Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Culture Shock

Every time we come "home," things here seem just a little different.  It's hard to tell if we're changing or if this American life we remember so fondly is changing... probably a little of both.  This return, though, I thought I'd write out some of my first impressions of life in Boulder to glance back upon after we've been here a few weeks to see if they still stir even a small amount of culture shock.
  • Exercise Mania!  Every trail seems crowded with runners.  Cyclists swarm every road, snow covered or not.  Hikers, walkers, and rec centers seem to amass on every street corner, showing off not only their athletic prowess, but their triple digit (minimum) gear.  It's strange to be back in an exercise culture, realizing just how different life seems in Russia.  Exercise in Russia does not feel like a lifestyle, but rather something built into daily life or a luxury for a day off.  Already, this moment from Back to the Future has popped into my head multiple times.
  • Really, we're still wearing Crocs?  Boulder fashion really exists in a world of its own.  I caught myself staring at Boulderites in various places around town just trying to figure out what exactly people were wearing.  Layers of hemp, wool, dreds, plastic, pajamas, and all kinds of other materials seem to envelop people here, seemingly in a way that other Boulderites can appreciate, but so foreign to the city standards of Moscow to which I've become accustomed.  I never thought that I would frown on a style concept I used to embrace so fully.  However, after a few years in a new culture with new norms, I can certainly see why Boulder was voted one of the 40 worst dressed cities in America. 
  • It's been only a few days, but we've already met the two friendliest people in America.  Despite its quirks, Boulder continues to uphold the customer service standards consistent across the USA.    People are so friendly, so accommodating, and so kind here - and just doing their jobs.  Our cashier at Panera actually cheered when I ordered a coffee drink.  Finally, I thought, somebody who gets it!
  • Food.  Americans don't seem to use the word "food" anymore.  It's been replaced with "organic," "natural," "whole grain," "free range," "hyper-allergenic," "gluten free," "produce codes," "Greek yogurt," etc..  It's a bit intimidating, not to mention overwhelming, to step into this cultural focus when so few food alternatives are available where I live and provide meals for my family.  It feels as though America's obsession with food has not changed, just the terminology used to describe it.  I'm aware that Russia is not a "food culture," but I'm realizing what exactly a "food culture" looks like every time I come home here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Conference Life

These past few days at our Winter Bible Conference just outside Moscow caused me to reflect on the very similar conferences I experienced as a college student in Denver, Colorado an indeterminate number of years ago.  Although conference goals, spiritual atmosphere, fellowship, outcome, etc. of such conferences across the world remain very similar, I was struck this year (and perhaps every year to some degree) by just how differently these conferences feel culturally.  To provide a short glimpse into some of those cultural (or perhaps lifestyle) differences, here are some of the comparisons which come to mind.

Food

  • Hungry college students remain hungry college students every year at the Denver Christmas Conference.  There are no meals provided, however, the Adamsmark Hotel right on the 16th St. Mall in downtown Denver provides even the most particular foodie several delicious options for satisfying one's hunger.  I remember stocking up on some non-perishables for breakfasts and lunches, but venturing out on the town with friends for dinners.
  • Every meal at the Russian Winter Bible Conference is provided and prepared as part of the service of the hosting conference center.  Students and staff alike depend on these hearty meals as typically conference centers are a bit isolated and eating out is not something done on a student budget or out of respect for a student budget.  Meals are very much expected here:  a breakfast porridge of some kind (oats, rice, wheat, millet, etc.), a lunch of soup, salad, plus some kind of main dish, and a lighter dinner with tea on the side.  Some personal highlights:  a morning breakfast porridge made of macaroni noodles and milk, a liver lunch with buckwheat on the side, and a fresh salad of boiled peas, potatoes, beets, ham, onions, and mayonaise.  Bon appetit!


Travel
  • Our conferences here in Russia host students from all over the Russian Federation - that's nearly 11 time zones of cities and students coming together in one place.  We had students this year all the way from Vladivostok who fortunately were able to fly affordably to the conference, otherwise their time on the train traveling to the conference would have easily doubled the length of the conference.  It is not uncommon for students to spend 2-3 days on the train in order to attend our annual conference:  their commitment and excitement to be with us are both humbling and encouraging.  In total, though, we typically see 50-100 students from the entire country attend each year.
  • US conferences are done regionally, but still bring in massive amounts of students - some who road trip for hours in order to attend together.  Conference numbers differ from region to region, smaller conferences hovering close to 200 students, while larger conferences hosting 1,000 students or more each year.

Extracurriculars
  • Although the conference content is always interesting, what I remember most from my US conferences centers more around the fun we had together after hours:  crazy games of tackle spoons, photo scavenger hunts of downtown Denver, and dancing, dancing, dancing - most conferences now even host a $1 retro prom one night of the conference.
  • In Russia, I believe the extracurriculars are also just as important as in the States and, with a few exceptions, students seem to enjoy very similar activities.  Games of Uno, Phase 10, and Monopoly Deal take the place of any game using traditional playing cards, though, so as to avoid the image and temptation of gambling among Russian Baptist and Orthodox believers.  Similarly dancing is also mostly prohibited, except for showcasing or teaching different national dances (Caucasian, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Siberian, even American country line dancing have been featured in conferences past.)  Also, due to the climate and location, ice skating and ice hockey also serve as fun free time fillers during the Russian conferences.  Some staff are notorious for coming primarily for the hockey and secondarily for the conference.



Students still come, though, to be with other students:  to learn from one another, pray with one another, get acquainted with one another (yep, college students anywhere are always open to meeting Mr. or Mrs. Right at these kinds of functions,) and generally have a good time.  That's why I went 4 years in a row back in the day - and that's what still compels Russian students to join us today.  It's refreshing to remember that although we may present very different cultural conferences, the key elements never seem to change.  Allowing college students to gather, meet with the Lord, as well as one another seems to represent a formula that serves us well globally.