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After my first trip to Russia in 2002, here are my impressions, observations and feelings that I wrote down soon afterward while I was in a state of reverse culture shock. As you can see, I didn't want to be back.
Chapter 60: The flight home and final reflections
I passed through the customs gate and walked into the final waiting area. There were beautiful electronic items in display cases along the way. As I stood in the final waiting area, the girl who helped translate back there caught up and we started chatting. Soon we were both sitting down and engaged in some good conversation. Her name was Yulia and she was a Ukrainian girl attending college in Italy. She was going back there now after visiting her family here in Ukraine. I told her a little bit about me and where I was going. We both emphasized with each other now since we felt sad to leave here now and knew we would miss it very much.
I also mentioned my observations and comparisons between here and the USA. I said how much friendlier and open people here were, and how much easier it was to meet people here since they weren't uptight and snobby. Also, I said that during my trip I saw how much more rich and meaningful the culture here was. And of course, I especially noticed how the girls here have much more substance and maturity than they do in the USA. Yulia agreed with me on these things and said that her friends who visited the USA before said similar things. In fact, one of them had gone to study in the US before, but came back after a few weeks saying it was too devoid of culture and didn't like the shallow lifestyle there. I agreed and said that the US is mostly about work and money and that the lifestyle puts you in a meaningless rut. And that now that I've been here, I would realize it more than ever when I returned to the states. Although I said all this sincerely, I still felt like a fool for saying all this because I was the one going back there, not her. In fact, everyone I've talked to on the way here have said they were going to Europe or some other country, but I was the only one going to America. So I felt foolish going there and complaining about it at the same time. It just made me look sort of stupid. But at least I knew that here I wasn't alone in my views.
When I asked Yulia how old she was, I was surprised when she said 18. No way. I told her that in my country, almost no 18 year old girl talks as maturely and substantively as she did. She sounded experienced, able to reflect on things, and had a lot of knowledge about things. The typical girl her age in the USA is air-headish, impatient, uninterested in deep conversation, and very shallow. Not their fault, but that's how our culture, environment and media make people into. In fact, I described how when I talk to most young girls in my country, all they can say to me is "Yeah", "Really?", and "Cool". Anything else I talk about they act like it's beyond them. Therefore, since Yulia is not the only young Russian girl like this, I surmised that the average young girl here has the equivalent maturity of a girl ten years older in the USA, but without the snobbiness and attitude. What this means is that in Russia/Ukraine, you get the maturity of an older woman in a young girl's body, the best of both worlds!
Yulia also told me that she lived for some time with her family on some remote islands off the east coast of Russia. I opened my guidebook and she showed me where they were on the map. They were very beautiful and exotic, she said. And the paragraphs in my travel guide about them said the same thing. Later on, we exchanged email addresses and she even let me take a photo with her. I knew it would be my last photo taken for the trip and I thought it would be appropriate to have it taken in the airport. (You can see it as the last slide in my online photo album.)
After an hour of conversing, there was an announcement for boarding and we lined up with the others to the gate. But it wasn't clear which gate to go to though, so we wandered about a bit while waiting for direction from airport staff. Eventually, it was clear which gate to line up in and we waited there. After showing them our tickets and passports, we walked through the tunnel platform into the plane.
Inside the plane, Yulia took her seat in the first class section. How lucky she is! I wanted to sit with her there, but knew that I wouldn't be allowed. So we said goodbye and she wished me a good flight. I walked to my economy seat and sat down. A little girl and her mother joined me next to my seat. Although she was Ukrainian, the little girl couldn't understand me when I said "Kak dila?" but she could understand "How are you?" because she kept saying "Fine" in a baby voice.
I looked out the window realizing that that would be the last time I stepped on Russian soil this trip. I knew I would remember all of this fondly. It gave me a chuckle to remember how I arrived here six weeks ago in terror of the unknown at what lay in the six weeks in front of me, wondering if I would survive through this trip. Now though, I could feel proud that I had experienced a country that most Americans feared for six weeks, and would live to tell about it. It would be an accomplishment few in my country could boast of.
