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Not Much Time for Sleep!

It’s amazing how much can happen in a week here! Here’s a quick update on what has been going on in Tatarstan.

Weekend in Kazan

Last weekend, I was invited to Kazan(the largest city in Tatarstan) by the daughter of a teacher at the Institute, who works there as an English teacher and completed her master’s degree in TESOL in the states. Kamila and I hit it off right away, and Iwehad a wonderful weekend exploring the city, drinking tea, and discussing all things language related. Kamila took me to Театр Юного Зрителя, (The Theater of the Young Spectator,) where we saw a comedy called, “Здравствуйте, Я Ваша Тётя” (“Hello, I’m Your Aunt.”) This play was reminiscent of Mrs. Doubtfire: Set in late 19th or early 20th century England, two love-struck young men ask their friend to dress up like a woman so that they can invite two girls over without a chaperone. What results is a hilarious and disastrous chain of events.

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The next day, Camilla took me to the museum of Soviet Life, which showcased realia from the institution of the U.S.S.R. until its dissolution. Let’s just say the star of the show was Lenin. Here are some pictures from the museum:

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“The Truth About American Diplomats”

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From a Soviet textbook: “Our Motherland, the U.S.S.R.”

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I learned that chewing gum was a status symbol in the Soviet Union, because it was so hard to come by.

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“Soviet Woman”

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“Soviet Pioneer Uniform”

After we left the museum, it was time for me to return to Kazan, and other than the irritated GPS that yelled at you if you made a wrong turn and the driver deciding it was a good idea to race through the breakdown lane on occasion, the trip back was uneventful.

Overcoming My Fear

One of the girls I met at the local English Club, Elmira, has been kindly helping me with my Russian once or twice a week. One day, we stopped by a store to get some water, and she noticed right away how nervous I got when I approached the store workers. “Why do you get so scared?” she said. “Then you stutter and they can’t understand you! They’re just people, just like you.”

It’s true, although I’ve studied Russian for quite a few years and can carry on conversation fairly easily with people I know, there always seems to be a barrier when I approach people in stores or cafes. My heart starts beating quickly and my tongue decides to have a seizure. I asked Elmira then, if we could go out one day and just go up to as many people as possible in an attempt to overcome my fear. She agreed, and on Tuesday, we went to the market for an adventure.

First, I went to a market to try to find a hat and gloves, and I managed to talk to the woman without too much trouble. Next, she took me to a fast food place which served a Tatarstani treat.

“You have Big Mac, we have сосиска в тесте (fried dough covered hot dogs). You haven’t been to Tatarstan until you’ve tried one.” She told me what to say, and when I ordered, the woman actually smiled at me and asked me where I was from, then started to make conversation. So not everyone is scary. We went to a few more stores, and my fear started to dissipate. I still get nervous and I know it will be a process, but I am so thankful that Elmira took the time to help me fight my fear.

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Eating сосиска в тесте in front of Elabuga’s “Big Ben”

Explaining America to Russian History Students

The next day, I had another opportunity to use my Russian, as I was invited into a history class to share about my country. In true Russian style, I wasn’t told exactly what I needed to prepare until the morning of, which resulted in lots of frantic Googling and Wikipedia searches. I may be American, but I am not an encyclopedia!

After presenting on the symbolism in our flag and great seal, students asked me questions about my country. Questions ranged from the American economic system to family relationships, and I did my best to answer them as truthfully as I could with my non-native handle of Russian. Some questions, such as those about American family relationships and why I decided to come to Russia, were easy to answer in Russian because they were not sensitive issues. However, I found that when asked questions about Americans’ view of President Obama and President Putin, it was hard to answer both diplomatically and truthfully. Concerning President Obama, I brought up that his approval ratings had dropped since he became president, and that a large percentage of Americans were not satisfied with how he acted concerning Syria.

And whn they asked me about Putin, and I felt a little cornered. The history teacher asked me, “so, what do Americans think about Putin? Because, you see, we love our President.” So really, what was I supposed to say to that? I said something to the effect of that Americans respect Putin, but of course there will always be tension between the two countries because we are both powerful and want to hold the number one spot. Then to dispel the tension, I tried to bring in some humor, fumbling for words to try to explain the funny memes we have on Facebook that portray Putin as a strong, “most interesting man in the world” type. I didn’t do very well at explaining this, and when this article came out the next day reporting on my presentation, it said that “Americans consider Putin a ‘superhero.'” Ok, so not exactly what I wanted to say; sorry America! Also, in the article, they put in some things that I never said, for example, that all American homes have an American flag. So here’s the link if you’d like to put it into an online translator and read it, but don’t take everything as my definitive view 🙂

http://kpfu.ru/main_page?p_cid=61095&p_sub=6207

Overall, it was a great experience to answer students’ questions about America. People in Elabuga are very enthusiastic about meeting an American, because unlike in larger cities, for many, I am the first American they have ever met. The local news will be interviewing me on Monday as well, so I will make sure to keep you up to date on that.

