On Being Conscientious

As some of you may have noticed, there’s been a pretty long break inbetween updates on this blog. I humbly submit the following excuses:

  1. My computer gave up the ghost in mid November after I walked around with it for a few hours outside. Turns out they really do mean it when they say that the ‘L’ in LCD stands for “liquid.”
  2. I bought a replacement laptop shortly thereafter but had to go pick it up…in France.
  3. After returning from the wedding (you didn’t really think I’d really go all that way just to pick up a computer, did you? You did? Hm…), I promptly set about trying to prepare for and figure out the end of semester system at my university that is, ah, lamentably (if predictably) Russian in execution.
  4. Marianna got here right before Christmas, and after a brief period of convalescence on her part we set off to see the not-Barnaul parts of Siberia.
  5. Laziness.

This is part one of a hastily written two-part blog post. It will focus on what I’ve been thinking and feeling about my time here so far, and conclude with a curated set of pictures I’ve taken during my first semester here that I like to call the Aren’t-you-such-a-strange-place!-Yes-you-are!-Yes-you-are!-Who’s-a-sometimes-baffling-country?-It’s-you!-Yes-it-is!-Yes-it-is! collection.

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Although this ain’t my first Russian rodeo, it is the longest I’ve ever been here in one stint. This is exciting because I’m still only halfway through said stint. Will I get to finally experience real homesickness for my own culture? Time will tell. I miss friends and family, of course. But due to the ambitions and life choices of those (you) people, I’m always stuck missing somebody regardless of where I happen to be. It’s something that I imagine we all deal with nowadays.

My time here has in a completely foreseeable non-turn of events given me further insight into not just the language but also the people. One of the most fascinating things about Russians, especially when juxtaposed with Americans, is no less than their entire worldview. I’m not talking about anything so mundane as differences in opinion re: cuisine, politics, religion, how to raise a child, yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk, or the other kinds of silly things people like to argue about.* No, I’m talking about the difference between svoj and chuzhoj—“one’s own” (in this case, one’s own people), and “strangers.” As Bulgakov once said, “Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend.”

calkov.jpgPictured: Calvi—Mikhail Bulgakov and his imaginary snow leopard friend, c.1900

I was recently watching an old (~2013) interview in which Putin was asked whether he saw the cultures of the US and Russia as incompatible, and—because he totally did not have these questions beforehand**—he quoted a Pushkin scholar’s work regarding the individualistic society of the US with the more collectivist society of Russia. In short: when the going gets tough in Russia, the tough go straight to their mom’s house. Or their brother’s/sister’s house. Or their friends’ house. Or their acquaintance in the department of motor vehicle affair’s house cause the former’s sister’s mother-in-law knows the latter’s grandparents from way back when. You get the picture.

I’ve understood for some time now what it means to be a Russian’s friend (I have the dubious honor of having literally received the shirt off someone’s back once), but this year even I’ve been surprised by the warmth, care, and loyalty I’ve been shown.

Take, for instance, the promise that a couple of my friends here made me one night. They instructed me to call them—no matter the hour…or city—if I’m ever harassed by someone(s) on the street. It doesn’t even matter, they said, if I’m actually the one who’s in the wrong. That’s apparently the kind of thing that they, as my friends, only bother to find out “after the fact.”

Right.

Now, that’s all well and good I told them, but it’s not like I’m gonna have time to call you guys if someone starts harassing me for some reason. Wrong. Evidently, the concept of friendship and help in the time of trouble here is sacred enough that I would be allowed to call for backup and wait for my friends to arrive to “talk” with the hooligans. This is so absurd that it very much borders on the unbelievable. They even advised me to bum a cigarette and to try to get to know my new enemies. Why not, when you’re all waiting on the same taxi?

This is to say nothing about the more mundane but perhaps-more-appreciated things like being shown around town and where to get what (clothes, food, medicine, etc), patient explanations of the ever-confusing Russian university system, colleagues filling in for me unpaid when I’m sick, even my students finding me on social media to ask me if I’m ok during the times that I’ve had to miss class due to sickness.

It’s almost as if they would be upset if I were to keel over and die from a sudden transplant rejection .

nothis
This is my “Get it???” face.

