cold, cold russia

6/26/05

whenever i tell people i’m from russia, i always get the typical response of “wow, russia? must be really cold over there!”. no matter how many people i talk to, everyone envisions russia as a land of permanent snow, icicles, and blizzards. it’s hard to convince people otherwise. russia is not always cold. it’s a huge country. sure, the most nortrhern parts in the arctic circle are probably damn cold, but most of the rest of the country has seasons just like the rest of the world, and snowy winters give way to warm springtimes and then to hot summers. so, when we got off the plane in vladivostok, it was actually really really warm. there was no sign of anything being cold… well, that is except for the people.

actually, this all started even before i set foot off the plane. the airplane we flew on from japan to russia was hella junky: looked like it was falling apart, no safety demonstration, no clear signs as to seat numbers, and instead of things being written in russian, they were just pasted on using stickers over whatever language was there before. but the thing that struck me most during the flight was how cold and unfriendly the flight attendants were. i mean, hell, these are flight attendants! most flight attendants you see just smile nonstop and are constantly asking you how you are and if you need anything. not theses ones. smiles were apparently not allowed at all. they responded to any enquiries in a terse and unfriendly manner. this was only a sign of what was to come.

so, my first couple of days in russia, spent in vladivostok, were spent in constant fear of interacting with any russians. why? i mean, i know the language! what a great bonus! this is something i had been looking forward to for ages… to finally be in a country where i understood what was being spoken and could talk back! the way i imagined it was that i would be having all sorts of pleasant conversations w/ waiters, store clerks, random strangers… basically w/ any people i could interact with. well, that wasnt the case. apparently, everyone here has had some kind of training in a partcular kind of icey death stare. whenever i would ask anyone a question, try to buy something from a store, basically communicate with anyone, they would usually give me this look that basically said “listen, honestly i really wish that you could just go ahead and fucking die. i’d kill you myself, but you’re such an insignificant piece of scum that i cant be bothered, so maybe you can just get the hell out of my face.” you might think that i’m exaggerating, but really i’m not. after dealing w/ this kind of attitude for a while, it pretty much got to the point where i was afraid of walking into any restaurants or asking anyone anything. i’d rather do anything than have to face another russian. we had been hoping to get a visa extension to stay in the country longer, but in the end were unable to get one. funnily though, instead of being dissapointed, i was actually kind of glad that we wouldnt be able to stay longer. i fact, there were times that i would honestly contemplate just taking the next train out of here.

*some examples of interactions i had*
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(note, often it’s not as much what was said, but the utter look of disgust and sound of contempt in their voice)

calling the Visa Issue Registration office:
(me) is it possible to get a visa extension?
(them) for that you need pogranichnoye six.
(me) pogronichnoye six? whats that?
(them) porgronichnoye six. IT’S A PLACE!!
(me) a place? oh! thats the address! thanks. what do i need to bring to get an extension?
(them)how should i know? go down there and find out yourself.

confused on the procedures for the train station, i ask a guy who looks like he’s waiting in line:
(me) um, do you know the difference between all these lines.
(him) i dont know.
a few minutes go by. the line moves, but he doesnt budge.
(me) um, so… are you waiting in this line?
(him) i told you!!! *I* *DONT* *KNOW*. i’m NOT taking the train!!!
and he storms off.

long line of people waiting in line at a train station. one customer finishes, and then the attendant behind the window starts counting some slips of paper without saying a word to those in line. this goes on for 10 minutes straight! finally someone asks “um, so it this going to be much longer?” the response is “yes. about one hour”. one hour!! they were going to not help customers for a whole hour with this long ass line waiting and werent even going to bother saying anything!!

we’re standing on the sidewalk confused as to where to find a certain address. in most other countries that we have been, this would be the cue for an unknown stranger to walk up to us, ask us if we are lost, and then either point us in the right direction or sometimes even walk with us halfway across town to get us to where we want to go. russian woman walks by and loudly mutters “yeah, is it really necesarry to just stand there in the middle of the sidewalk like that?”. um, thanks.

