Image of America

Nothing too terribly exciting to report this time around: I’ve been very busy, but not with any mind-blowingly blog-worthy material. Suffice it to say that classes are going well, English Club is going splendidly (lately, lots of non-student guests have been attending, so we’re branching out), and I’m having lots of fun adventures with my friends. Also, I’ve got some exciting trips in the works: on May 1, I will begin a 10-day journey to Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Irkutsk; then, at the end of May, I’m making a return-visit to my beloved St. Petersburg! So I’ll be seeing Russia from sea to shining sea.

For the record, I did not get to see Mr. Putin when he was in town, but I did see a traffic jam that he supposedly caused.

I’m happy to report that we had our first rain last Thursday! People can complain all they want about how cold and awful this spring is and bah-humbug to their hearts’ content about how the weather was nice until this horrid rain started, but I could tell they were secretly pleased. There was an extra spring in my elderly neighbor’s step as he commented on our first “дождик.” Of course, no one’s happiness surpassed my own. After six whole months of snow on the ground, after a winter so cold that snow meant it was a warm day, after a lifetime of Michigan and Ohio rainy seasons and being preconditioned to believe that April showers bring May flowers, I’d been waiting for this day—dreaming of it, even. Whoever thought that rain could make me so happy? There may even have been some tears of joy.

Anyway, to take up space, I thought I’d share with you some American stereotypes I’ve encountered here. In Russia’s eyes, what does it mean to be American? You might be surprised.

First off, all Americans are vegetarians.

But they eat hamburgers every day. All fast food all the time. Also, all our food is genetically modified and therefore uber-unhealthy.

It’s warm there.

All Americans are Catholics. Except the Mormons, of course.

All Americans have guns and carry them around everywhere.

We’re all supposed to be pretty wealthy for the most part. We live a sort of fairy-tale life.

And then, of course, there’s the Hollywood effect. Life in America must be exactly as it is portrayed in the movies.

It’s all a matter of relativity, I guess. Obviously, not all Americans are vegetarians—not even a majority. But there are more vegetarians in the US than in Russia, and Americans do eat more vegetables. We also eat more hamburgers than Russians do, even if we don’t all eat them every day. As for temperature, there are warm parts of America, and there are cold parts as well—just not quite as cold as Siberia. Having survived a winter here, I will concede that most of America is indeed quite warm—yes, even Michigan. There are more Catholics in the US than in Russia—and besides, Christianity is basically divided into Orthodoxy and Catholicism without all the mess of Protestantism. We also have laxer gun laws and more high-profile mass-shootings. And a higher per capita income. And the Hollywood image is more based on America than on life in Russia. Therefore, I guess I can understand that the stereotypes are at least sometimes relatively true.

Maybe this is just the result of being a political science nerd at an agricultural college, but I was surprised at how un-politicized the image of America is. I was expecting to have to answer to my country’s foreign policy and war-mongering imperialism. But, far from asking me about wars and NATO and adoption and Pussy Riot and the Magnitsky List, the most political question most people ask is, “Do you like Obama?” As someone fascinated by the concept of perceptions and images in international relations, this adds a whole new dimension for me to ponder. It’s heart-warming to know that, while our politicians seem stuck in the Cold War and are engaged in a war of lists and sanctions and increasing tension, most people just want to know how much Pringles and IPhones cost in the US and what everyday life is like for regular Americans.

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Gone Fishing: Байкальская рыбалка

Байкальская рыбалка (Baikalskaya Rybalka) is Russia’s biggest ice fishing competition, bringing hundreds of amateur and professional fishermen from all across Russia and even all over the world to the ice of Lake Baikal each year. By some miracle, I managed to score a chance to participate in Baikalskaya Rybalka 2013 in Ust-Barguzin, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far in this Fulbright adventure!

As any fishing trip should, this one began unforgivably early in the morning. Like most of Russia’s greatest adventures, this was another one of those instances that I really had no idea where I was going, what I was doing, where I was staying, or when I would return—but it turned out absolutely perfectly. I found myself waiting at the bus stop at 4:45 on Friday morning for “someone” to pick me up. There was a black van parked nearby, but I didn’t know if it was my ride or some kidnapper with free candy. A call from the organizer of our trip convinced me to “get in the van,” and we were off. We stopped to pick up Nici and Anja (from Austria and Switzerland), and then the van dropped us off at the Avtovokzal, where we boarded a bus to Ust-Barguzin.

A few hours later, the bus driver motioned for us to get off the bus; so, presumably, we had arrived. Stepping off the bus, we were greeted by a man named Sasha, who showed us into his house—which is apparently a type of homestay guesthouse for tourists and friends of the family. Here we found incredible kindness, loving warmth, and incomparable hospitality. He—along with everyone else we met over the next couple days—took such good care of us! At Sasha’s we met Alexander, founder of the Great Baikal Trail; Slava, a fast-talking and excitable photographer; and Alexei, a French teacher from Moscow. They were eager to talk to us about their projects and adventures and to show us pictures of penguins and nerpas on Baikal. After a delicious and filling lunch (borsht and fresh fish), we were schlepped off to Baikal for rybalka registration and opening ceremonies.

