Nov 23, 2007

Конокрадство! (On prejudice)

"Some customs and attitudes differ from ours, and it is possible to offend someone unintentionally. You will also sometimes be offended by the behavior or comments of Russians. Be aware, that prejudices that exist in America (against blacks, against gays and lesbians, against asians, against Jews, etc.) are common in Russian culture, and are spoken of much more openly."
-Our program orientation packet

Is everybody ready? Let's play "Pick that Problem-Minority!"

Question 1: Last weekend at the dacha, I was drinking a glass of Kompot (translation: Aguas de Frutas) , and asked an unnamed person where the grapes came from. This unnamed person, busy cleaning dishes and possibly hard of hearing, misheard me. See in Russian, the word for "grapes," as it turns out, sounds a lot like the word for "horse-thief." It's true, look it up. Anyway, the unnamed person quickly dropped what she was doing to give me a little lesson in culture. She stared me right in the eye, waved a finger and said "Horse-theft! And you know who commits it more often than not?

A member of which of the following ethnic groups is most likely to "walk onto your kolkhoz (collective farm) and take your horse?"

A) Jews
B) Cossacks
C) Chechens
D) Gypsies
E) Uzbeks

no looking ahead now!

Answer: D) Gypsies. As our expert explained, "Gypsies can't live without horses. Take cows, too, even if you tie them up." And then she demonstrated with a washcloth, how to tie the horses legs together, and then tie it to a post, so that they can't be so easily stolen.

Question 2: A few weeks ago at the dacha, an unnamed person asked me to help support a bunch of metal bars, while an Uzbek neighbor welded them together. But I was under strict orders not to say anything of substance to the Uzbek. See, Uzbeks have " particularly long tongues," as the saying goes here. And the unnamed person didn't want my terrible secret to leak out... that I'm not from these parts. Better to say that I am from a neighboring republic, and not from Europe or America.

As far as people from Uzbekistan are concerned, from which former Soviet Republic do I hail?

A) Ukraine
B) Estonia
C) Latvia
D) Kazakhstan
E) Georgia

Answer: C) My name is Danil, and I'm from Riga, Latvia. I'm here on exchange to study Russian language and government. My father was born in Russia, but moved to Latvia during his term in the Red Army. And if my accent sounds funny, it's because my family lived in East Germany for a long time, and I speak German, too.

Question 3: Which group, oddly enough, doesn't seem to bother a certain unnamed person, as they have all picked up and left?

A) Jews
B) Germans
C) Eskimos
D) Georgians
E) Cubans

Answer: A) Jews. In the 80's and 90's, when people were given greater freedom to travel abroad, all of the Jews returned to their motherland, in Israel.

Question 4: A number of Russians have expressed to me a certain fondness for the weatherman on Channel Three, Sfera (translation: Telemundo!). At the dacha, when the weather report comes on, the family gathers around to watch.

What trait makes this particular weather man a local hero? Is he

A) Black
B) White

Answer: A) He's black! Look at him! And he speaks Russian fluently, like one of us! Must've moved here from Africa, back in the '70s or something. Do ya hear, how he speaks Russian? Look at him!

Question 5: Talking to an unnamed person over dinner, I asked why Russians don't seem to have any interest in travelling to Mongolia. The conversation then expanded into a discussion of culture in general. When I stated an interest in the culture of a certain country, the response was "what culture? They herd sheep."

Which of the following groups never did get around to developing a culture?

A) Mongols
B) Kazakhs
C) Chinese
D) Kyrgyz
E) Buryats

Answer: Trick question! All five. This unnamed person then pulled the corners of his/her eyes back for emphasis, and continued to spread sour cream on my already-buttered bread.


Thanks for playing, everyone. If you didn't cheat, the scoring works like this:

0 correct answers: You're a latter-day Martin Luther King. The quiz was difficult for you, as the multiple-choice answers were completely without meaning. You withhold all judgement until you've met a person, and recognize only one, beautifully-diverse human race.

1 correct answer: If I still remember my math, that is the most likely result, statistically speaking. You might as well have not taken the quiz, since your result isn't conclusive. You may be particularly accepting, or just as likely, didn't pay attention, didn't take the time to answer, can't read, or just picked whichever ethnic group had the funniest-sounding name.

2-3 correct answers: You may be a well-read person, or may have some experience in this part of the world. You are familiar with stereotypes, but know not to always believe them.

4 correct answers: Maybe you had a racist grandparent or something, or some past experience may have encouraged racial/ethnic bias in you. You also may be a really lucky guesser.

5 correct answers: Молодец, ты получил пятёрку, и наверное с лёгкостью. Поздравляю!


