Sunday, November 30, 2008

Russian adoptees in the news

A few people so far have alerted me to the recent 20/20 series on Russian adoptees which can be viewed in its entirety (in 5 segments) on ABC's website. You can read the text here or go directly to the first video segment, linked here.

The series focuses on adopted international children who have been found to have Reactive Attachment Disorder. I found the program fairly accurate in its portrayal of the struggles that families and children face in such cases. Any of the children portrayed could be children whom I know.

I had a little trouble with the presentation. I didn't appreciate the way that 20/20 overdramatized everything, such as the family's disgust at the lack of hygiene that their newly adopted children displayed. The narrator emotionally announced the family's horror at seeing the bath water turn black. There was another scene in which an adopted girl from Russia ran around crying for an hour, captured on home video. I didn't like the way that the report talked about "these children," as if they are a different species or a lesser part of society.

I wanted to empathize with the families and children and say, "yes, this happens." But at the same time I wanted to ask what the ABC television network had to do with it. How was it doing any good for them to go and make a news story out of it? Are they helping to break a taboo? Will there be more support offered for families? It felt like they were treading on personal territory, as if you turned on the tv and saw that in a foreign country your personal traumas were being analyzed by the public. I wondered if the reporter had ever been to Russia.

The "intriguing" development that 20/20 offered was a report on a special camp that adopted kids can visit, run by a woman who seems to get along well with them. I liked what I saw of her on the program. I could see how the camp could be therapeutic. It had a fairly regulated daily schedule, including chores, which may more closely resemble orphanage life and therefore help a child calm down. It also had plenty of outdoorsy activities to help release some nervous energy. And we saw the kids being coached to love and respect their adoptive families.

The only thing that bothered me about the camp portrayal was that I wondered if it could be run by Christians, but nothing was mentioned. I wondered what could possibly give someone the heart and the stamina to reach out to children in such a way. But on 20/20 there was no mention of God. We only saw a brief scene of people saying grace before a meal.

After watching all 5 parts, I looked up the camp lady, Joyce Sterkel. She has apparently received much commendation for her work serving international adoptees. I skimmed a few articles about the ranch and didn't see Joyce mention her faith anywhere. But then when I went to the site itself, it did describe the ranch as a Christian home, and it said in very careful language that children were encouraged to attend church and improve their spiritual lives. I just wish that God could be given a little glory in the news. The problems are real, but the solution is more than just another program.

The next holiday...

I don't have the emotional energy to write an intellectual post. So this is a "show and tell" sort of update.

After the last of the Thanksgiving guests left, I decided it was time to make my Jesse Tree for Advent. That took the majority of the afternoon.

I made it out of wire.

I had a picture in a book, and my mom had some ideas, but as usual I ended up not following instructions.

After making the wire frame, I wrapped it in colored paper.

And then some more colored paper.

Now how am I going to make the ornaments match? Hmmm....

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit...
-Isaiah 11:1

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Today and forever

I will praise God's name in song

and glorify him with thanksgiving
. Ps.69:30

The flight

It took me just under 24 hours to get from the apartment where I live in Russia to my house in Massa- chusetts.

My flight was at 6am and I did not bother going to bed before leaving at 3:00. I have found that this method works best. In times when I tried to sleep for a few hours, I ended up with migraines.

I was thankful that the weather had calmed down enough for both the drive and the flight out of Russia to be smooth.

I'm not sure how the first flight went because I was asleep. After that I had a 5-hr wait in Frankfurt. During that time, I received a text from my boss-once again a little late. I'm not sure what is going on, but I'm praying for better communication. She was texting to tell me about the teacher training this Saturday, in St. Petersburg.

When I found my seat on the second plane, I had the window, the aisle seat was occupied by a Russian lady, and in the middle seat was a woman somewhere around my age. The Russian woman turned out to not speak English. I kept leaning over to see if I could help, but the woman in the middle seemed to be making do with sign language and a little German. The flight attendants came around with food and the middle woman acted out "chicken," flopping her arms, and "beef," making little horns. It seemed like they were getting along fine.