Nici, Anja, a Russian man named Valyera, and I would be competing as team “Евросоюз,” or “European Union.” We had EU uniform smocks and a giant EU flag. Ironically, only one of us hails from a European Union member country. Since I speak the best Russian of us foreigners three, and Valyera couldn’t care less about the competition, I was designated team captain. And that, my friends, is how an American became Captain of the European Union ice fishing team.

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After standing through long and tedious opening ceremonies, as they called team captains to the stage one by one to be assigned an ice plot number, Valyera took us out onto the ice to teach us how to fish. Though Valyera clearly wanted nothing to do with this competition (he prefers fishing alone by his home, in a quiet, relaxed setting), he was nothing but gallant, and kind to his girly foreign teammates and treated us with great patience and care. As our only мужик, he took care of all the manly duties, such as drilling holes in meter-thick ice and showing us how to мотать like professionals. We spent a good while practicing this complicated technique of “casting” and “reeling in” our lines (and later that evening, Sasha told us to forget everything Valyera had taught us and just fish like normal people). When we got cold and he got bored, we headed back to shore. “Пойдем чай пить!” he said: “let’s go drink tea.”

In Russia, teatime is a lot bigger deal than in the US—чай пить means closeness and bonding and heart-to-heart conversation while consuming copious amounts of tea, sometimes for hours on end. But rarely is tea not the staple of teatime. So I really couldn’t have known that teatime actually meant vodka time—but I wasn’t exactly shocked. (To be fair, there was tea present—but it was more of a chaser than anything else). The only thing Russians love more than telling you that Russian alcoholism is a huge stereotype and misconception is sharing with you the old Russian tradition of real Russian vodka. We were welcomed into someone’s tent, introduced to lots of new faces—who were all eager to talk to us, bombard us with questions, drink with us, and feed us piles of meat.

Afterwards, Sasha drove us back home. His wife, Galina, greeted us with tea and a pie too delicious to refuse. Then, Sasha introduced us to traditional Russian banya—which somehow I’d managed to miss out on thus far. Basically, I discovered, banya is kind of like sauna—except more extreme. While Finnish saunas can be upwards of 100 degrees Celcius and are very dry, Russian banyas are usually “only” around 80 degrees Celcius but mega-super-humid. The humid heat of the banya feels a lot more intense and unbearable, but the end-result is, thus, all the more refreshing and rejuvenating.

After suffering in the heat for as we could stand, we ran outside into the snow to cool off, steam rising in clouds from our bodies and hanging in the frigid Siberian air. Then it was back into the banya, where we were introduced to the birch branches. It is Russian banya tradition to hit each other with leafy branches. Sasha was an expert at the timely addition of water to the stones to increase the heat and humidity and using the branches to fan the extra heat in your direction, while gently lashing from head to toe. There is only one way to describe the sensation: I felt like a rainforest.

Just as the heat and branches became unbearable, I was released from the banya for “contrast.” After accidentally throwing a bucket of hot water on me (torture!), Sasha threw a bucket of cold water in my face and said I could go stand outside in the snow. And let me tell you: there is nothing like the feeling of freedom and calm confidence you get when standing naked outside in the snow on a basically-still-winter night in the middle of Siberia. I went from feeling like a rainforest to feeling like king of the world.

At 10:30, it was dinner time. Our stomachs were still full to bursting from too much food, but we managed to find more room for the tastiest meal I’ve ever had in Russia—including more fresh fish and a salad with no mayonnaise. Sasha produced a bottle of vodka—he had made the vodka himself using milk, he said proudly. We had already had too much to drink earlier that day, but you can’t exactly thumb your nose at за знакомство or за Байкал– and чуть-чуть always turns into an empty bottle on the floor.

In the morning, we suited up in the snow suits and boots that Sasha had so generously provided us, donned our EU-smocks, and headed to Baikal for the rybalka. The fishing began at 8AM and ended around 1 (they added an extra hour because it was a horrible day for fishing and they just weren’t biting). Funnily enough, the actual fishing part of our rybalka adventures was the least fun and exciting thing we did that weekend. Five hours sitting on ice not catching fish can be boring—even on Baikal. Anja did catch three fish, though—the smallest little guys you ever saw (14 grams), but they counted.

163 teams gather to fish

163 teams gather to fish

Valyera

Valyera

058

14 grams of fish

14 grams of fish

066 067

I began to suspect that we ourselves—Nici, Anja, and I—were the most interesting things on the ice that morning (a suspicion later confirmed when a woman told me exactly that). Being foreign makes you a celebrity. Also, девченки in general are relatively scarce commodity at such manly tournaments. People kept stopping by to take pictures of us and watch us try to fish—we were even interviewed. The judge in charge of guarding our sector of ice plots kept chatting us up and managed to procure our phone numbers. And our neighbors about 30 feet away took a great interest in us as well, though the judge thankfully wouldn’t allow them to come over to take pictures. They shouted lots of questions at me, called home to brag that they had met “Americans,” and spent a lot of time staring at us like zoo animals. These hours of bonding over not catching fish together were interspersed with inquiries on the economic situation in Detroit and cries of “Hey, America! Hey, Detroit! Catch anything?” At the end, when they were packing up to go home, our judge allowed one to come over and ask for my phone number.