As the plane started down the runway, I video taped the takeoff. As we rose into the air, I looked back down and knew that I would be leaving my heart behind back there. I felt a deep sadness and sentiment now. Six weeks ago I came in fear, now I left in sadness. My only consolation now was that at least I would be returning to a westernized world ruled by English where I wouldn't have to deal with menus and signs I couldn't read, using dictionaries to communicate with people, etc. At least I was returning to a world I understood and was familiar with. But I knew there would be another time that I would return again. That was definite.
Like my arrival flight, this flight would go through the same transfer route in reverse, first to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Chicago and finally to Seattle. When we landed in Frankfurt, there wasn't the five hour layover that there was last time though. I looked at my ticket and my next flight was in 30 minutes, so I rushed through the airport. The German customs check didn't take that long fortunately, and then I walked briskly to my next gate. A tall brown hair German girl who looked interesting that I would have liked to get to know if I had time, helped me along the way. On the way, I met up with Yulia again and she said her flight to Italy was about to leave too, so she was rushing as well. We made it just in time.
On the large jumbo jet flight to Chicago, I was seated next to a mellow German man with glasses. I talked to him about Germany a bit and what it was like there. I filmed the takeoff again and from above he pointed out the Rhine River to me. I asked him if the Rhine was where the Bridge of Remaggen was that I saw in an old World War II movie, where the Americans tried to capture it to cross into Germany while Hitler tried to destroy the bridge. But he wasn't familiar with what I was talking about, so he didn't know. When I asked him what German women were like, he said that they were very strong and independent like American women are. But when I asked him if they were as snobby and feminist as American women, he said, "Oh no, they're not like that."
During the flight, there was this computer animated image of a German boy in the plane seat demonstrating safety procedures. The instructions in German sounded very exotic to me, like Russian did. After the safety instructions, the animated boy on the screen just sat there and made random funny movements. It was very amusing to watch. The inflight movie was about three witches with Sandra Bullock (maybe it was "Practical Magic?"). It was nice because it reminded me of life back in the USA, although it wasn't a very good movie. Instead, I put on my headphones and listened to different music stations while I relaxed. I soon dozed off.
While asleep, I had a dream that ended with something causing pain to my ears. When I awoke, the sun outside was shining in my face, and I found that ears were in a lot of pain. The air pressure was tight in my ears, more than it had ever been, and I became worried that something was wrong. It had never gotten this bad before. I tried to pop them by yawning, which usually worked, but it didn't this time. I nudged the German guy next to me and told him that my ears were in pain, though I could barely even hear my own voice. He told me to close my mouth, fill it with air, and then squeeze the air in my cheeks with my fingers. It worked and I was relieved that my ears were back to normal.
When we arrived in Chicago, it was night time there. As I adjusted my watch to the time here, I was shocked to find that my next connecting flight to Seattle would leave in 10 minutes, and we were still rolling on the runway to dock at the airport! There was no way I could de-board here and go through the US customs process all within 10 minutes! How could this happen? We weren't late so how could my travel agent have done this? I just hoped that they would be able to reschedule me on another flight to Seattle tonight.
When I de-boarded and went through the US customs process, I walked to the United Airlines counter (United has a partnership with Luftansa to handle their transfer flights here) and told them about my situation, showing them my tickets. I found out that it was worse than I thought. My connecting flight to Seattle had actually been rescheduled to leave even earlier. In fact, it had left an hour before I even landed! I asked them why that happened, and they said that it happens once in a while for various reasons, and that I was supposed to call in advance to check the schedule, and that it was rescheduled a few weeks ago. I told them I couldn't have because I was in the Ukraine and asked, "You wouldn't have had a toll free number that I could have called from there would you?" They said probably not. (Yes I could have checked their schedule on their website from the internet cafe in Russia, but this never happened to me before so I didn't expect it.) At this point, they told me to go talk to a manager in the next terminal about putting me on another flight to Seattle. Although I was anxious now, I was glad that I could at least communicate fluently now in my own country without using dictionaries or drawings.
