Explaining American Culture
December 11, 2012 8:51 AM   Subscribe

It seems strange, 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, that ordinary Russians would still be hungry for details about how ordinary Americans eat and pay mortgages. But to Mr. Zlobin’s surprise, his book — published this year and marketed as a guide to Russians considering a move abroad — is already in its fifth print run, and his publisher has commissioned a second volume. - MOSCOW JOURNAL, A Hunger for Tales of Life in the American Cul-de-Sac (SLNYTIMES)
posted by beisny (16 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
“You can’t suddenly show up at a friend’s house in the middle of the night with a bottle of vodka, to talk over your problems and seek support,” he writes.

This poor guy - he's really hanging out with the wrong Americans.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:01 AM on December 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Regretfully, it doesn't look like there's an English translation yet...

BUT, here are some selected quotes from the NYTimes!
"There are great psychological problems present in the majority of Russian-American families, especially when the husband is from Russia and the wife is from America. The more Americanized the wife, the more difficult it is for a traditional Russian to establish mutual understanding with her. A great number of such marriages end in divorce. "
Is it wrong of me to think that this reference to "mutual understanding" involves the American wife being more subservient to the husband?

And yes, he tackles "Your Mama" jokes...
"In an overwhelming number of cases, at some stage, the generations of one family become more distant from each other, lose their ties and see each other only on major holidays several times a year. Incidentally, one of the most popular targets of jokes in America are mothers, which is jarring to ears of a person of different culture. These jokes are much more rude then, say, traditional Russian anecdotes about mothers-in-law. There is a traditional beginning: “Your mother is so fat (thin, hairy, ugly dirty etc.) that ...” Here are the most inoffensive examples: “Your mother is so fat that she can be seen on GPS”, “Your mother is so ugly that even blind children start to cry when they see her”, “Your mother’s mouth is so huge that she speaks with a stereo effect”, “Your mother is like a public library – everyone can enter her” or “Your mother is so dirty that the terrorists use the water in which she washes as a chemical weapon”. "

There are such jokes about other members of the family, but the mother is the main object. They reflect not lack of respect to mothers (a mother is respected here not less than in Russia, there is even a national holiday called Mother’s Day) but a certain historical provinciality of the everyday culture of the United States.
posted by Atreides at 9:30 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

But of course much in everyday American life sounds bizarre to Russians, as Mr. Zlobin Smirnoff documents meticulously in his 400-page book mediocre standup act and worse sitcom, “America — What a Life Country!”
posted by dersins at 9:39 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

One problem is that for many Russians, the US as a concept is shrouded in fantasy and misconception. On the other hand, writing about Russia and Russians is a whole genre in the US press, too, and it's also shrouded in preconceive notions. So writing in the US press about Russians writing about US culture is a fractal whirlpool of stereotypes.

I'm curious to see the "many pages he devotes to privacy," because that's usually an American talking point. I've never seen the hypothetical Russian analog, which I imagine as being a puzzled series of statements like "They don't poop in plain view! Their houses have walls! They don't like it if you listen in on their phone calls! You can't ever get a good look at a stranger's credit card!"

If anything, most "culture shock" narratives I see from the Russian side are either the stereotypical "they eat too much! fast food everywhere! rah, rah, America!" or bizarre, second-hand misogynist screeds about how women in America are drab moor hens with too-high self-regard and no femininity.

But really, I've hardly ever seen any comments about how secretive or private Americans are. If anything, the focus is exactly the reverse, that Americans are loud, public, undiplomatic, intrusive, etc. And it's usually presented as a broad stereotype, because it's fun to make fun of people you only see on TV.
posted by Nomyte at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cul-de-sac translates in Russian as tupik — a word that evokes vulnerability and danger, a dead end with no escape.

The weird thing is, that's what cul-de-sac means in French, too. It translates directly as "bottom-of-bag" (in the rudest possible terms) and in the Francophonie you see signs with those words in places you'd see "no exit" or "dead end" signs -- the kind of street where you have to do a three-point-turn to get out.

The article (and possibly the Russian book as well, who knows) seems to miss the point of spoon-shaped North American cul-de-sacs culs-de-sac? culs-des-sacs?: Less traffic and bigger lots.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:43 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The strangest bit that stuck out to me was the part where Russians were surprised that most Americans don't lie.

I've had so many run-ins with Russians that casually and constantly lie to me that I'm often yelling in my head to not stereotype all Russians this way, but I wonder if it's maybe a by-product of growing up with nothing and having to hustle so much to survive? That maybe as a survival adaptation in the 1980s you had to trick others to help you get what you need and this is generally acceptable? It baffles me and I wish I had an explanation for it.
posted by mathowie at 10:12 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

“Your mother is so dirty that the terrorists use the water in which she washes as a chemical weapon”

I WISH this was still true. Instead we have the thing where you just prepend "your mom" to whatever somebody just said.

"Your mom prepends 'your mom' to whatever somebody just said!"

posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:18 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's probably a by product of living in a totalitarian society with spies everywhere.
posted by empath at 10:18 AM on December 11, 2012

Weird. I grew up on a cul-de-sac in Orange County (yes, very little traffic), but managed to reach the rank of 'нормальные чувак' (regular guy) with my Russian co-workers.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:23 AM on December 11, 2012

There are no cats in America and the streets are paved with cheese.
posted by XMLicious at 10:28 AM on December 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

There are no cats in America and the streets are paved with cheese.

You joke, but one of the things I kind of missed after spending a few months in the developing world and coming back to America was the complete lack of wild dogs and cats here.
posted by empath at 10:35 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

and coming back to America was the complete lack of wild dogs and cats here.

Eh? There are feral cats EVERYWHERE in America.
posted by curious nu at 10:39 AM on December 11, 2012

Eh? There are feral cats EVERYWHERE in America.

I'm sure they are, but you don't have packs of cats and dogs roaming around the streets and randomly walking into restaurants while you're eating. Maybe in the city? I dunno, but certainly not in the suburbs.
posted by empath at 10:49 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's probably a by product of living in a totalitarian society with spies everywhere

On the other hand, if everybody lies, you do kind of need spies everywhere.
posted by deo rei at 12:04 PM on December 11, 2012

You joke,

Lest the reference is too obscure, that was also an allusion to an animated film.
posted by XMLicious at 7:42 PM on December 11, 2012

in the U.S., as a rule, people do not take each other by the elbow and do not tap each other on the shoulder if they want attention, they do not embrace each other like brothers
People don't do this in Russia either. Except really old people.
posted by floatboth at 4:33 AM on December 12, 2012

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