Cotton candy and pollution by the sea

Well into my eighth month here in Russia, I'm finding myself thinking more and more in terms of my ever-nearing departure: routine tasks like sorting laundry double as mental preparation for how to pack, my thoughts have begun to veer from the various oddities of domestic life here in Vlad to my inevitable apartment hunt in Berkeley, and I'm still reeling from the realization that I can easily manage a countdown of weeks without the help of any toes!

Strangely enough, Vladivostok meanwhile looks more and more like it did when I first arrived in September. The endlessly frozen Pacific that had been so fixed in the landscape of the city melted seemingly overnight. One day, the stretches of rough ocean ice were dotted with lone fishermen crouching on overturned buckets, nursing beers in one hand and fishing poles in the other. The next, deep blue water rolled on as if the last four months had never happened. The ice cream stands along the boardwalk have re-opened, and the waterfront is teeming anew with high-heeled and mini-skirted teens, giddy kids parading giant, pink balls of cotton candy (I was one of them this weekend), gangs of young sailors, and the occasional wayward policemen enjoying piva rather than patrols. But this time around, I can recognize some of them as my students or friends or co-workers or that grumpy lady from the post office. And in that way, I couldn't feel further removed from those first bewildering days in town.

That, of course, isn't to say that things have begun to make more sense to me as time has passed-- as far as I can tell, one doesn't really understand life here as much as one learns to embrace (or abhor) its raging incongruities. Some anonymous citizens thoughtfully adorn the local bust of Pushkin with fresh carnations year-round, while others (or maybe the very same?) litter the hillside and street below with an absolutely astonishing amount of refuse. People walk casually past a foreign student getting mugged on a busy street in broad daylight without so much as a second glance, but it's a rare day that goes by without some well-intentioned stranger randomly proffering unsolicited advice about everything from that day's wardrobe choice to how to take a proper photograph. On the small strip of beach in the city center, little kids happily chuck empty soda bottles into the water and plant themselves in the sand to dig earnestly not shells but the remains of discarded grocery bags. Mom and dad look on lovingly as their children play.

Utterly incomprehensible to me maybe but not without hope for change? Next month will see yet another set of elections here in Vladivostok-- this time for a new mayor. As far as I know, the last four have been prematurely ousted and/or jailed for a number of crimes-- embezzlement, bribery, the fun never stops! The front runner is (surprisingly? ha.) United Russia's candidate, Pushkaryov, whose catchy slogan "Кто он человек кремля?" ("Who's the Kremlin's man?") says it all. But while the presidential elections saw little more fervor here than that aroused by cheerful teens passing out adorable teddy bear keychains in honor of "Our Medv'ed (bear)," the mayoral campaigns are at least gesturing at some of the issues here in the city. Billboards proclaiming the need for clean beaches, socialized pharmacies, good roads, and functional public transportation are taking center stage-- only its not clear whose campaign (if any) is funding them! In the meantime, election posters are sharing space on buses with proclamations for a city-wide субботник (voluntary unpaid work days initially employed to help rebuild the country after the war) this weekend to clean and beautify the city. My university instituted one yesterday, and as a result campus curbs and trees(...?) now boast a fresh coat of white paint. (The two-year old swastika vandalizing a central building column, however, remains--disturbingly-- undisturbed.)

Last week, I taught a lesson at the American Corner using David Sedaris' 10 Questions from Time. When asked if he, living in Paris/London, missed the U.S., he commented that American culture is so ubiquitous nowadays that there really isn't any occasion to miss it. My students (once we discussed what "ubiquitous" meant) all nodded in earnest agreement-- "Everywhere, everywhere!" And sure enough, lots of folks here are listening to the same top 40 hits, watching the same blockbuster releases, and obsessing over the same celebrities and T.V. programs as people in the States, but I think I've personally found my encounters with "Americanness" here as (or more) surprising and novel than anything else.

A week ago, for example, a bunch of us got together to watch some TV and have dinner... Bizarre, right? Well, okay, how about if that "bunch" included the American Consulate General, his wife, two professional American basketball players, and a handful of other random Anglophones watching the NCAA finals on the CG's couch over some homemade cornbread and chili with all the fixings... all while right in the heart of the Russian Far East, where I can assure you chili and cornbread are far from staple fare! But as we all scratched our heads at the strange informercials that take the place of traditional commercials on the American Forces Network (one emphasizing the importance of never breaking if captured as a POW...), it really struck me how ubiquitous the American presence-- beyond Britney and Brangelina-- really is all around the globe (for better or worse).


