Monday, September 20, 2010

From A Western World

This is a post to counteract my pseudo-rants about certain things here in Russia, certain ways of life because I feel I've been too harsh on certain things here, even if it is just to myself.  I want to discuss differences in beliefs and ways of living in places we are uncertain about, scared of and know nothing about, how us Westerners have grown a little too comfortable.  So even though this blog has generally advice for everyone, it's directed at me and my struggles here in Russia.

The USA, Great Britain, Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia and few others.  These are what are considered the "developed countries" of the world, the "best of the best".  I am from these, I am of these and I am, perhaps most importantly, comfortable in these.  In these places I don't worry about going to the doctor.  In these places I don't worry about drinking tap water.  In these places I am home.  But now I am not in these places.  In this place I DO wonder what happens if I have a serious emergency? In this place I DON'T drink the tap water.  In this place I am NOT home.

This is not my first time abroad and certainly not my first time spending a considerable amount time in Russia, but this is different.  I'm not a big city where everything I need is right there.  Where things always work and where, should I completely break down, go rent a night in a hotel and have a night of semi-luxury.  I am instead, in Elista, a small city in Southern Russia.  Here water shuts off randomly, the majority of the people use squatty pottys and many of the everyday things I'm used being able to buy at Safeway, they simply don't have.

As I said, I'm writing to hopefully correct any false impressions I've given to people about how I feel about Elista, either through my blogs or through personal conversation.  There's a great many things I'm not used to here and things I'm having trouble adjusting to (e.g. squatty pottys, little places to buy food, not like my Safeways and QFCs, my inability to find the simplest of items, due both to them generally being difficult to find and the language barrier, and the language barrier in general).  These are just some examples of what is a struggle here for me and things I don't fully understand.

For as a Westerner, I can't fathom how people live without certain amenities when they are so readily available.  I hate to use this example again, but I will.  Take the squatty pottys, Turkish toilets, whatever you choose to call them.  Elista is a mixed city where I would say half the toilets are western and the other half are the squatters.  I have used Western toilets my whole life and generally find them cleaner and easier to use and because of this I don't understand people's choice to use the squatters when these western toilets are everywhere. It seemingly makes no sense to me, yet I don't want to say these people are wrong because they're not.  It's simply misunderstanding and culture shock on my part.

Another example is washing clothes.  There is at least one washing machine here and I use it, I may be the only one in fact.  The other students prefer to hand-wash in their dorms, squatting uncomfortably for as long as it takes to wash their clothes.  To me, as a Westerner, this makes no sense.  You have an easy hands-free washing machine, so why spend your time in an uncomfortable position doing something you don't have to...right?  Wrong.  For them, it's what they are comfortable with and I'm sure it's likely that they view the use of a washing machine as weird as I do their choice to hand wash.  Neither of us is right or wrong in our choice, it is simply what we are used to.

Many, if not most, Americans would most likely share my sentiments here.  I'm lucky enough to have traveled a fair amount and seen some varying places, but even so I tend to cling to my Western ways.  The toilets are just one example.  Let's take the most prominent example of language.  I studied Russian for a number of years and even spent 5 months in the country, but I haven't truly spoken Russian for 2.5 years and I'm struggling with it and it's hard, and I'm often discouraged.  As I did before, as other Americans tend to do, I stick with what's comfortable, meaning I spend most of time my time speaking English with the people here who know how to speak it.

I guess what I'm trying to convey here is that Westerners, in my opinion and experience, are generally very close-minded when we get out of our comfort zones and I'm as guilty of this as anyone else.  Part of my experience here in Russia is to be able to really immerse myself in a culture that is not my own.  I'm the only Westerner here so one could assume it wouldn't be too difficult, but it's about being proactive and really getting involved in local culture and lifestyle, something too many Westerners miss out on when they go abroad.  They stay at nice hotels, they see the touristy sites and they eat things they know they like.  But they don't really realize the amazing things they're missing.  The people they could meet, the food they could eat and experiences they could have.

As I mentioned, this blog has useful information for everyone, but is inwardly directed, towards myself.  I, up until this time, have not been as proactive about getting out there as I can or should be and while there's only so much to be done (people here don't do much since there's not much to do), I can do better.  And so I urge you to travel, I urge you to experience new things, to eat foods you couldn't have imagined in your wildest dreams and to get out of the kiddy pool and dive into the deep end, even if you don't know how to swim.  I urge you to be proactive.  Learn a new language!  Americans are notorious around the world for being monolingual and it's both embarrassing and sad.  Plus your travels will be much more enjoyable and friendly when the locals see you don't stomp into their country demanding they speak YOUR language on THEIR soil and then you get upset when they don't speak any English (hey, that sounds kind of familiar? Don't we get upset over Spanish-speakers in our country? Maybe we should all travel a little and get a taste of our own medicine).

In truth, you don't even have to go abroad to experience this, you can have a very similar experience in the US.  Take Washington State as an example, my home state.  Eastern and Western Washington are like night and day.  Completely different beliefs and ideals abound on each side of the state.  Westerners often speak badly of Eastern Washington though they've never really been there.  And Easterners speak poorly of Western Washington though all they've ever really done is seen the Mariners, Seahawks or Kenny Chesney in Concert.  Travel a little in your own country and try something new because in a place like the US, there's new experiences to be had everyday.

But above all, Dear Readers, don't assume people are wrong because they don't do things the way you do.  I am guilty of this, we are all guilty of this in some form or another. I'm asking you to be open and be willing to accept that perhaps you are wrong.  That all your comforts here in the Western world may not be for everyone.  You may not like every new thing and experience and that's fine, you don't have to, but be open to giving it a chance and to respecting those who call it normal.


  1. i'm totally with you on these issues. one of the hardest things for me about living in mexico is that i can't recycle. i don't like how difficult/expensive it is to buy organic, having to buy bottled water, not being able to walk places in a city that is verging on an ecological crisis... so frustrating!! but like you said, i'm working on being open... while quietly promoting my own green agenda... does that still count?

  2. Yeah that still counts and I'm in the same boat. I accept the usage of the squatty potty, my I myself still refuse to use them...for several reasons. It is hard to be open though, especially when you've seen how much more effective things can be or at least seem to be.

  3. more effective and less destructive... the whole style of consumption and waste is mind boggling for me... i know we both came to the places we are to be challenged, to grow and to see the world, so when things are difficult/confusing it REALLY makes me feel better to think of you in russia, adam in egypt, anna in china and know that we're all having similar experiences like this. e-talk to you soon (for once i'm actually looking forward to a UW function)!

  4. Haha I'm looking forward as well, but I agree it's nice to know we are all having similar experiences and (hopefully) all learning from it!