Lame jokes aside (other Fulbrighters, I’ve been waiting for a chance to judge some plov as не-ПЛОВ-хо and it is just killing me that I haven’t found one yet), I see the signs of this collectivist attitude everywhere else, too. The verb obmyt’ (or prostavliat’sa, if the former isn’t to your liking) – to buy your friends a round of drinks when something noteworthy happens to you (promotion, new job, new kid, etc). Walking arm-in-arm everywhere because the sidewalks can be slippery. The expectation that on your birthday, YOU pay for everyone else. Black eyes on the faces of even the “good” students (to go back to that whole if-you’re-my-friend-I-will-cheerfully-beat-a-man-down-for-you thing). A stranger in the checkout line searching for 4 rubles  in change and me watching the entire line go through their own pockets. A passerby walking down the street past a bar, asking for a smoke and grabbing a literal handful to take back to his friends, with no warning and no apparent annoyance on the donor’s part (apparently, “everyone knows what it’s like to be in this position of needing more than one cigarette, so I just know that someday I will also be able to do the same thing from someone else and it will be ok”). Well, okay then.

In contrast, we (Americans) often seem to be concerned with our own and no one else: friends and family, and maybe the occasional coworker if they’re at least halfway into friend-territory.  After all, if you need government assistance and I don’t personally know you, you must be lazy and looking for a handout. Of course, maybe I myself once relied on welfare after I got laid off that one time, and my niece is on food stamps after her no-good husband left her alone with their two kids…but dammit, I hated every second of it, and my niece is just a hardworking single mother who was dealt a bad hand in life. Totally nothing in common with those other freeloaders, with their Mercedes-Benz’s and their lobster dinners!

This is to say nothing about the fact that one of our two parties is about to vote in favor of stripping millions of their healthcare in order to show some uppity outgoing black man what’s what. Though to their credit they do politely substitute for word “arrogant” in official statements. The party of Supply-Side Jesus, folks.

But I digress.

You know, sort of.  All this to contrast with the fact that Russians, in my mind, seem to treat their fellow countrymen as distant relatives, and their friends as actual brothers and sisters.

At the same time, in my experience this collectivism and generosity often only extends towards those who are also Russian and of a certain persuasion (that is, straight, and in possession of 1 native’s tongue, e.g., he or she speaks without an accent). This doesn’t always have to mean “white,” necessarily, especially with the often-overlooked republics within the Russian federation,***  and I myself also get a free pass since I’m an American who speaks Russian (“Oh, the novelty!”). But in my experience, immigrants from the -stan countries are looked down upon for pretty much all the (non)reasons that they are looked down on in the US. I’ve heard many Russians claim that they are a post-racial (or even just at least “less racist”) society than the U.S., but after some of the things I’ve heard directed at the “others” in Russian society, I ain’t buying it. To be fair, it’s certainly no worse than what the so-called Alt-Right—that bastion of inferiority complexes and Stats 101 failures—is spewing nowadays, but that’s not the point.

This post has already gotten too long and definitely too self-indulgent but hey, that’s why it’s my blog and not yours. Thanks for making it to the end, dear reader.

*Full disclosure: I love arguing about most of those things.

**Although honestly he really might not have. Russians are fiercely proud of their literary heritage. When was the last time you heard an American quoting Whitman? What about a Whitman scholar? We barely let those people (scholars) exist in the U.S. And we hatess them, so we does.

***Russia is a federation like the US, and has 22 republics in it (in addition to the provinces, territories, federal cities, etc) which are meant to be the homelands of the indigenous populations of the lands which came under Russian control during the expansion of Russian settlement and conquest similar to Manifest Destiny in the US.

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On Being Organized/Дом sweet дом

It’s been a bit more than a month since I got to the motherland, and things have finally settled into routine. I know my schedule without checking it every couple of hours, and it surprisingly (to me) doesn’t just change for no reason. I know other Fulbrighters are not so lucky.

So lets talk politics. (I kid, I kid.)

Lets start with my organizational system, mostly cause by sharing I’m hoping some Good Samaritan will step up, give me a good slap in the face, and call me an idiot. Then fix it for me.

I’m also sharing my schedule/system because I want ya’ll to understand a bit more of the Russian soul, and I’d say a good 60% of said soul is bureaucracy and needless complexity. I mean, I waited 2 hours in line the other day to get a stamp on my migration card. 30 minutes of that was just waiting for the clerk to return to the window and give me my passport back. But anyway.

bankomat
(ATM out of order)

 

In the same way that Russian solutions in the physical world are often ingeniously simple (if not pretty), Russian logistics are just…baffling.