I ran over to the next terminal and asked the United staff for the manager. It took a long time for them to get one, so I had to resort to my former American habit of complaining as a consumer when I got slow service. I went up to them again and told them this was an emergency. So they rushed the manager to me and I explained the situation. He said they would do their best to fix the problem and handed me over to a reservation specialist. The reservation guy was an artsy looking guy with scruffy hair and a mellow attitude. He reminded me of the image of an artistic jazz player in Chicago. His calm lighthearted attitude set me at ease as he said he would book me on another flight to Seattle. Normally, I wouldn't be that anxious about this, but my parents were picking me up and were driving 90 minutes to get to the Seattle airport. Since they didn't have a cell phone, the only way I could leave a message for them was on their answering machine, which my dad claimed he would check occassionally in case I experienced a delay.
The reservation guy said that the only flight to Seattle left tonight was an American Airlines flight that left in 20 minutes. He said I might be able to make it if I ran, or he could just book me in a hotel inside the airport tonight, at their expense, and have me on a flight to Seattle in the morning. He recommended the latter, and I wondered if he did so because there was a business reason for not putting me on another company's flight. However, he also said that my luggage would not arrive in Seattle until tomorrow anyway, since it was too late to load it onto the American Airlines flight. It would be driven to me when it arrived though. I had never had a free hotel stay before, so it sounded nice, but my parents were waiting at the Seattle airport, and if I took the flight tomorrow morning, they would have to drive 90 minutes again to pick me up. I didn't want to inconvenience them like that, so I decided to try to make the American Airlines flight in 20 minutes. The reservation guy said ok and gave me the transfer ticket. I ran up the plank but then had second thoughts. I would rather arrive with my luggage, I thought. So I turned around and told him I preferred the latter offer. He said ok and offered me several morning flight times. I picked one close to noon so I could sleep in (I really needed it!) Then he issued me a hotel ticket, a bag of hygiene amenities, and some meal vouchers. After he told me where to find the hotel inside the airport, I left. I never knew they put a hotel in an airport, but this was Ohara Airport, one of the largest in the world, so they probably had a need for it.
The hotel was very nice and luxurious, and I was glad to be pampered with western style amenities for this trouble. At the check in line, I told some British people what had happened, and they were in shock. I rode the elevator up to my room. The room was very fancy and luxurious and looked like it would normally cost about a hundred dollars. I appreciated that at least. I picked up the phone in my room and used my domestic calling card to leave a message for my parents, explaining what happened and giving them my new arrival time tomorrow.
The room had a wireless keyboard where you could order internet access to use, play video games, etc. I used it to send some greeting cards to people from Chicago. I didn't like using the wireless keyboard though, because I had to push many keys twice before it would register. This made typing really slow. Then I shot some footage of the room with my camcorder, saying briefly what had happened. Afterward, my curious personality brought me down to the lobby and hotel mall to see what was going on. There was a gym, tanning salon, and restaurant open. The restaurant looked very fancy, dark, and romantic like a scene out of a commercial. I thought, "If only I had a special Russian woman with me to take in there. It would be perfect." Then I went back to my room and took a shower in my luxurious fancy bathroom. I was glad to have fully functional hot water again! If only one of my Russian girlfriends were here, they would feel pampered by all this too. Afterward, I went to sleep in my luxurious queen-sized bed.
The next morning, I called my parents and they told me they had gotten my message and would come pick me up again today. After showering, I heard some noise outside, so I opened the door. At the same time, the door across from me opened and a young American girl in white bathrobes saw me in my underwear and said, "Oooohhh, naked!" I felt embarrassed and replied, "Nah ah. I'm wearing underwear." She said, "Underwear doesn't count. It's the same thing." I was about to say, "If you like it, come get me then." but refrained for some reason. After all that I went through with Russian women, I was a bit stunned at this reaction from an American girl. It told me I was back home again.
As I got dressed, brushed my teeth with the bag of amenities, and made coffee with the included coffee maker, I heard the girl across from me yelling and arguing with some guy out there. Thank God I wasn't dealing with American girls anymore, I thought. I opened the door anyway to ask if she was alright, and she said yeah.