Girls Night Out

Finally, my week ended with some girls from my advanced class inviting me out to a café. Most of them are only a year younger than me, so it feels a little strange to be their teacher. It was great to be able to hang out with them outside of the classroom in a more relaxed environment. They were determined to speak English the whole time, which didn’t seem difficult, since their English is already excellent. After pizza, coffee, and desert, we strolled around the city, at which one point, two college guys started to follow us in their car. While walking down the sidewalk, they put their car in reverse and went backwards, trying to talk to us, for at least 10 minutes. They were persistent and would not give up, but we felt safe, since there were about 10 of us. Russian guys seem to be much more forward than American guys. But can you blame them? Look how beautiful all the girls in my class are:

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I Taught My First Lesson! (And Some Random Stories)

I’m really not in the writing mood so this will be a short post, but I just felt like I had to write about this milestone: I taught my first lesson! Although my schedule will probably change and the English Department hasn’t communicated very clearly their expectations of me, I managed to get through my first 90 minute period with a group of fourth year students, and I think they really liked it.

A few days ago, I was given the textbook for the class, but was given little instruction on how to use it, just that they were on unit one, which was about the American higher education system. Ironically, the book is rife with Britishisms and I found myself getting a crash course in vocabulary (anyone ever heard of an invigilator [exam proctor] or to swot up [study]? I tried to plan as simple a lesson as I could, but the set up of the classroom makes it difficult to conduct class as I would like. I prefer setting up chairs in a circle to encourage discussion (shout out to Dr. Graeme Bird!), but the desks in my classroom are heavy and immovable. Because of this, group work was a bit awkward, and the students were pretty quiet anyway, but I am determined to find a way to encourage interaction, despite the awkward set up.

I quickly found that I wasn’t as bad of an improviser as I thought, because it soon became clear that I had prepared for something they had already gone over. Trying to think on my feet, I told about my experience in the American system of higher education, taught them words like “to plagiarize,” “to procrastinate,” “G.P.A.,” “summa cum laude,” and “syllabus.” I wasn’t surprised that they had never heard of the word syllabus, because compared to an American university, class schedules seem very tentative and disorganized. Although students are a month into the school year, their schedules are just starting to get finalized, and I have the feeling that my schedule is going to change pretty frequently as well. Although this is my sixth time in Russia, I am definitely not exempt from culture shock, and as an American who is especially attuned to schedules and deadlines and clearly set-expectations, it has been a challenge for me to adapt to the lack of clear parameters for what I am doing.

All in all, I think my lesson went over well, and I think I made a good impression on the students. By the end of the class they were not as shy, and many came up to talk with me after I had finished. Tomorrow I will have three hours with the same group, but I will be teaching both a conversational English class and a newspaper/current events class (discussion about the government shutdown, perhaps).

To close this hastily written blog post, I’ll share two random stories that don’t deserve their own post, but I would still like to write about.

1. Linguistic Victory! I was able to help a group of Chinese people who didn’t speak Russian very well find a restaurant they were looking for. They mistook me for a Russian and asked me in broken Russian for help. I switched over to English, which they understood, told them I would ask someone, then translated a nearby Russian’s directions into English for them. It definitely felt great to realize that my language skills have gotten to a point where I can help people who don’t speak Russian find their way.

2. Apparently Russian men find glasses attractive. I was standing at a bus stop when a car pulled up to the curb, a man of about 30 got out of the car and if I heard right, he said “ei umnaya!” (Hey smarty), and motioned as if he were offering a ride. I didn’t think he was talking to me, so I didn’t make eye contact, but when he drove off I looked behind me to see only a white-haired babushka waiting for the bus. (Note: there is definitely the possibility that I misheard him, but either way, it is not the only time this week that I have seen random people try to make extra money by pulling up to bus stops and offering rides-I saw it again today).

Well, that’s it for today, but be on the lookout for a post on culture shock, which I did not expect but has definitely hit me full force. Until then, disjointedly yours,

Hope

My Almost Arranged Marriage (or the Irony of Fate)

“I am so happy to see you! I need to talk with you about a very important matter.” The elderly woman’s light blue eyes, circled in soft wrinkles, gleamed with urgency. I smiled and felt the characteristic excitement that comes with crossing the barrier of small talk to genuine conversation with a Russian, and I gleefully agreed.