 

sch1

That’s what a typical class on my schedule looks like. Apparently, upon entering the university, students are placed into groups by…I’m not sure. I’ve even asked several of them and gotten vague answers of “by proficiency” or “we also don’t even know,” but they all insist that it wasn’t a foreign language proficiency test.

Despite being in the foreign languages department.

At this point I picture some sort of literal trial by fire, because when I ask about what was on the test, they get even more vague, seemingly on purpose.

Ordeal-of-Fire.jpg

Pictured: Russian university entrance exams

 

Right. So, despite having only 9 different sets of students by class period, I actually have about 52 different groups depending on the week, all of which are named in an equally opaque manner (as seen above, like 2601a, 2601б, 2627а, etc). I’ve actually figured out that the first number stands for the course (2, which in this case (and only this case!) means Economics. I wish I were joking) while the second stands for the year they arrived at the university (6, meaning 2016, meaning they’re first-year students). No one seems to know what the remaining numbers or letters signify. Well, ok. But then here’s another example of a group of groups I have:

sch2

A different class, or merely the first one through a mirror darkly?

Needless to say, I spent the first week or two here simply trying to figure out up from down. And like most of my Fulbright counterparts in other cities, I continued to receive new classes/students I’d never seen before well into the fourth week of teaching.

To further complicate matters, one can have up to 4 Natalyas per class. Or 3 Angelas, only of course they’re all pronounced differently: An-DZHE-la, AN-dzhe-la, An-dzhe-LEEK-a. The last one actually just prefers ‘Angelica’ to ‘Angela’, despite her actual name being the latter. More than a couple times I have made it halfway through role call before realizing I was calling the names of another class.

We use last names now.

So, because I wanted to streamline sending and receiving homework and also because I guess I hate myself, I created a class email for each of them. For example, the addresses of the pictured groups above are JCEcon2600@gmail and JCRusEcon26x@gmail, respectively.  This is of course another thing to keep track of, so I made a handy cheat sheet:

emaillist.jpg

That “(PG. 6)” business refers to the corresponding page that this class occupies in my attendance/grade book. So, the typical steps for planning a lesson are as follows:

  1. Read the list of groups I’ll have at, say, 3PM on Monday.
  2. Read my cheat sheet to remind myself of their email to make sure I’m thinking of the right set of students.
  3. Go to my lesson planning book and remind myself of what we did last time.
  4. Write down the last time we had a lesson, their class email, all the group numbers (2601a, 2601b, etc), and the lesson itself.

Having written it out, it doesn’t actually look so bad. And it’s really not that bad anymore, but putting the system into place to begin with was a pretty big pain. Regardless, I think that’s enough about my schedule. Lets move on to bigger news!

I NOW HAVE MY OWN APARTMENT.

Dead center of town. 5 minute walk to the university. Super cheap.

No more girls yelling at 2AM, no more babushkas chastising me/threatening to not let me into the dorm because it’s midnight, no more wearing sandals in the shower, no more Eurotrash techno blaring from upstairs at all hours of the day, etc etc etc.

murder

And I do mean “dead” center.  

 

Really. When was the last time you went a month without a refrigerator? 2 months without the simple pleasure of being able to hang up your clothes? I imagine the pleasure I’m getting from the simple things will continue for at least another month. I hope it does.

What else has been going on? It started snowing about a week ago. Some of the Russians here are convinced that means a mild winter, but I hope not. I didn’t come here to be mollycoddled, dammit!

I starred in a commercial/marketing video for my local craft beer bar that should go online within the next few days, it’s basically just me tasting beers and saying “Blah blah hop forward flavor with a solid yeasty blah blah blah. Reminds me of [famous US brewery].” I’m supposed to hit up a karaoke bar next week with some friends, I’m really hoping they’ll have something better to sing than Justin Bieber or Kalinka-Malinka, but we’ll see (that’s the royal “we”, by the way). Overall, life has settled into the normal now that I’ve got my own place, my visa extension is underway, and I have my own friends and haunts. Walking around aimlessly in the city is still fun, but that becomes an ordeal when the sidewalks are completely frozen over. I totally ate it (twice!) on the way home last night, for example.

At any rate, this entry has gotten lengthy, so I’ll end here with some more pictures. Until next time, dear reader.

Establishing contact

Hello.

