Specific Reflections on a Few Generalizations

I’ve been thinking about ethnic and national stereotypes quite a bit since being here, but it’s a topic I fear demands treading lightly, and my prose has not yet learned to step lightly, let alone–alas–dance through the dark haunts of sweeping claims on observed generalizations.

Yet today’s grammar lesson was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.  In preparation for today’s class we were given a hand-out with little sketches of 8 different people, all quite obviously of various national origins.  Our assignment was to write about each of them. Then, in the one empty box provided in the center of the page, sketch our stereotype of a Russian. Straight forward enough, and the sketches invited, for the most part, generally accepted and positive generalizations.

So class began this morn and we each took turns describing a nationality.  The point of the discussion was not to debate the validity or purpose of stereotypes; it was to enhance our vocabulary by practicing on a mundane daily task that would indisputably come in handy in our careers of speaking Russian.  Discussing national commonalities is just like practicing how to talk about weather, food, or clothing.

Nonetheless, we tripped up from the beginning.  The first picture showed a woman with dark eyes eating noodles from a bowl.  My classmate said, “This is a China-lady.  She eats noodles with a chopstick.”  The teacher practically bolted from her chair.

“China-lady?!  No, no, this picture” She pointed at that very sketch of the first woman.  My classmate nodded and apprehensively said, “Yes, the China-lady eats noodles?”  The professor pointed to one picture over, of a man in a woven coolie hat, in the posture of a bow.

“He is from China,” she said.  “But her?”

She looked at me, and I piped in to hem the awkwardness,  “She is from Italy.  She is eating pasta.  Italians love food and love pasta.”  (You have to lose all self-awareness to survive language courses, just in case you didn’t know that already.) The teacher calmed and smiled.  She looked at my classmate, “Italian-lady.  Look at her, she doesn’t have slanted eyes, she has on dark eye makeup.  Italians always wear black eye makeup.  That is different from eyes that are hard to see.”  She pointed to the picture of the man bowing in a coolie hat, “He has very slanted eyes.”  She pulled the ends of her own eyelids so that we would understand the term “slanted.” My classmate nodded, catching on. “Ah, she isn’t eating noodles, she’s eating pasta.”

That was settled.

Moving on.  To the “real” Asian.  This left us in a discussion about whether he was Japanese or Chinese. We agreed that the hat was worn by a person from the Far East while working in the rice fields.  But Japanese or Chinese?  To complicate matters further, our professor maintained that Koreans actually bow more than other Asians.  I’d never heard this before, but then, there are a ton of Koreans in the department at MGU, so who am I to contradict it?  We eventually threw up our hands (our professor, literally) at the Asian-ambiguity and moved on to the other nationalities.

The Spaniards were shown in tight, low cut clothing, mid dance move. Let me stress, both the man and the women were in tight, low-cut clothing.  They both had big hair, and again, the woman wore a lot of dark eye makeup.  The man might have had on a little. That one was a cinch.  Next was a picture of a little figure painting, wearing a tunic and leggings, looking out the window at the Eiffel tower.  We thought we’d nailed that one too:

“She is a Frenchwoman, she is painting, she is looking at the Eiffel Tower, she loves art.”

“But what about her appearance?” we were asked.  “What is very French about her clothing?”

We stalled, “Um, she is wearing a shirt and pants.”

“Leggings!  The French wear leggings!”

“Ah, leggings” we repeat, almost in sync.

“Of course.  Leggings and such a shirt.  The French have a very ‘free’ style.”

Of all the frogism I had in my back pocket, this wasn’t one of them.  But it may just explain why more than one gaggle of young men on campus have yelled at me in French (an entire post on men is pending…)…I love leggings.  I just had no idea I was wearing them as an ethnic disguise.  I wonder what they assume when I’m in my nifty new stirrup pants….

Oh snap! The next sketch was of a couple, heavy set, wearing baseball caps, t-shirts, shorts, with cameras around their necks.  It was my turn to go.

Hesitantly, I proffered, “Americans?”

The professor shot me her winning smile, “Of course. Elaborate.”

“These are Americans, they are wearing t-shirts, shorts, and baseball hats.  They like to travel and take pictures.”  Oh how to really stretch the linguistic muscles on such a chore!

“But their appearance.  More…”

Hmmm. “They are a little fat.”

“Very good.  Now look at their faces.  How to they look?”

Their noses were, granted, a little upturned…

“They think they’re superior, don’t they?” the professor asked, in that tone that simultaneously answers the question.  Her raised eyebrows invited my commentary.