I had met Tatiana in the hotel lobby a few days before; while she was checking into the hotel, she asked me to watch her bags. As soon as I opened my mouth, it became clear to her that I was not Russian. From there I found out that she spoke fluent French, had taught for quite a few years, and was staying for a few days in Moscow before going to visit her family in Israel. Tatiana struck me as eccentric from the beginning; she spoke to me with an intensity and openness that I have not typically experienced the first time I meet a Russian.

Before I reluctantly ended the conversation (two girls from my group were waiting for me), she looked me in the eye and said in a definitive tone, “Just don’t get married while you’re here. I know sexually there might be the attraction, but it is just not enough time to really know a person.”

“I completely agree,” I answered, pleased that she seemed to share my conviction that this year was not the one for romance, at least with a Russian.

“It was wonderful meeting you, and I wish you success.” She smiled at me as we parted.

But as fate would have it, this was not our last meeting…

Skip to two days later, when Tatiana bumps into me and exuberantly invites me to talk with her about a very important matter. My first inclination was to think she was simply lonely and wanted to have tea with a willing listener. Perhaps she would give me advice on teaching; after all, we seemed to have similar cross-cultural interests. Or maybe she was a Mormon who hoped to share her faith with me.

There was no way for me to know that the real reason she wanted to talk with me could be summed up in one word: судьба.

The English translation of the word судьба as “fate,” is a weak definition at best because of the stark contrasts in perception of the word in American and Russian culture. Whereas Americans have the culturally ingrained mindset that our futures can be molded by action and perseverance, the Russian culture emphasizes the role of fate in the paths that our lives take. So although we have the word in our lexicon, we do not attach the spiritual and emotional weight to it that Russians do.

Tatiana and I sat down in the hotel café, where I ordered a black tea and she offered me dark chocolates dusted in cocoa. For thirty minutes, she told me about her life traveling with her military husband, her work as a translator, how she adored France and French people, and how art and culture were integral parts of being an intelligent, educated person. I was entranced by her clear, slow speech, stories gleaming with details, and her love for learning. She even tried to teach me a few phrases in French. About thirty minutes into the conversation, she looked at me with a smile and said, “but you’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”

“Da,” I answered, a subconscious premonition hinting at where this might be going. She started to weave stories of her nephew into her narrative, “a talented artist who graduated with honors, a man who is humble and shy…would you like to see a picture of him?”

Biting my lip, I conceded. I was faced by a decidedly poor picture of an average looking man in his late twenties. He was standing beside a large painting, apparently talking about his work, his eyes turned away from the camera.

“Do you like?” she asked. The Russian way of asking if you like something doesn’t require an object, so it was ambiguous as to if she was asking about him or his painting. Not wanting to offend, I muttered a “da,” and grasped for a tactful way to exit the situation. As if hearing my thoughts, the plump, smiling waitress explained that we needed to leave since others needed to eat and we were only drinking tea.

Tatiana, however, had not made a full case for her nephew Ilya, and invited me to her hotel room. My fascination with the situation outweighed any qualms I had, so I agreed. After following her into her third floor room, Tatiana sat me down and said, “so, have you understood me?”

“Um…You would like me and your nephew to meet?”

“Yes, I knew you were an intelligent girl!”

“I don’t know…” I said weakly, my Russian skills fleeing as my nervousness spiked.

“I just want him to marry an intelligent, well-brought up girl, and I knew you were from the minute I saw you. You see, I just think it might be fate. Why else would I have met you in the hotel lobby that day, then bump into you two days later? It might be судьба.”

Or perhaps it’s because we’re in the same hotel building, I thought smugly, but managed to keep a straight face.

“But I don’t know him,” I said.

“But I know him! He has no problems.”

All this from the woman who had told me not to get married while I was in Russia because it was not enough time to really know someone. But as the Russian saying goes, you can’t outrun fate.

Still, I thought a little Russian bluntness might douse the fire of fate. I explained to her that I was a Christian and that it was very important for me to marry someone who shared my beliefs. This led into a very interesting exchange on religion and its place in the marriage relationship. I was able to explain to her the centrality of Christ in my life, which seemed to surprise her. “You won’t find youth like this in Russia,” she said.

Although she tried to convince me that cross-religious relationships would work (the dashing Ilya was Jewish), she slowly started to get the hint, and two hours after we sat down, we parted amicably. She gave me her number and encouraged me to call her, no doubt counting on fate to bring us together again.

I returned to my hotel room with a smile in my heart, energized by the reminder of why I am hopelessly in love with vast country and its mysterious, beautiful people who are not constrained by the prison of logic and practicality, but who allow room for belief in the unknown, the untouched, the unseen. I can already tell this is going to be a great year.