Today marks the 19th day since I moved to Barnaul and began teaching English at Altai State University. Because life in Russia can be pretty arbitrary sometimes, 2 weeks and 5 days in seems like a good time to start blogging about my experience. Also, my schedule has stabilized enough that I am now able to pour all my words and experiences out into the ether, so…there’ll be some of that.

To start, I am teaching English here as a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant). That last bit is something of a misnomer. I am the sole planner, instructor, and grader for roughly 130 law and economics students, split into 8 classes and approximately 45 different groups. More on the insanity of Russian university (and consequently my) student organizational techniques later, wherein I will attempt to break down my system for keeping track of everything. Either way, I’m fortunate to have a number of very helpful colleagues, as well as something of a curriculum to work with. Feel free to take your shoes off when you come in (it’s the Russian way after all, and I just swept), cause if you want to read the whole update yer gonna be here awhile.

On second thought, I’m gonna have to split this beast into chunks, on account of the fever currently ravaging my body.

Ok, so I’m only at 100F, but I still feel like garbage.

Anyway, after the in-country orientation in Moscow, I took a red-eye to Barnaul. Now, when I say red-eye, I mean I left at 9PM and arrived at 6AM on the following day, due to the massiveness (10 contiguous time zones! For those of you playing along at home, that’s 6 more than our own contiguous zones) that is Russia. I’m one of those people who are unable to fall asleep on planes, and my first class of the semester was at 8AM that morning, so you can imagine my level of enthusiasm for the rest of the day. My colleague Inna and her husband Vlad graciously picked me up from the airport, fed me a light breakfast and gave me precious access to the internet so that I could let friends and family know that I was, in fact, still to be counted among the living. They also let me shower at their place, which is probably the only thing that kept me alive for the rest of the day. They also also let me drop my stuff off at the dorm I’m temporarily staying at, which…well, leaves a bit to be desired. Our meeting was a tad inauspicious:20160916_155033.jpgPictured: the westward-facing curtain-less windows in my room with, er, no curtains. At least the oversized doilies came in my favorite color: see-through pervert-pink. Not like they’re even long enough for an enterprising person to coquettishly waggle about in for the neighbors across the way, but I digress.

 

I know what you’re thinking, too: that I should have been glad for some sunlight in the middle of Siberia. Well, I got news for (some of) you: it gets hot here in the summer. Not step-outside-for-five-minutes-and-get-a-sunburn hot like back in Texas, but still. A gentleman’s 95F isn’t terribly out of the norm.

The rest of that first day is a blur of teaching (each class is an hour and a half long), meeting other teachers and faculty, and endless bureaucracy. Sign here, date here, read this, carry this, give me that, take this…by the end of the day I was actually falling asleep standing up. I arrived “home” later that evening after getting a new SIM card so that I could finally have internet access aaaand…nothing. My phone formerly had a Verizon number and was refusing to accept the foreign (heh) SIM card.

Frustration, and the shocking impertinence of internet denial by the universe/my supposedly-unlocked phone! Yes, my friends. I know it too well, and verily I do carry the pain to this day.

Anyway, the rest of the story is long, full of details, and boring, but it involves a very helpful girlfriend (for some reason, Facebook Messenger was working even though I couldn’t load any webpages themselves) and meeting my first friend in Barnaul. I also realized that I was stupidly (somehow) copy-pasting my number into the box incorrectly. That’s what ~36 hours of no sleep will get you.

I think this is as good a place as any to end the update for now, though I will leave on a more serious note. Russia may occasionally (or even often) be frustrating, difficult, impossibly blunt, or some combination of the above. Despite being a physical embodiment of U.S. soft power policy (what, did you think the government wants to spread English out of a sense of charity?), I speak solely for myself, and the opinions contained on this site are not representative in any way of policies held by the Fulbright program or the U.S. Government. My thoughts are also certainly not ever meant to disparage Russia. I truly love this country and am thrilled to be back among the familiar sights, sounds, and even smells that I’ve missed since the last time I was here, good and not-so-good alike. It is my hope that the things I occasionally complain about or poke fun at are taken by you, dear reader, in the same way I experience them: as something between amusement and bewilderment.

To underscore that last point and to close out the inaugural post, I leave you with a token of American ingenuity. Until next time!

 

20160916_160038Pictured: a cannibalized bed sheet taken from the other bed in the room, tied to itself.