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Random thoughts

I know that I’ve been writing about leaving and saying goodbye for the last few posts now, but this is really it! I leave this Saturday bright and early in the morning to head to Elista, the capital of the republic of Kalmykia. In case you’ve never heard of it (you really have never heard of it). Elista is famous for Buddhism and Chess!

Life size chess boards and pagodas — my kind of city.

As my days here are quickly winding down, I can’t help but be filled with conflicting emotions. I am itching to leave to see something new, to travel, to get back to America to see my friends and family.  At the same time, it’s heartbreaking to leave all the friends I made here. This goodbye is different from typical goodbyes — after I graduated from college, at least I knew that most of my friends were staying stateside. Visiting is only a matter of buying an airplane ticket and a little bit of planning ahead of time. Visiting my friends here will take a trip to the consulate, shelling out $$ for an invitation and visa, even more $$$ for a plane ticket. Not to mention the 40 hours it will take to actually arrive here, crossing an ocean, etc.

The people I will sorely miss. The city, however, I will not. As a person from a big city, living in a small provincial town is something that I just can never do. Sometimes, I feel as if Ukhta is a good example of what’s wrong with Russia: the crumbling infrastructure, lack of opportunities for young people, stifling atmosphere, and general attitude of “nichego sdelyat’.” Can’t do anything about it. Case in point, there is no hot water here, and until I leave, I will be joyfully bathing in ice cold water. When I asked about it, I got some convoluted answer about using a basin to get hot water from the kitchen and somehow taking a shower with that. I pressed on and asked why they turned off the hot water, to which the babushki in the dorm answered defensively: “That’s the way it is, we can’t do anything about it.” It’s an answer that infuriates me to no end, because it’s not true — there is something one can do about it, but no one does, because the belief that nothing can be done is basically ingrained into people’s heads.  On a larger scale, people who can leave this city do, mainly because, again, there is nothing to do in this city and it’s a dead end — no opportunities are available here (well, aside from oil and gas, but not everybody can work in that fun sphere). A lot of my students dream of going to a bigger city. Maybe St. Petersburg, perhaps Moscow, maybe even Europe if possible. Similar to the way young people dream of leaving Russia. It’s not the way it should be. But I guess, for now, leaving is the better option than trying to change.

Negativity aside, while this is a farewell, this isn’t the last time I’ll be in Russia, nor will it be the last time I’ll be in Ukhta. At least, that is what I’m telling myself now. Because, in the end, even if I was sent to live in a big city, it would have been terrible if I didn’t have good friends. I am so, so grateful to have met all of the wonderful people that I am friends with here. I will miss being able to drop by someone’s place whenever I wanted to. I will miss walking around and wasting time as if I had all the time in the world to spend. I will miss being able to do things that I never got to do in America: sing, ride dogs, ski. I will greatly miss their company, and I appreciate their willingness to put up with a crazy American like me.

Someone once told me that life is like a train ride. People get on and off, join you in your compartment (of life…), and you enjoy their company while they’re there, and make peace with it when they leave. However, I’ll make sure that my train goes back to this snowy land, at least one more time.

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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.

If there is one thing that I have learned how to do here in Russia, it is how to think quickly on my feet. Russians really like to keep me on my toes by not telling me things until the last minute. For example, earlier this week I had English Club at the lyceum, which usually consists of three or four high school kids, and I was prepared (not really) to talk about government. As I’m standing in the room, waiting for them to come, all of a sudden twenty-one children come bustling in. Twenty-one young, very young children. Obviously can’t talk about the electoral college with them, now can I? In the midst of my utter horror of what to do with twenty-one screaming children, I quickly came up with some bastardization of pictionary and charades. Don’t know how successful it was, because some of them ended up sobbing hysterically.

On Friday, I presented at a conference related to sports. For some reason, people here think that I’m a professional rower. If being the slowest person (hey, somebody’s got to take one for the team) on a university team makes me a professional rower, then by all means, go ahead and call me one. So I was asked to talk about college sports and what it’s like to be an athlete, and I had an understanding that I was to present in English. Thursday night, I’m told to present in Russian. Again, last minute. I killed the presentation though, the crowd loved it.

People ask me if I’m in a state of shock here in Russia. And to be honest, I don’t know how to answer. Some things I will never get used to, such as lack of personal space, a loathing of plans, and an absurd obsession with piling tons of dill onto food.

This damned spice is everywhere -- soups, bread, pizza, you name it. I don't mind dill, but for the love of Jesus, everything in moderation!

That said, I think I’m no longer in culture shock. I think I’ve finally adjusted to living here in this northern city. Only took, what, the majority of my Fulbright stay? As I’ve said before, there aren’t that many differences between Americans and Russians. However, there are minor differences, which for me, escalate into major differences. I don’t think I will ever be able to accept some things that Russians do, but I think that I’ve learned how to cope with the differences.

This picture obviously doesn't fit into the theme of today's blog post. Just felt like adding some more color.

Vy umeete govorit’ po-russki? Can you speak Russian?