Later, we had to fill out Customs sheets while still on the plane. It seemed like the woman in the middle was having trouble getting across "surname" or "nationality." I leaned over and asked which question they were stuck on, then starting translating it into Russian. "Oh, you speak Russian! That's handy." Then we both helped the Russian woman fill out the rest of the form. After that, we all got to know each other a little bit. The Russian woman was going to visit her daughter who had moved to the U.S. recently. The American woman in the middle worked in Germany and was going home for Thanksgiving. I talked a little bit about what I do in Russia. That all helped the time pass a little more quickly.

For the rest of the flight I slept on and off or just sat there. I didn't watch the movie or even get out a book. Every once in a while, we reminded each other of the time. Three hours left! Sigh.

Towards the end, I watched the plane's progress on the monitor. We were in a holding pattern and I watched the plane's path make loops on the screen. Finally, we landed.

Customs was gloriously easy. I think I had an officer who was in training, as they told him that if he got stuck, he could just turn his booth off and wait for help. He was pretty young and didn't ask me anything too intense.

Finally I got my bags and my parents were waiting. We got home around 6pm and I managed to stay up until 9pm.

Definitely a non-eventful trip. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Future of Missionaries in Russia-Part IV

I haven't written on this topic for a few months, but my perspective is definitely changing as rules come into effect. Last year it was "wait and see." Now we're seeing.

When we used to visit Russia back in the 90's, I remember people talking about Russia "closing again" someday. To missionary activity, at least. Get in while you can, they said.

Everything seemed calm for awhile. I'm always aware of things going on behind the scenes-churches being denied registration, having to pay fines, things like that. The occasional arrest of someone doing "illegal" missionary activity. But it hasn't affected me much.

And now, for the first time, the political situation is making me a little nervous. I can't even explain the feeling, but I sense something coming. Obama is going to be inaugurated about the time I will (hopefully) be entering Russia next, and I wonder what foreign relations will be like at that time. I guess it's the next "wait and see."

This is the first time I've had to leave because of the new 90-day visa laws. I might have gone home anyway in December, but it feels quite unpleasant to be leaving by force. I understand that in many countries (like the U.S.), laws are just as strict. Now I can put myself in the shoes of immigrants who've had to leave certain family members behind, or faced deportation. It's unsettling when the length of your visitation is dictated. Especially when that visitation doesn't feel like you're a guest anymore.

I'm trying to do everything by the rules, but they don't make it easy. It seemed to make sense to get a work visa, but it takes so long. I know that a lot of missionaries are choosing the "study" option, but I'm not sure if it's the right one for me. Maybe my Russian could use some polishing, but I don't devote a lot of time to studying it, so I don't know if that could be used as justification. And if I went to study some other subject... am I ready to be a full-time student again?

I know one missionary who got so frustrated with the visa situation that he's looking into getting temporary residence, which is a VERY complicated process. When you live in a place long-term, it makes sense that you have the proper documentation. But it helps to know what that proper documentation consists of. And the thing is, that most of the missionaries I'm acquainted with are fairly careful of their activity. That is, it's not even a question of carrying out a "religious" or "evangelistic" agenda. It's a question of foreigners being able to stay in Russia. Period.

Some activities go on as usual. Short-term teams come and go. But change is in the air.

And for me, change is a plane ride away. In 12 hours or less, I'll be sitting in the airport in Germany, waiting for my flight to the U.S.A.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The elusive Sabbath

I read an article recently that caused me to ponder anew-when is the Sabbath and how should I observe it?

I have two main thoughts about the Sabbath. The first is that it's a time to put life's worries aside and focus on the Lord and people I'm close to. The second is that it's an act of trust: I don't work on this day because it belongs to the Lord and I believe that He will provide.

There seems to be some confusion in modern-day life about whether the Sabbath is Saturday or Sunday or some other day. The Sabbath had always been Sunday for me. Whether I worked or studied, I tried to finish everything by Saturday night so that Sunday would be free. If I had exams or something and wasn't able to finish, I still tried to relax enough to have fellowship on Sunday and then rest a little before getting back to work.

That was in the past. Saturday recently became a very stressful day of the week for me. It was a marathon of cooking, cleaning, errands, preparing for church stuff on Sunday, preparing for teaching on Monday, and trying to catch up with e-mail correspondence. I began to resent Sundays because they "made me" work hard on Saturdays. And Sundays weren't exactly relaxing because I was so tired from Saturday that I could hardly hold my head up at church. Something seemed not quite right.