After the competition, we had some lunch in a big tent, and then we wandered around for a while, watching the concert and festivities. We made friends with a team of fishermen all dressed as Mario (right down to the fake mustaches) and another team of young men, who broke out the vodka за знакомство. Later, we found ourselves in another tent drinking more vodka (got to warm up, devchonki!) and eating more grilled meat. Speaking of meat, one woman gave me a beautiful present just for eating pork—see, good things come to those who eat meat. People kept dropping by to talk to us and stare at us and take pictures with us and drink with us. I still can’t get over the awed expressions on everyone’s faces (usually accompanied by an appreciative “ничего себе!”) whenever they learn where I’m from. I might as well be from outer space.

Team European Union!

Team European Union!

Nerpa!

Nerpa!

After way too many toasts за знакомство and за рыбалку, it was time for the award ceremony. Somehow, team European Union won a prize—“for love of fishing,” they said, but I suspect that it was “for being foreign.” As team captain, I got to go on stage to receive our prize of official rybalka tee shirts, a fishing tent, and a grill case. By this point, we were all in a happy, excited daze, and even Valyera was joining the team spirit. It was a flurry of hugs and group-photos and promises to return.

That evening, Sasha put us on a bus back to Ulan-Ude. I was only slightly surprised when the bus stopped for dinner only one hour later. Cringing at the thought of cramming yet another meal into our full stomachs, we hesitantly went inside as directed. And what we saw was not the makings of a quickie dinner break in a café, but what I instantly recognized as a Feast. It turned out to be a self-congratulatory Baikalskaya Rybalka celebration feast full of hours of inevitable speeches and toasts. Of course I was expected to make a toast on behalf of us foreigners—but with the support of too much alcohol and the knowledge that I’d never see any of these hundred men again, I was a lot less nervous than I might have been.

Fortunately, our bus took off again just as the singing was breaking out. After starting to bombard us with attention and questions, our bus mates were kind enough to let us enjoy the rest of the ride in peace (except for the phone calls I kept getting from our “fans”). And what better way to complete this Real Russian Experience than with a run-in with Russia’s horrible roads. In Siberia, the wheels on the bus go break, break, break… We ended up spending an hour and a half stranded in the middle of the woods waiting for a new wheel—that’s Russia, I guess… But, when we finally rolled into Ulan-Ude after 2AM, our bus mates personally made sure we, their beloved devchonki, made it safely to our doorsteps. Thus, though we really had no idea what we were in for on this spur-of-the moment fishing trip to Baikal, we were completely and lovingly taken care of from start to finish. And that sweet hospitality and genuine care and generosity—that, too, is Russia.

 

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Loaded Questions

People love to ask me, “What are the biggest differences between Russia and America?” Anyone who’s been forced to listen to an earful of my I.S. or one of my Russia-raves knows that this is actually one of my favorite things to talk about. Unfortunately, I often find it to be a touchy subject—hard to address diplomatically and thoroughly without yacking everyone’s ears off or saying something jerkish. My I.S. taught me that perceptions are everything in culture and it’s important to understand that “difference” doesn’t always have to be a negative, but it’s hard to make any sort of point without saying something offensive, wrong, or overly generalized. So here’s my attempt to share with you a few of my observations.

PLEASE NOTE: I’m not trying to offend anyone. I’m not trying to criticize anything or pass judgment on right and wrong. You should all know by now that I really do love and respect Russia and Russian culture and all of its idiosyncrasies. I’m just trying to present answer everyone’s favorite question—heavily biased, of course, by my own cultural upbringing.  

Academic Integrity:

Since my main role here is as an educator, I’ve gained a great deal of insight to (and opinions on) education in Russia. There’s a lot to be said about the on-going reforms of the Russian education system, and I have my own ideas on the benefits of more choice and critical thinking, but I’m not really qualified or informed enough to comment on any of that. And as much as I complain about abysmal attendance and student apathy, this still isn’t my biggest hurdle. No, what discourages me the most is the lack of what Wooster syllabi always called “academic integrity.”

No one here has to sign the Wooster Ethic or anything like that. And if there were syllabi, they wouldn’t each contain a whole paragraph about the consequences of cheating and plagiarism. Here, as far as I can tell, it’s not an offense that results in failure and a stain on your permanent record. It’s actually quite normal. And I don’t mean a few stolen sentences here and there—I mean entire texts copied and pasted straight from the internet. It’s a well-known secret that you can buy yourself a nice PhD quite affordably. I read an article that mentioned a study wherein 24 out of 25 random PhD dissertations from one of Russia’s most prestigious universities were found to be more than 50% plagiarized. A year ago, this would have astonished me. Now, though, I’m really not surprised.

Don’t get me wrong: I do have students who do their own homework, and they do it very well all on their own. I am extremely proud of these students, because this definitely does not seem to be the norm. Most find an article on the internet and then read it to me. Some even have the gall to find a Russian text, put it through Google Translate, and then read that to me. To “make a presentation” literally means copying huge blocks of vaguely relevant text onto Powerpoint slides and then reading it to the class. This isn’t just for English class though: I’ve watched the copy-paste paper-writing and presentation strategies put to use in other “real” subjects as well.

