Archive for the 'Culture' Category

The Nose


One of the strangest, perhaps, of the Russian classical writers was Nikolai Gogol (image above [borrowed from Wikipedia]). For my Russian study this week, I read a short story of his called The Nose. The story is as nonsensical as it gets. At the same time, The Nose is a curiously interesting read. The main character, Major Kovalyov, somehow looses his nose (yes, the real one on his face), and meanwhile the nose takes on a life of its own, and even masquerades as a civil servant. But why give away the rest of the plot here? You can order it (or find the text online) in English and read the story for yourself. It is better in Russian, though, complete with obsolete words and archaic spellings (e.g., середа for среда). For the Russian-language enthusiast, I recommend this excellent dual-language book found here, which has this story and many others, and lots of language helps to boot.


The Fear Factor

Twice in the last week, people have tried to manipulate David with fear. I do not mean instilling healthy fears like saying, “Don’t play in the street or you might get hit by a car.”; or a respectful type of fear by reminding him to consider the consequences. E.g., “If you refuse to obey me you know that I will have to punish you.” I mean purposely scaring the little three-year-old to achieve a desired end.

A few days ago, an eight-year-old neighbor girl came to play with David and Hannah while the babysitter was here. After David did something bad, she locked him in the bathroom, turned off the light and said that a goblin was going to eat him. After a few minutes, she released him and told him not to misbehave again. It worked, of course. David was an angel the rest of the morning, but he would not go near the bathroom for a few days (which caused obvious problems).

Of course, we talked with the babysitter and the neighbor girl when we figured out what happened. We have to keep in mind that many consider that sort of tactic the norm. I am sure that it will not happen again. We finally convinced David that he has nothing to fear in the bathroom, and things in that realm are back to normal.

The second time was yesterday, when I took David and Hannah for a walk. David stopped to beat the snow with a stick and I did not notice for a few moments. When I looked back, I called for him to catch up. David did not seem to hear. Behind us, a babushka (senior citizen) was walking slowly along the path and was almost to David. Trying to help, she looked angrily at him and said, “Little boy, I am going to catch you and stuff you in my bag!” David took one look at this woman, dropped the stick and ran faster than I have ever seen him run. After I calmed him down the babushka came up to us and David hid behind me. I asked her to tell him that she was joking, and she kindly complied. He relaxed.

The good side to all this is that it presented an opportunity to teach David about fear, that he can trust us and God when he is afraid and that God has not given us a spirit of fear

As a protective dad, only one word comes to mind: Unbelievable! Can you imagine what life would be like if God dealt with us, his children, like that?

From Nyet to Da

A known Russian cultural habit is to first offer a negative answer to inquiries and favors. This initial negative response often does not mean ‘no’. With a little conversation and/or cleverness, it may become a ‘yes’ or even an ‘of course! yes’. There is a book called, “From Nyet to Da” (from no to yes) that documents this idiosyncrasy and gives advice to the bewildered and rebuffed foreigner.

I first encountered this bit of culture four years ago, when Maya and I went to a remote Lake Baikal resort. The only place to eat within a 30-mile radius was at the local cafeteria. The first morning, we went to the cafeteria and asked for a breakfast menu. “We’re closed, and, besides, we do not have any food!” came the angry-sounding reply. We did not bring food with us, so we decided to improvise. I noticed a few candy bars behind the counter and asked if we could buy some. The waiter then barked, “Candy for breakfast? You should eat real food. Will you have eggs or kasha?” This happened before every meal that weekend.

That is probably an extreme example (the waiter was a little weird), but it does happen a bit like that. An attendant at a ticket counter might tell you there are no tickets, but if you ask in a slightly different way, you may be on your way to your destination. The same goes for many other public service offices and businesses. You get used to it after a while.

Question: Is this specific to Russian culture?