Reflections: Russia is a very confusing place. Inside run-down looking buildings here, buried away in some dirty corner of the city, you find beautiful theaters and museums. Drunks on the bus here talk to you about literature and poetry. People will pin the blame of all the world's ills on your country, but treat you with respect and kindness, maybe even more than they would another Russian. It just seems like for me, and probably all people in my situations... nothing is as it seems, and its really hard to get your bearings. But just as often as you have unexpected tragedies and complications... which is often... you find such pleasant surprises.

Recently I've been wondering, how things will seem when i get home. Sometimes I worry they'll be dull and overly structured. There's a certain freedom here, it seems, that we don't have... Every day there are all sorts of puzzles you have to navigate through, and Russians seem to take great joy in figuring them out. You have to bend rules, ask for the help of others, and improvise a whole lot more than we do at home. And when Russians solve all these puzzles, that's when they seem to smile the most. I'm slowly understanding more and more, how America, to a Russian, could seem like a pretty oppressive and dull place.

But I'm not Russian, so I'm sure I'll adapt just fine back home. Theres no shortage of things I miss, and there's no shortage of things I still want to see and do in the US of A... so don't worry, I'll be around. I may miss that aspect of living here, though. It can definitely be a whole lot of fun.


But wait! There's more. Yesterday, I got a little too comfortable, and paid a very, very huge price. I was at a bus stop in the city, around 10, headed home after our thanksgiving dinner. Myself and two others from our group were talking to a few Russians, who were taking the same bus home. On the bus, they continued to talk, which should have raised my suspicions, but didn't. To make a long story short, one of them stole my camera, and all of my pictures. I didn't realize until i was home.

The camera itself, of course, was expensive, and particularly valuable to me. Photography has become much more important to me these past few years, and I've been putting a lot of work into taking the pictures I want. and like i said, with the camera, went my pictures. I was going to send my memory card home in three weeks over the break for safekeeping. I was gathering funny graffiti from all over the city, pictures of my food, my apartment, the dacha, the family, the weather... pictures from Mongolia, from my three trips to Baikal, from my trips out into the country. The city itself, everything, all of it gone. And last night I was so distraught over it, I couldn't sleep, and when i did, I had a dream about Russian hooligan kids breaking into the apartment. I felt like all the beautiful things I'd seen and done were gone, and I was left with all the crime and problems of Russia. It sucked, and continues to suck.

But life goes on. And lucky me, I have a whole extra semester after this one. I hope you enjoyed my roller-coaster of a blog entry. It's a sample, of the roller coaster of living here. And I felt I needed to write a lot, since I did go about three weeks without a word.

Question: Do I brave the communication/bureaucratic nightmare of reporting my stolen camera to the police? My professors all said yes. Of course I won't see the camera again... but I feel like maybe, if they get enough reports of funny goings-on at that bus stop, they make check it out... arrest themselves some hooligans. In which case it would be worth it.

Nov 7, 2007

Кочевая жизнь джозефа (On Mongolia)

I couldn't have said it better myself.

This billboard was outside our hostel in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where i spent the last week. And the whole experience was too awesome for words, so I've decided not to try and describe it, at all. But suffice to say, Mongolia... really is a place where all of my dreams got happiness. And after my story, I'll try my best to prove it with pretty pictures.

But first, a story: Remember in my last entry, how I described my plans for Mongolia? How ten kids from our group, all dedicated members of Rotary International, were going to Ulan Bator, to stay with host-families from the Rotary branch there? And that the club would pick us up from the train station, give us tours fo the city, and then take us out on the steppe on a four-day excursion? And the whole thing would be an international bridge-building mission? Yeah I don't remember that either. But somehow, that was the message passed on to the Rotary Club of Ulan Bator. This story is a thriller-mystery, with all sorts of twists and turns and international intrigue, so stick around.

What happened was, four other kids and I bought train tickets to Mongolia, with no real plans, other than to stay in a hostel and spend a few nights on the steppe/in the desert. An acquaintance of mine here named Olya, who I met at the two Rotary meetings I went to for some reason, also wanted to go to Mongolia. So we agreed to meet sometime and have dinner.

So I was sitting in the hostel, and I got a call from Olya, who said the Rotary Club was having dinner, and invited me to join. I'd eaten already, but i agreed, and she said somebody would come pick me up. Except instead of somebody, it was two drivers, driving two huge vans. So I made sure my knife was in my pocket, and cautiously approached them. The one driver who spoke Russian asked me where the other nine club members were. And I said "...nine club members..... well... I'm only here with four kids, who are at a karaoke bar now, and I'm pretty sure they don't even know what Rotary Club is." And he got this real perplexed look... and drove me to the restaurant alone.

