Homecoming

800px-Russian_Empire-US_relations_mapReverse culture shock hit me in the form of raw vegetables, a sharp craving for Russian oatmeal and a perplexity at the behavior of a barista at the local Starbucks (how can one man be so ecstatic at the order of a skim latte?). Shocking or not, it appears that cultural adjustment resembles a boomerang. As far as you fling it away from you, it relentlessly hurls back again in the series of questions, spontaneous comparisons and self-analyses. It begins to feel narcissistic. How extensively do self-analysis and self-absorption overlap? Then again, the queries come not only from within – everyone wants to know. I suppose the most striking peculiarity is the sort of dialogue I’ve formed that has begun to repeat itself to each fresh face. When these analyses become stale ­– will I start fabricating? That would plunge me into an even graver level of self-indulgence.

The human mind is one sly motherf*cker. We glorify, we romanticize – after less than a week! At a comedy show once, one comedian mocked himself for his behavior after his homecoming from a semester in Europe. Once you return home, he said, you start every sentence with, “When I was abroad…” and it drives people nuts! But it’s for a good reason. Each individual must reconcile his or her experiences with what has changed at home. You don’t leave and come back to the same place. Because places are founded in only in perceptions, and yours are forever altered.

And how can one possibly answer the question: “How was Russia?” I’ve noticed that generally, people aren’t too keen on knowing the truth – like fairytales, they want to hear a story that ends happily ever after. Call me a cynic, but it is much more interesting relaying the grungy, bizarre, even disillusioning details than creating a peachy perfect picture of your past four months. The failure of many to comprehend the fact that a semester spent in St. Petersburg is not four months of vodka and dancing bears only challenges me to tarnish their image. Study abroad minus so much studying perhaps, but substituted with new obstacles: disagreements with Russians, living in a place where social movements that occurred in the U.S. half a century ago are only embryonic, trying to communicate in a sometimes irritatingly difficult language. In the end, a person is left with last impressions, not the first thoughts that glistened in the September sunlight like the domes on the Church of the Spilled Blood. The fact is that “everything changes when you tell about life”; hindsight begins before you can even recollect.[1]


[1] Sartre, Jean-Paul, Nausea (39).

The 105+ Day Commitment

525793_10150608195661813_1612028462_n

American university students are essentially trained to function on 15-week increments. Every semester is a rapid three-month period that plunges you headfirst into the unknown and you can barely come up for air and then you habituate and are bored for a second and then you realize it’s almost over. Academic recess (recuperation period), and then a fresh cycle begins. On the one hand, it’s a wildly effective strategy to embrace the new and mysterious, to recreate and to surprise yourself. The flip side: anything that lasts for more than 105 days becomes a serious commitment. I fear that this highly interrupted lifestyle has synchronized to the hands of my biological clock. And hitting “snooze” won’t stop it from ringing.

In terms of my SPb experience, the 15-week mark passed long ago. I’ve had time to begin craving spicy food, to miss my family and friends, and to cultivate a growing academic hunger for classes that are more provoking than what lines the pages of my grammar book. Completely unprepared, this unexpected relinquishment of my intellectual self is at times a challenge. In layman’s terms, feeling like an idiot sucks. During classes, buying coffee, and while eating dinner with your host family – these are times that one must sacrifice your academic being in order to absorb cultural novelties. So what if the cashier asks you to repeat your order three times? So what if your professor was patronizing today? You want to brush it off, but in formulaic terms class + café + host family = Life. And how can turn a blind eye to Life?

So you incorporate new expressions into your quotidian dialogue – hand gestures, forty different nuances of smiles, a deeper understanding of your inner self that you can’t yet verbalize in a foreign language. You discover how important music really is to you. You don’t change yourself, but rather how you relate to others. The space between you coalesces around a new form. “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Taking my liberties with Charlemagne, I make the claim that language here has a broad definition. Even nonverbal expression can liberate your personality to inhabit a new plane of existence, rendering time irrelevant –  for 15 weeks, or even longer.  

