May 21, 2011

Там лучше? (On Russian impressions of America)

Traveling in these parts, especially to a city not frequented by foreigners, can be a responsibility.  Although the media have colored Russian impressions of America, most Russians will give a real live American a chance to speak for himself, and in doing so, speak for his entire country.  If I have dinner with a Russian family, and can temporarily contain my stupidity, arrogance, and greed, that can have a very real impact on hosts that have heard nothing good about our people.  That family, and all the friends they tell, might even think that all Americans are reasonably intelligent, humble and generous.  But it cuts both ways - I can't fake it all the time, and if I do cross a Russian, he or she will almost certainly associate the incident with my nationality.  For example, last week I got on a bus with no money in my pocket.  When a  Russian does it, it's a perfectly understandable oversight.  But when I explained myself, my accent betrayed me, and the woman collecting fares gave a dismissive, almost disgusted shrug.  I tried to strike up a conversation with her a few moments later to smooth things over, introduced myself, and apologized again.  But the damage is done - for the rest of her life, she'll think that all Canadians are dishonest and cheap.

There's no denying that the media have preserved their Cold War instincts.  I was still dead at the beginning of perestroika, but I can say with some certainty that the news in 2011 doesn't differ greatly from the news in 1985.   Bias and disinformation are the bread and sour cream of news reporting between our two countries.  Think back - when was the last time you heard news about Russia that wasn't about corruption, poverty, or evil undemocratic politics?  Here in Russia, news about America is much the same - if some dude gets shot in Chicago, Russians hear about it before I do.  They get that, and military aggression, and tornadoes, and pictures of fat people.  Of course, there are exceptions - we'll get an occasional Reclusive Russian Math Genius story, and they get an occasional Heroic American Grows Gigantic Pumpkin, but for the most part we're taught to look down on each other.  Admit it - you think Russia is a bad place to live.  Just as surely, Russians think you're rich, dumb and shallow.

So Russian impressions of America, like American impressions of Russia, tend to be wrong.  They range from curiously wrong, to amusingly wrong, to offensively wrong, but rarely do they leave 'wrong' territory. The difference is, Russians don't just get America in the news.  They also get our popular culture, a mysterious force that turns our richest, prettiest people into ambassadors, in much the same way Russians turn dogs into pelmeni.  This skews their impressions in a totally different direction, creating a very confused, often absurd portrait of our country.  My favorite example came from a Russian teenager I met on an airplane.  We spent an hour talking about rap and rappers, and Eminem in particular.  At the end of the flight, his parting words left me in one of my speechless, Russia-induced stupors.  At the gate before we parted ways, he looked at me with a hopeful smile and declared, "if I ever go to America, I want to go to Detroit!"

I can't count the number of Russians who have asked me if I've been to Miami.   For whatever reason, Miami occupies a special place in the Russian imagination.  That city, New York, and Las Vegas are to Russians the Troika of American cultural life.  And it isn't some local phenomenon, either - an American source in Moscow confirmed that Muscovites, too, are enchanted by America's 44th-largest city.

In Maikop, I've seen a curiosity about America that I have never seen before in my life, and never imagined existed to quite this extent.  People I've never seen before will hear my accent, approach me, and bombard me with America-questions for thirty minutes at a time.  They want to know everything about everything - how people live in Miami, what it's like to have an American girlfriend, what the average American thinks of Russia - and I'm always happy to pretend I know.  A lot of them ask me if I went to school in a big yellow schoolbus, and light up when they hear the answer.  On the personal level, people are (almost) without exception curious, friendly, and eager to communicate with us.

 On the city-wide level, we foreigners are small-time celebrities.  This is an article in Soviet Adyghea about our work at the university, where the French guy and I are treated with great kindness and respect.

On the national level, the Russians think we're rich, dumb and shallow.  But two out of three isn't bad.  And for what it's worth, despite what you've heard, Russians are alright.


Ever since I changed to the email-subscription format, nobody that isn't my mother has been leaving comments.  Get on that.  If you don't know what to write, try to answer the single most common question I get from Russians - What do Americans think of Russia?  Don't be afraid to be honest - they're not reading the blog.

Again, I would like to thank everybody who subscribes to the blog by email.  To unsubscribe, simply grab the handle of the knife you just jammed into my back and pull out forcefully.


beth said...

louis, the dachshund next door whom lucy attacked, is dreaming of poodle dumplings.

julie said...

American impressions of russia:
Lots of vodka
Super sexy girl spies who always manage to trick bond
Serious club scene

That's what I got, haven't been able to merge these into a solid russian stereotype yet.

Iosif Markovich said...

True, maybe true, unconfirmed, seems true on YouTube.

Carrie said...

I want to know why Vladimir was so perplexed that you’d want to go to Russia.

Iosif Markovich said...

Russian impressions of Russia would require another couple of posts.

Carrie said...

Alright then, let's hear it!

Is it yet another post to discuss Ukrainians' perceptions of Russia, as the case may be? Or how about Ukrainians who speak broken Polish, Russian, and English - are they in their own category all together?!