Then on a recent Saturday I was sick and was trying very hard to prepare Monday's lessons, but my head was just spinning and not generating any kind of coherent thoughts. I decided I was going to prepare exclusively for Sunday and forget about other work.

It felt like a great release to put everything else out of my mind and just get ready for Sunday. Of course, it meant that on Sunday afternoon I had to get back to work. But I felt more rested because I had taken it easy on Saturday.

Is the Sabbath supposed to be the last day, when you finally rest after working all week? Or is it the first day, when you rest as preparation for the next week? Or is it both?

I think that a lot of it depends on a person's individual work/study schedule for a particular period of life. But, as the Sabbath is meant to be "observed," fitting it in ought to be a priority when we are implementing a new schedule or considering which job to take.

I am left with questions, for now.

Devotion to Christ

So deeply did he love that any clouding of the Master's face was felt, and felt at once with anguish of heart...

It is the bride who mourns the absence of the bridegroom, not one who has been a stranger to His love.

(Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission, p. 170)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Missionary Zeal

The word "zeal" used in the Bible can mean "fervent," but the literal meaning is to "be hot," even to "boil."

When you have that kind of faith, you can't sit still. As I read his biography, Hudson Tayler strikes me as someone who embodied zeal.

On the boat going over to China, he and his fellow missionaries pray day and night-not only for the Chinese, but for the shipmates. "Soul-winning" is always in their thoughts and hearts.

The book details the conversion of one of the shipmates.

"Had a special prayer-meeting for the conversion of Mr. Brunton is the entry in Mr.Taylor's journal for August 3.

And the following morning: Could not retire without seeing Mr.Brunton. Read to him at 12:30, when he came from his midnight watch, part of Mackintosh on Exodus xii. (the Passover). After much conversation and prayer, the Lord brought him into liberty."

In the own words of one of those present, more details on what happened:

By the first week in August, matters came to a climax, and it was felt that if he were to be saved it must be at once. He was seemed a life and death question. The enemy was determined not to let him go, and the struggle was fearful. On the night of the 3rd his watch ended at twelve o'clock, Mr. Taylor went just after and had a long conversation with him, those who were up retiring to the stern-cabin for prayer. When Mr. Taylor came down and the answer had not yet been given, he and another continued in prayer till three o'clock. The Bible Class next day was turned into a prayer-meeting, another special meeting was called in the forenoon; and a third would have been held later, but bad weather prevented it. God, however, knew the longing of our hearts, and took the work into His own hands. Mr. Taylor again met Mr. Brunton at midnight, in his cabin; and while he was explaining to him the passage, 'When I see the blood, I will pass over you,' light broke! He saw the plan of salvation; peace and joy took possession of his heart; and he at once poured out his soul to God in praise and prayer-remembering us each one by name, all who were unsaved on board, and his own wife and children." (Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission, pp.75-76)

How often do we really contend in prayer for specific people to be saved? How often do we look around as we're walking down the street, riding the bus, sitting in the waiting room...and think, here are people that need the Lord, in whose hearts a spiritual battle is raging even now? It sounds extreme, but when one gets to the point of boiling, perhaps it's hard to avoid extreme measures. At least, it should be that way.

I find it beautiful that the man's heart was convicted by the message of the Passover; by the blood of the Lamb. Yes, God's plan was revealed even then.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Doldrums and Answers

The snow has arrived. I'm glad to have a warm coat and boots to bundle up in. I feel disoriented in the mornings when I wake up and it is still dark.

I looked up some old blog entries from last year at this time to see how I was doing with the change in seasons. I didn't find a lot of references to weather, but a year ago was when we were just hearing about the new visa laws and wondering what effect they would have.

From an entry that I wrote about a year ago: My feeling is that living here is going to become more complicated, but not impossible. But I'm not worried, because the Lord is with me.