On good days, I speak “Grace,” as my friend Nadya accurately put it. When I speak “Grace,” people manage to understand me, despite my conspicuous American accent. On good days, I make people laugh and Russians see a glimpse of my true sense of humor, not the goofy exterior I have built to cope with not being able to express myself in English. When I speak “Grace,” I’ll pour myself a cup of black, black tea and I’ll express a complex thought to my colleagues or friends, and they will know exactly what I’m trying to say. On these days, I feel confident and sure of myself. I am proud of all the progress that I have made.

On other days, I speak “frustration.” All of a sudden, I have lost the ability to pronounce things correctly. Words that I had thought I knew by heart suddenly draw a blank in my mind. Cases become a jumbled mess, and I embarrassingly correct myself when my friends point out my mistakes. I’ll read a few pages of a book, and realize that while I’ve understood every word, I will have no idea what I actually read. When I speak “frustration,” I see myself at a plateau — six semesters of college Russian and a seven-month study abroad tour in St. Petersburg have landed me here, in a linguistic dead end.

Sometimes I don’t speak at all. Sometimes I remain silent, for fear of looking the fool. I hesitate to speak, because I feel that Russians don’t want to take the time to wait as I try to formulate my thoughts. It’s easier to listen, to laugh, to nod, and to pretend that I belong. On these days, I miss home. I miss my personality, and I wish that people could see who I am, not the boisterous, over-the-top facade that I have created in Russian.

Can you speak Russian? I hesitate to answer. From a purely grammatical point of view, one can say that I speak Russian pretty damn well. I think on the official government scale, I am somewhere around advanced-high to superior. But as we all know, language cannot be viewed in only grammatical terms, and language must be placed in its proper situational context — how language is used in a social setting, in an academic setting, in a professional setting, and so on, and so forth.

Can you speak Russian? I hope to confidently say yes one day. For now though, I will settle for speaking “Grace.”

I just realized that I’ve been in Russia for four months now. Four months! Some days it feels like i just got here, other days I feel like I’ve been living here forever. Since I’m about halfway into my stay here, I feel that I must explain what this city is. At least, what it means to me, a permanent visitor.

Ukhta, first and foremost, is a northern, provincial city. It is reachable by airplane, but most people choose to take the train, at least part of the way. (Almost every train ride to and from Ukhta has been more than pleasant — locals from the Komi Republic take on the responsibility of feeding me (read: stuffing me to the brim) for the thirty hours it takes to get to the center of Russia.) It is a city surrounded on the outside by birch trees and fresh air, and sustains itself on oil and gas. The importance of those natural resources is powerfully felt here, with Lukoil and Gazprom’s signs displaying prominently in the city and university.

Ukhta is a name that draws disbelief and horror from Russians not living in the area. “You live in Ukhta? But why? Why would you choose to live there?” Even still, other Russians have no idea where it is, or that it even exists. “You live in Ukhta? Where is that?” Ukhta is what I say with pride when I tell people where I’m living and why the hell I decided to come to Russia in the first place.

Ukhta can be a disappointing day at the university, when classes just don’t turn out as planned, or when the turn out at English Club is low. Ukhta can be frustratingly slow, and just doesn’t make any sense sometimes. It’s bitingly cold, its sidewalks are covered by a sheet of dirty ice that is inches thick. I become jealous when I’m with the other Fulbrighters — why couldn’t I have been placed in a bigger city? Why was I sent to the middle of nowhere?


More and more, I appreciate Ukhta for what it has to offer. Ukhta is a city that keeps surprising me and surpassing all my expectations. It’s a serious, heart-rending conversation at 3 am over cognac and coffee, or an impromptu, explosive, student debate in class. It’s an aimless walk along the main street, or an energy-fueled, bass thudding night at the local night club. Ukhta is full of warmth and laughter and a genuine friendliness that I’ve never encountered in my life. Despite being a sleepy little city, there are so many facets to Ukhta that I never thought I’d uncover.

I finally feel settled in here, not like the observant outsider I was for the first half of my grant. I know my way around now, for the most part. I don’t always feel like a bumbling fool when I teach. Here’s to the next five months.

With the Pre-departure Orientation over, the long, slightly unbearable wait begins. And with absolutely nothing to do (hats off to you, slow-recovering economy!), that means that the month-plus until my departure will be filled with lesson planning, getting my visa, research question developing, rereading US history, and, most likely, a whole lot of worrying.

At orientation, I realized a couple of things: I don’t know how to teach and I don’t really know English. And while the crash course in English teaching/entertaining young Russian college students was very helpful, I don’t have the slightest clue on how to explain participles, verbs, gerunds (what are those, anyway?) or any of the intricacies of English grammar. While we are technically English teaching Assistants, the kinds of classes that we teach are ultimately up to the university.

Last time around before I was heading off to St. Petersburg, I was worried about not liking Russia. Now, I’m anxious about Russia not liking me. As a teacher, that is.

Oh boy.

But that’s part of the adventure, right?