Friday the 13th

Michael Scott says it best: “I’m not superstitious. But…I am a little stitious.”

Actually, I’m not superstitious at all, but that is my all time favorite quote from The Office, and I wanted an excuse to put this clip in a blog post, because I am in serious need of some comic relief.

Why am I in need of comic relief? you ask. Well, although we’ve established that I’m not superstitious, of course the only time for me to hit someone’s car would be on Friday the 13th. Right after I blogged about viewing inconveniences as adventures, my commitment to put my words into action was tested.

Although it was pouring rain outside, I climbed into the car with a slight smile on my face since a nice man had taken the time to open the door for me on the way out of the bank. I turned the key and slowly began to back out of the parking place. It was foggy and wet and I wouldn’t have noticed anything at first unless I had heard the angry scream,

“She hit my car!!!”

I gulped. braked the car and looked in horror to see that I had misjudged just how much room I had. The front end of the car had hit the side of her new silver SUV. I put the car in park, flustered and nervous, and  I stepped out into the pouring rain, bracing myself for the wrath of this short spitfire who seemed ready to fight.

“I am so, so sorry,” I managed.

“I hope you have insurance!” She shot back.

“I do, I-I’m so sorry. I’ll call the police.” It was at this moment that the nice man who had opened the door for me walked out of the bank and toward the woman.

“She hit our car!” The woman called across the parking lot. I felt shame creep into my cheeks. He opens the door for me, and I hit his car! Thankfully, he was just as kind to me as he was before the accident. His presence seemed to calm the wife down and before long, both of them were chatting with me and my brother good-naturedly. (Blake did most of the talking; I wasn’t much for small talk in my shocked state. I was so glad to have him there to keep me calm and carry the conversation- thank you brother!)

Standing in the rainy parking lot fighting back tears, I kept thinking of the G.K. Chesterton quote that I blogged about yesterday: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” How am I supposed to view this as an adventure! I thought. How on earth can I view this as anything but an inconvenience caused by me!

Although in that moment, I didn’t fully succeed in viewing it as an “adventure,” in the romantic sense of the word, I gained some clarity on why it is easier for me to view inconveniences in Russia as adventures than inconveniences in America. In America, my relative permanence of location and understanding of cultural norms places on me the burden of high personal responsibility. In Russia, however, I have learned that it is inevitable for me to make mistakes; the only way to avoid cultural faux pas is to stay in my apartment.  I am not as hard on myself in Russia because I know that to be perfect is impossible, and because of this I feel much freer to take risks.

On a less positive note, one of the reasons I may have a more starry-eyed view of life in Russia is that I have never lived there long enough to assume personal responsibility. I’ve never had the chance to hit someone’s car in Russia. I’ve never had the fear of losing my job. I’ve never had to worry about making rent. Many of the inconveniences I’ve experienced have been out of my control,  and the only pieces I had to pick up were the words to make a good story.

So the conclusion I’ve come to in all of this is that I might have imbalanced perspectives in both of the countries that I call home. In America, I am overly responsible, prone to beating myself up about any and every mistake. In Russia, perhaps I need to temper my adventurousness with a tad more personal responsibility. As I venture off to Russia for nine months, I have high hopes that I will learn to stop see-sawing between the two extremes and achieve a more balanced perspective. I want my life to be characterized by an adventurous spirit, but perhaps it needs to be steadied a bit (but not weighed down!) by a realistic approach to responsibility.

A Must-Read on Adventure

One of my favorite quotes of late has been “an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered”  (G.K. Chesterton). One of the reasons I love being in Russia is that it unlocks a perspective that empowers me to treat what I would consider an inconvenience in America as an adventure. There have been times that I have wondered if  things like my bursting into laughter after splitting my chin open were a sign of craziness, but when I read the story that the above quote came from, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my perspective.

Besides convincing me that I hadn’t lost touch with reality, G.K. Chesterton’s short essay “On Running After One’s Hat,” was a refreshing, perspective-giving read, and I want to share it with everyone I can. Here is the link:

http://essays.quotidiana.org/chesterton/running_after_ones_hat/

It’s about a five minute read, and so worth it! If you still aren’t convinced, here’s a teaser from the beginning:

“I feel an almost savage envy on hearing that London has been flooded in my absence….Some consider such romantic views of flood or fire slightly lacking in reality. But really this romantic view of such inconveniences is quite as practical as the other. The true optimist who sees in such things an opportunity for enjoyment is quite as logical and much more sensible than the ordinary “Indignant Ratepayer” who sees in them an opportunity for grumbling.”

Happy reading and happy adventures!

 

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