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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, because you get to dress up in an absurd costume and feel like a kid for a day. And if you’re in Madison, WI, you get to dress up in an absurd costume and feel like a kid for four days. Madison is renowned for its annual Halloween celebrations that begin on Thursday and usually end on Sunday. Sometimes Monday, depending on which day Halloween falls on. I was feeling particularly nostalgic for my college town, especially after a few students told me that Halloween doesn’t exist here. In stores, there were minimal decorations available, yet New Years party supplies were literally overflowing. New Years? It’s not even November yet! Russia, you outdo America in holiday materialism.

So in order to bring some good old Halloween cheer to Northern Russia, I threw a Halloween party. And people dressed up! All in all, a successful cultural exchange. Just another day as a Fulbright ETA.

Ksenia was a spider, I was a bowl of cabbage soup.

 

 

…isn’t easy.

I’ve had several instances now where I’ve met Russians who have openly criticized America, the government, and the American way of life to my face upon meeting me. And to be honest, it always feels like a personal attack, because America is my home, and I know no other. This is one cultural aspect about Russians that I’m still trying to get used to: they can be upfront and straightforward, and have no qualms about telling you what they think.

Case in point: yesterday, I met a friend of a friend who outrightly told me that he didn’t like America and nothing good has ever come out of America, except for the series “Friends.” Which is insulting, because Friends is a terrible TV show. At first, I tried to argue with him, but I quickly realized that it was pointless. This guy had already formed an opinion about America, and had no intention of actually listening to me — he was just having fun at my expense, and to attempt to continue to argue in America’s defense would have only added fuel to the fire.

So what did I do? I told him that I didn’t agree with him and then proceeded to ignore him for the majority of the evening. A bit difficult to do when you’re sitting in a room together with friends watching Manchester United VS Manchester City. You can imagine the tension — so thick, you could have cut it with a knife. Honestly, I could have handled it better. I got too defensive, and I tried to argue for too long.

But what did I not do? Insult Russia. Under no circumstance would I ever criticize Russia to a Russian’s face, because to do so would be to degrade into petty argument.  Furthermore, it’s just plain rude. Call me naive, but you just don’t insult someone’s country to his face upon getting acquainted — immediately sours any possible relations, you know?

A toilet garden situated by the bus stop.

What would I do next time? Try to cut the tirade short. Arguing is useless, because most likely, the guy is just trying to make fun of you. I’m still trying to discern the differences between arguments and conversations, and there’s a thin line. With those who are interested in having a conversation, I will talk. For those looking to raise hell, no thank you.

Lastly, he asked where I was from. I told him I was from DC, but he wanted to know what my ethnic background was. I told him my parents were from Vietnam, but that I was born in America. With a smug smirk on his face, he asked me what I thought about “America invading Vietnam.”  So I politely replied, “I don’t agree with that war, and I never will. But my parents moved from Vietnam to America because they knew that there was possibility for a better life there.”

Today was another grey, muddy day here in this northern city. And it’s days like these that make me wonder: What the hell am I doing here? What am I doing in a tiny city that I had never heard of in my entire life until a few months ago?

Culture shock is very real, and I did not think that the shock would come so soon, so fast, or so hard. I also didn’t think that I would experience culture shock again, since I had spent a decent amount of time in St. Petersburg, but here it is, rearing its ugly head at me once more. Mom and Dad, before you hop on a plane (and train) and come here to pick me up and whisk me away, I’m not in any life threatening danger of any kind. My host here is fantastic, my students are for the most part great, and people in general are very nice. It’s just me struggling to adjust to a small, northern, provincial city.

But there are occasional breakthroughs. Yesterday, one of the kids at English Club told me he knew someone who knew someone who had a dog sled and he promised me he would tell his friend to take me dog sledding. Today, my students laughed at my jokes, which makes me unbelievably happy when my humor is able to cross cultural boundaries.*

Me with a group of electrical engineering students

But while the highs are okay, the lows are very, very low. For example, today I had a class that I had spent two hours preparing for just fall completely flat on its face. Or yesterday, when the English Club meeting didn’t go as well I would have hoped.** I would normally shrug these things off in America, but for some reason here, they bother me so much more than they should.

I have to remember that I’m here to promote cultural exchange. What blows my mind is that I am the first foreigner that a lot of these students have encountered in their life. So I’m bringing a little bit of America to the north. Keeping that in mind helps me get through days like this. That and eating a lot of chocolate.

_____

* I have a hard time understanding sarcasm in English, so Russian sarcasm just does not register with me.

** I had an English club meeting on slang yesterday, and while most of the attendees were young students, there was an older man there as well. He came up to me after the meeting and said that he had never heard these words before. Well, obviously because it was American slang. Duh. He then said that this slang would never be heard outside of America and was hinting that I had no idea what I was talking about. Because as an American (born and raised), I don’t know American slang, right? U g h.

I apologize for the delay, dear Readers. (And by Readers, I mean Mom and Dad. I got your frantic calls –I’m back from Moscow and everything’s fine, so don’t worry. )

When traveling in Russia, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s going to take a while to get to one’s destination. As Americans, we’re used to some good old fashioned hustling. In Russia, what I’ve seemed to notice that everything just takes longer. Waiting in line is longer, drying my clothes takes longer, mailing a letter (and receiving it too) takes longer, etc. Case in point, traveling to Moscow meant taking an overnight train to Syktyvkar and flying from Syktyvkar to Moscow. I could have taken a 30 hour train again, but that’s just too many hours on a train, and I didn’t want to risk the tiny jet that flies from Ukhta to Moscow.

I spent a day in Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, with one of the Fulbrighters located there. She was an amazing host, and showed me her corner of Russia*. She also cooked for me, and food is always much appreciated in my book. So if you’re reading this — a big thank you!!