Reminscences of the Asian Vaca: Part I, Seoul

Three months late (very sorry!)…

Seoul, South Korea

Christmas 2007

After two months or so, the excitement of being in a new place with new people, speaking new languages and doing new work, had all but just evaporated. By the end of the first semester, I was feeling tired and worn down, a bit disappointed with my job and most definitely homesick. My trip to Seoul couldn’t have come at a better time.

While I was gingerly munching on unidentifiable, smoked fish (courtesy of VladAvia) from 35,000 feet, South Korea was busy electing its new president. My aunts and uncle picked me up from the airport, and as we drove around Seoul that night, I couldn’t decide what was crazier: the fact that my relatives were able to watch news of the election on a TV inside their car or the glorious lights of Dunkin’ Donuts, Bennigans, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks…*

465 miles from Vladivostok, Seoul might as well have been on another (delightful) planet.

* Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly exulting in the Blob-like spread of American capitalism, but there’s only so much microwaved and mayonaisey fare one can have from the Vlad’s own Magic Burger and Magic Bell before the idea of a Big Mac starts to sound REALLY nice.

That first night in Seoul with my aunties and uncle, we
stopped by at the fantastically Christmas-lit Chunggae
Chul, where crowds of jubilant Lee supporters were already
gathered to dance and sing and drink their new president
into office.

After devouring course after course of phenomenal
Korean foods, we drove all around the city: up to
the top of one of the many city mountains, down
past the presidential Blue House, by Dongdaemun
(East Gate), and stopped for a good while to admire
the recently re-opened (and even more recently,
tragically destroyed!) beauty of Namdaemun (West
Gate), South Korea’s National Treasure #1 that was.


Though I wasn’t able to afford the ridiculously expensive ticket home to the States for Christmas, Seoul provided a remarkable antidote to my homesickness in a way that I don’t know even a few weeks of California sun could have matched.

I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s flat in Gangnam, alternately proof-reading my cousin’s college application essays, soaking in the lightning-fast internet, and chatting with my auntie about life. Most mornings I spent running around the city with two of my aunts, shopping, museum-hopping, taking in the traditional sights, and, of course, eating inordinate amounts of delicious Korean food.

This was my second trip to Korea—the first took place just before I started college in Chicago, and I spent most of it feeling bewildered and estranged from everyone and everything. Nearly five years later, I couldn’t have had a better time.

When I wasn’t being ridiculously spoiled by my aunts, I was catching up with delightful friends from college over Green Tea shaved ice in posh Apgujung cafes or roaming the packed and festive streets of Insadong and Myungdong with a hodgepodge gang of pals from Russia (two Korean girls studying Russia in Vlad, one of the girl’s Russian boyfriend, a Japanese teacher at my university, my English dorm buddy, and two of the other Fulbrighters from Irkutsk and Kazan).

Though Christmas everywhere seems to have become more commercial fanfare than a celebration of Christ’s birth and any subsequent joy, peace, or love (see Schultz, Charles M. A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965.), I guess it was still a bit surprising to see the extent to which the holiday was treated almost entirely as an opportunity to buy elaborate cakes from one of the 189739423 smiling Santa-hat-wearing teens chanting “크리스마스 캐이크!” (transliterally: Ch-ri-s-ma-s ca-k-e) on every street corner or to indulge in some other goods peddled on nearly every square foot of Seoul’s popular neighborhoods.

Christmas is also evidently another holiday (in addition to Valentine’s Day and White Day) to go out on the town with “that special someone,” so while the lot of us were wriggling our way through the crowds of Myungdong on Christmas Eve, it didn’t take long for us to realize that there was some method to the madness: carefully observed, the mass of people was easily divisible into pairs, often identically dressed—just to facilitate such recognition, of course.

