In the early 90’s, Samuel Huntington proposed that people’s cultural and religious identities will represent the primary source of conflicts in the post-Cold War era. I myself dedicated an entire year of my life to research along this line of thought, and I decided that it’s all a matter of perception. For me, cultural differences are what give life flavor and color. My experience in Ulan-Ude is exposing me to a whole new palate/pallete (pun intended!!!).Back home, we often forget (or just plain don’t know) that Russia is a multinational country. That, plus our favorite buzzword of Globalization, means that there’s a little of everything here. Everything. And I fully intend to see as much of this Everything as I possibly can.
This Friday, my friend and Russian teacher Yanna invited me to come to a salsa class with her (after a lively discussion/debate of Pussy Riot in class today, which really could be a post on its own!). I didn’t know the first thing about salsa, but it was good to be dancing again. I have missed it so. Dance is a language of its own—really, all you have to understand is раз два три, раз два три, and the rest you just follow along (thus, Russians, a couple Africans, and an American can transcend language barriers). After our warm-up, the instructor spent a good deal of time teaching me and the other newcomers some basic patterns. We were learning Rueda, which is a type of salsa that happens in a circle, and you switch partners in a certain pattern on command. Toward the end, Brave Arielle stepped up and joined the circle with the others. It was a great time.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: everyone I meet here tells me I look just like a Russian girl. And apparently my accent is sometimes so good, that no one has to know that I’m not. I find this a little amusing because I wouldn’t necessarily expect ethnic Russians and Americans to look that different. But everyone tells me. I joked with Yanna that maybe I’ve studied Russian so long that I’ve become Russian. She agreed. And then she called me “наша”—ours, one of us, and I felt very proud. At the same time however, I get the sense that I am much cooler and more interesting here than I am back at home. Just being American makes me automatically interesting to people here, makes people want to get to know me. I feel kind of like an exotic celebrity– never has it ever been quite this easy to make friends. 😉
On Saturday, Yanna’s German friend Pia (who has apparently been very eager to meet me) invited me to a Russian hip hop/rap battle. So in the evening, I met up with some new friends: two Germans, a guy from Switzerland, and a few Russians for an evening of music and merriment. The rap battle was very amusing for me—and watching the American and African American influences in the performances of Buryat people rapping in Russian was like a clash of civilizations on a very small scale. After the hip hop battle, my new friends and I stopped for some food and then went over to someone’s apartment for more music and merriment.
Linguistically, it was a very interesting night. We had three native German speakers with poor Russian but very good English, one English speaker with poor German but pretty good Russian, and four Russian speakers, three of whom knew English. The primary language of exchange ended up being English, but there was also plenty of Russian thrown around. And some German. For a language nerd like me, it was basically heaven!
And, oh, the fascinating and philosophical conversations we had! We talked about major cultural differences between our countries (always a pet topic for me, of course) and human geography. The Buryat girls told me how much they love America (especially New York), though they dislike our foreign policy (can’t argue there). Then we all got into a very heated discussion on war (is it ever permissible?) and peace and human nature (good? Bad? Animal?) and German society in the 1930s and fate… Deep stuff! For me, Russia is the place for deep philosophical musings!
On Sunday, my student/friend Khanda took me to my first Datsan (Buddhist temple). Of all the major world religions, Buddhism is definitely the one I know least about. Until now, I haven’t had many Buddhist friends. But I’m learning, and I can certainly appreciate and respect a holy place when I see one. To me, Buddhism seems both very chill and full of traditions and rituals. Khanda said that it teaches you about good and evil, but it doesn’t give you strict rules on how to go about achieving good. She told me a legend of a hunter who lived his life doing no good, just killing animals to feed himself. When he looked back on his life, he saw that he had done nothing good, so he used an animal skin to make a nice cover for the scriptures as a good deed. When he died, given his long life of sin and bad deeds, he was sent down to hell. But then, down there, it turned out that his scripture cover, his one good deed was enough to redeem him propel him back up to heaven. It’s a nice concept of redemption and good outweighing the bad.
Apparently, the layout of a Datsan has something to do with the sun, and you must always move counterclockwise around it. Our visit started with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city (although the clouds and snow certainly hampered visibility). Then we came to a ring of prayer scrolls. You are supposed to go around (counterclockwise) and spin each scroll, thus praying thousands of prayers at once. Next we came to a big bell that you are supposed to ring for a prayer. Around the back of the hill were a bunch of fences and monuments decked with cloths like the trees at Baikal. Khanda taught me a mantra to say: ум базар вани хум пад. I have no idea what it means, but I think it’s Buryat, and it’s apparently very powerful. She also taught me how to say “snow” in Buryat: “sahan”.
Finally, we entered the Datsan. Inside was beautiful, with a giant golden Buddha front and center. We walked around (counterclockwise), and Khanda taught me how you’re supposed to bow to the little shrines. Usually, people leave coins or candy, and I even saw little cakes with candles and vodka. When you get to the last leg of your journey around the Datsan, you have to walk backwards—because you can never turn your back on Buddha.
Back, back, back, out into the snow. Altogether a very surreal experience, an essence of something I never would have expected to feel in Russia.
And then right back into the familiar quirkiness of the Russia I know and love: walking through an active construction site, right past a working digging machine, to get back home.