Siberian Stereotype Breakers
Date- September 20, 2018
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
Stereotypes were all I had! Vodka drinking, ballet dancing, fat men hunting wild game in the cold, stone faced people with no expressions on their faces and frigid temperatures. This was the Siberia I had always imagined through a media influenced portrait.
Several friends in South Korea who visited Russia in the past all told me the same thing. “It is a beautiful place but people there do not smile and look a bit depressed,” they stated. Was this the Russia that lay waiting for me? I was ready to investigate matters for myself.
Before leaving on my trip, I did my share of cultural research. Several Russian Youtubers all had the same advice for visitors to their country-
- Do not smile at strangers for no reason. People will think you are strange. If there is no reason to smile, do not do it.
- Do not give anyone an even number of flowers. This is bad luck and could result in your Russian boyfriend or girlfriend breaking up with you.
- Take off your shoes when entering someone’s home.
- Do not whistle around other people as this will cause you to lose money.
After living in East Asia for nearly ten years, I could completely understand the last three points. Even numbers are not looked at in a positive manner and one should never give even multiples of currency as a wedding gift in South Korea. The whistling rule was a bit different, but I can understand how my sub par skills could result in someone becoming annoyed with me very quickly.
Upon further investigation, the “no smiling at strangers” cultural tip seemed more serious than expected in more than just one way. According to BBC accounts, Russian film director Yulia Melamed was questioned by the police for smiling in public. “They said it looks out of place, alien and suspicious, so they thought I was up to something,” stated Melamed.
“Laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity,” a Russian proverb states. The last thing I wanted was to be questioned by the police or viewed as stupid, so I practiced saying hello while frowning in Russian language over and over. “Previet,” I repeated to myself while staring at a foreign looking, angry version of myself in the mirror. No matter what I did, my mouth always pursed itself into a smile. “Is it so bad to be a happy person?” I thought to myself after I kept on failing at this simple endeavor. My motto has always been to do what the locals do in order to properly acclimate to the culture of my host country. The only thing to do was to keep on practicing and failing. I have never been a good actor and now I would have to act as serious as possible to fit in. What a grandiose challenge this would be.
The First Interaction
As soon as I arrived to Irkutsk, I assembled my bike and hit the streets to test the greeting skills I had practiced with so much vigor. How true was this piece of cultural advice anyway? Temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit- for all of you readers from the United States) and the sun scorched every minuscule amount of exposed skin on my body, but that did not stop me. I was ready to start my Russian adventure in this small Siberian town.
I spotted a kid riding his bicycle and decided to say hello. “Previet,” I said while making sure not to smile. The kid was about 16 years old and was excited to see me on a bike. “Can I help you?” he replied in English with a warm smile. I was utterly shocked at his English skills and willingness to assist me. I told him that I was simply riding around town and asked him for sight seeing recommendations. The boy’s eyes gleamed with excitement and insisted that he show me around town. Together we rode our bikes for several hours in the streets of Irkutsk. The boy explained in as much detail as he could about all of the landmarks in his hometown with a charming innocence and curiosity. “Do you like coins?” he inquired. He told me that one of his hobbies was collecting coins and led me to the market where the local salesman had a big case of shiny coins on display. He pulled out a 1,000 ruble bill and bought a nice looking gold and silver Russian collector’s edition coin. As I watched the transaction take place I couldn’t help but notice what a great taste in coins he had. He picked out the best looking one out of the collection and handed it to me. “My mother gave me this for spending money today, but I want to buy you this coin,” he told me as a big grin spread across his face.
What a nice gesture by this kid. I was so touched by his generosity and kindness toward a strange guy like me from the other side of the world. This was something I would have never expected to happen on my first day in Russia. It was getting late and he insisted we meet at my hostel the following day so he could introduce me to some restaurants that serve traditional Russian food. I asked him if he knew a good place to eat and he said he was not sure as he usually eats at home with his family. The boy promised to ask his mother and show me the next day where all the good spots are in the city. As promised, the next day he came with his bike to the hostel and we went to eat together. Mongolian food it was. He took me to a famous dumpling restaurant with huge gaudy paintings inside. What a nice time we had together. My young companion was sent to me to break all of the Russian stereotypes on my first few days in the country and he succeeded in doing so.
