Friday, February 18, 2011

Russian Hospitality

The first time I came to Russia for work was 13 months ago in January. Exiting the doors of Pulkovo II International airport, I had my first taste of the freezing, damp air of St. Petersburg. I could not stop coughing. It felt like a metal glove had reached deep down into my lungs and made a fist while my pink insides stuck together like a hot tongue to an icy pole.

It did not matter that I was equipped with the warmest North Face Parka, gloves and boots. It did not matter that I was wearing state-of-the-art REI long underwear. It did not matter that I am a native Minnesotan with practically 100% Norwegian blood pulsing through me.

The Russian Cold was the first thing I remember.

On that first trip, I had the opportunity to work in St. Petersburg and Moscow for three weeks with my close friend and co-worker, Sara. Sara was pregnant at the time, and I still have vivid memories of her sending the poor roomservice boys back to the kitchen because they had, in fact, brought the bright yellow mustard when Sara had specifically requested the darker, grainier kind that looks more like Grey Poupon.

Had someone told me back then that, in a years' time, my passport would fill with visas and I would visit Russia five times, I would have spilled my own borscht. (I ate a lot of borscht my first few times here.) Today, as I look back on my travels, I feel transient and out-of-place. It does not feel like I am sitting at a hotel desk in Moscow. It just feels like I am on another business trip in another regular city.

The chance to visit a foreign city multiple times offers one the advantage of building up cultural experience via repetitive exposure. There is no guarantee, however, that the conclusions drawn upon cultural experience are accurate as they are only tied to individual perception. But that is all any of us has to go on, right? The cultural fabric of our own lives is all we can use as a backdrop from which to compare new and different cultural experiences. That being said, these were the first things I noticed during my beginning trips to Russia (I believe Sara would concur):

  • In Russia, people wrap their suitcases in clear plastic
  • In Russia, they are always cleaning the floors
  • In Russia, all the hallways in apartment buildings are painted green
  • In Russia, people do not smile at each other
  • In Russia, people have big stuffed animals in their apartments, even adults
  • In Russia, every household owns a cat
  • In Russia, everybody smokes
  • In Russia, the traffic is terrifyingly bad

So, these were some of my initial observations. Because this was my maiden voyage to the Motherland, you could call some of these observations stereotypes because I was only paying attention to the things that I initially thought would be true. It would be similar to saying:

  • In the United States, everyone is fat
  • In the United States, all the buildings are huge
  • In the United States, the people are ignorant about their own history and culture
etc, etc...

Once I got past this (that is to say, once I had traveled to Russia multiple times), I was able to notice nuances that had previously been hidden to me.

For our job, we have the unique advantage of seeing a slice of real Russian lives because of what we do. We go into people's homes and interview them about their lives, their habits, their hopes and dreams and the products they use. Before my first time doing this, I was warned that Russian women think it is a big deal to be interviewed in their homes and may dress up for the occasion. As researchers, we actually like to see people in their native environments, so I was initially frustrated when, for example, one woman opened her door wearing a green velvet evening gown and silver high heels that looked like Barbie slippers.

But I must admit, the Russian home visits became something ritualistic for me. Don't get me wrong, they were never easy. I am terrified of the small, rickety elevators (although I have been told on more than one occasion that they are actually quite reliable, solid Soviet construction – something which I have come to half believe.) Setting up my camera equipment was sometimes a challenge in small kitchens (albeit, no worse than setting up equipment in New York City.) Despite some of these factors, as I said, the home visits became ritualistic. They became... cozy.

The daily ritual of the Russian ethnography was like a ballet; Climb into the warm car, listen to Russian radio (which is an awesome mix of songs you would never think you might hear back to back), fight through traffic, drive around tall Soviet style apartment buildings looking for small apartment numbers, go up the little elevator or trudge the flights of concrete steps, enter the warmth of a Russian apartment, met by coffee with lemons, tea, cookies, cats and frequent cigarette breaks... Like I said, it was a beautiful little ritual.

Partly because of my current research topic and partly out of personal interest, on this trip I have been doing a lot of thinking about what makes me, an American woman, different from the Russian women I know and continue to meet.

In my experience, there is a spectrum that ranges from mild hostility to solemn respect between Russian and American women. There are some habits we do very differently and there are other habits we wish we could adopt of one another.

Russian women of today take exquisite pride in how they care for themselves. I could easily make the argument that Russian women spend more time and care more in how they appear to the outer world that we do. To look well-put together is basic hygiene in Russian culture. In addition, it is more common to hear Russian women say that they are doing this for others as opposed to for themselves. They are staying slim, doing their hair, wearing makeup and perfuming themselves for their husbands, their coworkers and their children.

American women, on the other hand, display a wider range of behaviors and beliefs tied to their physical appearance. Sure, some American women are just as focused, if not more so, on their physical brand. But others display the freedom to forego makeup and wear men's cologne with a tattered plaid shirt because they themselves like it. Seeking secondary approval is just that; it's secondary. Approval of the self comes first. It is much less common to hear an American woman say, "I do it for my husband."

In my mind, there is a feminine mystique possessed by Russian women that is fed by two things: It is the way they look and act in front of me as well as the vague and inaccurate notions I have of iconic things like Russian Mail Order Brides. Russian women are more demure and less loud than American women. Russian women are more expert at attaining the husband/kids/family equation and balancing it effortlessly with a complicated job like engineer or chemical factory manager (I am endlessly impressed with the technical job titles of Russian women. Their jobs titles make our job titles sound soft and fuzzy.) The attributes above are those that I wish I possessed more of.

But I am not mysterious. I am not demure. I am a talkative, funny, dream-big American. 

And on that note, I get the sense from my Russian friends and colleagues that they admire the American spirit of independence and exploration. My friends here always patiently listen to me spew out my hopes and dreams, and they do not judge me when the next day I change my mind to something entirely different. My friends here may not smile at each other on the street, but they do smile at me when I am talking to them. They smile when my co-worker, Emily, sings along to American songs on the radio. They silently delight in us trying to learn their difficult language (they try to help us speak it), and they embrace the times when we want to soak up their knowledgeable stories of complicated Russian history. Their reactions to our whimsical behavior make me feel effervescent.

Things get confusing when analyzing gender roles in a cultural context. It is a very subjective topic. So my hypotheses of the differences between Russian and American women will stop here.

Today I feel nostalgic. Today I feel a bit sad. I just ate my last meal in Russia – Eggs Over Easy (which I had to explain to the roomservice boy who told me that it was very interesting new term). Today I feel unsatisfied, like I have only scratched the surface of this huge nation that endlessly enchants and haunts me at the same time. I hear the British accents of the interpreters in my head, I see the intelligent twinkle in the eyes of my younger Russian counterparts.

I remember the time an interpreter gave me a small glass bear – a mishka – when I told her my good friend is nicknamed "Teddy." She told me to try to hold on tight  to my mishka. I wrapped the small glass bear in toilet paper and I tucked it inside my shoe for the long flight home. Upon unraveling it a few days later, I spontaneously started to cry while sitting on my living room floor. I missed the warmth that I had received in cold Russia.

There is something so elegant, so blazingly silent – It is the strobe lights pointing up at the mammoth Stalinist architecture, It is the folds in the pink satin ballet slippers at the Mariinsky Theatre  – I cannot explain it, you have to taste it for yourself. In the end, the best I can do is call it the magic of Russian hospitality.

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