouring in, which leads to the opinion I’ve heard both here and in Moscow: Vladivostok is being overrun by Asiatic peoples.

I have no solution for the situation, besides time and increased socioeconomic stability. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling almost daily outrage about it, along the lines of, “Good grief, people, shouldn’t we be DOING something?!?” This now strikes me as funny; until I came to Russia, I didn’t realize that the tendency to want to fix everything that’s wrong is a uniquely American trait. But a Russian once remarked on this to me. The exact quotation was, “You Americans are always trying to save the world.” I think there’s some truth to it; Americans are certainly conditioned to believe that they can change things they don’t like. Righteous indignation is like a national pastime for us. We write letters to the editor. We start movements and protests. At the extreme end of things, we invade other countries and try to bring them democracy (although I realize that many Americans would take exception to being included in that “we”). Essentially, just seeing that something is wrong or unjust is, for us, a call to arms.

You could of course contrast this attitude with that of the Russians, especially ones who grew up in the Soviet Union. But I find it more interesting to contrast it with the attitude of one of the Japanese girls here: “Это не моя страна. Я – гост. Поэтому надо терпеть." ("This isn't my country. I'm a guest here. I've got to put up with it.") It's probably better for your blood pressure and a lot wiser than my Lone Ranger reaction, really. It strikes me as especially funny that she, a potential target for violence, said this to me, who is at much less risk of ever being seriously harmed by xenophobia.

I like the American attitude. I think that in most cases it's one of the better ways in which we differ from other nations. But for now, надо терпеть.

05 October 2006

первый блин является комом

Yesterday was a good day.

First, during my balalaika lesson, this woman bursts into the room, says a bunch of stuff to Natasha that I don’t really understand, and starts accompanying my (painfully slow) balalaika-playing on the piano. She turned out to be really friendly and contagiously energetic and later said a lot of stuff I did understand (including an adorable story about a friend of hers who studied in Anchorage and then in Boston and then married a guy from Anchorage and thereby gave hope to all Russian women who haven’t found true love yet), but I still have no idea who she was. Situations like this are always funny when you’re functionally alinguistic, because you get this sense that there’s information missing from the picture, but there’s no way to figure out what it is. (Of course, that can also be frustrating, but not in this case.)

Second, as I was scurrying around trying to find a place to print the lesson plan and handouts for my evening adult class, the following conversation ensued (in Russian, of course):
Woman at the photocopy center: So, why do you speak with an accent?
Me (amused): Because I’m from America.
Her: Oh. What were you doing in America?
Me (more amused): Umm... well, I was born there.
Her: Oh. But you’re Russian, right?
Me: What? No!
Her: OH. Hmm. In that case, what are you doing here?
Me: Oh, I’m an English teacher at DVGU, etc. etc.

She thought I was Russian! That’s always exciting, especially if they keep thinking you’re Russian after you’ve spoken more than one sentence. As I was leaving, she said, “Come again, and we can practice Russian!” Cute! I love how kind people here are.

Third, after the adult evening class (which I was half an hour late for, because of rush hour), I said something in Russian and one of the students exclaimed to another, “She talks so fast! And with such a strange accent!” This is a compliment because speaking as fast as a Russian in Russian is hard; and having a strange accent might not be a compliment, but in my book it’s better than having an American accent. And when I asked her what she meant, she explained that my accent is “cute.” Whatever that means!

Then I went home and accidentally dumped an egg crate with four eggs still in it onto the floor. Three of the eggs fortuitously landed in the empty trash can (completely empty – no bag or anything) and the fourth oozed under the TV stand. It didn’t ruin my good day, but it provided, shall we say, a counterpoint. I never noticed before what an interesting consistency raw eggs have.

So, I’ll have to get around to putting up pictures from our trip to Russian Island last weekend (facebook users can see them in my facebook profile). I’d also like to write about the election that’s coming up this Sunday, because learning about it and observing the campaigning that’s going on has been an interesting window into Russian culture (and politics, of course).

