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Monthly Archives: March 2012

In addition to teaching at the university, I also hold English Club at the Technical Lyceum, and recently, I’ve been giving small presentations there as well. This past Thursday, I showed them a powerpoint presentation of American nature to some 6th graders. The presentation itself was nothing special, just something that I threw together that morning. However, after class was over, the children crowded around my desk and, looking shyly at their feet, asked me to sign their copybooks. I was absolutely floored — why would anyone want my autograph? “We think it’s really cool that you’re from America,” one said. “I saw you on TV!” exclaimed another. After I signed their books, they slowly shuffled away, holding their books and staring at my scrawled message and signature.

This was the third time I made the news. The American who went dog sledding.

It’s things like this that remind me of the importance of cultural exchange. This was probably the first time these children have ever seen an American in their lives. They’ve heard so much about this country and its culture, yet they have never been able to have the chance to talk with one. I’m able to be the face to the myth or mystery, I guess. I am not making any extravagant claims that I’m changing lives or anything, but I do feel that I’m bringing America just a little closer to this little town here. I’m making America a little more tangible.

A lot happened in this sleepy little town this past weekend. Over the weekend, the university hosted an athletic conference and a beauty pageant. Filial universities from all over Russia and the former Soviet Union came — Chechnya, Tyumen, Ufa, Azerbaijan, and a few others sent their athletes to the conference. To start off the conference with a bang, the university threw an extravagant opening, complete with dancing hockey players and soviet songs about sports. I didn’t actually get to watch any of the sporting events, but word on the street is that UGTU came second to Tyumen. In our defense though, Tyumen has a student body of about 60,000 while UGTU only has about 7000 students. Still, as we all know, anything after first place is last place, and next year, UGTU will be out for blood to reclaim its first place title.

A dance number featuring the younger members of United Bit, the city's dance team. Notice the colorful ribbons and hula hoops.

Dancing hockey players

My friend, Vadim. Not an actual hockey player, just dressed up as one.

On Saturday, UGTU hosted its annual beauty pageant, Miss UGTU. Nothing thoroughly demolishes my ego and self-worth quicker than a beauty pageant. Here, the most beautiful girls of Ukhta gathered and competed against one another for the title of Miss UGTU. As any other pageant, there was a swim suit number, formal wear number, and an intellectual and talent display. I was impressed (and seething with jealousy) at some of these girls’ abs and talents — my favorite one was the girl who drew with butter. Surprisingly, not as disgusting as you would think. There were a few technical glitches, but otherwise, the pageant went swimmingly.

Call me cruel, but the girls’ reactions upon hearing that they lost were absolutely hilarious. Upon hearing their name called for the runner up prize, their faces immediately crumpled and fell. I’ve never seen such life-crushing disappointment in my life. It’s just a pageant! It has no meaning on your worth as a human being. All it means is that you look good in a bathing suit. Speaking of bathing suits, time to stop gorging on the mountains of chocolate in the Foreign Language department.

Don't remember her name, but she won the overall competition. In other news, it's time to start my starvation diet.

The girl who drew with butter. Really cool!

In other news, life has been…pretty calm, as of late, which I see as a sign of a good thing. In a week, I’ll be going down to Ufa for a conference, and I’m super excited to meet up with my fellow Fulbrighters and be surrounded by Americans. Until next time…

If there is one thing that I have learned how to do here in Russia, it is how to think quickly on my feet. Russians really like to keep me on my toes by not telling me things until the last minute. For example, earlier this week I had English Club at the lyceum, which usually consists of three or four high school kids, and I was prepared (not really) to talk about government. As I’m standing in the room, waiting for them to come, all of a sudden twenty-one children come bustling in. Twenty-one young, very young children. Obviously can’t talk about the electoral college with them, now can I? In the midst of my utter horror of what to do with twenty-one screaming children, I quickly came up with some bastardization of pictionary and charades. Don’t know how successful it was, because some of them ended up sobbing hysterically.

On Friday, I presented at a conference related to sports. For some reason, people here think that I’m a professional rower. If being the slowest person (hey, somebody’s got to take one for the team) on a university team makes me a professional rower, then by all means, go ahead and call me one. So I was asked to talk about college sports and what it’s like to be an athlete, and I had an understanding that I was to present in English. Thursday night, I’m told to present in Russian. Again, last minute. I killed the presentation though, the crowd loved it.

People ask me if I’m in a state of shock here in Russia. And to be honest, I don’t know how to answer. Some things I will never get used to, such as lack of personal space, a loathing of plans, and an absurd obsession with piling tons of dill onto food.

This damned spice is everywhere -- soups, bread, pizza, you name it. I don't mind dill, but for the love of Jesus, everything in moderation!

That said, I think I’m no longer in culture shock. I think I’ve finally adjusted to living here in this northern city. Only took, what, the majority of my Fulbright stay? As I’ve said before, there aren’t that many differences between Americans and Russians. However, there are minor differences, which for me, escalate into major differences. I don’t think I will ever be able to accept some things that Russians do, but I think that I’ve learned how to cope with the differences.

This picture obviously doesn't fit into the theme of today's blog post. Just felt like adding some more color.