at the russian embassy, caryn asks the guy what to do about a certain line on the application not being long enough. he looks at her and says “what? is such a puzzle? just write it down”. when he finally realizes that he was the one that was confused, he, instead of appologizing, proceeds to blame the form on the american government and goes on to bad mouth america for a while.

sign in front of restaurant reads “8am to midnight”. it’s about 9pm. we walk in. looks empty. we kind of peer around, and then someone from across the room yells “WE’RE CLOSED!!!!” no explanation of why or any appology. as we walk out, i hear them talking amongst themselves saying “sheeez”. as if it was our fault for intruding.

sitting at a restaurant. we order. the waitress starts bringing our order to the wrong table accidentally. i *think* it was my order but am not sure, so i say nothing. the guy says its not his, and she then brings it to me while saying “oh, this is yours. why the hell are you sitting there silent?” like it’s my fault?!

walking into an empty restaurant. only two tables have people at them. we ask if we can be seated. “the restuarant is full”. nice.

at a fast food place. we walk up to the counter and start looking at the menu.
(her, after 2 seconds)what can i get you
(me)oh, i’m still looking at the menu
(her) well what do you want. we have this stuff. (points to display)
(me) um, still looking.
(her) well, whats the problem! this is what we have!
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so basically, time and time and time again crap keeps on happening to us. it’s soooooo difficult to keep upbeat. especially casue we just got back from japan. in japan , everyone is so nice. people are especially frienly, and *everyone* in the customer service industry is ridiculously helpful and smiley.

i guess its just a cultural difference. i’ve always known about this difference. russians tend to be much more reserved w/ their feelings. and apparntly more honest. people dont act fake and nice to strangers who they dont really give a crap about. in russia, i guess, if someone smiles at you, it’s gonna be a real genuine smile. it’s not that they’re cold and unfriendly, they just dont put forth any effort towards people they dont know and frankly dont care about. i’ve heard these things about russians a thousand times. and…. i dunno, in some weird way, i kind of understood it.

i do think that in america, people often tend to overdo it. people at the supermarket who are required to call you by your name and then grin and ask you about your day when honestly they couldnt give a crap about how your day went. in some ways, thats kind of annoying, and i do wish people were a bit more real. i’m not really down w/ the fake song and dance that so many people do. and sometimes, in japan, i did think that people might need to tone down a notch and not kiss your ass so much.

also, part of it, i think, is that this is what is expected from them. if you work somewhere in america, you get commission on how much sales you do. or if youre not super friendly to customers, you could probably get fired. here, your boss doesnt care as much if you suck up to customers, so why bother right?

so, coming to russia, i was expecting a semi-cold and distant attitude. but still, i think i really wasnt prepared for what i encountered at all! i expected cold.. not downright rude. i didnt expect these looks of contempt. i didnt expect to have peope be unhelpful to the point of actually hindering anyting you want to do. i’ve traveled to over 20 countries now. *nowhere* have i experienced this kind of attitude. constantly, country after country i keep marveling about how crazy nice people are and how i am time and time again surprised by their kindness. this is the first time i’ve not felt that way.

but this is my country. the country where i was born. the country my family grew up in. the coutnry who’s culture, no matter how lightly, still grips me and everything i do. it seems so backwards and ridiculous that i could have such a terrible time in the place i was born and feel such anger towards the peope who very easily could have been my countrymen. i try to make excuses for them. i try to think its just cultural and that they dont mean anything by it. i try to say that maybe it is a good thing not to go through “fake” emotions just to please a customer… but the thing is… i dont think it has to be fake. if i work somewhere and i interact w/ people, sure, i might not totally suck up to them, but in general, i do smile.. and its not fake. i want my customers, or hell, ahyone i talk to, i want them to have a good day. i want to interact w/ them and help them. i like people. i want to open up to them and have them open up to me.

i dunno. maybe living in america for 25 years has made me unable to understand the russian mentality or to be able to deal w/ it. i dont know what it is… but whatever it is, i spent my first two days here competely on edge. comepletely terrified of talking to *anyone*. my eagerness to practice russian has disaspeared instantly. i’d rather not eat at the restaurants than have to ask waiters questions. i just want to AVOID. everyone.

so, i dont know. it’ll be interesting to see how things go. mabe it’s just this city. maybe people in other cities will be nicer. i sure hope so. i’ve traveled w/ other people who told me that they have gone across russia and pretty much didnt see a single person smile ever. i asked them what they thought of russia and they said that it was “ok, i guess”. and thats what i’ve heard from others who have been here too. *sigh* so.. we’ll see..

