Friday, November 28, 2008

Little bits and bytes


What's new here? I had Thanksgiving with the Mormons yesterday, which was great. As it got closer to the holiday, I was missing my family more and more, so I was pretty happy to have some firends to eat and talk with. They are quite an interesting bunch. The younger ones are in "companion" pairs, and they are bound to each other for 2 years, or until they get a transfer slip in the mail. They literally can only be apart in the bathroom! But yeah, a week from Saturday they'll get their new orders in the mail, so some of them might be getting shipped off to a new city in Siberia. We even played a game of risk, although I can never take board games quite so seriously anymore. It was also good in that they live in the North of the city, so I finally had a good opportunity to see a new neighborhood.

I've been teaching Thanksgiving for the past week, and for the students it's kind of boring, but I tell them the whole story just the same. I even make them go around the table and talk about what they're thankful for. Most of them are thankful for the families, their friends, their universities, and so on, but some real wise acres today were being thankful for the table, the floor, the chairs, and other pieces of furniture. Some of them are even thankful for me! I've been giving the best Thanksgiving speeches of my life, which leads me to believe that I have a lot to be thankful for. More than ever, I know what it means to have a loving family and loving friends, and that's pretty great.

All my foreign friends are having birthdays and celebrating them in all sorts of adorable ways. Everyone's getting pretty close by now, so that's nice too. I might even have a chance to rap in the club with a guy from Ghana sometime soon! I'll have to practice.

Grad school applications are still weighing me down, but I've made quite a bit of progress. In fact, I only have 3 personalized sections of my personal statement to go! Then: ENDLESS EDITING. I'm feeling more relaxed about the whole thing, but will be very happy to be done, to just wait and enjoy life.

I'm also just about ready for our break from work. Teaching is fun, and there are a lot of rewarding moments, but the daily grind is getting to me. I am planning a sort of forum on different dialects/accents of English, to which I'm inviting the Canadian Kate and the British guy Michael. I think it should be interesting for the students as well as the native speakers. Anyway, I'm getting pretty excited about the prospect of travelling with some other ETA's around Russia and Europe. I'll probably be leaving Tomsk for Novosibirsk on the 2nd of January or so. There I'll meet Matt and we'll head to Ekaterinburg for Abbie. Next stop: PETERSBURG! Then we're planning about 2 weeks in Europe: Germany, maybe Amsterdam or Paris, Prague. It'll be just what I need, I think. After Europe we'll be back in Moscow for a Fulbright orientation thing. If anyone will be in any of these cities or countries, or nearby, let me know so we can meet up!

Lots of love,

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mormons, Mormons, Mormons!

So, I have a funny story that I'll tell you briefly. A girl from one of the English-speaking clubs asked to interview me for a psychology project, and I said okay, a little nervous that she would think that I stand out as a good candidate for psychiatric research. We met and she took me to some strange building, to the top floor, and unlocked some room that had some flyers about learning English up everywhere. There were a bunch of really unusually religious paintings everywhere, of Jesus and what looked like his clone. At first I thought maybe it could have been Boris and Gleb, this two Russians brothers/princes/saints who were murdered for the thrown, but then figured it wasn't them. I asked why there were two Jesuses, and she explained that one was God the father. I thought it pretty unusual that God was depicted at all, let alone as a perfect double of Jesus, but assumed it was some wacky Russian thing. I did think it was strange that there was one picture of Jesus with what looked like a Native American.

Anyway, so she conducted this endless interivew in Russian. She said it would last one hour but it ended up taking three and a half, with a tea break in the middle (she served some strange, red, flowery tea, explaining that she couldn't drink black or green tea anymore). Anyway, so she asked me a bunch of questions about my life, my childhood, about my feelings, about whether I was every beaten, about how I interact with various people, about what I look for in girls, etc. It was interesting to have a chance to get into some self-reflection, especially in Russian, but I was pretty tired by the end.

But.... towards the end of the interivew, some guy with a beard showed up, and was evidently pretty upset at this girl for using the space. He spoke in English, very naturally, I thought, and with a great American accent. I was impressed at the language skills taught at this place. So they argued, and he eventually agreed to let us continue the interview (I was sitting behind some divider so I only caught a short glimpse of the man), but only on the condition that these two other young guys who had just arrived could wait in the room to make sure there was no trouble. So the older guy left and I heard them refer to him as "Elder Dixon", which I thought was strange. They also kept saying "It wasn't the right way for her to go about doing this, kicking Elder Dixon out, and this guy's not even a member!" Their English was great and the membership business was awfully suspicious.

So we finished the interview, and I finally decided to ask about these strange, English-speaking people. She explained that they're part of a religious organization that rents the space and gives free English lessons. I asked which one, and it turned out that they are Mormons, and Americans to boot!