When I got there, I found at least fifteen pairs of Mongolian and Russian eyes fixed on me, staring with that same perplexed look the driver had. And Olya, with a look of embarassment/disappointment. So I made sure my knife was in my pocket, and cautiously approached the table... And when I sat down, Olya asked where the others were. She speaks English, kinda. So I said in English, "Olya, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
So that's when the president of Rotary Mongolia started yelling at me. He told me all about the plans I had made with them, the home-stays, the tourist outings, how I said I'd meet all the members, etc etc.... and I tried my best to translate into Russian, "Look, whoever you are, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." But I guess it didn't translate, because he spent the entire dinner telling me, in a calmer voice, how much time he had spent organizing for my group. And I kept telling him, these Rotary members in my group don't even exist, and that I had no idea what went wrong. They had really planned a big welcome... they even ordered a full sheep's head for me. And I'm not making that up... in Mongolia, the honored guest really does get the head of the sheep.

Anyway... I looked to Olya for some explanation. That's when she stabbed me, right in my foreign back. She looked at me, all disappointed, and scolded me in Russian. "Djjjjozef.... If you don't understand something at the meetings, you need to say something."

Now, I speak Russian well enough to know, that at those meetings, nobody said a word to me, and nobody talked about these big plans for Mongolia. But I didn't speak Russian well enough to defend myself there at dinner, so I just laughed and apologized. And I spoke Mongolian well enough to know that ten Mongolians were sitting around me in a circle, looking at me and talking about me... but not well enough to say I didn't want any more sheep-head. It was clear that Olya had made some huge mistake, and decided it was easier to blame the guy who can't speak the language, than to take responsbility. That's the point


When I got back to Irkutsk, after a whole week of practicing my angry rant I'd give to Olya, I talked to a girl in our group who's babushka connected me with Rotary in the first place. Apparently, it was actually this babushka who had made most of the plans for our group, and it wasn't all Olya's fault. So I actually don't get to give the angry rant, and the only lasting impact is that the president of Rotary Mongolia considers me a thoughtless and selfish person. But I guess I can live with that.


Pretty pictures, enjoy!

Traditionally, Mongolians worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky. And it's true... the sky there is really, really blue and huge and impressive. This is one of ten thousand scenic spots on the steppe. Also, note the traditional dwelling, the round, felt-walled Ger (translation: Yurt (translation: Tipi)). We spent three nights in different Gers. And some guy told us that 60% of the population still lives in them. But they're nomads, so i bet the census isn't all that accurate.

There are animals everywhere on the steppe. Horses and cows, and sheep, and goats, and yaks, and the occasional camel-herd. And all of them are really long-haired and winterized already. One morning we woke up, and these sheep, along with about 200 others, had amassed outside our Ger.

The nice thing about taking pictures in Mongolia, is that the background makes every picture look really epic and beautiful. And camels are kinda epic and beautiful as it is. From a distance.

In reality, camels are the stupidest, ugliest, most unpleasant animals on the planet. And they bite, and spit, and scream, and look like they're just slapped together from a bin of leftover animal-parts.

Steppe, with snow, and sun. It is a really alien landscape... and impressive in its endlessness. Next time you're in the area, definitely stop by. It's worth it.


I guess I'll write the 'reflections' part, if i have to. Mongolia was really amazing. It was a disadvantage not to speak the language, for sure, and so our experience could only be so deep.... but everybody had an amazing time. The city there is lively and colorful, the people know how to smile, and the food has flavor, instead of fat with sugar on top. And so when we had to leave... we were all pretty unhappy about it. Russia seemed really gray, and cold, and unhappy and dark, and we all had to spend the whole train ride catching up on work. Also, we'd been speaking english, so our Russian was all out of shape.

But then... amazingly... Russia kinda took me back with open arms. The weather was sunny and warm, and my babushka was really happy to see me. I gave her a few gifts I'd picked up, and we had a very lively conversation, which i actually understood. In class, we had way less work than we expected, and even the bus driver was really outgoing and talkative and friendly. In retrospect he was probably drunk, but the whole day just went perfectly, and now I'm really happy to be in Russia. Of course, it's still that same pattern of waves, and I just happen to be on top of one now... so stay tuned. I'm not completely fooled... the next crazy, probably unpleasant experience is right around the corner...


Question: When and where in your life, have you really felt your dreams get happiness? Describe what the place looked like, and why it was so special to you. Your answer should be 2-3 paragraphs long, and typed.

This was the suction-packed train-beef I ate for dinner on the ride back to Irkutsk, courtesy of Mongolain Railways. I got sick at least three times on that trip, although i still say the food was better than in Russia. And these might be the most exotic viruses I ever contract, so I'm trying to enjoy them.