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Monthly Archives: April 2012

I just returned from a week-long “vacation” in St. Petersburg, where I met up with my mom. She’s been interested in going to St. Petersburg, the cultural center of Russia, for a while, and since I’m currently stationed in Russia, here was her chance.

My mom in front of Spas na Krovi.

I would be lying if I said that she absolutely loved the city. In fact, I’m pretty sure she was miserable for the majority of her stay here, and part of it is my fault. She was only able to come for four days, and I tried to jam pack culture into a small amount of time. It’s just not feasible — one can’t rush around St. Petersburg and enjoy it at the same time.

Another reason was that my mom just wasn’t prepared for Russia. She’s traveled around Europe, and I think that she had envisioned St. Petersburg to be just like her past travels. However, as we all know, Russia is Russia. While St. Petersburg was built to be a window on the west, that’s all it is — a window. The lack of personal space, the maddening flow of people, having to walk everywhere, the inability to read anything, the language barrier — all of that shocked and scared her. Even though I was firmly by her side and even held her hand, none of that eased any of her fears. Russia is just too foreign. Too different.

My mom and I in front of the Neva.

I did my best to show her why I love this city so much. We went to the Hermitage, Russian Museum, Kuntskamera, Pushkin museum, various cathedrals and monuments, and the Mariinsky theater. And she got to try various Russian dishes, which she actually enjoyed, so not all was lost. I have to give my mom a break — she gave Russia a fair chance. Many of my friends aren’t interested in Russia in the slightest and won’t give it the time of day. My mom did come all the way out here, and it’s not her fault if she doesn’t like it. Russia isn’t for everyone.

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I like Easter, despite not being Christian. I have fond memories of my mom frantically boiling eggs, my siblings and I coloring them, and then eating candy until we threw up. I enjoy stuffing myself with sickeningly sweet, neon colored marshmallow chickens and cream-filled chocolate eggs. I don’t particularly like the post-Easter weigh-in (which usually involves me screaming in hysterics and kicking my scale), but ain’t nothing gonna get between me and my chocolate.

So I wanted to bring some American Easter cheer to Russia. In case you didn’t now, Orthodox Easter is tomorrow, while in America, most people celebrated Easter last week. For English Club last Friday, I painstakingly boiled 20 eggs, bought paint, egg dye, stickers, and an absurd amount of candy to recreate an American celebration of Easter — egg hunt, egg painting, and everything. I all but skipped with glee to Building E, because I was so pumped to paint eggs and eat candy. Then, to my dismay, only one person showed up. I sent him home, because I wasn’t about to force this poor kid to celebrate Easter with me. Spirits crushed, I went home, not knowing what to do with all those damned eggs. In case you wanted to know, I ended up heavily protein-loading that weekend.

Yesterday, I re-did Easter, and more people showed up! A grand total of four! We painted eggs, talked about Easter traditions, and ate candy. That’s the spirit.

Look at all the smiles! The joy!

Roma and his egg.

Nadya and her angry-birds inspired egg. People here are more creative than I thought!

 

This is a protracted, informal version of my conference paper that I presented in Ufa. I think it’s important for people to understand that the American experience isn’t straightforward and does not cleanly fall into categories of nationality and ethnicity. I believe that while there is such a thing as the American people, there is no tangible American ethnicity, and therefore, there is no typical American face, no standard American characteristics. We are all very different with regard to our ethnicities, backgrounds,  and even in our values, but that shouldn’t detract from how American we are.

I am an American of Vietnamese descent, which I guess would therefore classify me as a Vietnamese-American. In almost every possible aspect, I am as American as my Caucasian peers. I speak English quite fluently (with a metropolitan accent, apparently), I was born in America, I finished all of my schooling in America. My Vietnamese is mediocre on a good day. Yes, I might not have a typical “American” appearance, but what does that even mean? I might speak a different language at home (albeit, very brokenly), but does that delegitimize how American I am?

My Dad and grandma (on my father's side). Funny story: my grandma knows absolutely no English -- she came to America in her 60's. Still, she somehow miraculously passed the citizenship test. It's a secret that she'll probably take to her grave.

My parents, on the other hand, are Vietnamese, without the “American” attached to it. To be more exact, they’re refugees of the Vietnamese War. While they have lived in America now for over thirty years, Vietnam will always be their home — America is just a place where they live.

My Dad at a refugee camp in the Philippines.

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My mom at school in Vietnam.

And then you have people like me — first-generation Americans. People in a sort-of limbo. I’m too Vietnamese to be completely American, but I’m too American to be Vietnamese. So where do I fit in? Where do we, as a generation, belong?

To get to the point, there are many different facets to being American. There are Vietnamese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Russian-Americans, French-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Spanish-English-Lebanese Americans, French-Alsatian-Portuguese Americans, Korean-Irish Americans…and so on and so forth. Some of us have ancestors who came to America centuries ago, while others have parents who recently immigrated to America. That said, I don’t think that there is a defining characteristic that makes one more American than someone else. I don’t believe that one’s ethnic background or how far one can trace her ancestry back should determine the legitimacy of one’s “American-ness.” We as Americans share a set of values and culture, and our backgrounds add to the vibrant fabric of what it means to be an American.

