Sunday, November 30, 2008

Teaching Russian in the Russian countryside, the wedding. Teaching Russian in the city, the war in Chechnya, viktor tsois lyrics in class for translation, the vague feeling of beign rebellious, the firing, the homelessness, the wandering, the Hapkido school,

When I arrived in Moscow in the winter of 1993 I had a cushy job and a swank apartment a few floors up from my office. For a twenty two year old with no idea what the hell he was doing this set up was pretty grand. I even had a pool of drivers that could take me anywhere I needed to go and a cook that made breakfast and lunch for the entire office everyday. She may have made dinner too but I was never at the office late enough in the day to find out.

A few months later, or maybe it was weeks, I was out of the apartment, broke and jobless. My employer had promised to pay my account back in the states, but this hadn’t happened. Then he fired me and said my plane ticket was good for a year and could go home whenever I wanted. I had managed to finagle a one year multi entry so I stayed. I taught English.

My first students were three boys destined for a year abroad in America. Their dads were up and coming biznessmin who had decided that their economic success warranted their sons having a private American English teacher.

One of the dads picked me up at the subway station and deposited me at a sanatorium about 50 miles outside of Moscow where the boys were awaiting my arrival. The ride out into the country with two of the three dads left me with the impression that they expected me to be something of a drill sergeant as well as English instructor. An early morning routine of calisthenics and running was strongly suggested as a way to entrench the discipline of learning into the young men’s minds. They wanted me to prepare the boys for the independent frame of mind they felt the boys would need to survive in America during their exchange.

My students and I were separated in age by ten years in the case of the youngest and six years in the case of the two older boys. They were not Muscovites. Though they “looked Russian” to me I was soon to find out that the twelve year old Dennis was Ukrainian. His two older companions, Sasha and Ruslan, were Azerbaijani. My experience in determining the ethnic identity of Russian citizens consisted of one semester in the Soviet Union as a college junior and I was soon to learn that ethnicity, nationality, and identity were all mutually exclusive concepts.

Although Ruslan and Sasha were younger than I, it was immediately clear to me that they were adults in a way that I was not. They both carried a heavy sadness, a bitter edge that was wholly unlike the sullen and spoiled attitude of the teenagers middle class America. I did not want to know what had hardened them, I knew it was bad and that was enough. I found it strange that their fathers thought they would learn something about the ways of the world and how to be self sufficient from me. They both washed their clothes by hand in the sink, knew how to steal cabbage from the fields of a collective farm, and eat it with black bread to take the edge off the burning sensation it created in our mouths. They were fiercely unafraid of soldiers and bullies that tried to intimidate them and their assumption that I had their back in any combat situations made me nervous and envious of their bravado. I had nothing to teach these boys about self sufficiency, manhood, or anything outside of rudimentary English grammar.

Sasha and Ruslan grew up in Baku, their fathers were Russian, Ruslan’s mother was Azerbaijani, Sasha never mentioned his mother. The banter of teenage boys tells an outsider things about them that they would never reveal voluntarily. Ruslan wore a medallion; he never took it off, even when we all took off our crosses in the sauna because they singed our skin. I could see his jaw set against the pain, I knew what that pain felt like because I foolishly tried to leave my crucifix on in a pathetic attempt to show that I was man enough. To this day I don’t know how he could sit there calmly relaxing and laughing while that metal heated up on his neck flesh. Dennis mentioned once that Ruslan’s mother had given him the medallion, and that she was a Muslim and that even though Ruslan believed in Christ he considered himself a Muslim out of loyalty to his mother. When Ruslan’s father left Baku for a much younger Russian woman in Moscow Ruslan came with the package, and it was clear from their interactions as a family that he was considered by his step-mother to be a hindrance to the harmony of her new family.

So when his necklace heated up in the sauna perhaps he thought of his mother, the difficulty of life in Baku for an Azerbaijani woman abandoned by her Russian husband, and the pain she must feel at the loss of her only son. I had nothing to teach this boy about life, he had become a man at an early age, and he was teaching me something about what that meant. His baby half sister adored him in spite of the veiled messages her parents projected about him. I could see their discomfort when she crawled into his lap during weekend visits, they wanted her to shun him like they did, they wanted her to see his Muslim mother in him, and everything about him as a thing from a past life to be discarded and forgotten.

