Thursday, April 26, 2007

Acculturation is a combat sport

A quick update: the last couple of days have been mighty encouraging.

After another round of e-mails between the director of the museum and myself, I decided to go visit the museum in person yesterday to drop off a form and to repeat, politely, that I would be leaving soon, and therefore I would like to start my research sooner rather than later. I decided to bring along a fellow student from my class as linguistic back-up. He's a young guy from the States who decided to spend a year learning Russian in Moscow and living with a Russian host family before returning to the U.S. and entering college. He arrived here last year without knowledge of a single Russian word, but he's a fast student. I probably read and write better than he does, but his conversational skills tower above mine.

To make a long story short, the museum director met me and quickly agreed to give me a research permit and to let me start working in their archives in two weeks. Woohoo! My fellow student and I spent the next hour touring the museum, during which time my ethnographic dreams came true and I had a chance to observe an argument between a Russian museum visitor and a museum guide about the cultural value of one of the people featured in the photographs on display.

Better still, this morning I received some confirmation that I'm conducting research on the right subject and in the right institution. The young student who came along with me told me that his host mother, who had previously thought of him as someone with no interest in Russian culture, was shocked to learn that he had visited this particular museum. "I never would have expected YOU to go there? What could YOU know about that music?" she asked him. Her mood then changed, and she began to invite him to listen to old recordings and watch movies about this genre with her. Right on.

One other bit of encouragement I've received has been less pleasant: I'm beginning to feel comfortable enough to argue about Russia and Russians in Russian. Allow me to explain:

A rather, shall we say, stubbornly nationalist foreign student has joined my class. 'G' has lived in Moscow for several years with her husband and children since immigrating from her native country, but has been a wee bit resistant to learn the Russian language, read Russian literature, or accept what she thinks of as Russian culture. When I first met her, she seemed friendly, eager to talk with English speakers and compare experiences of Moscow, and a little insecure about being a non-Russian speaking resident of Moscow for so long.

After a few days, though, I began to notice that at some point in each class, she made a point of criticizing Russians in general. On the first day it was a benign comment about how Moscow is a particularly dusty city. During our next class, she mentioned how dangerous it is that a driver's license can be 'purchased' if one has enough money, rather than earned. The following day, she mentioned that Russians seemed a rather cold people to her.

Fine. Whatever. Then the comments became more pointed. When our teacher was reflecting on how life in Moscow has changed, G somewhat angrily remarked: "Why do you talk about your childhood during Soviet times as if it was good?" My teacher, puzzled, asked what G meant. G explained, "It was terrible! Communism! Socialism! Bread lines! No choice!" At this point, I began to feel like G was crossing a line between forgivable national pride and crude chauvinism. We talked a bit about how the Soviet era, though certainly worthy of criticism, shouldn't be judged solely on the basis of its Cold War-era representations in America and Western Europe. She agreed, grudgingly, and moved on.

Today she bulldozed through the limits of my tolerance. Out of nowhere, she explained that Russians don't like non-Russians, that Russians don't or can't speak other languages, that they certainly don't speak English, that they lack any curiosity about the rest of the world, and that the grammar of their language is deviously designed to express complex ideas in as few words as possible so as to deter people from having nice long conversations and getting to know one another. I don't even remember consciously deciding to argue with her, and I certainly didn't plan to give her a mini-lecture on linguistic ideology and nationalism. Nor did I plan to tell her that perhaps the reason Russians seemed cold and terse with her was because she was meeting Russians exclusively in commercial contexts. It just sort of happened. Within seconds the conversation transformed into a heated, three-person debate among my teacher, G, and myself, about the history of censorship, public and private discursive practices during the Soviet period, economic transformations, and the effect of social life on "the Russian soul". In what felt like a matter of seconds, the next hour of class flew past me at supersonic speeds.

It seems somewhat perverse to feel good about fighting with someone... but in this case, I can't help but feel more than a little proud.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

No News is No News

I'm tempted to say that nothing much has happened since my last blog entry, but that wouldn't be accurate. It would be more precise to report that the exciting, frustrating, novel, banal, transcendent and vulgar events of the last week or so have canceled one another out in my memory. A few sample highlights and lowlights include:
  1. Meeting an American graduate student who is working on a research project that parallels my own, but is dissimilar enough not to make me uncomfortable. This fellow scholar -- let's call her 'Vera' -- invited me to come with her to a club where she planned to record a concert and conduct some honest-to-goodness microethnographic investigation.

    It sounded like fun to me at the time, but by the end of the night, I started to question whether or not doing research on music in Russia was such a bright idea after all. For starters, Vera has been studying Russian and living in Russia way longer than I have. So while she had no problems getting past the guys at the door, ordering drinks and mingling in the crowd, I found myself totally overwhelmed by the loud music and fast talking. I was unable to figure out how much the cover was or how to check my coat on my own, and apparently I said something to piss off the bartender within the first three seconds of my attempt to order beers for Vera and myself.

    Then there was the smoke. Let me try to give you an idea of how thick the cigarette smoke in this club was. Vera had brought along a couple of high-end digital video cameras to record the concert, and I had volunteered to record the show using one of them. Unfortunately for Vera, her tapes aren't going to reveal much detail of the performance, because the autofocus couldn't get a lock on the people on stage through the blankets of smoke in the air. By the end of the night, my lungs were screaming for fresh air, and part of my brain was shouting at the other that doing research on music in Russia probably wasn't the best idea considering that I sound to most Russians like a dimwitted preschooler. (-5 points.)