Down in the hotel lobby, I had this 50 dollar off coupon with a 100 dollar purchase for the jewelry store that I wasn't going to use, so I decided to look for someone to give it to. I saw a tall attractive American girl and decided to give it to her, using it as an opportunity to see if girls here were so different after all. I went up to her and offered it. She said she wasn't going to buy any jewelry, but that her mom might be interested so she took it. Sure enough, as I feared, she talked to me in a snobby closed manner that told me I wasn't allowed to even try to extend the conversation with her or socialize in any way because I wasn't worth her time and she had better things to do. You could see it and feel it in her vibes and body language. "Oh no" I thought "It's back to snobland now." I felt deflated as I realized that I could no longer just approach girls I saw anywhere and get acquainted with them as I had the past six weeks. Now I felt like Superman who had lost all his powers (like in the movie "Superman II"). I knew this would suck, and that I would feel withdrawal symptoms soon. I was going to pull my usual maneuver of asking for her email address, but decided not to.
After I checked out of the hotel, I went to the area where the reservation guy who helped me last night was at to check in. He greeted me warmly and then walked me to where I needed to go next. As we walked, he said "Winston, you know, you're a cute guy." At first, I wondered if he was a "blue man" as Julia and Elena would say, but then I realized that it didn't matter and asked why. He said that I handled the situation last night well and that I was unusually calm. I replied, "Do you mean that most people in that situation would have gotten a lot angrier and said 'Why can't you folks f***ing do your job right......'" He said, "Yeah that's right." I replied, "Yeah well, I just came from Russia, and when a service goes wrong there, I'm used to not being able to complain like an American consumer. There, they just say 'Hey, it's Russia!'" The agent laughed and was intrigued that I had just been to Russia.
In the final waiting hall, I decided to use my meal voucher to get something from the airport eateries rather than the hotel restaurant, which was more expensive. On the way, I saw another hot American girl and decided to ask her the time to see if American girls were really so different from the girls I had been with the past six weeks. Sure enough, again she answered with a snobby closed attitude and vibe that told me I could ask her a simple question like that, but that was it. Looking around, I found an old favorite of mine back in California that I didn't have in Washington, Uno's Pizzeria. They made some of the best deep dished pizza in the world, so I bought some pizza there with my meal voucher. It was sooooo good and hit the spot. I took it to the waiting area at my gate and ate it. I sat next to a teenage girl and her parents who were going back to Seattle. They told me they had just been on vacation here in Chicago, and the food was so awesome here. They were shocked when I told them I had just come from Russia. I told them that I loved the trip but that the food there wasn't that great, and that the best food I had was at McDonald's, which made them laugh.
I boarded the noon flight and found myself sitting next to an Austrian guy. He said he was a pilot for Luftansa airlines and was on his way to visit a friend in Seattle. As I asked him what being a pilot was like, he said that it was decent pay but they took almost half your salary in taxes. He said that the airlines of the Middle East and Egypt paid much better and treated you like family. He also said that each flight for him was like a new adventure, and that he always tells himself that as long as he takes care of his own safety during the flight, the lives of the passengers would be safe as well. That's how he doesn't get overwhelmed with thinking about the safety of all his passengers.
As you might expect, we also discussed views about American people and society. I brought up some of the same things I talked to Yulia about at the airport, and he agreed with much of it. He shared the same views that 1) the American lifestyle and mentality is looked down upon in Europe, and that 2) young Americans tend to have very poor conversation skills compared to young Europeans, and that 3) Europeans are much more real about life and themselves. I said that I realized that this is why there are so few European and Russian immigrants in the USA, compared to so many Asian immigrants. The Asian mentality of sacrificing everything for career and money, and fits in with the American corporate mentality, while the more evolved free spirited intellectual European and Russian mentality doesn't. I also told him about what the Spanish tourists told me at the hostel in St. Petersburg, that everyone they knew who went to the USA came back saying that people couldn't hold a conversation beyond, "What's up?"
In a moment of truth, I realized that America isn't about "what really is" but about "what sells". People here live in their own world, not in reality. They tend to prefer feel good hype and propaganda over reality, facts, and truth. For example, beliefs like "Life is what you make it", "Your fate and destiny are in your complete control", "Attitude is everything", "You can achieve anything and be anything you want if you just set your mind to it", "You can be happy and positive 24 hours a day if you just choose to be" etc. are pure crap when analyzed logically, and contradict reality yet are religiously believed in in the USA, even against all the facts. (I could easily write extensive essays debunking these beliefs and mottos.) Although those clicheish mottos contain kernels of truth under certain circumstances, people in the USA take them in the extreme as gospel truth. And anyone who denies any of those popular mottos of hype is automatically labeled as being pessimistic, having a bad attitude, or victim mentality. The rest of the world sees through that bullshit. I explained that have debated and won against many Americans about the falseness of these hyped beliefs. But no matter how many arguments I technically win or how badly they're cornered, they still choose to believe the false hype and resort to labeling me as one of the above.
