This past week, the weather rose into the 20’s, and Ukhta burst into life. All year long, it’s been cold and rather dreary. People have been bundled up inside, with the heater cranked up to the maximum. It even snowed in early May, for Christ’s sake. Now that the signs of summer are finally upon us, people are at last shedding their winter coats and are taking leisurely strolls outside simply to enjoy the sun. This past week I was able to walk outside for the first time without a coat on. In addition to that, I’m finally no longer a pasty shade of yellow, but instead, a proper shade of brown! Finally about time that I get a little tan.

One of the downsides of living in a small city though is that there’s…not much to do even when the weather’s nice out. As I was walking with some friends, we reached the end of the main street. “Vse, gorod zakonchil’sya,” they said nonchalantly. The city ended. There’s nowhere else to walk except to go back the way you came from. One can only walk back and forth along the main street so many times. Even so, it’s refreshing to see people finally excited to be outside and just so damn happy to be alive.

White nights are also upon us. Guess what time it is? That’s right, 1:30 in the morning! Nothing like waking up at 3 am thinking you’re late for class and realizing that you still have 3 hours left to sleep.

This past weekend we had a good-bye party for our friend Roma. He’s a current student at the university here who’s going to America through the work and travel program. It’s the first time he’ll ever be in America, and it’s his last weekend here, so of course, we had to celebrate in good style. One by one, everyone is leaving for the summer, be it to America or Europe, and not going to lie, I don’t want to say goodbye just yet.

A last hurrah for Roma

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I tried washing my clothes in the washing machine here once. The result: a dress that now ended at my crotch, a business skirt that is no longer considered appropriate for work, and a few shrunken shirts. On top of the fact that the woman who runs the washing machine room (yes, there is a woman in charge of the washing machine) is only at work from 11-4 on weekdays, I didn’t want to risk shrinking my entire wardrobe. What was I to do? Go the old-fashioned route.

I remember calling my dad on skype and asking him for help. He started laughing at me and said, “This is just like Vietnam!” So with my dad’s years of experiences handwashing clothes and my own trial and errors, here is how to wash your clothes by hand.

What you need:
– A large basin.
–  A clothes scrubbing brush
– detergent
– good background music (I personally like Journey)
– arms of steel

my high-tech washing machine

Step 1:
Fill up the basin with hot water and detergent. Make sure the water is nice and soapy!

Step 2:
Dump dirty clothes into basin.

Step 3:
Scrub each item thoroughly. This takes the longest.

Step 4:
Let clothes soak in the water for about 40 minutes. I don’t know if this actually helps in the cleaning process, but it makes me feel better about the cleanliness of my clothing.

Step 5:
Rinse until all the detergent is gone. This takes about 6-7 rinses.

Step 6:
Wring out clothes, shake them out, and then hang them to dry.

State of the art drying machine. Dries almost everything in about 9 hours.

To be honest, I don’t know how clean my clothes really are. They probably aren’t clean at all. But, the most important thing is that they smell good and look relatively decent, and that’s all that really matters. Also, in case you were interested, I still lose socks when I wash my clothes by hand.

In case you didn’t know, yesterday was Victory Day, a celebration which marks the capitulation of Germany to the Soviet Union. Russians take this day very seriously, and it’s understandable why — there were about 24,000,000 casualties total during WWII.

Russians take this holiday so seriously that the government issues a five-day holiday — all of my friends had Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off. However, schools were still in session, which meant that I had to teach quite a bit. On top of teaching, I couldn’t turn down my friends’ invitations to celebrate. So one can imagine that after five days of intense merry making, working, and not sleeping, I’m feeling a little run down. My brain’s not working quite so well, and my body hurts.

This wasn’t my first Victory Day Celebration — I was in Moscow two years ago to experience the holiday in its full glory. However, I must say, that even though Ukhta is a tiny little city that doesn’t hold a candle to Moscow, I enjoyed the celebration here much more. Two years ago, we woke up too late to make it to the parade — by the time we got there, the riot police had cordoned the streets off because there were too many people. Here, I not only made it to the parade, I got to be in it! The perks of being a local celebrity are unlimited. While the celebration in Ukhta can’t compare to the bombast and glamour of that in Moscow, the festivities here were more personal. Good weather, good company, I can’t really ask for more out of this city, can I?

During the parade. I unintentionally looked like a Japanese school girl.

С днем победы!

Nadya and I.

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With a soldier

..Americans in Ukhta!

Randi, another Fulbrighter conveniently located in the Komi Republic, took a somewhat spontaneous trip up to Ukhta for the weekend. She is currently based in Syktyvkar, which is only about 200 miles away from Ukhta — which means it takes about 10 hours to get here on a slow, rickety train. When Randi said that she wanted to come visit, I was absolutely elated for a number of reasons. The first being that I would finally be able to speak English on a weekend with someone here, which is something that hasn’t happened all year. The second, and most important reason, was that there would be another American here! While there are creepy, old American men who come here to do business every so often(with oil…and perhaps wives?), I am quite positive that I am the only American who is living here. Also, I am pretty sure that I am the only American here who isn’t creepy and old.  I’m going to even put it out there that we made history this weekend with the fact that there were two of us. I have absolutely no proof to back this up, but with the way that people were awkwardly staring and gaping at us, it may have been the first time in Ukhtinian history that there were two young Americans here at the same time.

The perks of living in a small city is that it doesn’t take too long to show a newcomer around. We covered the major sites in about…three hours. The major sites being the eternal flame, the children’s park, the adult park, Lenin street, and the mall. I had also properly warned all my friends that there would be another American coming here, and so to the chagrin of the babushki working in the dorm, a good chunk of them showed up at my apartment to celebrate in good, American style.

Randi surrounded by my friends.

 

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.

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.