Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Paranormal Occurrences

You never know how much you miss something until you see it. Yesterday, during my regular walk, I saw two very strange things.

First, I saw a well-dressed man walking slowly. By well-dressed I mean that he was very obviously not engaged in any athletic activities. He just walked. I even followed him for a while because the only person I’ve seen take long leisurely walks alone in this town is me. The idea that there is another walk-loving soul in the area was disturbing and heart-warming at the same time.

Then, I saw a group of teenagers. They were rowdy, as teenagers should be, throwing a ball to each other, laughing, shouting. I stared at them like they were an apparition. God, I haven’t seen a group of 13 or 14-year-old kids walking around, enjoying themselves out in the streets since I moved into this area. It made me so happy to see that at least there were four or five boys in town who got a chance to hang out with their friends doing nothing instead of being shipped from one scheduled activity to another by helicoptering parents.

This is the safest area in the universe, folks. I’m a very paranoid person but I have now started forgetting to lock my front door when I go on my walks. It’s safe, quiet, and beautiful. And still, nobody is ever outside. Yesterday, we were at +21C. This is summer-time weather. And nobody went outside to enjoy it. I’ve walked around our middle-class area, the nearby poorer area, and the rich-folks area across the road. There is never anybody outside. Gangs of teenagers and people taking walks do not exist. Young people drive to a convenience store they can see out of their windows for a can of soda.

Say what you will, this is just wrong.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Politeness

Recently, I was talking to some of my colleagues about cultural differences (for the obvious reasons, most of my colleagues are foreigners), and we agreed that one of the things that really distinguish the English-speaking culture from our own cultures is the degree of politeness.

When I first moved to Canada, I remember feeling extremely suspicious whenever a cashier or a store assistant would greet me with, “Hi! How are you?”

“What do they want from me?” I’d immediately think. “Where is the trick? What are they trying to achieve here?”

In my country, you can enter even the most expensive, chic store you can find, spend a fortune there, and the shop assistants will treat you like garbage. (We have a long-standing tradition of salespeople being extremely rude and condescending that was inherited from the Soviet times and that shows no signs of abating.)

Or, say, you come to a party of Russian-speakers. Unless you are a foreigner*, you will be immediately greeted with (no “hello” or “good afternoon”, of course), “Oh my God, you look horrible. How did you manage to gain so much weight? Look how wonderful I look. Why can’t you look this way, too? This is a very old dress you are wearing, isn’t it? Why do you never buy any new clothes? Is it because you make no money? You are too old to make no money. How old are you, by the way? Did you say forty-five? No? You are just thirty-five? Wow, you’ve really let yourself go. Oh, the dress is new? Looks very worn and old, though. Are you sure it wasn’t a second-hand store where you bought it? Oh, wait, I will give you a great recipe to stop your hair falling out. Yes, believe me, you need it. Everybody, come here! Look at her hair. Tug at it. Tug harder! You see? I told you it was falling out!”**

Gradually, I came to recognize that politeness has its uses. Say, somebody pushes you accidentally on the bus. Instead of clawing at their face and screaming, “What the fuck did you just do, you creep?”*** you can simply say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And the person who pushed you will respond, “Oh no, it was my fault. I apologize.” And that, for some reason, makes you feel much better than greeting every action by a stranger with invariable aggression.

Now I tend to scare people from my Russian-speaking community by greeting everybody whenever I walk into a room, saying “please,” “thank you”, and politely enquiring about their well-being. Whenever I say, “Could you please pass me the salt? Thank you!” people look at me with a heavy suspicion. I can see they are waiting for a punch line which never comes.

My colleagues from Spain and Mexico report similar experiences.

* If foreigners walk into a Russian-speaking party, they would have people grovel and fake extreme politeness while saying really horrible things about them behind their backs.

** This is a completely real conversation I have had quite recently with a compatriot.

*** Again, there is no exaggeration or fictional flight of fancy here.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: A Woman As a Syringe

The carefree, happy-go-lucky, gulp-it-down-and-think-of-the-consequences-later attitude to medication on this continent is nothing short of shocking. Look what I just came across at a blog written by an educated, intelligent person:

A friend of mine has to give medicine to her month-old baby. The medicine is liquid, and apparently tastes disgusting. The poor baby HATES it and tries not to swallow it, making the whole thing an ordeal. What if the mother could take the medicine instead? Then she could nurse the baby as usual and the baby would get her medication without having to deal with the yucky taste.