I had my own bounty of ho ddukk (sweet honey-filled deep fried dough cakes) and shopping to keep me warm, anyway. But it was refreshing nevertheless to run across a group of adorable teenage girls—a number of whom were dressed in padded Santa suits—giving out hugs and smiles (without any desire to sell us Christmas cakes!) to simply spread the holiday cheer. The idea of anyone in Vladivostok offering strangers even a kindly “hello” is already quite unheard of, so you can imagine our surprise to receive giggling hugs from these jolly schoolgirls. But then, the level of hospitality and warmth (albeit at times commercially motivated) from everyone in Seoul blew all of us who had grown accustomed to life in Russia well away.


Sunshine and Effigies

Many of you have expressed your concerns about how I’ve been able to handle THE RUSSIAN WINTER. While the cold is certainly no joke, the mythical proportions the winter here seems to take on in the foreign mind (mine included) is a bit amusing. Are there places in Russia where temperatures drop to ungodly -50C, snow piles higher than an elephant’s eye, and the sun itself seems to go into prolonged hibernation? You betcha. Is Vladivostok one of them? Nope!

Situated on a little peninsula jutting out into the Pacific, Vladivostok soaks up all the brilliant summer sunlight in the winter months while the ocean freezes over and somehow thus keeps the grays at bay. It’s only after the temperatures really pick up in June and July that the cloud cover, fog, and general darkness come. (And hopefully, I’ll be back on a California beach before that happens!) So while the season’s temperatures are nothing to scoff at and the occasional winds are enough to inspire quite legitimate awe and fear, my “Russian winter” has also been drenched in an uncanny amount of golden sunshine and clear blue sky.

Today—another of those golden blue days—about a hundred foreign students and teachers gathered in FENU’s Russian School celebrate the Russian religious/folk holiday of Maslenitsa. The week-long festival commemorates both the beginning of Orthodox Lent and the pagan celebration of the sun and winter’s end. A colorful troupe of folk musicians danced and sang sheepish students from China, Japan, and Korea around the central foyer and out on the street for everyone’s favorite past time: burning effigies! All of this much to the bemusement of every local television station crew in Vladivostok—every one of which came out to report on the day’s “breaking news.” (I even got to make my television debut with some deeply insightful commentary comparing the properties of Russian and American pancakes…)

As the flames devoured Lady Maslenitsa (the colorful dummy representative of Winter who had been propped up in the hallway all week), we happily devoured the traditional sun-like blini (golden crepe-like pancakes) to welcome the spring and warm our tummies.

Considering how generous Lady Maslenitsa had been with the sunshine here the past few months, I can’t help but think the whole affair a bit unjust. But mm, those blini sure were good…


Alive and well and strolling on the Pacific

For the past several weeks, almost all of the emails and messages I've received have run something along the lines of: "Are you alive?," "Where have you disappeared to..?," "Send an update!," "Lose 20 lbs. in 20 days!"

The alarming tone throughout certainly warrants response.

Firstly, an apology. I spent about a month and a half constantly on the go, and though I've been back in Vladivostok for a good two weeks now, I've been mostly hibernating, avoiding thought, etc. The interim has also seen the start of a new year (both calendar and lunar), a new academic semester, and yes, that's right: a new hair-do, too. Exciting times. I am very sorry for the neglect and any worry I might have caused by failing to update more regularly!

Secondly, does anyone else find it rather offensive that perfect strangers have no qualms about yelling at you to lose weight and how via the world wide web? Right.

Anyway, because the gaping hole on this blog gives quite the misleading impression that I didn't do diddly over the last three months or so, I'll be working to fill it in a bit with "many impressions" and фотки from my time in South Korea, China, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and Moscow... while also endeavoring to keep you folks updated on the ongoing Vlady fun on more than a quarter-yearly basis.

Returning to Vladivostok and my teaching responsibilities this month has been strongly reminiscent of my first arrival last September-- complete with chaos, confusion, and a seemingly brand new cast of characters. On a good day, I tell myself that the only thing I'm missing for round two is the soul-shaking fear of what I had gone and commited myself to this year. On a less-than-good day, I realize that while I'm no longer squeaking in irrational terror at every turn, the excitement of being somewhere entirely foreign and new has also dulled a bit.

But just a bit.

It seems that a large part of getting used to my life in Russia is realizing that there's really not all that much to get used to-- that is, the one constant is inconsistency. This is more likely a reflection of life as a temporary visitor with an end date stamped on heart, mind, and visa, than life generally in Russia, but there is no doubt a bit of the latter, too. A loaf of bread costs something like 14 rubles one day and 24 the next. The popular cafe down the road is packed with customers one day and a gutted pile of rubble the next. Friends come, and they leave; we come, and we leave.