American Pie

american-pie-w1280

Celebrating Thanksgiving away from home for the first time, I experienced an unprecedented feeling of internal disequilibrium. My biological clock (which is ticking, by the way) launched into a sort of frenzy. It whispered in my ear, berating me for my evasion of the blissful boredom that is “family time,” the inevitable “So what are you doing this summer?” and the surreptitious wine consumption. As I sat in my classes, time and space pulled my subconscious across different planes, trying fruitlessly to chart it’s accustomed course. Why was I learning grammar? More importantly, why was I sitting upright? And where did that pang of melancholy come from? It seems that distance really does make the heart grow fonder. It can even bequeath one with sentimentality. Tik-tok.

Thankfully (pun intended), we pot-lucked a colorful smorgasbord of autumnal favorites at my director’s apartment that night. The spread even included turkey, at the perplexity of our Russian guests who had “only seen it in the movies.” The night was weirdly cathartic. In a petit epiphany, I realized that traditions I accepted as insignificant had more meaning than previously accredited. My typically subdued prefrontal cortex spun into overtime. I waved the minor cuts on my left hand from apple pie-induced kitchen toils patriotically, as a proud American. Never mind what really happened on the first Thanksgiving.

My biggest concern before leaving for Russia was founded entirely in narcissism. More than anything, I was worried about the incapability to express myself in a foreign language. Mysteriously (and fortunately), it seems that people can generally tell what kind of person you are behind the veil of a language barrier. But what persists, nagging and weighing on your psyche, is the challenge of expressing the parts of yourself you didn’t know existed beforehand. Especially if you aren’t yet ready to admit them to yourself.

Feminism for Thought

images-1

Being an American woman in Russia today has been an unavoidable and almost routinized lesson on gender studies. In class, feminism often returns as a topic of discussion. I consider myself a feminist – not the raging anti-men type, but one who subscribes to equality between men and women in the political, social and economic spheres. It’s built into my self and engrained in the culture of my upbringing. And in Russia, there has been more than one chance to assert this aspect, left so undisputed in the majority of my past experiences. Seeing the way Russian women model their wardrobes to attract the opposite sex and recognizing the overwhelming intolerance towards homosexuality, Russia is like the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, with a revamped title: Kitschy with a Chance of Deeply Embedded Traditional Gender Norms.

Is it raining men?

Is it raining men?

Recently, one of my Russian professors remarked that her American students tend to agree that a “beautiful woman” means a confident woman. We could only verify. Her subsequent laughter evidenced that Russians do not share this philosophy. In another discussion during the same week, a Russian student asserted that there are genderized versions of happiness. It is black and white and 1950s all over: men find happiness in their career, and family and homemaking remain irrefutably female realms of gratification. This is the backdrop for a hot topic in Russian news – Pussy Riot. The all-female rock group’s political demonstration last February in front of one of the country’s most famous cathedrals (Moscow’s “Christ the Savior”) labeled the Kremlin a dictatorship, chanting, “Mother of God, cast Putin out!” Group members were given various punishments, and the leader, now-famous Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is allegedly missing in Siberia, currently being transferred to another prison after she went on hunger strike at her initial location.

0It certainly takes visiting a new country to recognize that the society we have grown up in was handed to us on a more or less gender-neutral platter. This is not to say that in the US, women lead a burden-free existence, but in comparison to my experiences here, where a young girl is certainly not given the you-can-do-anything-you-want-in-life speech, the American mindset is much more gender-equal. What is most startling about the Pussy Riot scandal is the indifference of the Russian people to the group’s overall message. Instead, the voice of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and close ally of Putin, Patriarch Kirill, towers above all – “Feminism is a ‘very dangerous’ phenomenon that could lead to the destruction of Russia.” The conservative values of the Kremlin, mixed with Russia’s low birth rate lead to an unsurprisingly hefty fixation on women’s role as a mother. In Kirill’s words, “the country isn’t called ‘the Motherland’ for nothing.”