In front of the eternal flame in Syktyvkar

Onward to Moscow: Moscow is a huge, bustling city, and the human traffic jams that occur in the metro can be overwhelming. But from a humble tourist’s point of view, Moscow is an amazing city to visit because there is so much to do and see! You can’t get bored even if you tried. I don’t think that I could ever live there, though, mainly due to the human traffic jams. I’m terribly claustrophobic, and the term “personal space” doesn’t translate into Russian, so you can understand my dilemma. And don’t even think about driving here — it’s like a 24 hour, non stop traffic jam.

Throughout our orientation there, I kept forgetting that we were in Russia, because, well, Moscow doesn’t feel Russian. It’s like a strange hybrid between Russia and the West. There’s Red Square, St Basil’s, Novodeviche Cemetary, and then there is an overflow of Wendys, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. Not to mention the influx of tourists and foreigners that are in Moscow. Despite all of that, it is still a great city to visit.

Even though I have only been in Ukhta for a couple of weeks, the trip to Moscow was a needed getaway. It can be incredibly isolating being the only American here in Ukhta**, and it was a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by my fellow Americans.

Moscow. Taken from a bridge.

So now I’m back in Ukhta. I’ll have to be honest, it’s been a little hard adjusting to the small city life. I’m from right outside DC, and so I’m used to having a big city and tons of museums at my finger tips. And frankly speaking, I really don’t enjoy being stared at on the streets — it’s as if I’m a walking exhibit and everyone wants to take a look. Hopefully, as time goes on, I’ll become less of a novelty and people will stop staring. Sounds like stage 2 culture shock is setting in! Time to light some candles and engage in retail therapy.

———

*Syktyvkar is only 200 miles away from Ukhta, but it takes 10 hours to get there by train. Like I said, things just take longer here in the motherland.

**As far as I know, I’m the only American in Ukhta. There are a handful of Americans in Syktyvkar — even one from my home town! But if there are other Americans/foreigners who speak English here, I haven’t met them yet.

Cardinal rule #1 that one should never break: Don’t try to drink like a Russian. Don’t attempt to drink 1/3 of what they drink. We weak Americans just don’t have it in us to pound shots the way that they do. At least, I don’t.

Shaslyk. I'm hoping for no food poisoning this time, since Russians were handling the grill and not Americans.

Yesterday, a big group of Nadya and Sasha’s friends gathered at a cabin to celebrate Sasha’s birthday, and Nadya kindly invited me along. We took a bus literally up into the woods and stomped through the mud to get to the cabin. There, we proceeded to eat, drink, eat, drink, toast, eat some more, drink a lot more, etc. For the part that I was awake for, it was immense fun! And then I proceeded to pass out for half of the party.

Toast #25. Or just drinking at this point.

When I rejoined the party some three hours later, my new acquaintances playfully called me weak (I take no offense, it’s true) and asked if Americans drink the way that Russians do. They were also taking shots as they were asking me this question. I’m not going to feed into the stereotype that Russians drink an absurd amount, but I do have to agree that Russians drink in a different way than we do. Judging from this and previous experiences, drinking is done while eating a lot of food. And when I say a lot, I mean a ridiculous amount of food. I think there was 5 kg of salad left over at the end of the night. In addition to shashlyk (shish kebab), there was pizza, assorted pastries, salad, pickles, tomatoes, bread, and cake. So while people do get happily inebriated, it’s not the typical black out mess that college students have, where they try to take as many shots as possible in a short amount of time and then proceed to vomit everywhere.

Toasting. If you look beneath their arms, you'll see the feast that we had.

With regard to drinking, I haven’t seen as much public drunkenness as I thought I would have seen. Granted, there are people who walk around with beers during the day, but that’s nothing unusual. Actually, I’ve noticed that there are less day drinkers here than there were when I was in St. Petersburg. And smokers, too. My students tell me that a significant amount of older people who have quit smoking, and I believe it. The air isn’t filled with smoke and grime the way that it was in St. Petersburg, and my lungs definitely appreciate that.

In other news, I’m headed off to Moscow this week! It’ll be nice to see the other Fulbrighters and hear their stories. It will also be my third and last attempt to see Lenin. My friend Jaime and I have had terrible luck in trying to see Lenin — the two times that we had been in Moscow, he had been under reconstruction or something of the sort. From what I hear, it’s more wax than his actual body, and they have to touch him up every so often for the public. But this is going to be my third time in Moscow, and if I can’t see him, then I know it is not meant to be.

I got my first taste of Russian bureaucracy yesterday when Nadya took me to get my registration done. There, we stood in line for two hours. Two hours! They must have been having tea and cookies and God knows what else in the registration room, because it took over half an hour for one person to get registered. I don’t even want to imagine how long it would take to get two people registered at the same time. This was further exacerbated by the fact that people kept cutting the line and that a lot of people had overstayed their visas and were now trying to amend (read: buy time) things. Russian lines are an interesting phenomenon, and by interesting I mean difficult and painful –people have to remember who they’re behind/who is behind them, because people often leave for smoke breaks or to go wander around. The fact that they leave for multiple smoke breaks illustrates how long the wait is. To add insult to injury, i didn’t even get my registration! Two hours of my life that I will never get back. Ever. Poor Nadya went back this morning and did it for me.

It was almost as bad as this.

Besides the fun bureaucratic experience, I’ve been having a great time. Teaching is much more enjoyable than I thought it ever could be, and everyone is so excited that I’m here — I’ve never felt so popular in my entire life. People want to hang out with me! It more than makes up for those years of being that weirdo in school. This is something I could get used to!

Headed back to Moscow next week for a 3 day conference. Is it worth the 60 hours on a train? Should I risk flying and potentially crashing straight into the ground? Conundrums.

A pretty day in the park.