March 8th is ¬†International Women’s Day. According to various websites, International Women’s Day started off as a political movement, and is celebrated primarily in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet Union. March 8th is important. It’s huge. It’s an enormous holiday. I don’t even know how to emphasize how big of a holiday it is. This year, it fell on a Thursday, and since Russia realized that everyone would be too hung over to work the next day, they made Friday a holiday day as well. Judging from what I saw, Russians go around and give presents and flowers to their mothers and other important women in their lives. To help facilitate the flower giving, there were buses working as flower stands parked along the sidewalks. Flowers and chocolates were overflowing in stores, and people were rushing around last minute to buy presents and alcohol to celebrate accordingly.

My holiday weekend (more like week…) started off on Wednesday and ends today. On Wednesday, my colleagues and I gathered in the International Languages Department and drank a lot of tea (read between the lines) and gorged on caviar and beet salad.

Butter, caviar, fat, so delicious. Your thighs will especially appreciate it. Mine sure did.

I love my colleagues. What’s so great about them is that they don’t treat me any differently just because I have absolutely zero experience teaching English, and from day one, they were so welcoming. These women are so much fun to work with, and I’m grateful that they have taken me under their wing and help me become a better teacher.

A few beautiful women from the Foreign Languages Department

In the same way I feel about a lot of these holidays (Valentine’s Day, for example), I appreciate Women’s Day, and it’s nice that men treat us to chocolates and flowers on this day. However, men should show their appreciation every day, not just one day a year. And vice versa for women on men’s day. Just my two kopeeks.

In case you haven’t heard (and if you haven’t heard, you should start reading the news more), Putin won the presidential election. To be honest, I even somewhat forgot about it (just a little), because Sunday was just like any other day here in Ukhta. People were milling about pleasantly, the sun was out, children were happily running around — it was just an average weekend. In the few days following the election, nothing out of the ordinary has happened while Moscow, in comparison, has been erupting in protest.

It could have been said years ago that Putin would win today. Ever since he mandated the reregistration of parties and made candidates gather a ridiculously higher number of signatures to even get a foot in the door, he’s effectively controlled who can be the “opposition” and who can’t. And let’s not forget about Khodorkovsky, who is a reminder to all the oligarchs that they should not meddle in politics. While the numbers might have been fudged ¬†(no way that Chechnya voted 99% for Putin), I feel that he still legitimately got the majority of the votes, mainly because there is no other viable choice. There hasn’t been one since the Yeltsin era.

So the question has never been whether or not Putin will win. I think the question should be what kind of president will he be, given the current disrest in Moscow and other metropolitan cities. Leading up to the elections, Putin wrote a series of articles in Vedomosti, Kommersant, and other newspapers on the need to improve education, democracy, the economy, etc in Russia.  Judging from his articles alone, it seems that he might take the path of the reformer. But given the possibility that those articles were merely to written to garner votes and up his popularity, there is always the chance that he will centralize his power even further and go the way of the tsar. Who knows? Time will tell.

As for Russian-American relations, I’m worried. Not just because of the burgeoning Anti-American sentiment here, but because as of now, it is uncertain who will be president in America. There is a chance that Washington will distance itself from Russia.

If you are interested, here are more links for your perusal:
A chronicle of events during the Presidential Election (in Russian)
A summary of Putin’s articles in Russian newspapers (in English)
Short summary of the election results (in English)
Election results by region
Putin crying during his speech (in Russian, obviously)

Marry me.

If you know anything about me, then you know that I love planning and organizing. You’ll also know that I am anally retentive about order. I love making check lists, and I love checking off those lists even more. Back at home, I have a pretty routine schedule that I rarely deviate from. If I could, I would marry a one huge calendar, because that embodies everything that I am.

I live by calendars. Here is my carefully planned schedule for next week, which has a 82% chance of getting changed at the last second.

From what I’ve noticed, Russia doesn’t like planning. Russia likes last minute changes or cancellations. Or calling me seven times in the middle of class to tell me that I have to urgently attend this conference RIGHT NOW GET DOWN HERE NOW WHY AREN’T YOU HERE because nobody could bother to call me the weekend before. Case in point, I got called and was told I had to attend this teaching seminar the night before. That’s fine, I really don’t mind being demanded to do things and move my schedule around. At the mandatory seminar, one of the teachers asked me what I was going to talk about. Apparently, I was supposed to present in front of a group of English teachers. I stared back at her in horror with my mouth wide open and babbled something along the lines of: “No one told me to talk about anything, they just told me to be here, I didn’t know I was supposed to talk about something, I’m not prepared!!” She tried to calm me down and told me just to introduce myself and talk about what I’m doing at the university and high school. She gave me about 3 minutes to prepare, obviously a ton of time, and I got up and nervously ran through the usual introductions at the rate of 80 words a second. I make a sincere effort to speak slower around Russians, but when I’m nervous, all those efforts go out the window, and I’d be surprised if anyone actually understood what I said.

Russians call it spontaneous. I call it reckless and disorganized. However, that said, I am getting better at thinking on my feet and adjusting to swift, unexpected changes. Life can’t always be carefully planned out the way I like, and sometimes, you just need to go with the flow. Yes, that flow might smack you around a bit, but like a lot of things in Russia, you just have to get used to it.

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