Dr. Roslof, the returning Fulbright director in Russia, said that being abroad forces you to finally understand who you are. He couldn’t be more correct.

Imagine a beautiful spring day in the States — the sun is shining, the grass is green, the locals are out and about in t-shirts and shorts. Daffodils curl out onto the sidewalks and the cherry blossoms have bloomed. It’s warm, sunny, and overall, just a good day to be alive.

The cherry blossom festival in Washington, DC. 2012 marks the centennial of the cherry blossom!

Now take that wonderful, blissfully happy spring day and add an icy cold front to it. It’s no longer 20 C, but 0 C! Then, dump slushy, brown ice everywhere. Throw some dirty snow on top of that. And then, to top it all off, sprinkle the sidewalks with lots and lots of dog shit. In Russia, you don’t have to clean up after your pooch’s waste, which is fine in the winter, because everything is hidden by the pristine snow. But when that snow begins to melt, one is greeted with the pleasant surprise of walking around in dog poop. And ankle deep mud. Fun!

This is how I feel when I walk around Ukhta -- defeated and unbelievably dirty.

So yes, I am a little unhappy about “spring” here in Ukhta. In fact, I wouldn’t even begin to call it spring. I think the term “muddy winter” fits better. Complaints aside, I am happy that it is no longer -30 C, and that the sun has been brilliantly shining almost everyday. I think I’m even getting a little tan!

In other news, my mom is coming to St. Petersburg! I remember how, two years ago, we watched the movie Eastern Promises, which is about the Russian mafia in England. In hindsight, it was a terrible movie to watch right before I was going to go abroad to Russia for the first time ever. There’s an infamous scene in the movie where Viggo Mortenson’s character is sitting in the banya, absolutely butt-naked. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a knife fight! And lots of blood! And extremely violent murder! My mom watched in absolute horror as she was probably picturing me being gutted in the stomach in a Russian bathhouse. Now, I have the chance to show her Russia’s most beautiful city in all its splendor and prove to her that it’s not all fur hats and naked knife fights.

What not to do in a banya -- get in a knife fight with Viggo Mortenson, because he WILL kick your ass. And then proceed to kill you.

I just came back from an unbelievably wonderful conference in Ufa. Back in January at the Fulbright mid-year conference, I remember begging Cathy, an ETA in Ufa, to throw together a conference so I could visit her and get out of Ukhta for a little bit. And amazingly, she did. Hats off to you, Cathy — you are the goddess of organization and conference planning!

Some of the Fulbrighters in Ufa! Not everyone could make it out to the conference.

Our days were filled to the brim with cultural activities and conference presentations. We drank horse milk, ate horse meat (with our hands!), saw traditional Bashkir dancing, toured a museum, beat each other silly with birch branches in a banya, among other things.

Walking in nature. We rented a house in the country side to relax. Side note: the house was meant to fit nine people -- there were 18 of us. Cozy!

The conference itself went almost without a hitch (the university didn’t actually provide any coffee for the coffee break), and as usual, I was floored by the topics that some of the other Fulbrighters chose. Presentations ranged from mail-order brides to deaf culture in America to the Tyumen bus system. I’m going to do my best to not be cheesy here, but I truly mean it when I say that it’s an honor to be colleagues with these people. Every one is doing such meaningful work in their respective cities, not just with teaching English, but by interacting and engaging with the Russians/other ethnic nationalities. Their presentations reflected how each of us is bridging the gap between the two cultures. It’s just…such a great feeling to be supported by people who share the same passion and enthusiasm about Russia. And with that, I’ll end my sappiness.

I presented this time around. My presentation was called "Growing up American," and it was about the problems of identification that first-generation Asian Americans face. Because of time constraints, I ran through my powerpoint in about 3 minutes. But I think it went okay!

Besides being surrounded by my American buddies, what really made the conference were the students. I was shocked by how eager they all were to speak English with us. The conference was conducted completely in English, and there were students sitting on the floor and  window sills, all because they just wanted to listen to us. I’m not going to sit here and complain about my students, but I will say that it is refreshing when people are interested in hearing what we have to say and make real, concentrated efforts to speak English. Case in point: we all stayed with host families, and Vilena, my Ufa host sister, refused to speak with me in Russian. Just flat out refused, even though I probably was more comfortable speaking Russian than she was in English. It’s that kind of motivation and drive that I greatly appreciate, and it makes my job as an ETA just a little easier.

In other news, I’m back in Ukhta. Back at the grind. “Spring” is here, except “spring” consists of ice, falling snow chunks, and lots and lots of gryaz’. That, and dog shit. Pictures of “spring” to come.