Friday, October 7, 2011

On cultural differences and other things..

I know you might look for in this blog for a recap of how classes are going, what I do during the day, what I did last weekend, and so on... but right now, I don't feel like listing the daily events of the past week. Classes are going fine, I have nothing to complain about, everything has gone smoothly, easily even... there is almost nothing interesting (by way of strange or earthshattering) to say about daily events!

Right now I'd rather share deeper thoughts and impressions about life in Chelyabinsk, and Russia as whole. Cultural differences. Different attitudes, different habits. And where do I belong?

First: Regarding physical appearance.
It is a stereotype- but yet quite a valid observation- that in Russia, the stunningly beautiful women outnumber their attractive/available/sane male counterparts. (For me, this is nothing new, at Oberlin the idea about single men was: "Attractive, straight, sane. Pick two.") For this reason, physical appearance is VERY important to most Russian young women. This is not the same as being shallow. I remember two years ago being intimidated by supermodel-looking women in Moscow, thinking that they would have the same snotty attitude as someone of that attractiveness from an American high school.. and it is absolutely on the contrary. How stunningly beautiful -or not so- one looks like here has NO relation to how someone acts.
Now, for me, this is both good and bad. Good, because no one makes fun of me for OVERdressing or "trying too hard" the way some did at Oberlin, and beauty and fashion-related services are cheap and convenient. I got my hair done the other day for a very good price, and on every corner practically there is a "remont obuvi"= "shoe repair" to fix the heels on your shoes and boots, which costs about 200 rubles or 6 dollars and takes a few hours.
Bad, because, well... there are some times when I just feel awkward letting my hair out of place. For example, when I return on the street from my morning run at the stadium... all sweaty and in my spandex and under-armour, around nicely-dressed Russians. This doesn't really faze me anymore though.
The other issue is being skinny. It seems to be so important here. It's not quite as extreme here as in Moscow... and it is not that there are NO fat people and ALL skinny people... just very few overweight people, and more thin people, and quite a few VERY skinny people. Now, if you know what I look like, I'm not exactly what you would call overweight. If anything, I might have lost weight here (last time I checked I was 54.5 kilograms on an empty stomach... just under 120 lb) and I have even beed told I was "stroinaia" (slender). Even so, on a few occasions I was asked if I was trying to "pokhudet'" (lose weight/go on a diet). And so I asked, "Why, do you think I should?" and the answer was "Well, everyone else here is, so I was just asking if you were too." The other people in the room were about my size or thinner.
For me, even if I tried to go on a "diet" or just eat less, I have no energy and feel like crap. Even though I am not training 50 miles a week anymore, I am still running most days and working out, and I can't get by on tiny portions of dinner and lunch and a breakfast of only tea and a piece of bread.... it just won't cut it for me... and I do NOT want this to be misinterpreted of the stereotype of Americans demanding huge portions of everything.

Which brings me to my other discussion. Cultural differences between Americans and Russians... those that are perceived, and those that exist. For what it's worth... in classes, everybody obviously knows I'm American, and therefore understands that the differences I bring with me (especially my teaching methods) are particularly American. In other places, as I have mentioned before, I've had a plethora of nationalities given to me... usually German, British, or something Baltic...although I've been told I look everything from Swedish to Georgian (despite the blond hair? "because you have large dark eyes and a bent nose").
The one issue that has bothered, or concerned me the most, is when Russians or other locals talk of the другой менталитет... the different mentality. Everything is attributed to having a different "mentalitet." On three separate occasions someone has mentioned this and I felt a bit uncomfortable and even defensive. First, a friend told me that "oh, you should marry an American, because in America they have a different mentality", and "You could not live in Russia because we have a different mentality," and lastly... the incident with the apartment:
Perhaps the most negative thing that has happened so far (knock on wood). 
Valentina Dmitrievna is the mother of the former owner of this apartment (Natalia, who moved to Moscow, remember?) and the person who I pay rent to. She occasionally comes by to pick up Natalia's remaining things that need to be sent to Moscow. Last Saturday I came back from my run to find her in the apartment, and she seemed very angry. When I get nervous, my comprehension gets really bad, and so I did not understand a lot of things she was saying... but in general, it was about how the floor was dirty, how I must never wear shoes inside, and how the ground outside is so dirty. To be fair, the floor WAS dirty... there were also spots on the kitchen floor... but the problem was NOT as she said difference in mentality, that Americans are okay with a dirty floor... it was that I intended to buy a mop, and hadn't yet gotten the opportunity to do so. I tried to explain to her. Then she told me that in Russia, we don't mop, we clean the floor by hand with a rag. (It turns out that some people DO use a mop, but if for some reason this apartment floor requires me to do it by hand, whatever).
The "cultural difference" of this incident was NOT that I had a dirty floor because I'm American... HOWEVER, there IS a bit of a cultural difference in that I was a little taken aback at the fact that a person who does not live here was getting angry at me for the way my private space which I personally pay for was looking.

Anyways... the "American mentality" or "American cultural differences"... these discussions become more and more complex, because there isn't really just one mentality or culture for all Americans. In a lot of conversations, people are surprised (and possibly a bit disappointed?) that I do not speak of much culture shock experience. I have explained that, no, I am not homesick at all (although I do really miss Oberlin!), I do not try to seek out other Americans that might live in the area, and that I do not find life in Russia that difficult or depressing or unfriendly or whatever... and I most definitely never feel the need to duck into a McDonalds or a Subway or a Starbucks to "feel right at home." 
The other part of this perceived mentality is as I have mentioned before... Americans are more individual-, business-, and production-oriented, while Russians are more family, social-, and quality time-oriented. With these descriptions, I would fit in more with the Russians, as I feel that quality of life and time spent with friends and family should be more important than economic productivity. And I'm not the only one... my mother, who would certainly describe herself as very American, is VERY selfless, hospitable, and family-oriented. 

I know there are deeper cultural differences, but I am not yet at the stage to articulate them (in either language). I also do not want to minimize the differences in culture and lifestyle, it would be a very "ugly American" of me to pass off all differences as superficial, stereotypical, or wrong... and of course I recognize that my life has been significantly easier than the life of someone who grew up in the Soviet or Post-Soviet era here. 

That said... what exactly is my "American mentality?" I don't want to seem like I'm trying to describe myself as some kind of worldly exception... but I see who I am as not exactly a product of American culture as many people here interpret it.... my culture is influenced by the intellectual values of my parents, the carefree uniqueness of Oberlin College, the discipline of a long-distance runner, the creativity of a singer, and the curiosity of a traveler and (aspiring) polyglot..

I think that the biggest difference in менталитет I have is my wide-eyed curiosity. It may come across as naivete. I understand the hardships of the people who live here and have even faced some of the inconveniences... but I still love Russia, in a way... and want to see more cities, more regions, more far-off places, many of which are not considered to be top destinations for Russians and Americans alike... this interests me far more than staying in a nice hotel in a Western European city... or touring the best of Moscow, Petersburg and the Golden Ring... but others here just ask me, Why? 

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