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.
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.