Living in the East, surrounded by the West
Tea is a big part of daily life in St. Petersburg, partially because of the long tradition of the Russian samovar, partially because you can’t safely drink the tap water without boiling the hell out of it. With tea comes conversation, and with conversation come stories about that one friend of a friend. My host mother shared this one with me recently about a young man of her acquaintance.
He was living on a work visa in Arizona, and he fell in love with the girl who was his English tutor. After a year or so, he asked her to marry him, and she happily agreed. He went home to his family, who planned the wedding carefully, but in vain. A week before the wedding day she called him up, unable to keep up the lie any longer. After he left, she had met another man, much in the same way she had met the now heartbroken Russian, and she had fallen in love. The wedding was off.
I shared this story later with a friend (also over tea, of course), and, while we both felt sorry for the young man, we both agreed that the week before the wedding is a much better time to voice such concerns than the week after.
“And at least he can return home, where he doesn’t see things that remind him of her every day,” I added.
“Except for Carls Jr.,” she corrected me. “Or Burger King, or McDonald’s, or Pepsi advertisements, or any advertisement…”
I got her point. Of course, it would be difficult to find something to remind you of the Arizonan desert this close to the Arctic Circle, but it would be impossible to throw a rock in the downtown area and not hit something that reminded you of America. On one corner it’s a McDonalds, and not a block farther down is a Starbucks that proclaims, “Opening Soon!” in English and Russian. Further down the street there is a classy department store with the tagline “Only in New York,” (in English letters) on its windows. Before I left America, I imagined that I would never see a single trace of the Roman alphabet out on the streets, now that I’m here it seems to be everywhere I turn.
I’m not only seeing things that remind me of America, I’m hearing them too. There is something Kafkaesque about facing an increasingly rude, surly teenager, upset that you don’t understand their rapid Russian and behind the cash register of a store that has been exclusively playing American top 40 pop songs for the past 20 minutes. This has happened to me enough that it’s no longer novel to be listening to Frank Sinatra playing over the sound system as someone looks down their nose at me for not speaking Russian fluently.
Walking through the malls of St. Petersburg, you can hear Lady Gaga coming from one store, Pitbull coming from the next and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” playing through the halls. As you look in the shops you can see the promotional window designs for brands written in English, sometimes translated into Russian, sometimes not.
For all that, and I can’t stress this enough, most people will treat you worse if they think you speak English. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m in the popular clique in school, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. Everyone wants to copy our style, do all the things we do, wear our clothes, listen to the bands we think think are cool — but all while hating us.
So back to our poor, lovesick Russian, surrounded by reminders of the culture of the girl who ripped his heart out. My friend and I mused over how far away he would have to go from the spreading influence of Western culture.
“The moon, maybe,” I suggested.
My friend answered, Yeah, but…there’s only one flag on the moon. Guess whose.”