Last week, I purchased a cool commentary set online from Logos Bible Software. They sent the CDs to my address in the US. I wrote tech support and asked if I could download volumes of the commentary when I need them, explaining that it would probably be months before the CDs would be brought to me way out here in Siberia, and that I need them for a study that I will be teaching.

Here are some excerpts from their reply:

Sorry, but it is
impossible for us to help you in this way. You must wait for your CDs. There is no way we can allow you to download the commentaries from our website. We are sorry.

Even though they left no hope, I responded with this email:

Dear Tech Support,

Thank you for your kind response. I do not mean to be pest, but could you please clarify as to why it is impossible? Downloading the commentaries would be most helpful to me, and besides, Logos Tech Support has allowed me to download ship-only products in the past. However, if it is indeed impossible, then I will patiently wait.

Sincerely, Mike

It turned into a classic case of from Nyet to Da; the next day, Logos sent me the unlock files and the download addresses. They wrote, “you are more than welcome to download the commentaries as needed”.

Thank you, Logos. I'll have the eggs, please.

Old New Year’s

The cold never materialized. Everyone hunkered down to brave severe temperatures, but it stayed mild. Today, it is -8 C, which only sounds cold to my friends and family who live in Florida. It is so toasty that I jogged to the Altai lesson yesterday. That was probably a mistake, as I sat for the first hour recuperating (first time I jogged since… early fall) and wishing that I had some drinking water with me. The teacher thought that I was sleepy and served me instant coffee.

Yesterday, Russians celebrated their last winter holiday: Old New Year's. In case you are keeping track, the winter holidays in Russia start with Christmas (celebrated by most protestant churches on December 25th, though not a legal holiday), followed by New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, then Old Christmas (January 7th) and, finally, Old New Year's (January 14th). The double-up comes because Russia changed from the Old Calendar (Julian) early in the 20th century, which was different by two weeks. Read more about that here.


Tonight, the married home group meets at 5:30 PM (GMT +6). We are back to our principals of marriage theme.

Pozi and the New Year’s Tree

On Sunday night, we entertained a full house, as our married’s home group and our neighbor all came over for pozi, a traditional Buryat food that we introduced them to. We had a great evening together. It seems like some doors are opening.


Today, Maya’s friend – Alya – invited Maya and David to see the “New Year’s Tree” ceremony where her daughter would be performing. Maya had another engagement, but we both agreed that it would be better to accept the invitation somehow. I came home, got David and made my way to the ceremony. The kids all dressed up, performed, and played games. David was a little frightened by all the commotion and I only understood a few words of the Altaian ceremony. It was very interesting, all the same. The pictures came out a little rough because I only had the phone camera to work with. The second photo is Alya's daughter.

Axiom: Siberia is cold

That the cold surprised us, we now find humorous. The thermometer has not risen above -20 for three days. Right now, it is -30 (for proof, check out Mark's picture). For some reason, we thought that this city enjoys a milder climate than where we lived before. That is funny because, hey, it is still Siberia! Our apartment is cold, though we are not complaining. We have a space heater and plenty of blankets. We realize now that we are in for a long, cold winter.


Here is another interesting tid-bit about life here: yesterday, as I walked to a store after lunch I enjoyed a nice sunset, at 3:35pm!


Maya is pictured here with Alya, a widow that Maya is befriending. She only last year lost her husband, leaving her the task of raising a child by herself. Please pr for Alya, and for the relationship that Maya enjoys with her.

People are people

It is –30 degrees (Celsius) right now, and the radio said it will get colder tonight. I am still using my fall jacket, as I have not had time to repair my heavy winter coat. I nearly froze out there when Maya and I went to our Altai lesson after lunch.


During the Altai lesson, the instructor digressed a bit about culture. She said that Altai people are much more reserved with their affections and emotions compared to the Russian people (she is Altaian). She shared a few real-life examples that illustrated how stoic and unemotional the Altai people are. The last story moved her so much that she began to cry. She did not catch that her show of emotion somewhat undermined her thesis. It reminded me that, while culture differences exist, people are people.