More Russian Hospitality
After experiencing kindness and generosity from my young friend, I assumed that he must have been a unique exception. Perhaps others in Irkutsk would react in a cold, impatient manner to a guy like me who could not speak the local language. The following day my young friend went out of town with his family so I was on my own once again in Irkutsk and test the waters.
My next task would be to find a spare tire to take with me on the road. Again I decided to ask for help from a local Siberian. This time a university student on a bike came to the rescue. “Previet,” I said once again with a smile this time. My efforts of frown faced greetings failed me and I reverted to my natural smiling state. Much to my surprise, the kid spoke very proficient English and a few minutes later two more of his friends on bicycles showed up to offer assistance. “We will help you find a tire. Don’t worry,” they said.
For the next three hours the four of us scoured the town looking for a tire that fit my wheel size. The word help was an extreme understatement. I was amazed by all of this unexpected Russian hospitality. They repeatedly said how happy they were to assist me during the tire search process. After finding a tire we all went out to dinner and the students showed me the correct way to eat Russian dumplings. They were all so amused and were excited to be there with me introducing a guy like me to their culture. To top it all off, the three college students insisted on picking up the tab. After living in the hierarchical Korean society for so long and being a professor, I felt obligated to pay for them. However, they wouldn’t have any of it and put up a good fight for the payment.
Once we finished eating it was close to 10PM and the sun was just starting to go down. Wow! Where did the time go? When you are being escorted around by hospitable Siberians the time just flies by. Next, they accompanied me back to my hostel and we said our goodbyes. More great people putting humanity on display. Now I know the truth about the Siberians for sure! My opinions changed in just three short days. Mission accomplished and stereotypes shattered!
Stereotypes Will Always Be Shattered
Our brain likes to keep things as simple as possible. It prefers the easy, smooth road over rough, rugged terrain just like anyone would. This is the main reason why stereotypes exist and are so strongly etched in our minds. It is much easier to draw conclusions about a group of people through things we hear from others or perceptions created by the mass media without thinking very deeply about them. No matter how unbiased, progressive or noble we try to be, our brains naturally revert to the things we have heard based on media portrayals or word of mouth. I was guilty of this as well.
People in my adopted country of South Korea always make quick conclusions about me, which can become annoying at times. Now I was guilty of the same behavior. Could I really fault the Koreans for asking me how I can eat with chopsticks and tolerate spicy food on a daily basis if I was guilty of having similar thoughts about Russians? I quickly learned how much of an imperfect person I am for making similar quick judgments about a group of people. The Koreans are influenced by their own set of preconceived notions just like I am. Even though I have several Russian friends whole smile all the time and are warm and friendly, the thoughts of frowning faces and vodka drinking all filled my mind, which was very different from what I experienced my first few days in Irkutsk.
The people I met the first few days in Russia served an important role as cultural ambassadors. My first impression of Siberians stayed with me throughout my trip and even though I experienced quite a few cranky and unhelpful people, I realized that the disgruntled are a minority just like in any other country in the world.
Always Be Your Authentic Self
In order to appease the Russians, I tried to change into a cold, frowning version of myself. There is nothing wrong with smiling and being happy. Should I really care if people think I am crazy or strange due to my inner peace and smiling outer appearance? Smiling is not a crime and even if the police questioned me for looking suspicious on the grounds of displaying my pearly whites while grinning, I would have been able to literally laugh it all off anyway. After all the effort I put into meditation and cultivating myself into a more complete global citizen everyday, I tried to undue my efforts to please others. This was a grave mistake. Even if the majority of locals think smiling travelers like myself are up to no good, there would surely be a few people who feel at ease when they see a smile on a fellow global citizen. In short, I do not have time to associate with people who take life so seriously and are constantly worried about the minute possibility that others may cheat them. You can’t be friends with everyone, and time is of the essence in life.
If I would have approached the local kid on the street with a frown on my face, things could have been very different. Perhaps he would have been less keen to ride his bike around with me and accompany a newbie to Russia like myself around town. He had a smile on his face just like I usually do and it was very disarming. One of my favorite quotes is by Emerson- “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” By watching a video I foolishly tried to change myself and tear down everything that I have achieved. It may seem innocent, but just as forced laughter can improve your emotional and psychological health, I am sure forced frowning can have detrimental effects on one’s well being as well. My thinking was too quick and shallow. Next time I will use better judgement. In our current world of information overload, knowing what to ignore in a powerful skill to cultivate.