There's not much solid ground for this Southern California girl to stand on... except on that, the absolute least likely of spots: atop the frozen surface of the Pacific Ocean.

... What?!

How's that for a looking glass world on the other side of Siberia? of the planet? A good day, a less-than-good day-- everyday, there are these tiny explosions of my former understanding. And this new year, I'll try to be better about sharing them with all you.


My, what big guns you have!

The past weekend was rife with reminiscences of wars past and present. On Friday evening, the American Consulate hosted a charity gala for children with HIV/AIDS. The AIDS epidemic has hit Russia particularly hard, and it seems that the growth rate per capita here is now the highest in the world. A frighteningly large percentage of those affected are young children. There are a few hospices in the region that take care of some of these kids, and the proceeds of the event went to support one of them.

It was a surprisingly swanky affair-- surprising for me only perhaps because the concept of a gala is totally foreign to me-- taking place at Vlad's Hotel Versailles. A couple hundred folks from the city (includings reps from various consulates) came out to donate funds, bid on auctioned goods, and sip yummy champagne. There were a number of performances as well-- some flamenco dancers, an ensemble of adorable kids playing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, etc.-- intersperced with the techno soundtrack and formal grandeur that seems to prevail each of the (many) holiday occasions here in Vlad. It just isn't an event without some sequins and house music. I love it.

The following morning, one of my students invited me out to one of Vladivostok's fortresses/museums. This particular fort is located less than ten minutes by foot from my dormitory and less than two from the city's main boardwalk and ferris wheel. And, I mean... wow. The inside of the fort was converted into a museum during the 60's (I think?), while the outside looks rather like a crazy bellicose sculpture garden with guns, guns, and bigger guns galore.
Originally built in the 1860's when the city was officially "founded" by the Russians, it saw numerous renovations to keep pace with the threats of both civil and world wars. While I'm sure such forts or relics of such forts exist somewhere in the U.S., I know sure haven't had the chance to hug missiles back home. A fact for which I think I'm rather thankful? The concept of encountering war quite literally on one's civillian doorstep is totally mind boggling and heartbreaking and... entirely unfamiliar to me, personally. But as I continue learning more and more about the impact of war here in the Russian Far East-- and in the Far East, generally-- through books, lectures, new friends and aquaintances, the thought (if not the actuality) has struck closer and closer to home.

I dare you not to throw your trash away in the proper receptacle in a place like this. Heh.

At noon, we waited outside for them to fire one of the guns. For all that we were waiting for the express purpose of seeing this happen, I still gave an entirely undignified yelp when it did. Such is life... one undignified yelp after the next.



I realize I’ve been rather remiss in keeping up with my blog entries in the past few weeks: my apologies! Rest assured, this lapse was not because I haven’t had anything remotely interesting to write about—life in Russia is always “interesting”! The past few weeks have actually just passed by in a whirlwind of constant crazy activity, with little time to sit and process with my crippled and immobile laptop. But today I’m home keeping ailing Mac company, so I’ll do my best to sketch in some recent happenings…

The Train to Khaborovsk (11.08.07)

Last week, my friend Lena and I hopped on an overnight train to see some mutual family friends in Khabarovsk for the weekend. We were like giddy school kids on a field trip for the first four hours or so—eating, chatting, silly-photo-taking. The next 11, we felt a little more like the weary chaperones.

The two guys who had the bunk/benches above us hit it off immediately and spent the early part of the evening steadily draining multiple 2 liter-bottles of beer between the two of them. One of them, it soon became almost nauseatingly clear, had definitely not showered in recent months.* Lena and I slept with our scarves wrapped around our faces for ventilation, but that didn’t stop this fellow from waking us up randomly throughout the night to ask if we wanted to give him mp3s through our phones. At 4am I woke up to someone sitting on top of my feet, I held my breath and opened my eyes to see not our odious neighbor but an old man with an intense chronic cough hacking away over a cup of tea and me. This man was from the top bunk across the way and for some reason felt the need to sit on my bed (rather than his wife’s below) to soothe his consumptive impulses. To my expression of horror and incredulity, he paid no regard, and continued hacking away until he was quite satisfactorily done.