*v

18 thoughts on “cold, cold russia”

  1. It’s weird…when we were in St. Petersburg, which is the intellectual capital of Russia from what I understand, the people there were only moderately more friendly then what you described. I remember going to the post office to buy some stamps. I get in one of the many lines and am waiting when this old lady comes over and starts yelling at me in Russian. Luckily, Elena’s dad was with me and he told me that basically she was trying to tell me that she was standing in more then one line at once. Of course, she could of told me that without the yelling…

    Patrick

  2. Oh man! What a disappointment it must be to be treated so rudely at every turn. 🙁 I sure hope things improve at your next stop.

    A friend of ours met the love of his life in Sibera. She is the nicest person, and nothing at all like the people you have described! In fact, she is just the opposite.

  3. yeah, i really just dont get it. yeah, yeah, its a cultural thing. but does that really excuse it? well, i mean, i guess maybe that excuses it, but does it make it any more pleasant to travel there? for me, it’s where i’m from, so i’m very eager to like russia, and despite anytihng, have been trying to enjoy it. but really, if i had gotten this kind of welcome in any other country, a country that i’m not attached to in any way, i would have gotten the hell out immediately!

  4. so, since then, things have definitely gotten better. sure people arent super friendly or anytihng, but at least they havent been as flat out rude as before. heh.. or maybe i’m just getting used to it?

  5. Well, duh! Babushkas can do anything they want… which includes being in two places (lines) at once. Didn’t you know that, you dumbhead? Sheesh, some people…

  6. ew! all if the traveling russians I’ve met have been super nice and perky… but then again they’re usually around our age. that sucks that it’s been rough. 🙁

    did the attitude get better in any other cities?

  7. but i don’t get it- you were just in russia a couple of years ago. didn’t you have a similar experience? i totally felt like that when i was there a year ago!

  8. yeah, it’s definitely been better since then. i still owuldnt say that people are super friendly, but at least it hasnt been as rough as before… phew!

  9. the funny thing is that when i went there last time i really didnt notice it that much. maybe i just had bad luck this time? or maybe it was cause i didnt interact w/ people as much since my dad did most of the interacting? i dunno. actually, i remember being surprised when you came back from russia and said it totally sucked. now i can totally see why you thought that though!

  10. Maybe you should yell back. I can see it now … Vlad loses it and yells at a babushka (sp?). LOL. Good writing 🙂

  11. dude, i dunno about that. some of these babushkas look like they could kick my ass!!

  12. Dude, that hella sucks! I did, however, find this absolutely amusing: “‘listen, honestly i really wish that you could just go ahead and fucking die. i’d kill you myself, but you’re such an insignificant piece of scum that i cant be bothered, so maybe you can just get the hell out of my face.’” Hahahahahaha! 🙂

  13. heh, yes, those russians are very creative with their evil stares!!

  14. Hm.. I guess friendly customer service costs extra. If you were willing to pay double what you would in America, like we did at a lot of places in Japan, I bet those restaurants would gladly seat you.

  15. yeah, it totally bummed me out cuz there are so many amazing things about Russia, but the people just suck a lot of the time. It really depressed me after a week, but maybe you will get used to it. sounds a bit better now! plus, russians are ok once you get to know them a bit. it’s just the first impression that really throws you off!

  16. yeah, they would have seated me maybe, but i still wouldnt get good customer service i bet. we did go to one restaurant here that was pricier, and the waitstaff were still totally cold and unfriendly.

  17. it depressed you after a week? for me its the opposite i think. it REALLY bugged me at first, btu after a bit, i’m starting to get used to it and i dont get as upset.

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