The thought that the mother would be exposed to a drug that she absolutely does not need with God only knows what side-effects and with potentially dangerous consequences never even crosses this blogger’s mind.

Let’s forget for the moment that this is a woman writing about another woman as if her body were a sort of a giant syringe or a drug-dispensing device whose only role is to provide needed substances to a child. Let’s just concentrate on the ease with which the author suggests that a healthy person should take drugs because it’s convenient. To somebody else.

This is how the blogger in question justifies this atrocity:

I’m sure there are quite a few cases where the mother would rather take a bit of unnecessary medication herself than have to make her poor baby miserable several times a day.

Taking even seemingly necessary medication is a huge decision that should not be taken lightly. I’d suggest that even Tylenol be avoided as much as possible unless one is really in horrible pain and has exhausted every other option to get rid of it. But taking “a bit of unnecessary medication” cannot possibly ever even cross the mind of a psychologically balanced individual.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Charity

Today, people from one of the local churches knocked on my door. They were collecting food for their food bank. I happily participated and was quite surprised that they neither asked for my religious affiliation nor were in any way daunted by the Star of David that was featured prominently on my neck.

The reason why this surprises me is that back in my country, my mother was once kicked out of a charitable Jewish organization for not being Jewish. She is married to a Jew and has two half-Jewish children but that didn’t help. Mind you, she wasn’t trying to get charity. She was trying to participate in visiting elderly people and in bringing them food and winter clothes. At first, people in the charitable organization were misled by her looks (she is kind of the most Jewish looking person of all of us, in spite of not being Jewish) but when the horrible truth slipped out, she was expelled from the charity.

It’s nice to see that one doesn’t need to prove one’s religious or ethnic credentials to participate in doing something good for others in the place where I live now.

When the people collecting for charity were leaving, one of them said, “Merry Christmas!” Then, he looked at my Star of David and corrected himself, “Or. . . erm. . . happy whatever you celebrate.”

“Christmas works for me,” I replied.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: American Radio

Back in Ukraine, I used to be a huge fan of nighttime radio shows. I find something very comforting in the idea of voices speaking softly in the background as I work on the computer, informing me of the news and not trying to invade my field of vision. In the US, however, I never had a chance to listen to the radio. Since I don’t drive, it didn’t feel like it made sense for me to buy a radio.

Now, however, I finally decided to familiarize myself with the American radio, especially as so many people rely upon it as their main source of news. I had no idea how to choose a radio station or which stations are good. I think I vaguely heard something positive about a radio station called the NPR. I seem to recall a former colleague of mine telling me that his first action as a finally employed professor was to donate money to the NPR to support their progressive activism.

I have no idea if the NPR my colleague supported is the same NPR that I’m listening to but I have to say that I’m a little confused. As I said before, I have trouble determining what counts as news as opposed to humor among the American news sources. This is why I’m now confused as to whether this NPR channel is supposed to be humorous or serious. The very first two pieces of news I heard about from this radio station were:

1. A Tea Party group in Florida is protesting against fluoridated water because they believe it is a governmental intrusion into the lives of citizens.

2. The Obama administration and the Congress can’t reach an agreement as to whether pizza should be considered a vegetable.

I know there is a lot of insanity going on in the world but, surely, things can’t be that weird. Can anybody enlighten me as to whether NPR is a humorous radio station?

If there are radio stations you particularly enjoy and listen to often, please recommend them to me. I’m planning to take up radio listening seriously since it does wonders for my grading. I want talk radio, though, not music channels.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Inside an American High School

I’ve taught high school students in this country but I’d never actually been inside an American high school until yesterday. So I decided to share my impressions with my readers.

As you can see on the photo, the school is very beautiful. Many American schools look like penitentiary facilities on the outside, which is why I’m happy that our local school was designed by somebody who doesn’t associate education with incarceration.

Inside, the school is really beautiful and very clean. Classrooms are decorated with course-related materials, photos of students, and things students made themselves. Students look very happy, comfortable, and excited to be there. There are endless lockers for students to use. In my country, the concept of school lockers is non-existent and it is a horrible drag to lug around all of your stuff with you all day long.

