Friday, December 14, 2012

There just aren't enough hours in the day

This New York Times story about Russian author Nikolai V. Zlobin's book about America for Russians is both funny and poignant:
But of course much in everyday American life sounds bizarre to Russians, as Mr. Zlobin documents meticulously in his 400-page book, “America — What a Life!” 
It seems strange, 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, that ordinary Russians would still be hungry for details about how ordinary Americans eat and pay mortgages. But to Mr. Zlobin’s surprise, his book — published this year and marketed as a guide to Russians considering a move abroad — is already in its fifth print run, and his publisher has commissioned a second volume. 
With the neutrality of a field anthropologist dispatched to suburbia, Mr. Zlobin scrutinizes the American practice of interrogating complete strangers about the details of their pregnancies; their weird habit of leaving their curtains open at night, when a Russian would immediately seal himself off from the prying eyes of his neighbors. Why Americans do not lie, for the most part. Why they cannot drink hard liquor. Why they love laws but disdain their leaders.
I think attempting to explain any large country that's rather heterogeneous is a fool's errand. The United States is such a mess of ridiculous and weird subcultures -- imagine trying to explain the chemblogosphere to someone who is not a reader or a blogger! I can't imagine attempting to explain Amish culture or suburban American teenagerhood to someone who hadn't lived either of those experiences.

This article is a great reminder to me of all the difficulties that graduate students and scientists from other countries must have when navigating the United States and its strange customs. That they experience difficulty is expected; that most seem to transition to "doing fine" and manage to do good science is pretty amazing.


  1. one thing that comes across from reading the article in NE York Times is that Mr. Zlobin had extensive experience from working in D.C. and living in D.C. suburbs. Maybe if he spent more time on West Coast or Deep south or Midwest he would find people less uptight and high-strung. Also people involved in politics behave and act differently from people in technical professions, small company can be more informal than a large one and so on. So there are limits of such generalizations.

    For me coming from Eastern Europe, almost two decades ago, the most noticeable difference (apart from a sacharine cheerfulness of people in administrative and customer support) was the amazing ability of my new colleagues to present themselves and their work in the most impressive way, and to be assertive and determined without being rude, and to be uncritically optimistic. (We did not have quite individualistic upbringing where I came from so a self-confidence and positive thinking did not come to me naturally.)

  2. The societies might be heterogeneous, and the Russian one is probably more so than the American one due to everyone caring more about small ethnic differences, but there are definite ways that people interact in the public sphere that differs from countries and I can unconsciously say that 'of course the two public spheres are really diffrent', although countries in the same region might be pretty similar. I don't think that Russians lie a lot from my experience. For comparison, I know a culture where you're expected to lie in casual conversation, so I can't tell the difference between the American and Russian data-points on the scale anymore, since they are bunched together way off to the other side. They just don't trust each other and so stay pretty quiet and don't say much unless it's around a bunch of close friends during an evening dinner, so that's very different from the general way of conduct in the US where you invite people you might not know that well for dinner and have conversations about football or politics.

    It's true that they think it's bad to sell yourself and your work because looking optimistic and being assertive are negative traits in Russia, that get you things albeit. This makes it a bit difficult for chemists to adjust, as a lot more of the academic life around here is selling your work.