Some people say that the ideal marriage is interethnic: a Tatar woman and a Russian man. My Tatar friend explained it like this: Tatar women are taught from a young age to feed and care for their families, a fact that Tatar men take for granted. In comparison, Russian women are less obliging. So in the union of a Tatar woman and a Russian man, he gets all his needs catered to, and she gets gratitude for all her hard work (which, of course, is all a woman wants in this strange little society in which  I find myself).  I can only imagine that when Russia join the 21st century, the advent of lesbian marriages will be accompanied by a rise in obesity as everyone tries to feed their partner into oblivion.

Of course, Russian household relationships tend to anger little Western me. Fortunately, if we assume that progress starts in large cities and slowly disperses to more remote locales, then the differences between Kazan and Cherepovets seem to indicate that things have begun to change. In Kazan I haven’t encountered even a fraction of the domestic abuse that we did in Cherepovets, thank God, and it’s a lot more common to see women driving and men pushing strollers. But traditional roles still prevail in the home. One recurring event drives me crazy every time: Sasha tells me not to wash my dishes, because “Sveta will do it later” (even if Sveta’s at work all day while Sasha’s been home watching Youtube). As I rinse, I have to think about how I’m going to accept that viewpoint without concluding that Sasha’s a bad husband, which is what that would mean to me in the States. Generally, I manage this by chalking it up to a sign of the times–our generation, I figure, is probably different.

In fact, our generation is different, but not as much so as you might expect. Lilia and Roma are a wonderful case study, being a “modern” couple: they married for love rather than pragmatic reasons; she has her own business, which Roma helps her run; they live far from their families and have to take care of daily matters on their own–no letting Grandma pick the kid up from preschool so they can finish up at the office. They also fit perfectly into the adage about intercultural marriages. Roma does take a more active role in childcare and housekeeping than most of my other friends’ husbands, there’s a lot no one’s ever even realized someone other than Lilia could be responsible for.

Case in point: Lilia’s English school had our Christmas party (emceed by yours truly) on Christmas Eve. It involved watching Miracle on 34th Street (in English with English subtitles), which Lilia was excited to see. But their three-year-old, David, got restless a few minutes in, so she took him into the other room to entertain him with markers and an ungodly amount of cookies while Roma, who does not even speak English, stayed to watch the movie. It’s like there’s a physical barrier separating “his” work and “her” work,” such that it’s impossible to transfer tasks from one side to the other. So Lilia missed her own party because it never occurred to anyone that Roma could play with his son for an hour. When we got home around midnight, Roma pulled out a rumpled shirt for work the next day and brought it to Lilia for ironing (I’d like to see Nathan even try that), which she did as if it was nothing. When she had finished, Roma took a look at it and said, “You know, I don’t like the pockets… I think I might wear something else.” And then he wanted her to iron a SECOND shirt. Lilia did resist, and Roma ended up acquiescing and wearing the ugly-pocketed shirt, but Lilia’s reasoning was not “That is a ridiculous thing to ask of me. Have more respect for my time, and also, you are a grown human and can do your own ironing, although as your partner-in-crime, I am happy to help you out.” Instead, she said that she was tired and didn’t have the energy right then–suggesting that under slightly different circumstances, that kind of (to my mind) thoughtlessness would have been accepted without comment.

 

I don’t mean for this to be a criticism of Roma or of their household or of anything else– I have the greatest respect for both of them, and their home is full of love. I do mean to show how differently a loving, happy family looks here from how it would back home. While I maintain that equality is ideal, I see through Lilia and Roma how the Russian (slash Tatar) system can work. In Cherepovets, we saw lots of examples of this system gone wrong: most of my married friends in Cherepovets work their fingers to the bone for their families and are at best invisible, at worst controlled. But in this case, that isn’t an issue. Everyone knows their role: Roma does the Dad Things, Lilia does the Mom Things, David gets crumbs everywhere. When both parties have strictly defined roles, there is less room for conflict. You can’t fight over who is less tired after work and therefore has to hang the laundry if that matter was settled generations ago.

Still, it grates on me to watch Lilia, after a long day at the school, washing up the morning’s dishes in preparation for making supper when David or Roma comes in and complains that he’s hungry. Without missing a beat, she makes a sandwich or conjures potatoes or tvorog out of thin air. In my household, you get told to go find a damn banana. And God help you if you complain that you’re hungry, and I turn around and see that the table’s still unset.

 

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This is an example of a joke that absolutely doesn’t translate. If I showed this to one of my local friends, they wouldn’t laugh, but instead would ask, “Why is she such a bad mother?”

Staying over at Lilia and Roma’s (which I’ve been doing a lot lately, since they say they love having company, and I like being around people who, unlike Sveta and Sasha, eat my cooking instead of throwing it away), I also get to watch them transmit these gender roles to their son.

As  sort of a sneak peek at the rest of this post, here’s another example of a joke that your average Russian wouldn’t get:

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I would rather fish peanut buttery spoons out of a giant vat of dishwater with my bare hands than try to explain the concept of patriarchy to a Russian, so for now let’s skip that part. The point is that every time Lilia and Roma teach David how to be in society, they bring the “be a man” card into play.

Situation: David won’t eat meat. He only wants to eat potatoes.
Lilia and Roma say: You want to be big and strong like Daddy? Men need to eat meat. It’s how they get muscles.
Kate says: You need to eat meat to be healthy. And also get muscles, I guess.

Situation: David is crying because he already ate his cookies, and we won’t let him eat the ones that we made for the school Christmas party.
Lilia says: Don’t behave like that. You want to be a man, right? Men don’t cry. Go play.
Kate says: Why did you get any dessert? Two hours ago you were grounded from sweets until Saturday, and now you’re complaining because you got two cookies instead of three? Do you realize that that’s an infinity percent return on an investment you never made? Do you want me to reach down your throat and pull those cookies right back out of you? Go play in the other room, because you are making me want to throw things.

Situation: David is crying. I don’t care why.
Lilia says: It’s hard for us women to watch you cry. We love you, and it hurts us to see you sad.
Kate says: What she said, except that that has nothing to do with gender, and also I’m not done wanting to throw things. Go away.

Situation: We are playing. David pulls out a toy purse.
Lilia and Roma say: (looking ashamed) We hope it’s just a phase.
Kate says: (Nothing. I’m way too busy playing Hot Wheels to acknowledge this non-problem.)

 

David says he wants a little sister. If he ever gets one, I will be interested (apprehensive?) to see how the principles of basic human decency will be re-warped into female-specific BS. For now, David’s still very young, and his understanding of societal roles remains malleable.  I really want to give him an awesome doll for New Year’s and then just watch the world burn.

 

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