Bathrooms are clean and they have doors. Soviet school toilets never had doors in the stalls, so you can imagine the daily joys of urinating, defecating, and changing your sanitary pad in full view of your classmates. This is why I was very excited to use a high school toilet that had a door.

Of course, we need to remember that this is considered to be one of the best schools in the area. We are a small town but our high school graduates thousands of students each year. People bring their kids from all over the region to our school.

One thing I found strange is the environment in the classroom. I don’t know whether it is always as relaxed and undisciplined as it was during the class I visited. Maybe it’s just the personal style of the teacher who taught that particular class. I’m used to a much higher level of discipline in the classroom, so I was quite taken aback by the amount of talking, shouting, walking around, and discussing things that had nothing to do with the class that was being taught. I’d say that about 15-20% of class time was wasted on this unruliness.

I loved being in this school. The moment I walked inside, all four generations of teachers in my family that came before me awoke and started screaming with joy. There is something very special about being in a school. It gave me such a positive charge of energy that I kept walking around with a goofy smile on my face until the end of the day.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Children As Salespeople

What I find really weird is when people send out kids to sell chocolate bars, magazines, magnets, or any other kind of junk to collect money for charity. I think this is a very disturbing practice. Isn’t it too early for small children to be involved in the whole selling and buying ideology? They have the rest of their lives to feel like failures at selling stuff. Do they really need to be exposed to that as early as 5 (or 8, 10, 12)?

Also, is it really necessary to inculcate the idea that you can only be charitable if you manage to sell a lot? Then these kids grow up and it never even occurs to them that shelling out huge sums of money to feel self-righteous and good has nothing whatsoever to do with charity. People just sign monthly checks to charities in a completely mechanical way. Often, they even compete through the size of their donations.

We already have sales strategies invade too many areas of our lives. Is it really necessary to expose small children to sales under the guise of teaching them to be charitable? If instead you, for example, take a kid to the old folks’ home and get him or her to read a book or chat with a lonely elderly person, wouldn’t this do a lot more to develop this child as a human being than any amount s/he can bring in by selling stuff?

If I do decide to have a child and that child is forced to participate in this by their school, I’d just buy the entire stock of candy or chocolate bars or fridge magnets with my own money. And then I’d walk around with the kid distributing the stuff to people for free. Otherwise, I’d just die of shame if I see my (imaginary) child trying to sell things to people at an early age.

How do you, dear readers, feel about this phenomenon?

I was reminded of this disturbing phenomenon by this post.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Stories From an American Party

I know people enjoy my party stories, so I will share a few experiences from today’s Halloween party at a colleague’s house.


The moment we arrive at the party people start uttering what to me sounds like a very cryptic phrase, “Go Cardinals!”

“This is strange,” I think. “I know these people, and I’m fairly certain nobody here is Catholic. So why are they all interested in cardinals all of  a sudden?”

I approach a group of people and say, “You know, a student submitted a paper to me this morning. The topic was supposed to be Latin American national identities, but instead of the title, he wrote what you are saying, “GO CARDINALS!” Could you tell me what this means?”

People looked at me with a compassion normally reserved for the terminally ill.

“The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series last night,” a kind soul explained.

“Cool!” I said. “It was a series of what, exactly?”


After figuring out that the Cardinals were a baseball team, I approached the Chair’s husband.

“So,” I said, “are you a Cardinals fan?”

“Yes!” he replied. “The moment we discovered our team won last night we drove to St. Louis and partied until 3 am!”

“That’s so great,” I said. “Now I realize why my neighbors kept screaming all night long. I thought they were just excited about the midterms. I hear that baseball is a very intellectual game, is that true?”

The Chair’s husband plunged into a passionate discussion of baseball. I decided that now that I had him pegged as a baseball fan I had something to contribute to the discussion.

“Baseball rocks,” I said. “Unlike this totally weird American football. I mean, have you ever seen anything stranger than that weird game?”

“Erm. . .,” this ultra-polite man responded, “I’m not sure if you are aware that I’m a football player. I coach our high-school football team.”


N. got . . . erm, tipsy enough to share the following story (even though he is Russian, he is no drinker, so I never heard this before).

