This week was rough. I feel like this blog is where I vent feelings, so do not get the idea that everything is horrible in Russia. I am learning a lot, culturally and linguistically. I’m making new friends, visiting neat places and trying new foods. I’m growing SO much as a person and I constantly find myself questioning the world. This experience is reigniting my passion in world affairs and is validating my choice to study international politics. I am genuinely glad I am studying in Moscow.
That being said, this week I hit a breaking point and I cried for the first time since I arrived. The next morning my eyes were SO PUFFY that the entire bus ride to school I tried to make a reason as to why they were puffy. The best I could come up with was “I ate salty ramen and went to bed right after.” A friend could tell something was off, anyways, and we so talked and I cried AGAIN. AT SCHOOL. Hmmmm. The ramen in Russia must be really good.
For the last three weeks every time I come back from the gym after school my host mom reminds me that “это не красивая когда женьшины ходят в спортс зал” which translates to “It is not pretty for women to go to the gym.” She explains that it is a man’s place, that building muscle is not attractive, and then will continue to explain that I need to have bigger boobs, wear makeup and dresses. Oh, and I need a bigger butt too.
At first, I was kind and polite about it. I would blow it off and tell her “спасибо за советы” “thanks for the advice.” Then as it continued into week two I got a little firmer with my responses, “я не хочу больше об этом говорить” “I do not want to talk more about this.” I would add in that I play soccer at my college team and need to stay in shape.
Week three came and went and I continued to workout at the “man’s” gym after school. One day during dinner, my host told me “ты похожа на мальчика” “You look like a little boy” on top of her usual list of negative comments about me going to the gym.
At that point I was angry. Very angry. I was direct in telling her that all her comments were not kind and felt sexist to me. I told her that the gym makes me feel strong and as if I can conquer the world. It shouldn’t matter if I am girl.
I also told her that I am sick of being told (мне надоела слишать…) what I can and cannot do based on my gender. For example, my Russian Internet professor told me that if I wanted to be a politician I cannot do that alone because I am a girl. Another older Russian man told me that “feminism is propaganda” that is “dangerous and radical.” This viewpoint seems rather common for older Russians. But, I am also surprised to find that even younger Russian women see western-style feminism as over the top. A Russian girl who is 23 (and whom I consider her a friend) told me that the #metoo movement that started in the U.S. to bring awareness to sexual assault is too “extreme.”
Anyways, my host and I descended into this conversation about gender roles and although I was angry, it was ironically the best Russian I have ever spoken in my life because I had no inhibitions. I wanted my opinion to be heard. She repeatedly brought up that men and women have “physiological differences” which to her means men and women have different functions in life. No matter to whom I talk — both young and old Russians — the issue of gender roles seems to circulate back to “physiological differences.” My host’s example was that women cannot become pilots for “big planes” (whatever that means….) because our physiologically given bodies cannot handle the task of flying every week. However, women can become an astronaut because you only fly once or twice into space in a lifetime.
The best American comparison (to my mind now) is looking at how older, white, moderate liberals saw Black Lives Matter protests. When there was a long string of big Black Lives Matter protests/riots in major cities, older white moderate liberals often presented a pushback that can be described with a ‘why won’t you accept slow change’ vibe. Where as in Russia, anti-feminism has a more permanent “physiological differences” approach.
I also asked my host whether she thinks there should be more women in politics, since I am interested in going into politics. Currently the Russian Duma (their equivalent of the US Congress) has only 13.5% women. I think that women representation is a problem everywhere in the world, and emphasized this to her. It is not unique to Russia or the U.S. alone.
What I got out of our conversation was that she believes two things. 1) Sexism is not an issue in Russia. And 2) That men cannot birth a baby, so the women need to do that. I.e. she does not believe women can have a family life and be a prominent or high-up politician at the same time. Maybe this is why Russians I have talked to seem to like Angela Merkel…. She is childless….
What drove me absolutely bonkers was that she said my thoughts were a “проблема головы” “problem in the head” rather than a problem of society. She essentially told me I have a complex that is making this a problem when it is not one. Not only this, she went on to explain how smart and competent Karl Marx was and that he wrote that women should be “слабая” “weak” and not demonstrate on the streets because that is provocative. Men, according to my host and Karl Marx, should be the “сильный” “strong” men doing the protesting. Great. My host loves an antisemitic, anti-women empowerment, white man.