My boss finally wrote and answered some of my questions. First of all, she's out of the country herself and waiting for a new visa so she can come back in and deal with some of these issues. Also, she can only give me about 2/3 of the pay from October because the company hasn't paid yet! And finally, she confirmed that, yes, unless there is some urgent need for me to come back and teach in early December, I should stay in the States until at least the beginning of January.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Boring teacher stuff

I passed exams! I mean, my students did. I spent yesterday and this morning preparing for these sudden final tests that were supposed to have a spoken and written component. I made study guides and squeezed all of the grammar concepts we had covered into a few pages. I made the written test based on classroom/homework exercises, and chose some of the more conversational concepts for the speaking part.

I was printing out the last copy, just in time, and decided to check my email. My boss had finally gotten the opportunity to write from Latvia or wherever she is, getting her new visa. In fact, here were some tips on how to prepare exams, just as I was getting ready to walk out the door. At least her advice was pretty much in line with what I had planned.

She also said she was going to reschedule our teacher training. It doesn't really matter to me at this point, so I'm going to write back and politely remind her that I'm not going to be in the country for training if I don't figure out how to get a visa!

My students seemed sad that the course was ending and they said they hoped we would have another course soon. The managers will be looking at the budget this week to see if they're going to keep English. It would be nice to continue teaching there, as I've gotten used to it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Polite politics

Recently I encouraged some adult ESL students to talk about politics, but it was only for an exercise in "polite" arguing.

First, we reviewed some phrases that might be useful in discussion.

Me: "If you disagree with someone, how can you answer politely?"

Students: "I disagree."

Me: "But politely."

Students: "I'm sorry, I disagree."

Me: "What else can you say?"

Students: "In my opinion...."

Me: "Okay, but that's about me, me, me."

Students: "I think....?"

Me: "Still about me. How can you show the other person you were listening?"

Students: "What?"

Me: ""

The students were stumped. I gave them the phrases "I understand what you're saying, but...," "Good point, but I'm not sure that I agree with you, " etc. As well as clarification questions.

Meanwhile, we tackled the question about how long a president's term should be. One student said 4, the other said 6.

Russia's presidential limit is being extended to two 6-yr terms. Imagine having the same president for 12 years!

The student in favor of a longer term said that 4 years is a very short amount of time to learn how to run a country. She also argued that in "most" countries the presidents serve for two terms anyway, so why not make it long to begin with?

The student in favor of a shorter term said that 6 years is a long time to be stuck with someone if you don't like him from the very beginning.

They both admitted to not knowing much about politics but agreed that it's important to keep up with current events.

That was about as far as we got. We're still at the pre to mid intermediate level. ;)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Russian/American Medicine

I was still lying in bed under a pile of pillows a few mornings ago. Zhenya came in and asked if I wanted some honey mixed with jam (to help me feel better).

"Sure," I said. I dragged myself into the kitchen when it was ready. She put a bowl of something in front of me and even through my clogged nostrils I could smell something strong.

"What's in this?" I asked.

"What do you think?" she replied.


"Yep. And honey, jam, and lemon."

"Interesting." I decided to eat it since when I'm sick I'm pretty much ready to try anything. Maybe I could even convince myself to start liking liver.

After breakfast...

Zhenya: "When you're ill, you must wash all dishes with soap."
Me: "What?"
Zhenya: (same thing)
Me: "Ummm...I always wash dishes with soap. You're supposed to do that BEFORE you get sick, as a preventative, not AFTER."
Zhenya: "I usually just use soap if it's really greasy."
Me: "Oh."

I'm on the road to recovery...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

An early end

I found out earlier this week that the classes I've been teaching are over at the end of 2008. That leaves me less than two weeks before my visa trip, and then a few more weeks in December.

Then I got another message yesterday from our secretary with a list of requests. Keep in mind, today is Thursday:

"[Company where I teach] emailed me yesterday and they said that our planned hours with them run out this week.

They are asking you to please prepare an evaluation test for their students, which should include writing and speaking.

They want their test this Friday (November 14).

I emailed them back and said that it's more likely that the test will be ready only for Monday (November 17) due to this short notice on their part."

So my classes are, in effect, over already. I'm fairly surprised as they hadn't said anything to me about it and I still had several topics planned. And I hadn't talked to my students about it at all. So it seems a little sudden.