02 October 2006

Who Djanik is and why he has my phone number...

After my last post I realized that you can't mention things like Russian men professing their love for you by text-message without people asking things like, "Who is Djanik and why does he have your phone number?" So here's the Djanik story, which isn't as funny in print as it was in real life, but I hope it'll be enjoyable anyway.

So it was my very last day in Moscow, and I was scurrying around trying to get all my packing done and loose ends tied up before the taxi came for me and L at 4:30. At about 3:00, I realized I didn't have any money left on my cell phone, and I needed to add some so I could call people from the road (expensively, since I'd be roaming, but nonetheless it's nice to have a way to contact people when your plane is going down in flames over Siberia, which was at that point more or less what I believed was going to happen). Since I was short on time, I went to the convenience store across the street to use the cell phone money-adding machine, instead of walking to the supermarket, where you can hand the money to a real person and she'll add it to your cell phone for you.

The problem was that I didn't really know how to use this machine, the cell phone equivalent of an ATM, and the directions were all in Russian. I bet I could have figured it out if I had stared at it long enough - I do speak Russian, after all, at least in some sense - but I didn't get a chance to try, because someone came up behind me, obviously waiting to use the same machine. I gestured to him to go ahead, saying (in Russian), "You go first. I don't know how it works." Being a nice guy (or a desperate guy), he then volunteered to help me, and even helped me get change from the cashier when the only bill I could produce was a thousand-ruble note (about forty dollars).

So I got the money put on the phone just fine, and that was about when the trouble started. Knowing that I couldn't use the standard Russian girl's excuses of either a) I don't have a cell phone or b) there's no money on my cell phone, he requested my number. Naturally, when I explained that I was moving to Vladivostok that very day, he didn't believe me, figuring this was just the best excuse I could come up with now that he knew I had a phone with money on it. So he insisted, in that slightly pushy way that I've now concluded all Russian men must study in school or something. At this point, I decided that giving in would be the easy way out, since I was getting rid of that phone number (a Moscow number) as soon as I got to Vladivostok anyway.

So I agreed. Here the situation took a tragicomic turn, because he wanted to write down his number to give to me, but he had a broken arm and was holding a bag of groceries in the other hand and didn't have a pen or paper. But eventually this was all solved by borrowing pen, paper and table space from the cashier, and I had the name "Djanik" (Armenian?) and a number written in an uneven left-handed scrawl on the back of my cell phone receipt. And he had my
number, because of course I couldn't convince him that I would call him (and he was right to doubt me - that receipt was headed for the garbage as soon as I was out of his sight).

From there things only got more tragicomic, because he called me only an hour later, literally while I was carrying my suitcase and rucksack down the stairs. Too flustered to explain that I was tied up, I just said, "Uhh... you have the wrong number!" and hung up, rationalizing that he had failed miserably at pronouncing my name and thus it was conceivable that I could have really not known who he was looking for.

He called a few more times while I was in the taxi, and I ignored it (rude, I know). I made my fatal mistake when he called while I was in the airport ticket line, by text-messaging back: "I'm in the airport and I can't possibly talk right now!" I hoped that this would convince him that I really was moving to Vladivostok and was therefore not worth pursuing, but instead it just caused him to text back in poorly-spelled Russian: "Please call me when you get there, I can't explain how strongly I have fallen in love with you. I kiss you. Djanik." I felt so guilty. This poor sap! (Or poor sap who wants a rich foreign girlfriend?) But not guilty enough to call him back and explain that I wasn't interested. So he called me a few (that is, ten) more times while I was on the road, I ignored his calls each time, and I bought a new phone number (not to avoid him, but to have a local Vladivostok number) a few days later. And that was that. But I half expect that if I were to put my Moscow SIM card back in my phone, I'd find a hundred missed calls, all from Djanik.

Next time, I'm just going to hold up my right hand (the wedding ring hand in Russia) and say that I'm married.