My wife noticed this dynamic while visiting us. When Ruslan lashed out in rage at Dennis for one of his many insensitive and crass remarks she simply whispered in his ear “you know what it is like for someone to cause you pain, don’t do it to someone else”. Ruslan silently responded to these words, this address to the man inside a boy’s body. He acknowledged the respect she was paying him, treating him as a man, respecting his suffering, helping him not to spread it like a virus that spewed out it the heat of anger.

We didn’t do any jumping jacks or running that summer, and we didn’t study much English beyond the workbook exercises that consumed our morning hours. Instead of setting an example for them to follow I fell in with them, learned their bad habits, and enjoyed their infinite profanity and ability to insult one another in ways I did not know were possible. Whenever Dennis was particularly annoying Ruslan would menacingly mumble “whose mouth is going to be hurting tomorrow?” I naively thought this meant Ruslan was threatening a slap in the face, but later heard the same insult with “mouth” replaced by “asshole” and understood the implication was different.
When the boys were especially unruly or their fathers had threatened by telephone to visit I would try to scare them into studying with the ominous question “when the guy at the embassy asks you why you want to study in America what are you going to say other than…(gesture miming drinking, gesture miming toking, gesture miming fucking)”. By the end of our time together we would all perform these three gestures in unison and whoever could be the most graphic in their air humping received special praise and kudos from the rest.

I loathed the expectation that I would enforce order, I reluctantly bullied them into studying the worse than useless material provided by the “coordinator”. But I knew that through our informal conversations they might actually learn something useful about American high school language. Unfortunately for them my Russian was slightly better than their English so we rapidly fell into Russian whenever an interesting topic came up. We talked about cars, girls and food, as the lack of these three things grated on all of us, regardless of age and nationality.

Much of our time was spent planning the manufacture and design of a cheap car that could be produced in Russia using components from the three models already being produced in Soviet era factories. Sasha had an enormous car encyclopedia which showed every car in the world and where it was made. Whenever appropriate a boasting loudmouth could easily be silenced by the accusation that the car in their garage at home was a “Beijing Cherokee”. Apparently the Chinese version of the popular American SUV held a special place of contempt in the hearts of Russians.

Rueben Rachievich, My Armenian father in law, joined us one weekend for tennis and the discussion turned to the meaning of nationality, ethnicity and identity. In the Soviet era those who had parents of differing ethnic heritage could choose the nationality they wanted stamped in their passports. The smart money was on choosing Russian if you had one Russian parent. The assumption was that this integrated you into the Russian dominated culture of the Soviet Union and shielded you from the stereotypes associated with non Russian ethnicity. On any job application or university admission form your nationality would appear. There was an unspoken rule that Russians were at an advantage because those making the decisions were likely of Russian nationality and favorably inclined to helping others of the same lineage. The flip side of this was the implication of betrayal to ones ethnic and true national identity by “siding with the enemy”.

This decision was made by young Soviet citizens at age 16. I was terribly envious of such a large measure of authority over ones identity being granted at that age. Right smack dab in the middle of the tumult of teen life the kid got to say who he was and have it stamped in his passport, “take that dad, I’ll teach you to walk out on us, I’m picking Mom’s nationality”. The fact that I could have such a mental outlook at all proved to me how infinitely immature I was relative to Soviet teenagers.

My wife’s father had been enraged when she chose her mother’s Russian nationality. He was very proud of his heritage, not only as an Armenian, but specifically as a “Tbiliski Armenin”. Tbilisi, the ancient and stone bridge riddled capital of Georgia has a significant Armenian population and they are held in high regard by both Georgians and Russians. When I traveled to Georgia with my wife before we were married I witnessed the deference paid to her Tbilisan Armenian heritage, as if she were due all the courtesies reserved for a guest but entitled to all the intimacies reserved for a true Georgian.

Rueben Rachievitch had much to say on the question of nationality. Ruslan had chosen Azerbaijani as his nationality, though he had done this after he had moved to Moscow and both his parents had become Russian. Sasha had chosen his Russian side to dominate that fateful slot in his passport. Rueben observed that nationality was not about blood, or where you were born but about your education, and how you identified yourself. To him the boys were automatically cultured because they had been educated in Baku, an ancient and intellectual city. They carried this distinction for life, whether they chose Russian or Azerbaijani as their official nationality. I loved him in that moment for his diplomacy, his cultured and sophisticated way of paying homage to the boys heritage, knowing that as new Muscovites they would now experience what he had gone through as an Armenian coming from Tbilisi so many years ago.