Remembering the discussion with Masha in Simferopol, I explained that this is why Americans tend to smile even when they're not happy. Because in our society, we're taught that if you're not happy, positive, and optimistic 24 hours a day, then there's something wrong with you and your attitude and mentality need to be fixed. That is what pop psychologists, motivational speakers and many Americans seem to teach and imply. Well that isn't reality and it's not human nature either, and while the rest of the world accepts that, Americans don't seem to get it. That's why people in other countries have a view that American smiles and happy faces are not genuine or natural, but fake and contrived. I explained that in my country, if you act or look unhappy, people will look down upon you and invalidate your feelings. Friends will think you're being rude to them (as I did with Masha), and you will get in trouble at work as well. While in Russia, I noticed that people look the way they really feel, even when they're at work or in a service oriented job. They are allowed to feel unhappy or down if that's how they really feel, unlike the USA where you have to fake happiness and confidence all day long. I never really realized that until now. When I first came to Russia six weeks ago, I wondered why many Russians showed miserable and unhappy faces, and didn't pep themselves up like we would. Now though, I realized that at least those Russians were being honest with how they really felt, while Americans tend to fake happiness and smiles which aren't even genuine.
I also explained that I never understood why when people in my country ask the typical "How are you?" that you always had to say you were fine, good or great even if it wasn't true. What's the point of asking then? Is it just to motivate you to lie or force yourself to feel positive? Any other answer would be considered rude, since people who ask that question don't really care how you are, but use it as a greeting gesture. The Austrian pilot told me that when his friends ask him how he is, they are genuinely interested in how he is whether he's doing good or bad. He also said that in Europe, when you are asked how you are, it is acceptable to say that you are not feeling good or happy if that is the truth.
Again, I felt like a fool for saying all these things about my own country, especially since we were in the USA now. But I believed in telling things as they are and how I see them, rather than parroting the kind of BS hype that there already is enough of in this country. Since everything we talked about was politically incorrect though, I looked around to see if anyone else was listening who might be offended. Later on, a stewardess came by and told the Austrian pilot that there was now a seat available for him in first class if he liked, and he accepted, said goodbye to me, and left. (The perks of being an airline pilot I guess)
In the seats nearby, were a group of college or high school students with "Washington Cheerleaders" on their t-shirts. When I heard the way they spoke to each other, I noticed how airheadish and pointless it was. I thought "Oh great. Why did I come back here? These airheads with no conversation skills at all are why I left here in the first place!" I realized that in all my travels around the world, people like these were among the most bland, cultureless, and dull that I had ever met. Unfortunately, they comprised the majority of young people in my area.
During the flight, I kept thinking about my whole trip, wondering what I accomplished exactly and whether it was worth it or not. In summary, I visited a total of 7 women and hit it off with only 2 of them. Terry had said that that was a good average, and maybe it was, but I had no idea whether those 2 women were willing to carry our relationship to the next level or not. So I wasn't sure whether these two "hits" were going to have any long term results or not, though Natasha was the best prospect. That was the question lingering in my mind. But, I thought, either way, I had a lot of interesting experiences that I never would have had in the USA, and learned many things about another culture. I felt that I was personally enriched by all of this, and that being on my own for 6 weeks in a foreign non-English speaking country did help me to grow up a little as well. Perhaps, I thought, these things alone made it worth it, regardless of what the long term results are. And besides, the 7 women I dated, I made many new quality friendships and associations which could lead to somewhere, or at least provide a network of contacts that could lead somewhere.
