When A Western Expat Meets The Locals

My wife and I were invited to a joint birthday party last night, to which we arrived at 7:30pm.  By 8:30 I was feeling very ill, and was quite astonished by the speed at which everyone was drinking vodka or some very ropey Martini (never mind the label, if that was Martini then I’m the Queen of Sheba).  It didn’t help that the vodka was of poor quality, but even if I’d been drinking Absolut’s finest I’d have been in trouble.  I’m no stranger to drinking with Russians, but this lot were on another level.  By the time we left at midnight some of them were still going strong.  Drinking like this is a spectator sport.

Anyway, for the last few hours I stuck to juices and tea in a desperate effort (which was ultimately successful) to avoid being hungover for the rather important meeting I have with my boss this morning, and in doing so I was able to talk to some Russians about actual stuff, as opposed to being a gibbering wreck with my head down the U-bend.  One of the things I got asked a lot is why I like Russia so much, and why I prefer Sakhalin Island with its terrible conditions and crumbling infrastructure over Dubai with its fancy hotels and (supposedly) luxurious lifestyle.  The answer, as I’ve always said, is the people.

Here I don’t feel much like an expat.  This party took place in a Korean restaurant which I would bet sees about two expats a month, and I was the only non-Russian at the table.  A handful spoke English, but not much was spoken.  Although I am treated as somewhat of a novelty by Russians, I can safely say that in this group of people, I belonged.  I joined in the fun along with all the others and did not feel one bit out of place.  I met some new people, and drank to their health, and left amongst much back slapping and bear hugs and promises to get completely plastered tonight over a game or two of billiards, which I fully intend to keep should my wife feel generous and allow me to go.  I’ve been in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk only about 11 weeks, and already know a gang of locals.

I contrast this with the Middle East, where I was only once ever invited to a local’s home and never to a social function which involved close friends and family.  There were many meals in fancy restaurants (with a depressing lack of ale), but these were all business related.  I suppose in many ways this was my fault, as I made no efforts to learn the language, understand local customs, or learn what passes for the culture in that part of the world.  But I always got the impression that even if I had made a gargantuan effort to immerse myself into the locals, I would never have got very far.  Indeed, I can’t think of any westerner who is close enough to a local to thump on his door on a Friday (think Sunday) morning, invite himself in, embrace his mate’s wife who is making him a coffee, jump on the sofa beside his mate who is watching TV and demand that he gets his arse into gear because the weather is good and we really should do something.  In fact, I can’t think of any westerner who would feel comfortable banging on a local’s door on a Friday morning under any circumstances, unless he had a prior invitation for a specific purpose.  Every westerner I spoke to on the subject in the Middle East said there was always an “Us and Them” feel about the whole situation.  What I found was an unbridgeable gulf between us and them, and although some people worked hard at closing the gap, the gulf remained nonetheless.

Now it’s one thing to identify that a huge gap exists between two cultures, but quite another to identify why.  I’m just an engineer and not a psychologist so I am not stating this as fact, but I reckon the reason is a difference in the thought processes adopted by the religious and the secular which takes the two to such different conclusions of any given situation, and this in turn modifies the general behaviour of each.  I always feel I can understand how a Russian man thinks (leave the women out of this for now), and never find that I am too far off his wavelength.  In the Middle East however, I often found myself talking to somebody whose mindset was a galaxy or two away from mine.  Take by way of example an entry on the UAE Community Blog which in my opinion highlights just how far apart the Middle Eastern mentality is from, well, just about anywhere secular: 

I have posted an entry earlier this year about the “Wellbeing Show” which featured, among others; magicians, tarot readers, Seminars on how to know your future, and a whole lot of other nonsense.

To all of you who are familiar with islamic laws, you know what kind of offence that is. And if you care, please help spread the word and stop this nonsense.

Then in the comments, a reply reads thusly:

Thanks for highlighting this topic. I believe that only weak people go to these astrologers because they are not content with whatever God has given them. They go to the astrologers because it makes them feel better & stronger, although in reality they are being fooled & ripped of their money.

Which is all well and good, until you read the second part of the comment:

No one in his right mind can deny the existence of black magic, it is a fact. And ajwa dates is one of several remedies prescribed by our Prophet peace be upon him to protect us from the evils of magic.

So tarot reading is offensive nonsense which must be opposed, whereby anybody who doubts the existence of black magic must be a nutcase.  It can hardly be said that these sentiments belong only to a fringe minority in the Middle East, indeed they are pretty widespread, and it was this type of thought process, i.e. that certain trivial things are categorically wrong but we’ll put blind faith in others which outsiders find ludicrous, which I believe prevents westerners from really immersing themselves with the locals in contrast to how I am able to get on in Russia.


7 thoughts on “When A Western Expat Meets The Locals

  1. I contrast this with the Middle East, where I was only once ever invited to a local’s home and never to a social function which involved close friends and family.

    Hey, Israel’s in the Middle East. A good percentage of my brief time there was spent being introduced to, and fed by, relatives of people I’d just met.

    But we’re talking about two different Middle Easts.

  2. But were talking about two different Middle Easts.

    Indeed we are. I’ve not been to Israel so I couldn’t make the comparison myself, but I can well believe the situation is as you describe.

  3. Tim,

    Knowing, as I don’t, nothing about the ME/Gulf/Arab States, even I can see the problem here:

    “So tarot reading is offensive nonsense which must be opposed, whereby anybody who doubts the existence of black magic must be a nutcase. “

    It is offensive nonsense and must be opposed BECAUSE they believe it is real.

    But then, if you live your life by the totally unquestioning belief in a book which you believe to have been dictated word for word, and every word therefore to be perfect, there can be little room for rationality on other apparently arcane matters.

    Or something.


  4. Drinking etc. I was told that I didn’t need to finish off my glass after every toast. What is the custom is for you to have a full glass at the toast. So you can chip away at the vodka/spirits, without having to down a whole lot. Generally, I found that not drinking much was not a problem. If you are not a big drinker, its acceptable. There’s usually a lot of toasts and “Zazdarovia’s”, eh?

    To some extent they are just trying to be good hosts – an empty glass or dish is a sign of being a bad host – that’s why they will always refill you glass.

    Also with the Russians – they eat when they drink which can help with the ability to drink. My mother in law asked me once – “what do English people drink?” I said “beer, mostly.” Next question “what do they eat when they drink” my reply – “usually, nothing – they just drink!”

  5. To Duffy – my own experience is that most Russians are fairly religious, in a particular way. They aren’t so big on going to church, but near universally wear an orthodox cross. To be honest, the line between religion and superstition is often a bit blurry.

    For example, Katja had a bit of stomach trouble the other evening, and took to reading this miniature bible/prayer book she carries with her (since childhood) for relief. I bit my tongue and just sort of accepted that prayer might make her more at ease and went to buy her a bottle of Pepto Bismol. The end result was Pepto 1, Prayer 0 (unless you consider prayer the reason for my inspiration to fetch stomach medicine).

    Regarding Russian drinking habits – I agree with A.E.; however, my hosts and in-laws have always been rather pleasantly surprised by my ability to drink vodka. They always provide you a way out though, if you want to opt out or not partake. When I go out for beer or cocktails here in the US, I’m generally going to have some food with it as well. I just consider it a good rule to follow not to drink on an empty stomach. This puts me in good company in Russia.

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