My attempt at ethnic identification came at 17 or 18 when I started attending mass. Though I had thoroughly debunked the idea of Christianity to my own satisfaction at age twelve I felt that attending mass instead of Presbyterian services stamped my proverbial passport as a Pole instead of a Norseman. Mom had been in charge of the religious upbringing and her family was Scandinavian, dad was a lapsed Catholic and Polish. My decision to self identify as Polish Catholic was strongly reinforced when I traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time at the age of 19.

My last name is easily transliterated into Cyrillic, in fact it would be more accurate to say “returned to” Cyrillic. For the first time in my life no one was asking me how to spell my last name, I said it, they said it, they wrote it, perfectly and always the same way. This had a very powerful effect on my idea of me. Americans could not, or would not pronounce my name correctly. Spelling it was simply out of the question. My contempt for my country only deepened as I became more well read and attempted to alleviate my fellow Americans’ difficulty with my name by saying “you know like Stanley Kowalski in ‘Streetcar’”….…”you know ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’”….…”K_O_W_....”

For a 19 year old who has always been a little uncertain that he wasn’t a member of a different species an entire nation of people saying, spelling and talking about your name properly and respectfully has a powerful effect. In Russia Poles were considered intellectual, hard working, and artistic. I discovered that Chopin was Polish, that Copernicus was Polish, that Poland had been a great center of European culture. I also learned that I really was a Catholic because I had a Polish last name.

To the Russians know religion is simply a part of national identity. A country of official atheists looks at religious denominations as one of many genetic characteristics: Russians, Serbs, Armenians, and Georgians are Orthodox; Croats, Poles, the Irish, the French, and the Spanish are Catholics, Brits are Anglican, Azerbaijanis, Chechens, Turks and Arabs are Muslims, Indians are Hindu, Asians are Buddhist.

Belief was irrelevant. I never met any Soviet atheists. For all their Marxist education they were far less doubtful than the Americans I had known as a general rule. But it was never something that led to discussion, if you were an atheist that was all fine and well, but you were Catholic atheist if you were Polish and an Orthodox atheist if you were Armenian.

Ruslan should have been a Muslim atheist, but he was an Orthodox believer. He carried his Islam like a cross, first to defend it, but silently wishing he hadn’t been saddled with an Azerbaijani mother, and a chain that told the world he was a Muslim.

The first crucifix I ever bought was in Russia. My Catholic girlfriend had given me a St. Christopher medal to protect me on my trip to the Soviet Union. When I got to Sochi I found a cross in a kiosk and hung it next to St. Christopher on my chain, part of my newly discovered identity for all the world to see. The religious portion of my distorted ethnic heritage, conveyed to me in jokes about dumb Polacks with big cocks. Even now I am offended that Microsoft Word recognizes this disgusting word “Polack” with no red underline, in tacit complicity with the American ignoramuses who made me ashamed of my beautiful Polish heritage, who made my mother send us to a respectable Protestant denomination and kept us out of the dark and dingy mass that would have corrupted us and made us papists.

My contempt for America grew with every new love I found in the Soviet world. I read the greatest classics of American in English literature in Progress Publisher editions with Russian footnotes explaining details of American Indian culture in The Spy or nuances of Scottish life in Hatter’s Castle. I was amazed that I could grow up in America, score in the top percentile on the SAT and attend college on academic scholarship and be so woefully ignorant. It was bad enough that I knew nothing of the great literature of the world, that I was barely monolingual and struggling to learn a second language when everyone in Europe spoke 2,3,4,5,6 languages but to learn about the greatest American cultural achievements from Armenians, Georgians, Russians, and Ukrainians who knew not only the great writers, poets and directors of their own cultures but of American culture as well was embarrassing on a whole different level. “You’ve never seen ‘On the Waterfront’? You’ve never read Shakespeare? My wife took me by the hand the foreign language section of the Moscow State University library and began loading my arms with books.

What does a culture have to be proud of when it does not know what it has to be proud of? Libraries…

The boys wrote me a letter a few years later, their trip to America had been a great success, I was even able to speak to them on the phone and after a little bit of English we fell back into a profanity laden Russian that felt warm and familiar, like the sauna.

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