So that's why there were all these strange pictures of Jesus, God, and some Native Americans. So that's why this poor Russian girl had to reject her heritage and quit drinking normal tea! It all made so much sense!

Here I thought I was the only American in Tomsk, and there are actually six of them, Mormons! I decided to go have chat with them. They thought I was a Russian and asked me where I learned English so well. I told them "in Ohio". They didn't get it at first, but then I explained that I too was an American. They were nice enough, although when we introduced ourselves they wouldn't tell me their first names, only "Elder so-and-so". I thought this a bit odd, but whatever, I'll call them elders if that's what they like. But yeah, they're organizing a Thanksgiving dinner complete with a real turkey and I'm invited. It turns out that one of them lives nearby. I thought of inviting them over for tea or a drink, but they don't drink tea or alcohol, and as they explained, they're not allowed to be out past 9:30. Oh well, at least they won't get mugged.

They were pretty okay guys and even gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon in Russian (there are some great pictures), but I couldn't help but wonder what could drive a Russian to the Mormon faith. After all, I would think that Russians wouldn't be too big on an addition to the bible in which all sorts of miraculous things happen in America. Still, so I have heard, the Mormons attract a lot of Russians with their English lessons and appeal to them in some way that's bringing them members. Evidentally there's even a church here in Tomsk. Also, I hear there's an enormous babtist church that's formed a pretty big congregation. This is all pretty strange to me, but Russia is a surprising place.

But anyway, don't count on this bezbozhnik falling in with these Elders. I would like to hang out with them sometime, though, if they're okay with that. Something tells me they might not be. When I gave them my number they just gave me their businesss card they use to lure Russians to their church. Oh well, I can only hope!



Friday, November 7, 2008


Hello all you Americans,

It's Friday here and I thought I'd update you on some of the latest developments here in Tomsk. Let's see, last Friday, after a few phoney Halloween celebrations with my English clubs (in which many of the students were too bashful to dress up), Dima and I threw a real Halloween party at our apartment. It was a lot of fun, and most of my foreign and Russian friends did manage to come up with costumes. Unfortunately, they also managed to break a lot of our glassware and prevent me from sleeping until 6 in the morning. I was worried about disturbing our neighbors, since we had so many noisy guests, and not surprisingly, on Sunday one lady came to complain about us disturbing her sleep and insisted on my cleaning the entire stairway with a broom and rag. I can understand the horror of being an old Russian woman and having strange, masked Europeans parading around in your stairwell, so I agreed to do so.

The pure chaos that is national holidays in Russia further disturbed my attempts to live a somewhat normal life. This Tuesday we had "The Day of People's Unity and Coming-Together", or something like that. This meant that even on Monday, everything important was closed, even though nobody even really knows what this holiday is (it's supposed to replace an old Soviet holiday on November 7th celebrating the revolution). So I couldn't use the internet, and half the town left for Kazakstan, Altai, Kemerevo, or wherever everyone here is from. It was nice to get a little extra sleep though.

Then came election day. The results were announced when I was in my morning class, so I only heard the news afterwards on the internet. Not really a surprise, even to us living so far away from America. What was most remarkable about election day for me, however, was that a television company called my boss and asked to interview me about the election, about Obama, and about myself as an American living in Tomsk. At first they insisted on conducting this interview in my apartment, and I, of course, said, "No, that won't quite be convenient for me". They agreed to take me to a cafe or a bar. At first I didn't know why it was important that they interview me in a place with a TV, but I soon figured it out. It was pretty funny, how artificial everything is. They had me pretend to walk into the bar (which was almost empty, and they didn't even treat me to dinner), they had me pretend to talk about the elections with the anchorwoman (we were really talking about Petersburg), and they had me pretend to be watching Obama on television (really at this point they were showing Medvedev's speech with Putin looking on).

When I watched the interview on TV, I learned that they had assembled all of this into some hilarious narrative about me, a poor American teacher, not having a TV and desperately making for the bar to learn the results of my country's elections. It sounded really funny on TV in Russian. Anyway, they interviewed me about what kind of president I thought Obama would be and how I felt his election would affect American-Russian relations. It was kind of an interesting conversation, except I had to wince as I watched myself make mistakes in Russian in front of the entire city. All in all, regardless of the fact that they didn't feed me, it was an adventure.

So now it's the weekend, and I am exhausted. I'm about to head home and take a nap, before I go to see Madagascar 2. I think on Saturday we're going to the second house-warming in a row at our friends place. A Swiss and a French friend of mine moved into an apartment and had a novosel'e last weekend. Since then, I hooked them up with a third roommate, a Canadian who recently arrived in Tomsk. Oh! Also a British guy moved to the city last week and is living with this professor of oil-drilling technology. He has never studied Russian before and so is going to get his first earful of it here in Siberia. Both of them are working as English teachers, and so now I have a whole host of English-speaking peers. It's refreshing to speak English every now and again!

Miss you all,