Our conversation on this topic went over the course of two days for four hours total. On the second day, I asked her to think not only about women representation and women empowerment but also about the representation of diverse religions, races and ethnicities in society and politics. I asked her “don’t you think it is important to get not only more women but also more people of color in politics?” She could not see the reasoning behind this. I had to explain to her that people with different religions and races have incredibly different life experiences, see the world differently, and the world sees them differently too.
Here, for example, people of central asian backgrounds (who look the most genetically related to me here) do all the dirty work that the “настояие россияни не хотят делать” “the true and genuine Russians do not want to do.” This is what my literature professor explained to me as he pointed to the central asian women who clean are school hallways and bathrooms. My conversation teacher also used the term “чистые россияни” which translates to “clean” or “pure Russians.” I’m surrounded by this kind of dialogue and language that presents the European looking Russians as superior.
I told my host how, when in France, a man yelled “ching Chong” at me and pulled his eyes into a squinty position. Her response? “Может быть ему нравиться китаянка” “Maybe he likes Chinese women.” I’M NOT EVEN CHINESE. That’s another thing. People here ask me questions about China, even after I explain I am not Chinese. Or they will point out Chinese cafes to me, even though I am not Chinese. Today, my music professor said a word in Chinese that he learned and asked me if I can translate it. It is as if all of Asia is grouped into China.
Sorry to jump around in this post. There is just SO much that happened and SO much to say. So, back on the topic of racial diversity in political offices. My host told me that we need “умный” “competent” people in office and that if we put people of color in office we might not be choosing the most “умный” people available.
I felt attacked. Personally. Or that I had been kicked in the gut. I had never ever experienced this level of discrimination so direct and personal ever in my life. To have someone say all these things directly to my face and to know that we live under the same roof felt horrible. At that moment I was like “why am I here?” I felt like I was just here so she could have my money. And so after I went to my room and I cried. I was so so so overwhelmed. I felt that so much was against me at that moment and that Russians who had invited me into their classrooms and homes could not see that.
It was a hard few days where emotions just poured out after a month of such comments building up inside of me and simmering.
But then I began to realize that I can and will learn A LOT from this experience and semester in Russia — not just linguistically and culturally, but personally about my identity, what that means to me and broadly what identity means for other people around the world. I also realized that we all live in completely different realities and because of that it is not my job to change their opinions because I simply will not be able to. Yet, I can try to learn about their reality and recognize the differences.
For example about the Russian reality. Chances are most Russians have not had much interaction with various Asians. And when they do it is almost if always Chinese tourists, who are now increasingly visiting Russia on vacations. Most Russians have not met other East or South Asian individuals, and so to them all they know about Asia is through the Chinese. My professor actually made an interesting point about this. She asked me if I can differentiate Ukrainians, Belorussians and Russians when I see them. I had not really thought of it that way before. That same professor also pointed out that the gesture of squinty eyes and pulling them that way is not seen as offensive in Russia, yet. Which is another thing I had not considered. I realize, I too, am fast to assume.
Here’s another American comparison about differences in realities. The friend who I talked with at school brought this up when he was trying to comfort me.
“Imagine you have no previous knowledge of American politics, and you watch only Fox News for a month. By the end of the month, even the smartest of victims will have some weird/rabidly conservative views. The pervasiveness of overt gender roles reminds me of this. Literally every day since I’ve gotten here, I’ve heard at least one comment that Americans consider genuinely sexist. Parents, teachers, kids — they all are raised and reminded to think this way. It would be extraordinarily different to break out of that reality. It’s not a question of just ‘sitting down and talking it out,’ either (as it rarely is, though I wish it was). No one wants to believe or be told that the way they perceive reality is wrong or offensive. We live in the same world but different realities. It’s no different than a liberal who consumes only HuffPost and a conservative who only consumes Fox News and Breitbart. And that’s depressing as hell.”
So — despite feeling that I am on the incredibly short end of the social totem pole here and am reminded of it routinely — I need to learn from our different realities and not let it ruin my experience here. To myself, all Russians, and anyone anywhere in the world my advice is:
“Надо открывать себя на мир” “One must open themself to the world.”
Had I not come to Russia, I would not have experienced life in this reality.
And we have now come full circle to the beginning of my post where I talked about how my study abroad is reigniting my passion in world affairs. Because now, I am hungry to experience other realities in new and different countries. And I know that I will face discrimination and have struggles — and even cry again — because of it, but that along the way I will learn so much more about the world and why it is what it is.