And what really gets me is that they don’t even try to pass it off as their own work. They know I know they didn’t write it, that they sometimes don’t even understand a word they’re reading. They readily fess up to abusing Google Translate and Wikipedia. They actually seem genuinely unaware that this would be considered completely unacceptable and even illegal in other countries. This is how you get students who have studied English for 10+ years and can make beautiful and perfect presentations on extremely complex topics in English but cannot answer a question about how they spent their weekend or tell me their own opinion on anything. Often, my students seem utterly perplexed at the very idea of saying something spontaneously and in their own words.

This sometimes makes the liberal-arts-valuing American deep down inside me want to rage and tear out her hair. Thankfully, it’s not all my students. But it is something I’ve had to work with—usually through creativity and explicitness in tasks and assignments. It’s something I’ve had to get used to and understand and just try not to judge too harshly. 

Gender Roles:

As a teacher, I’m always looking for ways to get my students talking. One technique I’ve found to be effective is to give them a deliberately controversial article—one that I know will ruffle their feathers and stir up disagreement—and ask what they think. It’s a great way to spark conversation, and it’s fascinating for me to hear their opinions.

After Women’s Day, I made my students read this article. Playing the devil’s advocate, I took one of their most beloved holidays and turned it on its head. 100% of my students, all young women themselves, completely disagreed with the ideas presented in the article (which, if you didn’t rush off to read it, takes a feminist perspective of the holiday and criticizes the status of women in Russian society). One by one, they all told me how they agree with Russia’s only female General, who said “I think it’s better for women to get married, have children, and bring up their sons who will serve their Motherland.” Unanimously, they agreed that the best, most important function in a women’s life is raising a family. They seemed to have no qualms at the article’s presentation of women as underrepresented and politically powerless and no desire for any change to the situation.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing or a good thing, and I’m not saying that being a mother isn’t important. I’m merely saying it was interesting how strongly and unanimously these views were held, and how greatly they differed from what I’d expect to hear from a group of 19- to 21-year-old American women.

I wasn’t surprised at what I heard: you can observe these deeply embedded views in all aspects of Russian life. It’s in the very-much-alive chivalry of men. It’s in the strict divide between things that are masculine and feminine. It’s in the promises of everyone I meet to find me a husband, always voiced in the manner of presenting the most practical solution to a grave problem. It’s in the mountain of birthday wishes wherein everyone wished me to find my knight in shining armor and have many babies.

Again: I’m not saying this is inherently bad or wrong—just different.

That’s probably enough for now. Please remember, this wasn’t meant to offend or judge or complain. I guess loaded questions are bound to have loaded answers…

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It’s the Easter Buddha, Charlie Brown!

It was a splendid Easter Sunday in Buryatia, though no one here celebrates Easter on this day. I celebrated by visiting the datsan. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and it was warm enough to go out in my American winter coat—and without a scarf!

The Easter Buddha!

Spring is supposed to be a time of rebirth and rejuvenation—a time when Siberia comes out of hibernation and gets back to business as (un)usual. For me this means a whole bunch of scrambling to do everything while I still can. It means my social calendar has filled up with three different English clubs, as well as meetings with friends and random people (friends of friends and friends of friends of friends) who want to practice their English or just spend some time with me in all my exoticness. (However, I’m not as scarce as I once thought: last week, I spotted two Americans in a marshrutka. After a pleasant, homemade, very family-feeling dinner with my fellow Americans, I’m now aware of a small network of missionaries living in the city. Small world!).

The thaw also means there’s a renewed surge of crazy, as it spills out of caves and snowbanks and apartments and is now free to гулять about the country. So here’s just a silly taste of Siberia’s Spring Fever.