Another problem that lay ahead for me though, was that I knew I would be in reverse culture shock when I got back, as I had already been accustomed to the way things were in Russia and Ukraine. Since I had lived in Taiwan for a year ten years ago, I knew what reverse culture shock was like. But this one would be on a much larger scale than that time, because this trip has changed my whole view of the world, of myself and society, and of my relationships with women. I knew I would go through an awkward adjustment period, not only with the lifestyle back home, but with my mentality toward life and my future as well. Terry had predicted that this period would last anywhere from two to three months, and I knew that he was right. Oh well, at least I would know what a Russian immigrant goes through when he goes through the culture shock too.
When we flew over Mt. Rainier, I took some video footage of it. Seeing that on a plane always told me that we were close to Seattle now. When the plane landed, I waited til we docked before I filmed it and said with completely certainty, "I'm glad I made it back alive to tell about this trip to the forbidden country!"
After I got off, I retrieved my luggage and waited outside for my parents to pick me up. When they did, my dad smiled and the first thing he said was "You're a very brave man" in Taiwanese. Before driving me home, we went to a Chinese restaurant near Seattle and bought some groceries too. I heartily ate the meal, since I hadn't had much of the kind of food I was used to throughout my whole trip. After they drove me home, I spent all day and night unpacking and settling down, bracing myself for the reverse culture shock ahead of me.
Since coming home, I emailed my final update to everyone, and as Terry and I predicted, I went through a reverse culture shock for a few months. I had become so accustomed and integrated in Russian society, that life here now felt awkward. I feel that Russia lives inside of me and has become a permanent part of my soul, changing me internally forever. I kind of feel like the character played by Kevin Costner did in the movie "Dances With Wolves" after he discovered and integrated with Indian life and culture. Whenever someone tries to discredit me or tells me that what I experienced wasn't true, I use that example and tell them that they are like telling Kevin Costner's character that what he experienced with the Indians wasn't true and all in his head. I tell them that it's pointless because he knows what he experienced, and you only have speculation and bias.
I started a new sales job for a cell phone company here, where I gradually learned to speak English fluently again as a result. It was a big asset in helping me to save up enough money for a longer trip next time. In fact, I think about returning to Russia everyday. I have gone through periods of homesickness for it, especially since I don't have the joy and warmth from people here that I had in Russia. Like I said, it's a totally different atmosphere. I have made a few Russian friends here that emphasize with how I feel, fortunately. I have kept in touch by phone and email with many of the Russian girls I visited and new friends I met along the way as well. It has helped lift my spirits. Everytime I watch the tape from my camcorder footage, it lifts my spirits as well since I am reminded of the wonderful memories there.
I now feel that this trip provided the most special memories of my life. It was very enriching in a lot of ways. It opened me to a new world, and showed me that there was much more to the world than the one I was familiar with. And that there are much more interesting people out there that shared my views than the ones I grew up around. It also renewed my faith in love and in myself, that I could be liked and accepted after all. Although I had my share of good and bad experiences during the trip, that is life. The important thing is that you learn from both the good and bad experiences. It reminds me of the movie "Grand Canyon". For those of you who haven't seen it (or have but didn't get the metaphor in it), it portrays the lives and dramas that people go through in real life, showing the conflicts, dramas, and experiences of it all. At the end, the group of people go to the Grand Canyon, look at the panoramic view before them and say that they like it. The metaphor represented by the Grand Canyon at the end was to show you that although life has its ups and downs, peaks and valleys, just like the geological layout of the Grand Canyon, when you look at the big picture from afar it actually looks beautiful and meaningful in the end. That's how I began to see the experiences of my trip as well.
Since I was so passionate about my experiences and what I learned from my trip, I decided to write this book and chronicle all the special experiences and memories. Not only to share with others, but for my own records as well, since memories tend to dim with time. I wanted a hard copy for my own records as well, to check back on in case I'm not sure about something. Since it was the most special and meaningful trip of my life, it was worth the effort to do this. Also, I bought a scanner and scanned all the best phots from my trip and put them on an AOL pictures website, for all to see as a photo journal of my trip. For many reasons, described in the conclusions section below, I now strongly feel that my soulmate is in Russia, whether I have already met her or not, and I have endeavored to continue searching until I have found her. In addition, I also feel that Russia has become a permanent part of my soul, and changed me forever.
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