15 February 2008

Good people

It happens about once a week or so that someone asks me whether life in America is better than life in Russia. For diplomacy’s sake, I have a set answer for that. It’s easier to make a good living in America, I say; for example, we have fewer eighty-year-old women getting down on their hands and knees to scrub floors so they’ll have enough money to buy bread. But on the other hand, I say, “the people are kinder” in Russia.

In the Russian value system, this is a pretty high compliment, so it tends to assuage any ill feelings they have about Americans’ relative wealth. Unfortunately, it’s not strictly true.

The real situation is more interesting, but also a lot harder to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced both cultures, and therefore less useful in terms of diplomacy. Contrary to the general Russian image of us, I happen to think that we Americans are very kind – not because we’re a special breed of people (although Russians subscribe to the notion of “national character” shaping individuals’ personalities), but because American society values certain types of kindness and encourages it in its citizens. Russians, for the same reason, are also kind, and it’s really not the *quantity* of goodwill that’s so refreshing to me, but the ways in which it’s expressed.

I’ll make the generalization that in Russia, it’s a lot more acceptable than in the U.S. to express unsolicited concern for others. Americans tend to find it insulting if you tell them that their winter coat isn’t warm enough, give them handouts of food or clothes, or really offer to help them do anything that they could reasonably be expected to do themselves. In Russia, though, these are the kind of actions you perform to show that you care about someone, even on the level of, say, coworker. Coming from a culture where these things aren’t done, I’m left feeling almost overwhelmingly cared for and valued. (Of course, it’s occasionally annoying; I am, after all, American, and therefore prone to feeling like I should just be allowed to do it myself once in a while.)

Anyway, I’m thinking about this because I’ve been around a lot of really good, kind people this week. Every time I leave the university I think, “I should write a blog post about how nice the doormen are.” It’s probably not worthy of a whole blog post, but the six or eight doormen who stand guard at the university in 24-hour shifts are almost all a) fascinated by me and b) really, really friendly. Their faces light up when they see me come in. They all know all about my family and ask about them on a regular basis. I had a mood-lifting conversation with a different doorman every day this week.

Last night some students (most of whom aren’t in my courses) invited me to their Valentine’s Day/birthday party. It always makes me feel good to be included in their activities because, to be honest, I’m a little boring when I speak Russian. I’m never entirely sure why someone who only speaks Russian would really want to be friends with me. When I try to express complicated thoughts, I tend to trip over my words, and my sense of humor often gets lost in translation. It seems like it should take a lot of patience to like me. And yet, these students, who seemingly have no desire to practice their English with me (a refreshing change), continue to welcome me into their circle.

And finally, today I had a Valentine’s Day party at a local high school. I’ve never met a group of people who seemed so eager to find things to like about me. They were really responsive to all the activities I had planned, they asked tons of questions, made sure I was well-fed on Russian cafeteria food (um, yum?), and gave me a tour of the school, introducing me to basically every teacher in the place. A little egoistic, I guess, but it’s a very nice feeling to be that popular.

Most of the other people I interact with on a regular basis are also really nice to me, from my coworkers and students to my landlady and balalaika teacher and the women at the place where I do my photocopying. So I guess I’m just feeling grateful that I landed in a town that has so many kind, well-meaning people. I definitely don’t feel like I’m lying when I tell people that I love Taganrog because it’s the “warmest” city I’ve ever lived in.

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