Recently, Ukraine and Crimea reminded me that I am still a Russian. Wisely, I think, staying away from political opinions I’m not qualified to give, I thought I’d write about some memories resurfaced while watching Cold War news broadcasting this week. Perhaps there’s some wisdom there.
I came to the U.S. in December of 1978, a month shy of my 12th birthday. Speaking some English, but knowing nothing about the American way of life, I started an American school in February 1979, and continued going to an American schools without meeting a single Russian speaker through my Stanford graduation 10 years later. I had to learn how Americans thought and behaved by watching them.
When media talks about unreasonable positions politicians take, when they pound their chest spewing about “Motherland” and “native tongues,” “freedom,” and “freedom-lovin (sic) people,” my urge is to give both a break and smirk — most Americans never had to cross a cultural divide. And I want to give them a break because, as a child, I found so many things strange about Americans; small, trivial things, that, in total, nearly eclipsed the big differences which, our government claims are love of freedom, faith in democracy, and belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
There have been comical routines about “crazy Russians,” or “wild and crazy guys,” though Martin and Aykroyd were poking fun at Czechoslovakia, a country that was deeply “freedom-lovin” but, in the early 80’s was just as red as Russia. So, I want to share some of the things that I found “crazy” about Americans — some impressions of a 12-year-old boy cast into the sea of red white and blue, pulled from an ocean of red. Here is a short, far from complete, list. Maybe it will cast some light on why Russians and Americans sometimes find it hard to understand each other.
- Americans don’t wear hats
Remember, I arrived in New York in the middle of winter. The naive Russian child was taught that when it’s cold, we put on extra clothing to stay warm. Americans wore coats. Americans wore gloves. But even in deepest winter, I saw and still see men and women braving the frigid air bare-headed. As I studied American history I heard a rumor that this trend was actually started by John F. Kennedy who didn’t wear a hat to his inauguration which, as Bill Clinton told us is held “in the depth of winter.” Don’t know, but it was very strange. I was always taught to wear a hat when it was cold. Still do.
- Americans sleep in strange, tight envelopes they call “sheets”
In Russia, we slept on a sheet and stayed warm with a blanket that was itself encased in a sheet. Later, I learned that what I translated as “blanket” was not a blanket at all but, rather, “a duvet,” and what I thought of as a sheet was really a “duvet cover.” Americans slept on a “fitted sheet” (same as ours) and then used something called “straight sheet” to form a barrier between their body and the prickly blanket. Furthermore, they tucked in this fitted sheet so tight that you had to force yourself into this envelope when going to bed. To this day, when I staying at American hotels, I rip out the tucked sheet and try to feel like I’m sleeping in a normal bed.
- Americans go swimming in shorts
In Russia, we wore shorts during hot summers (yes, there were hot summers there). When swimming, we wore “bathing suits.” Little did I know that what I considered a bathing suit was actually called “Speedo” in the U.S. and that Americans went swimming in the ocean in shorts. Like their overweight American counterparts, most Russians are not built like Michael Phelps (or Vladimir Putin), so seeing most of them in Speedos is fairly disturbing. But you swam in those, and walked around the summer meadows in shorts.
- Americans don’t take baths
I took baths. I took baths in the evening when, after a long day, I wanted to wash my body before going to bed. I got up, clean, brushed my teeth and went out. Americans did it in reverse… they went to bed dirty and in the morning, because there was not time for a relaxing bath, they stood under a spray of water. I remember people teasing me about questions about where to take a bath… it was normal to me, at least.
- Americans use pieces of cloth to wash themselves
And once in these “showers,” instead of using a sponge (or “loofah” as I later learned) to lather and scrub like they do in most parts of the world, Americans used pieces of towel they called “a wash cloth” to soap themselves. The “wash cloth” then was left hanging on a shower spigot to dry. When I first saw a wash cloth, I had no idea what to do with it.
- Americans walk around their homes barefoot
The first thing we Russians did when getting home was to take off our shoes and put on a pair of slippers. I still do it every day. Americans, mostly, also took off their shoes. But then, they walked around their house in socks or, worse, barefoot. Bizarre and, frankly, a little disgusting.
- Americans eat crispy flakes soaked in milk for breakfast
Growing up, for breakfast, I would eat eggs (fried or boiled) or porridge. Americans ate those too, but, American children ate strange grainy flakes they soaked in milk and called it “cereal.” You see, I had never seen this “cereal” until age 12. I also learned that there were many kinds of cereal, colorful kinds — not just Corn Flakes. There were Fruity Pebbles, and Fruit Loops, and Cocoa Puffs which tasted more like candy than breakfast. It seemed, indeed, a great country.
- Americans eat weird
Instead of having breakfast at 08:00, dinner at 14:00, and supper at 20:00, they have breakfast at 8am, something called “lunch” at 12:00pm, and dinner at 6pm! (and time is told differently too). At “lunch” (the midday meal) they rarely eat soup, whereas I could not imagine not having soup in the middle of the day. They eat this thing called “ketchup” with every meal. I first tasted ketchup at age 12. Oh, the shock of my first trip to the school cafeteria.
- American men add juice to their vodka
As I got old enough to try some “adult beverages,” I was shocked to see MEN put fruit juices and soda into perfectly good glasses of vodka. In Russia, you drank vodka. Straight. Warm. From a big glass. And when the waiter asked: “How many?,” he meant how many bottles, not shots. Juice? That could get you thrown off the Olympic team.
This list is not complete, by any means. But, the next time someone goes off about Vladimir Putin not being reasonable, about him looking at the same thing as you and seeing something completely different, remember — here’s a man who never ate cereal, never walked around his house barefoot, and never adulterated his glass of vodka.