You can’t fight the truth. I ran with it,

“These are Americans, they love to travel, but when they travel, everything appears to them not quite as good as it is at home.  Things are interesting, but not that interesting.”

Clap!  Sparkle!  Hit the nail on the head!  (This is why I’m in grad school! Hurrah!)

“Excellent.  Excellent.  When Americans travel, nothing is as good as it is at home.  Very well said. Is this a true portrait of Americans?”

“Well…sometimes…of course there is a reason for every stereotype.  Many Americans are not like this.  Many are very happy and curious when they travel.”

Knowing nods, “Yes, not everyone is the same…luckily…But they are still very American, yes?”

We all nod.  My classmate adds, “I think they are from Arizona.”

This surprises the professor—it is the first stereotype she didn’t expect.  What does that mean? To come from Arizona?

“It means you are very American,” my classmate explains.  ” You are probably wealthy.  You live in a suburb.  You are a consumer.”

I chime in, “It is quite American to live in a desert and steal water from your neighbor-states to have swimming pools in a giant suburb!”

Now everything is clear, we have given nuance to her Americans–tis the Arizonians, oh dire epitome of America!  Move over New York, sorry, Los Angeles.  Hello, Sun Valley.

Which brings us to another kind of American—the “Indian.”  Now, this is actually at least the third time that Native Americans have come up in this class, and each time, we try to figure out how to say “Native American,” it flops—it comes out at Natural American, Folk American, Original/Genuine American.  Each the professor looks at us queerly and says, “You mean an Indian?” We always say, “But not from India, from America.”

Then—every time!—she repeats “Indian, of course” and writes the word “Indian” on the board.  Oh well.

The Indian is crouching in the grass, wearing a headdress, holding an arrow and his face is painted.  We mention all of this.

“He is an Indian.  He is a hunter.”

I tried to say “He has a special connection to nature” but that was completely shot down.

“What about his headwear?”

“It is a cap of feathers.”

“What do the feathers mean?”

I wasn’t totally sure, but when has that ever stopped me? “Every feather is for, um, an animal, maybe, he killed?”


“Um, yeah, animal, like buffalo, maybe…” I sense I’m not getting this one, “Or maybe he killed a person.”

“Of course!  Every feather is a person he killed!”

The plot is all the time thickening.

Considering this, the Mexican got off easy– he’s pictured holding a guitar and wearing a sombrero.  My classmate gives a little stereotype-based vignette, clearly getting into the task at hand:

“This is Carlos. He works in the fields in California. On the weekends he gets together with his friends, relaxes, and plays the guitar. “

Check, check. Nothing to add here.  You never hear Russians talk about Mexicans.  Except when they try to complain about Chechens, and they sigh, and half inquire, half concede that we have the same problem.  Southern borders, distastrous, nightmare.  And we have to explain that Mexicans don’t bomb our trains, and for all of our government’s naughty tangles in Mexico, straight up occupation isn’t one of them (Ev, I’m sure you could find a counter example for me here!). In fact, they mostly do work that we actually need done, and provide delicious food at affordable prices.  This comes across as a bit fantastical to some.

Last of all (before the looming blank box for the Russian) was a surprisingly innocuous image of a man holding a giant stein of Beck’s, spearing a huge sausage and smiling. It was my turn again,

“This man is a German.  He works very hard.  Everything in his life is in order.  I would think, he likes to organize…things…perhaps everything. After work, he eats sausages and drinks beer.”

Silence, nothing more there.  Which brought us to the summit of our exercise, the Russian.

Who is the Russian?

What is a Russian?

And you can’t talk about the Russian, without pointing to that most compelling, most mysterious, most tormented “Russian Soul.”

The week earlier we’d been given a page of sayings about Russians to mull over and consider in light of our experience and education.  Which goes to say, we had a lot to work with.  Sayings included,

“The Russian person doesn’t live by their mind, but by their heart–their emotions prevail over their reason.”

“The Russian person intrinsically hopes in miracles. He is used to relying not on himself, but on the will of God.  He is certain that in its own time all complications will subside, work out, be rectified.”

“All Russia—a drunk Hamlet”

“Russians are a people of extremes, governed by the battle cry, ‘All or nothing.’”

“The Russian soul doesn’t take to pragmatism, striving towards profit, gain or material utility, it strives for something more grandiose, something immaterial.”

“The Russian doesn’t expect goodness or support from the powers that be (governments, organizations, bureaucrats, etc), rather, they see them in connection with injustice and villainy.” (We all agreed America would do well to adopt this position!)