At least I won't have to find anyone to cover for me when I'm out of the country.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Laughing and coughing

I had fun at the orphanage yesterday. It was Mary's last day and she had brought some treats. I decided it would be a good day to do a little etiquette lesson so the kids could earn their treats. :) They know "please," "thank you," and "give me," but they don't know complete, polite sentences. So we practiced, "May I have...?", "Here you go," "Thank you," and "You're welcome" in the proper order.

Other than "Thank you," the other three phrases can be represented by one word in Russian. The kids just wanted to say "please" all the time, so we had to practice several times to get them used to using "here you go" and "you're welcome" as well. It was fine, though. I think the counselor was even impressed because they were speaking and learning something useful.

The group gave Mary a craft they had made, and they all signed it and wrote their address.

Today I woke up with a cold, and I was glad I had a busy day so I wouldn't have to think about it. My lessons all went pretty well. I was regretting having planned listening activities since I was losing my voice, but I think it was good practice for the students to fine-tune their listening skills.

My beginners made me laugh today. One middle-aged woman has trouble keeping up with her younger colleague, but she really tries. I don't laugh at her mistakes, but sometimes she laughs at herself and then I laugh too. Today she said something weird like "play the bills" instead of "pay the bills." I was just going to correct her when she was finished with the sentence, but the girl next to her was already giggling, and pretty soon we were all laughing until we were crying. It was good comic relief.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Real life

So what's going on amidst reading and movie screenings?

Yesterday: Prepared 9 lesson plans, taught 4 of them.
Today: Prayer meeting, orphanage, Bible study.
Tomorrow: Teach 6 lessons.


In other news, my visa is already reaching its end. I'm going back to the States in a few weeks. These 3-month visas are so strange!

I don't know yet how I'm going to get back in. No news on the new visa.

I also found out yesterday that our contract at the company where I'm teaching is up at the end of 2008. So where am I going to teach after that? Hmmmm. My momentum suddenly took a nose-dive.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Seeking blessings

I recently got reacquainted with the movie, "Fiddler on the Roof." I hadn't seen it for a long time, at least not since I was old enough to understand what was going on. I did see the play about 5 years ago, I think. But my memory of that is blurred as well.

There are many powerful moments in the movie, but towards the end (or at least into the third hour), one scene stood out to me.

Daughter Hodel and her fiance approach her father and ask for his congratulations on their engagement. He protests the engagement, but they reply, "We are not asking for your permission. Only for your blessing. We are going to get married."

You can feel Tevye's shock and disappointment as his fatherly role is challenged. Of course it is the matchmaker's task to make a match, but the daughter's hand still belongs to her father. This should have been his moment to shine and make the decision that he had the right to make for each of his daughters. But instead, he is offered only the opportunity to bless a decision that had already been made.

But at that moment, I thought, isn't that how we approach God sometimes? "Lord, bless me." We want Him to bless our plans that we have made without consulting His guidance. We want Him to purify us though we haven't yet confessed our sin. We want Him to fix our mistakes that we made because we went wandering about the world without His counsel. We hurry along, thinking how independent we are. And then we come timidly back with a supplication. "Lord, could you help me out a little here?"

And He is merciful.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The inconquerable work

I have been trying for about the past 2 years to read Augustine's "Confessions." That doesn't mean I don't like it. Some of the best works are best read a bit at a time and savored. Sometimes I take that approach to reading the Bible. ;)

But I don't know why Augustine is such a struggle. I open a chapter, start reading, and the topic seems interesting, the words compelling...yet I can only manage about a page (if that) before I either get totally lost or fall asleep.

Maybe part of the problem is the translation. Though Latin, by definition, is made up of complex sentences in which you forget the beginning by the time you get to the end. In my opinion. It would be hard to preserve that in another language.

I can't remember how the topic came up, but I was explaining this problem to my roommate. I brought in "Confessions" to show her, and she began to read out loud. She's a non-native speaker, I might add. And as she read, I suddenly began to understand what the text was about. She put the pauses and emphases in all the right places, so that it sounded like someone telling a long story to someone else (which is the point of "Confessions," the author telling a long story about his own life). I was amazed.

So maybe the key to "Confessions" is to read it out loud. Or to listen to someone else. I made a prediction that all available recordings are probably done in a stuffy British accent (no offense to anyone British, but for some reason the languages of the Ancients are often dramatized with the help of a British accent). So far this prediction has rung true in the samples I've found online.

