10 January 2019

Judy Maurer: Accents, eggnog, and foreigners in our midst

This week, I’m delighted to welcome my wife Judy Maurer as guest blogger.

A few days before Christmas, a well-dressed woman in Winco approached me with a bottle of Irish creme in her hand. “Is this drink for the Christmas?” she asked.

I squelched the desire to quiz her about her native language and how it navigated without articles like “a” and “the”, since the use of those tiny words was clearly not intuitive for her. But like my students in Russia, she was able to get her point across well, without being able to land exactly on where one used a “the” or an “a”. Normally, it’s not a problem -- unless you want to say, “My husband has the money” and you end up saying, “My husband has money.”

But I left all that aside and said, “If they’re Irish-American, it would be perfect.”

“I want traditional drink” she said. Again I squelched a desire to explain that in America, what one perceives as traditional at Christmas flows from your parents or grandparents’ ancestry. Lefse for Norwegians, stollen and marzipan for Germans, and all that. I also didn’t explain that usually, the ones with English ancestry got to decide that their traditions would be mainstream traditional in the US. I’m not entirely sure why that is, since Spaniards were first in to invade North America in any numbers, and then the English.

Instead I just tried to explain about “eggnog”. I wrote it out on my smartphone for her, because what is a “nog”? How would she know how to capture that in her memory? She seemed perplexed that she should look for it in the dairy section.

After nine years in Russia, it’s a familiar point of stress for me. Going to a social gathering as a foreigner means trying to figure out what is the accepted practice. Everyone else knows it, accepts it as gospel truth as the-way-it-should-be-done, but you have no idea, and even have to set aside your own sense of the-way-it-should-be-done which is so embedded in your view of life that you don’t realize it is just your culture’s sense of the-way-it-should-be-done. So what the others think is the civil and polite thing to do may seem at the least perplexing. So my worry tended to be: “when I stumble over a social obstacle, will the others think my cluelessness is charming, or rude?”

Asking a stranger in a grocery store is a good tactic. I told her that the Irish creme in the fancy bottle would be a very good thing to bring to a party in America, but she repeated that she wanted to bring “traditional drink.”

Painful things have happened since I left the US to go to Russia in 2008. In 2017, I came back to a country in which people speaking English with accents are no longer as willing to engage in a conversation about where they are from. But I hoped I had built up enough rapport with her so that she would be willing to talk. So I asked.

“Iraq,” she replied.

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.You’re safe.” She seemed surprised, but when she caught my eye again while quizzing grocery store employees, probably about traditional drinks, she beamed.

During the worst of the Ukraine crisis, when Russian media blamed the “decadent West” for everything that went wrong, I felt vulnerable in Russia as a westerner. State media is dedicated to telling the news in just such a way to make people more compliant with what the leadership wants to do anyway. (I know. This never happens in the US, right?) Blaming foreign countries, and foreigners in their midst, is always a good strategy for deflecting blame away from the realities of this country. This tactic works particularly well if there is significant corruption among the political leadership, but what would we in the US know of that, right?

In the spring of 2014, when pro-Russian separatists took over parts of eastern Ukraine, the Russian leadership was in desperate need of these tactics. Stereotypes are particularly useful in these times, and state media trotted them out. They flooded state and social media with reports of the “Godless West”.

I grew up in a very conservative area of the US southwest, and was regularly subjected to films in school about “Godless Communists”. So as Yogi Berra said, it felt like “deja vu all over again,” but with a mind-numbing twist: I was now defined as the enemy. A wise Russian friend told me that the easiest way to rile people up against the enemies of Russia was to dust off and use again the Soviet-era stereotypes of Americans, as we had been the most frequent targets during the Cold War. It would have been a farther reach to enrage the populace against western Europeans. State media was just doing what came easier.

It was particularly painful when our good friends bought into these stereotypes. In my own living room, an old friend asked with wide-eyed wonder, “Can a man find a woman who would take care of her husband in America?”

I felt like saying, “you’ve seen with your own eyes how I take care of Johan -- and he takes care of me. Do you really think I’m the only American woman who takes care of her husband?”

The cold-war stereotype in Russia is that American women are selfish, independent feminists who won’t lend a hand to their own families. Another good friend insisted to me that I must have learned to cook in Russia, after I left the US. The unstated part was, “everyone knows that women in America don’t bother to cook for their families.” Since I had just provided a yummy home-made treat for the teachers’ lounge, then it stood to reason that I had learned to cook in Russia. Really? One learns to make apple crisp in Russia? In most of these cases, I was too stunned to argue.

While our friends believing in Soviet-era stereotypes was the most painful, being outside their care, as foreigners in public, was the most frightening. I polished my public Russian image so I could blend in. In addition to my black leather coat, silk scarf, brick face without smile in public, I stuffed an orange and black -striped ribbon in my purse so I could whip it out and tie it on at a moment’s notice. This ribbon was the Russian nationalists’ symbol; I would look safely like a Russian nationalist with a St. George’s ribbon on my purse.

Once when I was in Moscow I called home and said, “Johan -- I forgot to tell you. I moved that carry-on suitcase -- the one to take if they knock on our door.” High-profile deportations of westerners -- politicians who were proving their mettle by deporting hapless English teachers -- were enough of a thing that I put everything I would need for a sudden deportation back to the US right next to our front door. Some of our students believed it was enough of a threat that they described for us what cars the immigration service would use - the Russian equivalent of an FBI Black Maria.

And I resolved, once I returned to the US, to help individual foreigners in the U.S. feel welcome. In the Old Testament, the foreigner is sometimes an example of a marauder, but more often of the vulnerable, as in Deuteronomy 24:17-19 “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

Even back then, foreigners were vulnerable, without status or protection, and God told Israelites to treat them well. That part has not changed. We must treat the foreigners among us well, particularly if our country had much to do with making their country a dangerous place to live in. While we’re at it: What national problems might be hiding behind these “enemies” and distractions being thrown at us? What does our political leadership not want us to see? Let’s focus on those problems. Let’s reject fear, so that God might bless us in all the work of our hands.

Judy Maurer is a member of Moscow Friends Meeting, Russia, and Eugene Friends Church, USA. From 2008 to 2017 she and Johan taught English at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal. Before leaving for Russia she was a publicist and fundraiser for ARMS - Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services. She is writing a book on anger and angry people.

Photo: at Cathedral of Elijah the Prophet, Yaroslavl.

Mike Farley: The heart being the place where God's love meets us (Romans 5.5-6) it meets too there the one whom we are holding in our heart.

Red Cross photos from Russia of the Civil War era. (Last two photos are from the region where Friends worked in famine relief.)

Bridget Collins in The Guardian on the top 10 Quakers in fiction. (Thanks to Martin Kelley for the link.) I would have included the Birdwell family in Jessamyn West's The Friendly Persuasion, particularly Eliza, among my own top ten. What do you think of the list?

Remembering Lamin Sanneh and Friend Samuel Snipes.

Jackie Pullinger warns us that we're going to feel stupid for eternity if ...

And to add to our current season of major space exploration stories, could these repeating fast radio bursts be from aliens?

One more time for this delightful blues collaboration with James Harman at the BluesMoose Cafe:

1 comment:

Melanie Springer Mock said...

This is a fabulous post. Kudos to your guest blogger. She frames the issue well with her own experience in the grocery store, and her entire post challenges me to be more hospitable in my own contexts. I appreciate the work both of you are doing!