Last but very not least, “All that is good in the Russian people is localized and embodied in the Russian woman.”

Hard to follow that up, especially when proposing stereotypes to a Russian, which is much different than a Russian proposing stereotypes to us (just fyi, this is the Devushka professor, who is 90% legs and comes to class in a different party dress everyday.  We learned—shocker!—she’s a former ballerina).

We plunder ahead anyway:

“Russians are dark, always thinking about how life is hard.”

“Exactly, we are melancholic” the professor assents, batting her lashes more expressively than usual.

“Russians have to suffer, but they believe in miracles anyway.”

“Russians always hope,” she insists. “We believe in God, or miracles, or perhaps just wizards [колдун].” [!!!]

“Russians like to jump in cold water in the winter, that is, they have a strange relationship to being uncomfortable.”

“Of course.” Which has been the delightfully blasé reply to almost everything during this lesson.

“But new Russians look different, they are not suffering.  They are wearing fur and eating caviar and doing bad business.”

We are corrected, “Everyone wears fur.  It is very cold here.”

Touché.  There is then debate on whether the new Russians are really Russians.  Our professor suggests that its almost as if their materiality has replaced their Russian soul, they are hardly true Russians, they may have lost their Russian essence in some terrible exchange…

Suddenly my poetic classmate redeems her earlier Italy-China mistake.  She volunteers a picture of a Russian who is neither a babushka, an oligarch or call-girl wearing Dolce and Gabbana (yes, that came up).  No, she suggests that the most encompassing vision of a Russian should be a beautiful, lonely woman standing in a field, obscured all but entirely by a snowstorm.

The professor cries out and clasps her hands to her chest, “Unbelievable, yes, there it is! That is a Russian, a woman from Blok [a Russian symbolist poet].”  Fluidly and flawlessly, she recites a poem of Blok’s by memory, about a beautiful women, alone and lovely, the apparition of a pining lover. (I can not emphasize enough how much poetry Russians know by memory, and how much it enlivens and beautifies casual conversation)

This, my friends, is why national stereotypes are so important.  Because the image of a Russian is very close to the Russian.  They see themselves as a type, they cherish it, they take the good with the bad because they have no qualms about being an archetypal Russian.  Life is a mixed bag, so why shouldn’t self-image be as well.  Perhaps some Russians would gainsay such inclinations, but Russian literature and Russian song and Russian art is full of celebrations of the Russian type.  The suffering, faithful, soulful individual in a country ravished by corrupt institutions, blessed with writers who offer brief moments of stolen consolation.  The frenzied, painfully self-conscious sinner, the penitent and rambunctious fool.  The heart prone to falling in love, breaking too soon, mending only in part.  The repertoire of poems, aphorisms and proverbs Russians scatter in conversation is not an affected cultural snobbery adopted as a party trick, but evidence of the deep permeation of a shared cultural language and imagery in daily life.  They don’t identify with their government, they identify with how they have coped through governments.  Religion isn’t problematized as ideology or a brand, to the left or to the right or to the mall; its daily ritual and a fundamental understanding that life is more likely than not rooted in daily heartbreak, in the shadow of a God who inexplicably provides miracles to those who seem least deserving.

Of course, I may be getting carried away here.  But that’s the Russian way, and I’d rather over-assimilate to my foreign home at the moment–bringing you, dear Reader, a dash of sentimentality–than miss out on the good stuff for the sake that mythical notion of being an objective observer…


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One response to “Specific Reflections on a Few Generalizations

  1. Joel

    These were my favorite lines:
    What does that mean? To come from Arizona?
    “It means you are very American,” my classmate explains. ” You are probably wealthy. You live in a suburb. You are a consumer.”
    I chime in, “It is quite American to live in a desert and steal water from your neighbor-states to have swimming pools in a giant suburb!”

    So hilarious… Thankfully, people from the neighboring state of New Mexico are not very American at all 😉
    I’ve always found it really interesting how there are many places in the world, or at least a large number of people in certain places, that are very comfortable with the idea of living up to a stereotype, or even playing a role. I’ve found that sometimes I enjoy trying to carve out a role for myself that is different than what people expect but is still recognizable enough so that they can say “oh, you’re a _______” and I just play it up. Usually the role is “tight-fisted and demanding customer who won’t pay more than your wares are worth” but sometimes I venture into more daring roles. One of my housemates, who speaks Russian, but learned it in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, was told that she sounds like an Uzbek onion-seller. There’s a role to aspire to! 🙂 loving the blog – keep up the good work…

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