Mon, Feb 18 2008Andrew Spencer
Yellow Jacket Staff Writer
"Yesh B'leenie." It was a command, and I knew it. I stared at my Russian host mother, Nina, trying to figure out why she was using such harsh tones to tell me to eat these thin, Russian pancakes, when I already had breakfast plans.
I hesitated and our eyes locked. I knew I had lost. Bewildered, I went into the kitchen and downed seven steaming B'leenie, all the while telling Nina in my broken Russian that they were the best B'leenie I had ever tasted and that, yes, of course I would have another.
This was the situation. On Saturday night, my girlfriend's Russian host mother, Svetta, had invited me over to her house to eat B'leenie. Naturally, I was delighted, and accepted the invitation at once. I told Nina, or "Mama," as I usually called her, and she seemed a little disgruntled. Little did I know the rage beginning to boil in her proud, offended Russian ego.
Sunday morning rolled around. I strolled into the kitchen to get some water and say good morning, only to find Mama furiously mixing up a bowl of batter. I was puzzled, but continued nonchalantly toward the pot of boiled drinking water on the stove. I was halted by Mama's scolding voice: "If you're going to eat B'leenie, I'm going to eat B'leenie too." Clearly she was offended, but why? And what could I do? I retreated to my room.
I sat down on my bed, anxiously waiting for Theresa to call and inform me that Svetta was awake and cooking. This was where Mama found me when she commanded me to eat.
After eating Mama's B'leenie, I licked my greasy fingers and smiled weakly over at her. She scowled back. "Are you still going to eat B'leenie with Theresa?" she asked. "No, we'll just go to church as soon as she calls," I replied, not at all truthfully.
After a delicious second breakfast of B'leenie at Theresa's house, I waddled out to the bus stop and headed for church. Masha, my Russian friend at "Church of the Resurrection of Christ," had promised me B'leenie for lunch after the service. I never went hungry in Russia.
Later, I asked my Russian friend Katia about Mama's cooking jealousy. She explained that Mama's behavior was not at all unusual. Russian women believe it is their sacred responsibility to feed their men, whether those men are their husbands, sons, or American students.
If a man eats somewhere else, it is considered an insult to the woman's cooking. Katia informed me that she had once punched her boyfriend in the stomach after he exclaimed a little too loudly over another girl's cooking.
This was just one example of the many cultural differences I faced in Russia. Other differences I experienced included almost being thrown off a bus by an angry old man, eating fish soup with scales floating in it, paying five roubles to use toilets with no seats, and being forced to dance by a very controlling babushka.
I can't help wondering: what do exchange students in America go through? What, for them, produces the same bewildered and disgusted feelings that fish-scale soup and toilets without seats produced in me? Do Americans seem welcoming or cold?
I think I understand what it is like for foreigners in our country, now that I know what it is to live with a family that doesn't speak your native language and to do poorly in class because the professor speaks way too fast. And so, I think the real value of my time in Russia lies in my ability to better understand a portion of the human race and how vastly different but similar we all can be.