I haven't found a full version online, except for an offer that expired in August. I'm not sure if I want to download a whole book, but I thought I might be able to find it in parts or a streaming version like they have for the Bible. Any ideas?

Friday, November 7, 2008


There must be thousands of commentaries written on Paul's struggle in 2 Cor. 12:7. I'm not motivated to read them because I don't want my impression to be tainted. But it's clear that many have meditated on this passage throughout the centuries. "Thorn in the flesh" even has its own Wikipedia entry, and variations of the phrase are widely used in the English language to denote a persistent trial.

I opened my Bible to refresh my memory about this incident and to see if there was anything I could apply. I was surprised to read about Paul praying only 3 times. Maybe it is figurative, who knows. But it seems like very little. I think that after 3 times I would keep trying. I don't know if I would have heard God's voice or recognized it as an answer.

I wonder which is better: to keep hoping for deliverance or to accept a condition and move on. Sometimes it seems like people who adapt to life with constant difficulties (physical or otherwise) are more content than those who continue to wait for a miracle. Certainly this is true if the person is completely consumed by his/her waiting. When all emotions and energy are devoted to a specific problem, even if it is time spent in prayer, life can pass you by. Yet, if the problem is debilitating, adapting is not so easy.

As for God's answer to Paul, His power is always made perfect in weakness. And we can always give thanks that He is using our weak bodies as vessels. But does it count as an answer to prayer if God is simply revealing His character, but not giving instructions? Was Paul to regard this answer as a sign for that particular moment, or for the rest of his life?

I have never identified easily with Paul and I haven't envied his life. But I do envy his intimacy with God; his ability to hear God's voice and discern His will.

I am glad the passage is confusing. Imagine if there were more of an explanation. Christian bookstores would be overflowing with "self-help" commentaries on the topic. The key to seeing prayer answered would be to pray the magic words 3 times, turn around in a circle, etc. And if we knew exactly what the "thorn" was, we might limit the application, instead of being able to apply the passage to weaknesses in general.

I am also glad the passage is confusing because I don't find the answer in a human resource. I have to go to the Source. I have to pray about things until I hear an answer. I have to seek God so that I hear when He answers.

Sometimes I'm afraid that the answer will be right in front of my face and I'll miss it because I'm not tuned in to God. Sometimes He tells me gently and patiently, but I don't listen, and understand the answer only through painful (but helpful) discipline.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


It's school vacation week. It doesn't affect life that much, but the kids from the orphanages have been parceled out to different locations: some to camp, some to relatives. And a few are still in the orphanage.

I wanted to do something fun with the remaining kids, like we had done in the past. I'm working with a different counselor now though, so when I suggested going into the city for bowling or a movie, she didn't seem very enthusiastic. "I'll only have two kids here," she said. "The rest of them are going to relatives." I thought that was all the more reason to help the remaining kids have a fun vacation. Then the counselor suggested that we go to the movie theater near the orphanage, so I agreed. I wasn't sure it would be the fun excursion that I envisioned, but better than nothing. Maybe the counselor just didn't want to go to the trouble of getting permission to take the kids out and make the trip to the city.

On the day I was supposed to go, the counselor called and said, "I've only got two kids here. You don't have to come, you can have a day off. It's your choice. " Hmmm. Now what did that mean? I was already dressed. Did she mean she felt sorry for me and wanted me to rest? Or that the kids didn't want me to come? It was so tempting to stay home, and not go anywhere, and not have to deal with the depressing atmosphere of the orphanage. But I could picture the faces of lonely (or at least bored) children in my head. Maybe they were content to lie around and watch tv, but surely that would get old. I changed my mind several times and then decided to go. I grabbed Uno, Phase 10, Yahtzee, and Set. I also grabbed an English textbook in case anyone was feeling ambitious.

As I walked into the orphanage, I decided that I would spend time with the first lonely child I encountered. I stopped by the floor we usually visit. No first-graders came running. It would have been easy enough to play with the little ones, but they didn't seem to be around. The group that I had wanted to take to the movies also didn't seem to be around. I headed up to the next floor. On the way there, I met Roma. "Are you here for a lesson?" he asked. "No, I just brought some games," I said. "Okay, let's play."