  • Gone are the days when I could spend time in public in peace. Lately, especially if I’m with another foreign friend, I’ve become quite the spectacle. Everywhere we go, people approach us to ask us questions and practice their English or just to gawk. Everyone wants foreign friends. Sometimes all the attention is embarrassing and overwhelming—but sometimes, it can lead to an entire evening of translation practice, laughs, and interesting conversation with new friends.
  • Most of the #56 Marshrutkas transformed into time machines overnight. What used to be your typical old-ish but sturdy vans suddenly became a seventies-esque, brightly colored submarine-shaped death-wagons. I think they are marvelous.
  • My neighbors, in keeping with their dastardly ways, have found new and creative ways to wage their psychological warfare. For the most part, they’ve done away with the incessant kleptomania—with the exception of the occasional pilfering of our big knife, making me feel rather silly wielding a giant Samurai cleaver to slice my cheese and bread. After enough scolding, they’ve even stopped the incessant and raucous late-night laundering on the world’s loudest washing machine. Their new favorite pastime is leaving whole raw fish out in the kitchen for days at a time. I’m cool with four sets of googly fisheyes watching me pour my tea, but the smell of rotting fish tends to get extra-ripe and pervasive before these bad-boys finally get cooked.
  • Russia must be super manly—because, lately, every time there’s a problem, they just throw some dirt on it. Icy walkways? Throw some dirt on it. Baikal-sized puddles? Throw some dirt on it. Giant potholes? Throw some dirt on it. Cataclysmic cracks opening up in the earth? Throw some dirt on it. It’s the catch-all-fix-all of spring.
  • Ulan-Ude is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest Lenin head, but I’ve discovered another Guinness-worthy quality of this fine city: most Eminem fans per capita. No joke, he’s everywhere: he’s in grocery stores, he’s in marshrutkas, he’s the third most popular ringtone, gopniks sing him on the streets—and, in an establishment with access to a jukebox, you’ll find that four out of every five songs played are performed by Eminem. You might not be aware of this, but after New York and maybe Las Vegas, Detroit is one of the coolest cities in America—because that’s where Eminem lives.
  • On Friday, I was *this* close to finally getting my hands on some Mexican food. I went to this really intriguing place called Che Guevara, which is a “resto-club” featuring Mexican and Cuban cuisine and salsa-dancing and live music for revolutionary Che-loving souls (they even have a fancy website). Unfortunately, for some reason unbeknownst to me, this is also the only establishment in Russia to have a minimum age limit of 25 (either that or they just say that to deter foreigners and uncool people like me). So, sadly, I was kicked to the curb tacoless and burritoless. 

For my next post (coming soon, I hope), I have something a little more serious and analytical planned. Russia is always giving me something to ponder, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned with you, dear readers. It’s time to put on my critical thinking cap!

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Boldly Going

New this week: Arielle sees dead people, joins a Moms Club, and perfects her moon-walk! (It’s a bit delayed because internet is not something I have anymore, apparently)

Seeing Dead People: For a Catholic, I sure spend a lot of time pretending to be Buddhist. Sadly, I still don’t feel like I understand much about this faith, so very different from my own. Of all the aspects of life here in Buryatia, Buddhism by far feels the most foreign to me. On Wednesday, I went back to Ivolginsky Datsan—this time not to play tourist but to actually participate in something religious. It was a truly fascinating experience because a) I was amongst some of the kindest, funniest people around, and b) it was my first time witnessing a miracle in any religion!

Ivolginsky Datsan, in addition to being the center of Buddhism in Russia, is also home to the phenomenon of Itigilov. Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was a very prominent Buryat Buddhist Lama. When he died in meditation in 1927, he was buried in the lotus position. Through his last will and testament, and appearing to other lamas and monks in dreams, he instructed his followers to exhume his body years later. When they dug up his body in 1955 and 1973, they were surprised to find no sign of decay or corruption—but they placed him back in the grave out of fear of incurring the wrath of the Soviets. In 2002, Itigilov was finally exhumed for good. The body was examined by monks and scientists, and it was determined that the body was in the condition of one who had died days ago, not decades. Though never mummified or embalmed, it is incredibly well-preserved and un-decayed, still in the lotus position. A miracle of Buddhism! His body, declared one of the sacred Buddhist objects of Russia, is kept at Ivolginsky Datsan, and is put on display for worship a few times a year.

Wednesday evening happened to be one of those few lucky times. My student invited me to join her, her brother, and her boyfriend and his sister (both from Tuva) in a visit to see Itigilov. When we arrived at the datsan, we purchased some Buddhist prayer cloths (they seem to be the same ones that get tied on trees)—different colors mean different things. I got a white one (innocence and purity) and a blue one (“the sky” and “something else”), one to leave at the altar, and one for my home. Then we met up with my student’s other brother, who works at the datsan teaching Buddhist philosophy, and he showed us around and told us the history of Itigilov.

We went to the temple where the body was on display. Approaching the body and the monk attending him, I placed my white cloth on the pile of cloths and bowed my head to touch the chain of cloths coming down from Itigilov (as I’d seen everyone else doing). Then I presented the blue cloth to take home with me, and it was pressed to the cloth-chain then draped around my neck. Afterwards, we filled out some kind of family prayer card things. Honestly, I have no idea what was going on or what any of this is for or what it all means, but I’ve got a holy blue cloth, and the Neus have been prayed for, and maybe my white cloth will end up in a tree.

It was an evening of cultural, religious, linguistic, and logistical confusion, but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. My student and her brothers communicated primarily in Buryat (in which my vocabulary has grown to about 20 words), the Tuvans primarily in Tuvan (I know 2 whole words), and the brothers tried to practice their English with me, but Russian—the only language that everyone knew—seemed to be used rather sparingly. Even with the language barriers, I really enjoyed meeting these new acquaintances and talking with them—they were all so interesting, caring, and cheerful. On the way home, we were treated to a concert of beautiful Tuvan songs that I didn’t understand. And for the record, I learned that, when it comes to making sure you eat, a 23-year-old man can be every bit as doting and ready-to-force-feed-you as any babushka.

