Category Archives: Cultural differences

Make babies for the good of your country. And for Lenin.

A couple of years ago, Putin described the rapidly decreasing birth rate as a serious, national problem. Coupled with the increasingly high death rate and the low life expectancy (both of which are partly in due to alcohol), Russia’s national population is faltering. Also throw in the fact that women use abortion as birth control into the mix, and it’s understandable why the population is supposed plunge by a million or so within the next 10 years.

So what is Russia to do? Well, have government-endorsed sex, of course.

Do it for the Motherland.

Nashi, a Kremlin-run youth movement, organizes a procreation camp, where young people are heavily encouraged to have sex and babies for the good of the Motherland. At a mass wedding, the organizers said, “Remember the mammoths. They became extinct because they did not have enough sex. That must not happen to Russia.”

It doesn’t stop at procreation camps! Oh no! In the Ulyanovsk region, they have had a conception holiday for the past five years now. Governor Sergei Morozov declared September 12th as the day to “Give birth to a patriot.”

I don’t think that Russia has a problem with having too little sex. There’s nothing wrong with having an absurd amount of sex and babies. But Russia’s bigger problem is that, with its terrible health care and terrible life style, Russia has an obscenely higher death rate in comparison to other civilized countries. Russia’s pharmaceuticals are painfully lagging and its medicine is laughed at and considered backwards. From drinking alone, Russia’s male population is nose diving. The government can encourage sex to its hearts’ desire, but if they truly want to fix the population problem, they’re going to have to focus on not just creating children, but saving their lives in the long run. Tackle the drinking problem, which is no easy feat. Tackle the booming AIDS problem, which is one of the fastest growing epidemics in civilized country.

*I’d also like to point out that “Give Birth to a Patriot” Day falls on my birthday.

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You’re not going out looking like that

There was one moment last semester, when I was running late to meet someone, that has got me thinking as of late. It was the weekend, and I had woken up late, was an overall wreck, and was essentially trying to just roll out the door in a slightly slovenly fashion. I ran past my host mom to the front door, and as I was putting on my shoes, she said something along the lines of, “Are you sure you’re ready to go?” Well, sure I was…at least, I thought I was. She gave me a look and walked into the kitchen. I stopped in my tracks. Was there something on my face?

Apparently, the problem was that there wasn’t anything on my face — as in no makeup, nothing. And that wasn’t socially acceptable. Maybe I’m over exaggerating a bit, and maybe I read Tanya’s words wrong, but I’m pretty sure that was the reason she asked me. At first, I was somewhat offended, but as I thought more and more about it, I began to think that maybe she was right to stop me from going out looking like death. I still can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Russian women, especially young women, go out every day like they’re on their way to a soiree. There’s a huge emphasis on amping up their sexuality — the stilettos, the cut out clothes, the heavy makeup, the rail-thin bodies, etc. But at the same time, for what it’s worth, there is something to be learned: to go out everyday looking your best. Both societies share the same (shallow?) attitudes — as in first impressions are a lasting impression, and in Russia (and America, too) you meet someone first through their exterior (внешний вид). If you can’t fight the system, join the system, and in young America’s case, that means stop rolling out of bed and going to class in sweatpants.

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Pinky up and Let’s Celebrate America Day

I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that even though I live only about a stone’s throw away from the Mariinskii Theater, this past Monday was the first time I’ve actually been inside. I didn’t even go inside the Mariinskii, to tell you the truth — we went into their new concert hall, which is even closer to where I live.

THE Mariinsky theater. Pastel green is the new black.

We were fortunate enough to have the chance to see Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto and Liszt’s A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedia. I was on my seat’s edge the entire time — I can’t even begin to describe how absolutely moving the orchestra was, and especially how spellbinding the soloist was. In a nutshell, I was moved to tears. Needless to say, this will not be the last time I’m heading over to the theater. I should have taken advantage of my proximity to cultural greatness sooner.

In other news, the day of America’s independence and essential birth is tomorrow. I have never been really big on celebrating Independence Day, but the fact that I’m in Russia on America Day makes me feel a bit compelled to do something special. Maybe especially American. Whatever I end up doing, there is a very high chance (100%, actually) that I will end up eating an absurd amount of hot dogs* and then crying in the bosom of my fellow Americans, yearning for my long lost homeland.

Fighting for justice and independence.

*Does anyone know where I can find a goddamn hot dog bun around here? Do I have to fashion one out of black bread?

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Show me your documents

As we were walking up the stairs to the Lviv train station, two surly policemen looked us up and down, gruffly asked where we were going, and demanded that we showed them our documents. During my entire stay in Russia, I’ve never ever been document checked. But I have to say, Ukraine is a much more mono-colored country than Russia is, and to be fair, our group was pretty rag-tag looking. One of my friends looks Chechen, I’m blatantly Asian/Central Asian, and my other friend is, well, pretty American. And we were all speaking quite loudly in English, so of course we brought attention to ourselves.

We all take out our passports and other traveling documents and hand them to the policemen. Everything was seemingly fine until the policeman checking my documents asked me, “Devushka, where is your stamp? There is no stamp on your immigration card.”

An immigration card. The part that you keep gets stamped. The other half gets taken and filed away somewhere. Overall, it's a really stupid system, since it's a tiny slip of paper that's easily lost or forgotten.

I looked in dismay at my unstamped immigration card — for some reason, they didn’t take away half of my immigration card at the border. With wide eyes and trying to muster the best puppy face I could, I look back to the police officer and said, “I didn’t get a stamp. I don’t know what happened.” Puppy face didn’t work, because the policeman then slightly raised his voice and replied, “Your friend here has a stamp. And your other friend has a stamp. But you don’t have a stamp. What is the deal? What happened?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know what happened. But what do I do now?” I asked.
The police officer sighed and shifted his hat. “You come with me.”