Roma is the most friendly and the most difficult. He is sweet and helpful one moment and the next he is swearing profusely and laughing in my face. I managed to put off Uno and try to teach him Phase 10. But his attention span wasn't quite long enough and he eyed the Uno cards. Then some other boys came and joined us. I remembered why I hate playing Uno in the orphanage: All the American (Australian, etc.) teams that come teach different rules. There's Killer Uno, Crazy Uno, etc. I am really strict about card game rules and refuse to play if there's a rule dispute. Here the kids had learned new rules, like if there's a zero you switch hands or if you play a certain number, you can lay down all your cards with that number at the same time. I didn't want to play with those rules. I wanted to play with the classic rules, which were written on paper.

Roma went into a frenzy of playing numerous illegal combinations of cards and then shouting "It's my turn! It's my turn again!" When I protested, he swore at me, or spoke in some kind of "tongue" he had made up. He was either mocking me by pretending to speak English, or pretending to speak Russian so it would seem like I didn't know Russian. The other boys laughed.

Roma, however, is a success story when it comes to English. He remembers everything that was taught and also memorizes what I say, and then puts together sentences. I only taught his group for one year last year and that was infrequent. He doesn't have English in school, but somehow he converses.

At one point, a counselor came in to check on the kids. I wondered what she would think of my cards and dice. I waited for her to yell an instruction to me or the kids, but at that moment, Roma said something to me in English. A smile broke across the counselor's face. She seemed satisfied and left the room. I guess it looked like I was doing something educational.

After I confiscated the Uno cards, I managed to convince Roma and another boy to try Yahtzee, and we played a full round. Then it was time to leave. I walked by a room of boys, glued to a computer game. The corridors were quiet and empty as I left.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

St. Petersburg and economics

In a local newspaper I picked up recently, an economic update included personal tips about what to do when times are tough financially. The following comments are from local deputies as well as voters.

“My wife and I are modest people. We don’t smoke, we don’t drink, we don’t play cards. And with the surplus we feed our dog and cat well. Of course, I do collect books about icon-painting, and the prices on those are a concern. I’ll probably have to moderate my passion.” -Igor Rimmer, local deputy

"Maybe no one will believe it, but deputies don’t especially have anything that they can give up: They live like regular people, from paycheck to paycheck. But I would advise everyone to give little trinkets; things that just show how rich you are." -Oleg Nilov, deputy

"As it is I already live completely ascetically-that’s the charm of the KPRF. This year I went on vacation in my own car, traveled around Russia. I don’t go to restaurants-when I can afford to eat well, it’s only at home." -Sergei Malkov, deputy

"First of all, I’ll start smoking less. Second of all, I’ll start buying cheaper groceries. I’ll abstain from buying new clothes and from going to cafes. Basically, I’ll start to keep a Spartan lifestyle: home-work-home." -Natalya, storeowner

"I won't buy smoked sausages. For a time I’ll stop going on vacation and going to the cinema, I’ll start spending my free time in front of the television: it’s cheap and fun. I would also find myself some part-time work, just in case." -Sergei, machinist

"I would eat as little meat as possible and switch to porridge. Of course, I would have to give up shopping. And I’d cut my husband off from alcohol. By the way, that last point would especially help our family stay afloat." -Olga, barmaid

Source: Zagvozdina, Irina. "Russians advised to tighten their belts." Metro newspaper. 21 October, 2008. Page 03. Translation mine.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A tribute to my alma mater

William and Mary had its Homecoming last weekend. The Russian department sent out an invitation to an alumni reception, and per tradition it started a chain of responses from various alumni about their current locations and fond memories of Russian class.

The e-mails persisted to the point where I even dreamed about Russian Studies! And I began to do my own reminiscing...

I started taking Russian during the second semester of my freshman year. It seemed like it would be useful since I traveled to Russian in the summers and had one (of two) new adopted sisters at home. I had been interested in Hispanic Studies, but then I found out that everyone else took Spanish too. Russian seemed a little more unique.

Soon after I began taking Russian, I started getting "Russian Club" e-mails inviting me to various functions. I didn't know exactly who or what the club was involved with, but I wasn't so sure I could join another organization as I was already fairly busy.