Unfortunately, the gender censorship of the perestroika era that stifled the discussion of progressive action has only continued to caricaturize feminism in Russia.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24848893

http://www.rferl.org/content/pussy-riot-what-really-happened-russia-trial/24660925.html

http://www.rferl.org/content/anarchist_art_gang_angers_authorities_provocative_antistate_antics/3548992.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/09/feminism-destroy-russia-patriarch-kirill

http://www.gwi-boell.de/web/democracy-100-years-womens-day-voronina-russia-3123.html

http://www.metamute.org/community/your-posts/feminism-dirty-word.-what-would-marx-and-engels-think-today

The Honeymoon Phase

tumblr_m8u0ziwt5i1rqpx0xParents engrain into their newly licensed children that the DMV is one of human adult’s chief inconveniences. Endless snail-paced lines, incompetent government employees, flickering fluorescent lights paving the way to a bureaucrat’s heaven…You grin with your newfound freedom of the wheel now, they say, but soon you’ll be a cynic!

What the typical American forgets, however, is how much he takes for granted. Buying a train ticket in Russia presented a different realm of bureaucracy altogether. We prepared for the purchase like one plans for battle. No English allowed. Inspired by socialist realism, we threw all expectations to the wind and rejected the overly coddled American voice in our minds, reminding us that normally, a ticket can be bought online in under five minutes without human interaction altogether. After about one hour, two different lines and two befuddled cashiers, we finally clutched our tickets to Moscow – not with pride, but relief.

One battle over, it was soon forgotten and replaced with a fresh concern. Being our one three-day weekend vacation, Moscow served as a serious “treat yourself.” It was like the honeymoon of the honeymoon phase. Which makes sense, considering the godlike power Russians attribute to honey. Snacking in bed on cookies that taste like Christmas, stumbling upon a Baldessari exhibit in a park and meeting inebriated Russians in sushi restaurants begs the question: How much indulgence is too much indulgence? I fear in the near future I will wake up from this Faberge egg I’m living in and have to confront reality.

IMG_2470Even if Moscow presented its own set of challenges (navigation, rain, the guard inside Lenin’s mausoleum who snapped at us for dillydallying), it all was cancelled out by the long-awaited Thai food, the trifecta of drunken natives who taught us an ancient Russian tradition (putting chopsticks in your mouth and pretending to be a walrus) and the new inside jokes. I worry that I should worry that life isn’t more stressful. But the honeymoon might be a semester long.

The Proust Diet

IMG_2284If you’ve ever read Marcel Proust’s essay about madeleines from his chef d’oeuvre “In Search of Lost Time,” you understand what a delight it is to bite into a warm baked good and wash it down with the piping hot beverage of your choice on a dismal fall afternoon. St. Pete is infamous for its autumn dreariness, so the formula was simple: gloom + donut + coffee = Proust moment. Mathematically calculated, it was quickly decided to head to the local Pishenaya after school, just a five minute walk from our university. FYI:

1. Pishenaya: a place where pishki are sold.

2. Pishki: Etymologically linked to the Russian word for “voluptuousness,” pishki are reminiscent of carnival fried dough, but in the pleasingly recognizable shape of a small donut. The building where they are sold is smack dab in the middle of the city, the entrance nondescript. Inside are two counters where you can purchase fresh pishki at the ludicrous price of 12 rubles (about 37 cents) and a helplessly creamy and sugary coffee. The lights fluorescent and the walls a mélange of mint and white, the Pishenaya dates back to the oh-so-Soviet year of 1956. Partially because it was our friend’s twenty-second birthday, and partially because we were feeling extravagant, we purchased 22 pishkiurl-1

“…And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”[1]

IMG_2336My cake was a Russian donut and my tea was coffee, but Proust knew what he was talking about.. At one point, a cat climbed onto my lap. I’m not sure if there is a better embodiment of comfort food one can find in a baked good.