   

Moms Club: In other news, I’ve decided to forgo the hassle of the knight in shining armor and having children and just skip straight to joining a moms club. Kidding aside, I did join an English club for young mothers. They meet at playrooms in malls as an opportunity for young moms to get out of the house, spend time with other moms, and practice their English. It was a lot more fun than you’d expect a moms club to be for me. The women were not so much older than me, and they were all very interesting and fun to talk to. There was one father present, so for the first time, I talked to someone named after Genghis Khan (check that off my bucket list!). Also, lots and lots of adorable babies! Moms clubs rock. 

 

The World Is My Slip-n-Slide (aka perfecting my moonwalk)… I have a confession to make: believe it or not, I did not officially go ice skating this winter in Siberia. This is not something that I lament, however. For one thing, it was far too cold to even consider partaking in such an outdoor activity. For another, I’ve spent the last five months walking exclusively on ice—who needs to go skating when Siberia is one giant ice rink?

Now that temperatures in the -30’s and -40’s are a thing of the past, but the weather still stubbornly refuses to actually be warm, my ice-walking skills have reached Expert Mode. This month, we’ve been blessed with about three or four glorious days that daytime temperatures climbed above freezing. Everything’s in a real hurry to melt—the world instantly transforms into massive slush pits and quickly flowing rivers. And then, of course, comes the flash-freeze, as temperatures drop back to the -20’s. The resulting landscape—even slipperier than the ice of winter— makes every venture out of your home an adventure, every step a tooth-and-nail battle against gravity. There’s flash-frozen slush, which makes for jaggedly lumpy ice, reminding me of the surface of the moon (if the moon were icy instead of rocky). And, more dangerous, there are flash-frozen, frictionless puddles that don’t even need a Zamboni to maintain their slipperiness. Someone up there must be getting some serious chuckles, watching us slip and slide around.

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When Life Gives You Pancakes…

After a very busy and interesting week, I thought I had a lot of really great material for my blog—but then Maslenitsa happened and blew everything out of the water. So I’ll start with that and then work my way back to everything else that now pales in comparison…

Maslenitsa:

This week, Russia celebrated Maslenitsa (which in English, roughly translates to “Pancake Week,” or, even “Butter Week”). Essentially, this holiday is the Russian Orthodox equivalent of a weeklong Fat Tuesday/Mardis Gras. You celebrate Maslenitsa by eating bliny (Russian pancakes) for a week, and then on the last day you go out into the woods, get dressed up in costumes, play games, take part in silly contests, eat and drink yourself into a coma, beat the crap out of everyone, burn a witch, and beg everyone for forgiveness.

You think I’m joking?

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Maslenitsa is the week before the Russian Orthodox Church begins Lent and is supposed to be your last chance to eat fatty, rich, sugary, meaty foods and partake in activities that are inappropriate for Lent. Like many holidays, Maslenitsa has pagan roots, historically celebrating the start of spring. Bliny are supposed to symbolize the sun. My verdict is in: Maslenitsa is by far the craziest holiday I’ve ever celebrated and, thus, the most fun.

In Ulan-Ude, the main public celebration of Maslenitsa is on the final Sunday—all the fun, food, and crazy of Maslenitsa crammed into one day. They hold it at the open-air Ethnographic Museum. Of course, it was the coldest day in weeks (and windy, too), but that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. The first thing you come to is a stage, featuring a program of singing, dancing (including a dozen dancing white rabbits), silly skits, and dozens of contests and games. Pretty standard. But the museum complex is massive, and the deeper you go, the crazier everything gets. Suddenly, everyone’s dressed up in costumes. There’s a lot of traditional Russian dress—such as shawls and Cossack hats and shirts. There are lots of jesters. There are some bears (of course) and mice and pigs and goats. There’s a Maslenitsa witch on stilts. There is also a creepy organ-grinder character dragging around a giant monkey-man on a leash. Then you come to the food: it’s essentially all-you-can-eat bliny, shashlik, buuzy, and piroshky (except the shashlik, which is in high demand and slow supply—you have to bight and claw and fight for your right to partake in this delicious barbecued meat). You even see tables where babushkas sell shots of vodka.

And then, you walk right into the twilight zone. Strolling through the museum complex, people start inviting you to join their games and competitions. You can race on stilts. You can do a sock-hop. You can flip fake pancakes. You can race to pick up flower petals off the snow. You can throw stuff as hard as you can. You can knock each other over in tug-o-war. You can whack each other with sand bags to knock each other off balance beams. You can knock each other over by locking knees and hopping around in circles on one foot. You can knock each other over by participating in massive 15-second scrums and backwards scrums and other forms of organized violence you don’t even understand. I’ve heard rumors of large-scale organized fist fights and brawls, and I don’t doubt that they could be true in some places. Then, at the height of it all, you take the giant Maslenitsa Witch effigy and burn her in a huge bonfire, burying her ashes in the snow. Finally, after all the partying and gluttony and violence, you’re supposed to ask everyone you know—and strangers, too—for forgiveness, and you forgive everyone.

And thus, over the course of a few hours, you experience the entire spectrum of human emotion. Talk about catharsis!

