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.


geoff said...

question 5 was my favorite because it allowed me to vote for an entire population of which i had never heard: buryats. they were not contest winners, however.

that's a real blow about your camera, joey. i commiserate. but, have you checked the area pawn shops? it might be Today's Featured Item. stranger things have happened. this will probably mark the low point in your excursion, but keep the chin up--more discoveries lie ahead.

hillary said...

nice quiz, j. i was really surprised that jews didn't make up the majority of the answers. i really thought the russians didn't like 'em. also ,i remember something about a big influx of black people into eastern european countries at some point a few decades ago, but that the countries kind of forced them to come.

your babushka's paranoia about you being from the states is so funny, because that's something my dad would do. is there any real substance behind it? has anyone tried to speak german to you as a result? if so, do they ask you/your babushka if you are retarded when you can't speak back?

i'm really sorry about your camera. even if you can't show the stuff to us, you'll still always remember it. and i agree with geoff- check those pawn shops. it may only be a few rubles to get it back. you can always get another one, i mean, at least they didn't beat you up or anything. damn kids.

hillary said...

wait, how does this know my name?

Annie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annie said...

What if I got zero correct and the answer choices meant nothing to me... but not because I am a latter-day Martin Luther King but because I am too ignorant to identify any of the ethnic groups?

I got my backpack stolen in Spain by two guys working in tandem. One guy pretended to be stealing my large backpack, which I "struggled" to keep from him. I was pleased with myself for having wrestled it from his hands...until I turned around to find my smaller backpack missing. With it, of course, all the important smaller things: my camera, journal, wallet, passport, medications, guidebook, pictures.

When I went to report the theft to the authorities, I was asked to fill out a form identifying the perpetrator. The only options under the "race" category:
1. Black
2. Arab
3. Gypsy

Laura le Ms Painter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura said...

It's interesting to read someone's travel blog where they talk about actually living in the country. So many of my friends are just getting drunk in Prague, which, don't get me wrong, sounds pretty great. The landscape is pretty in Prague, but the graffiti there isn't very interesting and everyone they've met is from Connecticut.

Elena said...

Great quiz on stereotyping! It was interesting to see additional groups that are stereotyped in other parts of Russia (such as Buriats and Mongols, for example, who are, for obvious reasons, entirely irrelevant for Northern Caucasus/ Southern Russia). I guess you have to be neighbors to tell bad jokes about each other... One other ethnic group you may want to check out (if you haven't already) are Chukchi - a small Siberian people from the Chukotka Peninsula in Russia's Far East (cf. Eskimos). Even though they have very few neighbors, and very few people actually met them, the Chukcha jokes are ubiquitous throughout Russia. They are of the most blazenly colonial type, portraying Chukchas as naive, childish, foreign to modern technology or any modern concepts really. Probably any person in Irkutsk you approach would be able to tell you at least one Chukcha joke.

Take care and keep warm!

EzraBrainerd said...

ah got uh faive

Berta said...

You know funny thing, I lost half of my pictures from Spain, too. But not my camera, too!