  2. On the other hand, three days later, Vera introduced me to her adviser at Moscow State University: a professor who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about the kind of music I work on, and who was more than happy to talk with me for half an hour about my project in English. The guy was encouraging, generous, and best of all, seemed to be one of the first Russians I've met who thinks my project has merit. (+10 points)

  3. One of my big goals for last week was to get a university library card so I could check out a book on the genre that I study which is unavailable in the U.S.. The library card turned out to be the easy part: I filled out a form, gave the librarian a passport photo, let her photocopy a page from my passport, paid 50 rubles, and presto! (+1 point) Then I tried to get the book. Turns out that the card catalog is wrong, and the book I want isn't in library #10, it's actually in #18. (-1 point) No problem, since #18 is right around the corner from #10... and, oh dear, it's the library that has a half-hour long line of students waiting to give their book request slips to the librarian. (-1 point) After waiting for half an hour, I give the librarian my request slip and my brand new library card. She glances at the card, shakes her head, and says "No." I'm confused. No? Why? She says something too quickly for me to understand, gestures at my library card, and then calls for the next person in line to come up. I'm still not sure what went wrong, but I have a feeling that as a visiting student, I might be entitled to reading books but not to checking them out from the library. Or something like that. (-3 points)

  4. The other big goal was to get a letter of affiliation from Moscow State University that I could bring to the museum where I want to conduct research so that I can get a research permit. To this end, I decided to write the letter for the folks at the university myself so that they wouldn't have to do anything but print it and stamp it with the university's official seal. How long could it possibly take to print and stamp the letter? 15 minutes? An hour? A day? Two days? Do I hear one week? Sold! (-1 points)

  5. The moment the letter is printed and stamped, I take it from the university and deliver it by hand to the museum. By the time I arrive at the museum, though, the building is closing and my contact at the museum has already left. Fortunately, a friendly-seeming guard offers to take the letter and give it to my contact. Great! I'm on my way to getting a museum research permit. (+10 points)

  6. Wait a minute... that was too easy. After all, the librarian needed my passport and a photograph just to give a library card, so surely a state museum would need something like that. Well, I'm sure that if they need anything they'll call me. I mean, I did put my phone number in the letter, didn't I? Or at least my e-mail address? As it turns out, I did indeed put my contact information on the letter... but the university employee who edited, printed, and stamped my letter of affiliation for me kindly took the liberty of deleting my phone number and e-mail address before hitting 'print'. Grand. (-5 points)

  7. So I spent today writing an e-mail to my contact at the museum, explaining that if there's anything else I need to give them for my research permit, I'll be happy to supply it. The problem: I have no idea whether or not this person will get this e-mail, since my contact has less than a stellar track record when it comes to answering my e-mails. (Uncertain score, but provisionally: 0 points)

  8. Today I wake up feeling like someone has emptied a can of silly string down my windpipe. Yesterday I had a little case of the sniffles, so I was prepared to feel crappy today. But this? This is unlike any cold I've ever had: I'm sharp mentally, my ability to communicate in a foreign language is better than it's ever been. my mood is good and I've got energy... but someone has replaced my sinuses with an open spigot. And who did this to me? When I get to class, I'm greeted by my teacher and one other student in my group, and both of them are sniffling and coughing. My teacher explains that one of the Thai students in her other group 'got sick' in front of her last week, and she's afraid she's passed some sort of Thai virus to us. (-5)
I'll post another entry as soon as something comes along to disrupt the equilibrium...

Monday, April 9, 2007

What it feels like

I still don't feel like I've really captured a sense of life here at Moscow State University in these blog entires. But it occurs to me that perhaps I'm going about this all wrong. Since words are failing me, I invite you to take a look at this video clip:

Monday, April 2, 2007

Show me the funny money

Yesterday I went to the student cafe in MGU for a late dinner. Usually the place is open until 11pm, but a guy came out from behind the counter and explained to me that the kitchen was closed early on Sunday night, and that the restaurant would soon be shutting down. I had a bit of a sore stomach and all I wanted was a Coke, so I asked the young man if I could just have a soda. He nodded and told me to take a seat.

A few minutes later he came by my table with a Coke and I handed him a hundred ruble note -- which, thanks to the dollar's decline, is worth about $4 USD. He takes the bill and walks away, and I flip open my laptop to check on rumors that the cafe has a free wireless internet connection. Two minutes later the guy appears at my table, holding a bill with a missing corner. He says, "Sorry, but this bill is no good. The bank won't take it. Do you have another?"

Immediately I recognize that I'm being played. I didn't get a good look at the bill I gave him, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't missing any pieces. Even if it was, he's heard me speak with a limited vocabulary and knows that I don't have the linguistic capital to spend on an argument about this. And any lingering doubts I have about whether or not this is a scam are erased when the young man's face contorts into a wide, mischievous grin. Now I know that instead of getting change for me, he's spent the last minute swapping my 100 ruble note for this invalid bill. As best as I can reason, somebody must have pawned this bill off on the student cafe earlier in the day, and ever since the wait staff has been looking for an easy mark who won't protest when the exchange is made. I look him in the face, promise myself that I'm going to find a way to make him pay sometime in the next two months, and hand him another hundred.

I'm left with one question about this little scam, though. Maybe one of my dear readers, experienced travelers that they are, can explain to me why somebody tore off the corner of this bill to begin with. The bill is older than most now in circulation, but it doesn't look like a fake: it's got all the watermarks and microprinting that appear on authentic currency. What I don't understand is how someone would profit by ripping the corner off of this thing, whether it's the real deal or not. Any ideas?