As I followed the policemen up to the platform where our train was going to leave, he kept admonishing me and repeating, “What happened to your stamp? Your friends have a stamp but you don’t have a stamp.” At the top of the platform, he again demanded for my passport, which I gave to him. He sighed again, shifted his stance, and said,
“This is what is going to happen. You pay a shtraf. You will then be put into the system, and everything will be okay at the border.” Alarms start going off in my head. What system!? How are they going to know that I already paid a fine? There are no computers at the border. I’m in deep, deep shit.
“How are they going to know? I need something to show them at the border,” I replied frantically.
“You will be put into the system. You don’t need anything to show,” the police officer answered exasperatedly. Switching into English, he patronizingly asked, “Do you understand?”
Answering in Russian, I stressed that I understood. “But I need something to show,” I pressed. “How will they know?” No matter how many times I stressed that I needed some document to show at the border, the policeman simply responded with the answer that I would be put in the “system.” I had no other choice but to give him my useless, unstamped immigration card and a rather hefty fine, which he instantly pocketed. I hope you choked on the vodka you bought with the money you ripped off me.

I helplessly looked at my friends. “I’m fucked.”

At the Ukrainian-Russian border, I nervously waited as the border control officers patrolled through. He asked for my friend’s documents first, and I crossed my fingers and hoped that he wouldn’t ask for her immigration card. He did. Shit. I gave him my documents, and when he noticed my immigration card was missing, he demanded it from me. I explained that I didn’t have it and that I already paid a fine. He gave me the stink eye. I glared right back.

Now here’s the surprising part. He sat down, pulled out this ratty leather book, and flipped to the end.
“Er..Tron Grah-kay?” Tron Grah-kay? Wait, that’s my name, only terribly Russified! I was put into the “system” after all. I was for sure that I was going to have to pay another hefty fine. Oh Eastern Europe, you’re just full of surprises.

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Married at 24, babies at 25, a haggard shrew by 30.

I was sitting at the table with my host sisters and host mom, drinking some tea, when the conversation somehow turned to the topic of marriage. As nonchalantly as i could, I put in my 2 cents (or kopecks, rather), and said that I didn’t want to get married. I thought it was an innocuous comment. They looked at me as if I suggested murder.

No Pochemu??” My host mom asked me incredulously. But why!? My host sisters continued to stare at me as if I just drowned a puppy in the Neva. I bit my lip as I wondered how to wage this battle. Did I really want to go into the fact that I think marriage is a suffocating institution? That I don’t think real love exists? Oh damned language barrier.

“I don’t want kids,” I said at last, quickly adding, “I’d probably be a terrible mother.”

Nope, not happening. Sorry Mom and Dad.

The expression on my host mom’s face softened.”Oh Grace, you’re still young. Things will change when you’re 24.” At this, my host sister sighed, put her head in her hands, and wailed, “So where is my husband??” Keep in mind that she is only 22.

This is a half-baked theory that I came up with in the past three minutes, but I think that the reason that Russian women are desperate to get married is that, well, to them married life is the ideal to work towards. You have a strong male figure putting bread on the table, and a bunch of kids to take care of (and dress ridiculously.) Everything is peachy keen. And there’s also the stigma of being single, too. Half-baked theory or not, at least it partially explains why you see beautiful Russian women paired up with short, paunchy, overall goofy-looking Russian men. To exacerbate matters, there is a significant dearth of Russian men — there are much more women than there are men, and when women are trying so hard to get married, it seems as if they’ll settle.  A lot.

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Religious Pantomime Society?

“We’re taking you to a mime show!”

I figured, why not? I didn’t even know that mimes still existed, let alone existed in St. Petersburg. Plus, it’s not every day you see Russian mimes.  So on a gorgeous, sunny, so-warm-I-didn’t-need-my-coat day, my host sisters and I set off for the mime show. Which, incidentally, took place in a Catholic church.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Catholics or religion in general. But I couldn’t lie about the Catholic mime show even if I tried. Picture the quality of a third grade, badly rehearsed play and throw in the zeal of an evangelist, and that’s what I sat through for two hours. And I wish I was exaggerating. For example, they did a bit on AIDS (СПИД) which involved a spider, a spiderweb, the devil, a popped balloon, and an obscene amount of pantomimed sobbing, all set to the backdrop of terrifying halloween music. Kudos to them for their creativity.

In other news, spring is finally here, and it’s supposed to be in the 50’s for the rest of the week! And, it’s Easter, which for me, means gorging on tons of cheap chocolate and dyeing eggs red with onion skins. For the Orthodox part of Russia, it meant going to midnight Mass (which lasts for a few hours).

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Ode to a cyclist on a winter’s day

The rules of the road are interesting here in Piter…in the sense that there are no rules and everything is a free-for-all. There are no distinct lanes, and if there are, cars sure as hell don’t drive in them. From what I have noticed, driving means precariously weaving in and out of traffic and almost hitting pedestrians (with glee!). The other day, my marshrutka driver hit a pedestrian in the arm – I’m pretty sure he broke her arm from the way that she keeled over while holding her elbow. St. Petersburg — Jungle rules.

Noting the fact that drivers will happily hit pedestrians with more zeal than a young boy busting some caps in Grand Theft Auto, I must applaud cyclists. I have been seeing more and more of them bob in and out of traffic, narrowly avoiding getting hit by cars. And I wonder: do they have a death wish? Then again, who am I to talk about riding bikes — I can barely ride one without flipping over my handlebars and landing on my face.

Finals week 2009! Morphine is great for exams.

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