St. Patrick’s Day:

I’m pretty sure this just confirms your impression that my whole life here is a holiday, but this weekend was also St. Patrick’s Day. Being possibly the Irish-est person in Ulan-Ude only increased my need to somehow celebrate this part of my heritage and share it with my friends. So it was off to the Irish Pub—which does not sell any Irish beer, let alone green beer, but was otherwise perfect. It’s relatively affordable, the service is great, and they keep the music to a dull roar (a rarity, believe me). They were definitely aware of the holiday: there was a band (which played a personal favorite “My babushka smokes a pipe”), and they even had free face-painting—of which I definitely took full advantage.

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And we got the star treatment. The minute you are heard speaking English in public, everyone knows you’re Exotic. Usually, I go through life here with relative anonymity and an illusion of belonging—no one has to know I’m foreign unless I open my mouth and say something dumb. And I’m happy that way. But every now and then, it’s nice to enjoy some of the perks of being a foreigner. And this was a definite perk.

After the band had finished its set, the singer made a big announcement. “These ladies,” he said, “Sitting at the center table”—it only took me a second to realize he was talking about us—“seem to be tourists!” Hoozah, lots of gawking and some applause, and the waiter brings us a complimentary bottle of champagne. They then proceeded to take our picture—maybe not wall-of-fame material, but certainly worthy of their Vkontakte page. All this we earned simply by being foreigners!  

Blocked:

On Friday, I made a rather surprising discovery. When trying to access certain parts of my blog (including the homepage and archives and several individual posts), I received this message on my screen:

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Translation: “Sorry, but access to the requested page is restricted. Possible reasons for restriction of access: 1) This site is included in the Unified Register of websites containing information, distribution of which is forbidden in the Russian Federation; 2) Access has been restricted by a court decision or for other reasons established by lawmakers of the Russian Federation.”

I’ve been blacklisted???

This “Unified Register” was developed as a part of recent legislation (this past summer) targeting sites with content deemed harmful to children—primarily child pornography and the promotion of drugs, suicide, and extremism. Clearly, I’ve got none of that in this blog. When I kept getting this message, I started freaking out a bit. Understandably. At orientation, they warned us that anything we said/did could be monitored, but I never imagined that anyone in Russian Intelligence would actually be interested in the banalities of my own daily life, let alone want to block it. Seems kind of far-fetched. I’m not even critical, if it comes down to that: I’m the poster child of everyone-should-come-visit-Russia-it’s-awesome-here-life-is-beautiful. So why this creepy message, courtesy of the government?

I did some research. My blog isn’t actually listed in the Unified Register. Apparently, two WordPress blogs were added on Friday for posting child pornography or something; and as a result, a few internet service providers (including mine) blocked thousands of WordPress pages (including mine). So in the end, it’s more of an inconvenient (and scary) technical difficulty than anything else.    

Busying it up: 

Last Monday evening, I made the decision to make better use of my time here—to become busier and more active. After that, it was like a giant bat-signal appeared over my head, drawing opportunities my way. All those vast expanses of free time I had are a thing of the past, and I’m all the happier for it!

Within 24 hours of my decision, I was invited to visit the local English “moms’ club,” to teach English to engineering professors (“You teach English, don’t you?” is the best way to strike up conversation at the bus stop), and to help train the Academy’s English Language Olympiad team. This is a group of five of the Academy’s best English students and speakers, and they will compete against students from other universities in reading, writing, listening, grammar, and speaking. They’ve got a pretty intense schedule of extra classes in preparation, but I’m only working with them on speaking. So far, I really enjoy coaching my Olympians! Actually, for the record, all my classes have been going pretty well lately.

Also, I finally got a schedule worked out to attend a Russian history class and a class on contemporary international relations! In addition to being a real test of my Russian abilities (discovery: I can listen to a lecture in Russian and keep up in note-taking!), the course material is very interesting to me. The international relations course is basically on Russian foreign policy—which, as you may know, is exactly my cup of academic tea. And you can’t tell me you never wondered about Russia’s perspectives on the Cold War! 

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Celebrating Women, Celebrating Me

March 8th is International Women’s Day. What’s that, you’re wondering? Another one of those crazy made-up Russian holidays? Actually, Women’s Day began in the early 1900’s in the United States, inspired by a group of American women who went on strike to demand equal pay and better working conditions. But apparently, the holiday acquired some dreaded SOCIALIST connotations and, thus, completely fell off the map in the US of Capitalist A—less popular than even Talk Like a Pirate Day. The Soviet Union, however, declared March 8th a national holiday, and it remains a big deal in Russia to this day—though, granted, it has strayed far from all the values of women’s rights and equality for which it once stood. Instead of celebrating women’s strength and independence and social and professional progress, Women’s Day has become more of a Mother’s Day + Sweetest Day except no one works. Wives, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and lady coworkers are honored with presents and chocolates and flowers. Chick flicks dominate the television. Sometimes, I hear, the men even help with the cooking and cleaning.

So it’s not exactly what the United Nations deems a day to celebrate “how far [women] have come in their struggle for equality, peace, and development” (www.un.org – I’m in Russia: lazy citations are MORE than sufficient).  But I’ll admit that it does feel nice to hear congratulations and well-wishes from every passing man on the street.