Meanwhile, I didn't know too many people in my Russian class in those days, but I was pretty sure that we were all taking Russian for different reasons. Some chose Russian to fulfill their language requirement. Some had a Russian ancestor/girlfriend/roommate/etc. Many were fascinated with some aspect of Russia: Pushkin; Stalin; borscht...

I was interested too, of course, but it wasn't so much a fascination. My first exposure to Russian "cuisine" and "architecture" had been at a former pioneer camp in the 1990's, and I was just beginning to understand that I hadn't experienced real Russia at all. I hadn't even been to a tea party. But my interest lay in the background of ordinary Russian people. Maybe learning their language, culture, and history would give me some clues.

The Russian program turned out to be a great fit for me. Classes were small; professors were friendly; we could participate in forming the curriculum to meet our needs. I remember memorizing poems, singing "karaoke," and talking about all the dishes on a Russian holiday table. We struggled through Russian classics like New Year's movies, understanding only later that they were major cultural icons. We performed dialogues on video, did oral presentations, and had oral proficiency interviews to assess our progress.

During class we also enjoyed an amusing video series whose plot was laughable but taught us many valuable cultural lessons. We learned about Russian superstitions, intimate kitchen conversations, what to do in the banya, how to register a marriage in Russia, how to behave when you're a guest, etc. We practiced making toasts, negotiating taxi rides, and expressing various emotional responses to statements.

During my sophomore year I decided to major in Russian, while simultaneously being drafted to live in the Russian House....and becoming a Russian Club officer. The "Russian Club" ended up being a series of cultural events, often involving food. The VIP list included anyone who was taking a class remotely related to Russian. :)

In the Russian House, our cultural celebrations became all the merrier as we now had our own headquarters. The sign below reads, "Welcome to Maslenitsa-A Russian Celebration in the Spring." Note the piles of blini! I still don't know how to make blini very well, but I like to eat them. :)

Alas, I don't have too many photos from that pre-digital era. But here is a photo from graduation, with one of my professors:

Ah, nostalgia!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A setback

My plans, my plans, my beautiful plans! I even posted them in my sidebar. And now they've changed...

The attorneys handling our work permits apparently have changed their minds about the date and are now saying December. Instead of October. So instead of getting a 1-yr visa which I thought I would have within a month, I have to leave the country anyway...and come back in on another temporary visa.

I suppose it doesn't make a huge difference, except that I will have to make another visa trip to Finland or somewhere in a few months when the work permit is finally ready. I had planned on my current visa ending at the same time the work visa was ready.

The work permit, by the way, has been in progress since June.

I think I need to buy myself a mobile home that I can just park in whatever country necessary.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Greatest; Personified

Sometimes I dislike 1 Corinthians 13 for the same reason I dislike Proverbs 31: it puts forth a standard that I feel I can never live up to.

Do I resent Jesus for His example? No. But somewhere in my sinful nature I lose the connection to Christ. "Love" in her perfection becomes that holier person who receives more compliments than you; like the Teacher's Pet or the Other Girl who catches the eye of the guy you like. "Wisdom" plays the same role. And just like I fall short of domestic perfection, my shortcomings in love glare up at me from the text. Patience? Failure. Kindness? Failure. Jealousy? Failure. Everyone talks about how great these virtues are, but in life, they are accompanied by trials.

I seem to forget that the embodiment of God's love in my life is Christ, not a report card. And that while loving God and others is a command, it's also a fruit of the Spirit. That means, it's not something I can produce myself. It's the fruit of a relationship with Christ.

Something else I have to remind myself is that God is not trying to trick me. He is not trying to find my weak spot and stick a needle in. He tests us; He disciplines; but it is only for our own good, that we may learn. If I have trouble loving someone, I can call on the Holy Spirit anytime. Any opportunity to love is a gift from God, not a burden.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. -1 John 4:10/NIV

Another positive note

Yesterday I came out of the metro just in time to catch a spot of sunlight hitting this church.

Thank you, Lord, for that small blessing!

5 years later

 After my latest  weird dream sequence , I found my mind wandering to an alternate scenario where our church never split up . I did the math...