Reaching the warmth and kindness of the Chungs’ three hours later was a relief on many, many levels.

K(h)-town (11.09/10/11/12.07)

The Chungs are an older Korean couple who lived in L.A. for over thirty years before moving out to Khabarovsk last year to help out with some of the churches in the city and to minister to the significant Korean and Korean-Russian population there. It was both Lena and my first time meeting them in person, and from the very first moment we were welcomed into their home like daughters. I don’t know that I’ve felt quite so at ease anywhere else in my time here. Part of it was, of course, the commonality of background, language, and faith. And part of it was, I’m equally sure, the tremendous amount of incredibly delish Korean food Mrs. Chung kept preparing! We got fully incorporated into their busy schedule, and it was a real pleasure to spend time with them and a number of Korean/Korean-Russian folks in Khabarovsk through them.

I think I’ve mentioned a few times already how surprised I was at first to encounter so many Korean-Russians here in the Russian Far East, generally. As I make my belated efforts to learn more and more about Korean history (Prof. Cumings found his way onto the shelves of the Am Corner here in Vlad) and simultaneously meet more and more Korean-Russians whose families arrived here through Sakhalin Island and/or Kazakhstan, my surprise has turned into real fascination and curiosity. Perhaps a legit research topic for my Fulbright grant…? Maybe, maybe. If anything, it’s been an interesting personal journey to contemplate hyphenated Korean identity in Russia, U.S., or anywhere else for that matter—especially as I’m evidently here as an official “American” representative. Two lovely Korean girls here in Vlad somehow concluded that despite my lack of Korean language skills, I am of their own, and they regularly insist: «Ты не иностранка! Ты кореянка! Мы знаем что твоя душа кореская.» (You aren't a foreigner! You're a Korean! We know that your soul is Korean.) Every time they say this, bits and pieces of Core Sosc readings and questions about the construction/inherency of racial/ethnic/national identity fly through my head. But it warms my (Korean?) heart to hear it anyway. ☺

The Other Capital

Khabarovsk is the capital of Khabarovsky Krai and about the same size as Vladivostok (700,000 people). And that’s where, in many ways, the similarities seem to end. While Vlad twists and turns up and down narrow, convoluted, and craggy streets, Khabarovsk is made up of clean, wide, freshly paved streets and walkways lined with lovely older buildings and plenty of well-maintained parks and open spaces. One friend put it simply: “It’s like someone actually took time to plan the city!” Khabarovsk, like Vlad, has an embankment—a nice stretch of quiet walkways and parks along the Amur river, ideal for those sensitive solitary strolls. No half-naked giant mermaids popping out of the water or colorful ferris wheels and shashlik stands every three yards. But perhaps that’s where crazy Vlad might come out on top. There is something charming (on a good day) about the haphazard (de)construction of this place, the sidewalks that disappear one day and the misplaced skyscrapers that show up the next, etc. The Vladiness of Vlad is, in large part, what keeps life so "interesting" here, I guess! :)

*You may think I’m exaggerating, but there are a few students in the dormitory who—despite the individual bathrooms in each room—nonchalantly say they only shower the few weekends they go home during the 16-week semester. Yummy! Heh.


The Unity of Other Peoples

(So yes, here is more of me catching up on the backlog of events here in Vladivostok...)

The 4th of November was День народного единства (roughly translated = Day of the Unity of the People) here in Russia. A fairly new holiday, the day marks a much cherished long weekend and culminates in all sorts of festivities: parades, parties, Neo-nazi marches...

Um, yeah. All of the foreigners in the dormitory at DVGU were strongly advised not to leave the building. At all.

So my girlfriends in the obsh and I decided to make our own national(ities') holiday. Each of us had the task of cooking something tasty from our homelands. Zhenya made a delish Chinese stew and fried some calimari (опасно!), Nadia made some pork stir fry, Julia an amazing Korean dish whose name (yeah, I know, shame on me!) I can't remember, and I made one rather sour kimchi jiggae. Only because I couldn't find all the ingredients for apple pie until a few weeks later. Seriously! ;)

Zhenya and Julia stay home to avoid random violence on the street only to battle it in the kitchen. Who knew deep frying could be so dangerous?

The lovely Nadia.