The national crest of the Russian Federation is a two-headed eagle—one head looking west while the other looks east. Ulan-Ude is not St. Petersburg. Ulan-Ude is not Moscow. Rather, it represents a different face of Russia– one of many. I’m adapting to my new Russian home: adding milk to my tea regiment, restraining myself from stealing the newborn stray puppies outside my dorm, and thriving under the smiling Buryat sun.
Ulan-Ude does not come with a guidebook or a map or an easy-to-navigate metro—all of which allowed me a degree of independence in my previous trips to Russia. Therefore, I find it hard to get to know. Whereas St. Petersburg is loud and expressive and very in-your-face about its identity, Ulan-Ude is much shyer, much more mysterious. Slowly, though, I am beginning to crack parts of its shell, glimpsing the gem inside. Or—since there seems to be an odd fascination with Shrek here—Ulan-Ude is like ogres and onions, and I’m peeling away some layers.
In some ways, this unfamiliarity and un-knowability can make me feel very alone, isolated. But with that mentality of isolationism, I would not survive here. I am completely dependent on my new friends and colleagues—and I must get past that American sense of independence and self-sustainability and give in to trust. Fortunately, whenever my mood becomes gloomy or clouded, the sun always comes out to turn things around. [Note: The sun is always out. This is a metaphor😉 ]
Last Saturday, I went with Darima and Slava to People’s Park (a big mall) and Jubilee Park—a small amusement park next door. After eyeing the swinging dragon (like one of those Viking Ships back home) and deciding not to risk it, we went on the Ferris Wheel, got some ice cream, and took the tram back home. All the while, Darima and Slava were pointing out interesting things and telling me useful information—so it was an educational experience, too. In the evening, I was invited to hang out with some Chinese students from my Russian class. We walked around, and they showed me the Absolute store, which apparently has cheaper prices than Titan, where I’ve been shopping. It was a fun evening—altogether a very different test of my Russian, communicating with another non-native speaker.
Sunday was a big step for me: my first time going somewhere on my own (besides work and Titan). I was very scared. I literally did not know the first thing about navigating the city. But I would have to spread my wings and venture out eventually, so it might as well be now. I wanted to go to the Ethnographical Museum. Darima told me exactly how to get there. So I set on my way. I helped my first old person cross the street (because we always do as the Babushkas command), took two marshutkas, and told the driver to stop at the museum (apparently, it’s not a usual stop, since it’s out in the forest).
And it was a total success. The Ethnographical Museum an open-air museum, so everything’s outside (hence my haste in visiting it before it gets too cold). It’s basically a collection of architectural monuments—houses and dwellings of the cultures surrounding Baikal—plus a smattering of local Siberian animals, such as bears, wolves, tigers, and camels. It was very interesting for me to learn about the local cultures—especially the Buryats and the Old Believers. You can learn a lot about a culture by seeing how they live (or lived). My time in Ulan-Ude so far has been an opportunity to educate myself on not just Russian culture, but the Republic of Buryatia and the people who live here.
It’s been a very busy week. Lesson plans eat up a great deal of my time. As in I average two or three hours a night just planning, hunting. It’s like an art, really… lots of room for creativity. Teaching is going better, I think. It’s a little disappointing to spend three hours planning only to have three or five students show up for class, but it all works out. I’ve started my lessons with the professors—attendance has been lower than I expected, but we’re covering some very interesting topics, and they are very good pupils. And now everywhere I turn, someone wants my help—three people looking for private tutoring, two want me to visit their class, one wants to sic her students on me, one wants me to lecture on international economics… But Darima has my back: she tells everyone I’m very busy and under a strict contract, does all my nay-saying for me. Because, while I’d love to do all these things, there just aren’t that many hours in the day!
On Tuesday I received a call from one of my students wondering if I had any free time. So I spent the evening exploring the city and making two new friends. We wandered around Elevator and Lenin Head and the Arbat, and I tried my first kurnik (roll stuffed with meat and potatoes) from a street kiosk (and didn’t die!). And on Thursday, I hosted my first English Club meeting. Fifteen students came over to my apartment for an evening of merriment: we listened to Oh, the Places You’ll Go and watched Elmer Fudd KILL THE WABBIT, KILL THE WABBIT! Then, they told me fairytales: I was treated to “Turnip,” “The Swan and the Hunter,” a Baikal legend, and a twenty-minute retelling of Shrek. It was a great turnout, everyone seemed to have a nice time, and (bonus) they brought me cake. Win, win, win.
By the way, my Russian is getting better and better, conversation is coming easier and easier, and I’m getting braver and braver. Something about seeing all my students struggle with the very same fear of speaking has inspired me to be brave.