Flowers are also appreciated

Flowers are also appreciated

Of course, the real holiday this week was my birthday. Though I was 6,000 miles from the place of my birth, my friends, students, and colleagues managed to fill my day with happiness, wonder, and love—making this a birthday to remember.

Birthday preparations began on Wednesday evening, when I went with Darima and Slava to the hip new Capital Mall to stock up on birthday supplies. Really, I could have done this grocery shopping in any given supermarket (or perhaps, in any given combination of two supermarkets to account for inevitable inventorial gaps) without taking Marshrutka Number 30 to the end of the world. But Capital Mall has been on the “Arielle must see” list for a while now—and besides, I had to try out the new 5D movie.

After visiting a very impressive salad counter that offered a vast array of 52 different salads (not one of which contained lettuce) and selecting a dubious “salad” with dill as the first ingredient (closely followed by mayonnaise, corn, and tongue), we had ourselves a nice little mall picnic. Then I was dragged to the 5D Theater. Let me set the record straight: back home, there’s a lot of negativity and “that’s a lame gimmick” sentiment directed toward 3D, but in Russia, more D’s is always better. 3D movies are not offered in 2D format, and they also don’t charge an extra $5 for the extra dimension. And 5D movie/rides are still cool and classy forms of entertainments for grown men and women. So we went on a six-minute ride through five dimensions of Snowy Paradise.

Then it was back to the true reason of our venture out to Capital Mall: shopping. My friends needed to buy lots of Women’s Day presents, and I needed to buy fruits and sandwich materials and chocolates and lots of alcohol for our faculty birthday extravaganza. We just barely made the 9PM deadline for alcohol sales. At that late hour, and with our excessive amount of massive bags of merchandise, the only practical way to get home was by taxi. A good rule of thumb: know an evening is well-spent when you need a taxi to get home.

On the big day, I lugged all my goodies to the Academy (and then I made yet another grocery run for a cake and “fresh” cucumbers and a can of condensed milk for the tea that no one drank). Like a well-oiled machine, my colleagues and I sliced bread, sausage, cheese, cucumbers, and fruit and laid it all out in an aesthetically pleasing arrangement with the cake and chocolates and alcohols. When all was ready and beautiful, I ran around and invited everyone to “come drink tea” (which, in Russia, is code for so, so, so much more—although, to be fair, I had brought tea).

the "fruits" of our labor...

the “fruits” of our labor…

The entire faculty from the Institute of Linguistics and Cross-cultural Communications gathered around. The Chinese students came and delivered a lovely speech of congratulations for Women’s Day and passed out flowers and chocolates. Then the director of the Institute gave a really sweet speech/toast in honor of the birthday girl. Happy birthday, congrats on Georgetown, you’re fluent in Russian, your students love you, we love you, wishes of happiness and success in my professional and personal life, etc. (the “personal life” comments—and the more direct “just find a man already” remarks—could be taken as a jab at my singleness, but I knew not to take it personally because this is Russia, and they’re just worried about this poor 23-year-old American Old Maid). On behalf of the department, she presented me with a beautiful red-with-flowers shawl (perfect for Maslenitsa next week, and I’m dead-set on being a Babushka for Halloween).

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We spent the next couple hours in Russia-Celebration Mode, enjoying my feast and good conversation. As a department, we devoured all the little sandwiches and three large bottles of champagne and wine, and picked at the chocolates, fruit, and cake. Thus, I more than fulfilled my Russia Bucket List goal of drinking at work. This great afternoon continued with my students not coming to class, so I didn’t even have to teach (probably for the best). I went home full of happy birthday feelings.

In the evening, I hosted English Club: Birthday Edition. You may think I’m a pretty cruel teacher, forcing my students to celebrate the day of my birth, but I will have you know that this was completely optional. No one is required to come to English Club (just as no one, apparently, is required to come to class). I just happen to be blessed with some of the greatest students on the planet. Just like you’d find at home, after cake and tea was time for. Unlike back home, however, presents are always accompanied by beautiful, touching speeches and well-wishes (I tell you, Russians have perfected the art of well-wishing. It’s always so poetic! Every one of them could put Hallmark out of business). With speeches in English, Russian, and Buryat, I was the happiest, proudest English teacher ever. Amongst other things, I am now the proud owner of a stuffed baby Nerpa, some beautiful Baikal souvenirs, an ice cream bowl, and a t-shirt with a Buryat princess and buuzy. Also, somewhere along the line, I seem to have acquired the status of “Buryat girl.”

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Team 2nd-Year

Team 2nd-Year

wearing all the presents

wearing all the presents

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Team 3rd-Years

Team 3rd-Years

Group Photo!

Group Photo!

After presents and the mandatory photo-shoot, it was game-time, of course. The “Fruits” game was such a hit in the classroom that it has found its way into English Club fun. We played a rather rowdy card game (I wasn’t worried about upsetting the neighbors. The people downstairs probably just thought my neighbor started his raucous nightly laundering a few hours early). And then I introduced Russia to “Go Fish” (which, now that I think about it, requires a surprising amount of honesty and trust for such a competitive game).

It was a lovely conclusion to a lovely day, celebrating the end of a lovely year and the start of the lovely year to come.

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