“I was talking to my former thesis adviser,” N. said, “and I mentioned that I had gotten married.”

“Oh, who is your wife?” the thesis adviser asked.

“She is the rising star of Hispanic Studies at X University!” N. proudly responded.

“Wow,” the adviser said. “I had no idea you were married to Professor C.R.!”

Professor C.R. was at the party and she cast a terrorized look in my direction when N. shared his story.

“Your thesis adviser knew what he was talking about,” I answered. “Professor C.R. is a star.”


The main difference between an American party and a Russian-speaking party is that everybody is so nice, kind and welcoming that even an autistic and an ultra-intravert feel comfortable and happy. It is unbelievable but during the entire party nobody made a single snide comment or a critical remark about me, N., or anybody else.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Where is the World Located?

It really annoys me when what could have been a good, informative article is ruined by a ridiculous, offensive title. I just discovered a piece that lists important but sadly forgotten resistance movements in the US. The subject matter of the article sounded fascinating, so I sat down to read it with interest. The moment I saw the article’s title, however, I lost all interest for what its author had to say on any issue:

Beyond Occupy Wall Street: 11 American Uprisings You’ve Never Heard of That Changed the World

I’m sure that these were important uprisings that helped shape this country. The world, however, could care less about the Lowell Mill Women’s Strikes of 1830ies or the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936. Other countries had their own strikes, uprisings, problems and victories. So please, let’s stop with the annoying “an American took a particularly successful dump and it changed the world.” And no, the entire planet was not waiting with bated breath for the verdict in the OJ Simpson case.

If anybody tries to tell me this is just a figure of speech, all I can say is that it’s a really counter-productive one. If the author exaggerates the effect of these uprisings on the world, how can we trust him not to exaggerate their importance to the US? One could maybe try to make a case that the two world wars were events that changed the world. Maybe. Other than that, I can’t find a context where this expression can be even remotely useful.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Discovering Inequality

The collapse of the Soviet Union was so traumatic for many of its citizens because people discovered very visible economic inequalities and didn’t know how to deal with that. Of course, since the closing years of World War II, really immense differences in the economic status existed between different groups of people in the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet ultra-wealthy never had a chance to mix with the regular citizens, which is why we could pretend that we were all equally poor and didn’t have to feel tortured by observing inequality on a daily basis.

In the 1990, the “wild capitalism” stage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union began. Now, anybody could make a fortune. Just as easily, anybody could become indigent overnight. Differences in the standard of living among neighbors, life-long buddies, former colleagues, sisters, brothers, etc. became striking and impossible not to notice. Many people didn’t find a way to process these changes and adapt to them. When the opportunities to live a lavish lifestyle had been limited to the chosen few who simply had the luck of being born into the right sort of family, one could tolerate that. However, the idea that one’s childhood friend could suddenly strike it rich right in front of one’s own eyes was intolerable.

Here is my question, though. People in the US never experienced any other economic reality than the fully capitalist one. Why, then, are they all acting like they suddenly discovered economic inequality two minutes ago? Haven’t the Americans had two centuries to adapt to the existence of glaring differences in the standard of living and find ways of processing them? I just read this article, and it reminded me a lot of articles that proliferated in the FSU countries between 1991 and 2001.

When I go on my daily walks, I first pass through my own middle-class neighborhood, then a poorer neighborhood, and finally arrive at an incredibly wealthy neighborhood. There are veritable mansions that I see there. As somebody who was born in the Soviet Union, my first reaction to these palaces is to feel joy that it’s possible for people to live this well. For me, it’s still something new and surprising. I always thought that for people who were born in a capitalist country this should be a non-issue and they should not have an emotional reaction of any kind to it because they must be very used to the great disparity in wealth. But then I read the articles like the one I just linked to and I feel like I’m back home, discovering capitalism for the very first time.

You’ll say this is because of the recession but, honestly, I don’t buy that. This isn’t the first economic crisis and neither is it the last. Capitalism by its nature does not exist without constant crises, shocks, and upheavals. It is not a static system and would not survive as such.

So here is my question: how do you react to the great disparity in economic status that you observe around you on a daily basis? Do the mansions of the very rich make you feel curious? Angry? Or do you fail to notice them because you are used to their existence?