I visited Russia for the very first time in 2013. Despite of my lack of budget and planning, I decided to visit not only because I promised my boyfriend (that time) to visit him for a while and learn more about this country, but also because I always felt something that I call a ‘strange connection’ between Russia and I. I don’t believe in reincarnation and thoughts suggesting that I might be a reincarnation of somebody that lived in Russia in the ancient past never crossed my mind either. I am just always interested in something unique. Something that other people may not like. Something that other people might not notice, but I do.
When I was in university, I focused on political studies and I was always put my interest on this area, how this country transformed throughout time, what they do for the world and etc. For me, a person from Indonesia, Russia always seems so mysterious. I had never seen how Russians look, how they behave and so forth. I knew what I saw in movies– people with a really tough accent (they have indeed, but what’s in movies is too much).
So, I decided to quit my job and I flew away to a country that’s land occupies almost half of our globe. Buying a ticket and applying for a visa took about 1 week. And when the day had come, I was so excited, restless and full of hope.
AIRPORT: FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH HARD-TO-SMILE PEOPLE
I arrived at Domodedovo airport, Moscow. If many people complain about their airport, I could say that they have good reason to. Domodedovo is one of the three airports that you can find in Moscow. The outer design will remind you how this country has changed from an iron curtain country to a more capitalistic country. Yet, as you make your way deeper and deeper through the airport, you will noticed that they haven’t changed that much. Lack of duty free - or even if they have, the stores are kind of something you won’t dare to enter because they only sell things such as really expensive clocks, jewelry and so forth.
The woman in the uniform shouted in a language that I didn’t understand. But, judging by her gesture, she wanted me to move forward in a line.
They have really cold, stunned faces. At first I was so sad and regretted my decision to visit this country alone. They don’t welcome tourists as I hoped. Even an immigration guy in Germany was much better than them… at least they smiled at me.
I don’t know why it bothered me much. Maybe it’s just because I am from a country where people always smile when their eyes meet, even if they don’t know each other.
Russians didn’t return my smile, they just nodded their head and gave my passport back with a stamp inside. I walked around the airport, looking for the baggage claim to pick my bag up. As you know, sometimes shit happens. I didn’t see my bag! One guy from the airline asked me whether I lost my baggage and yes, I did. So I reported it to the officer, a beautiful lady in a ponytail, well-dressed, with neat makeup who reminded me of a typical Russian girl in a movie. She brought me to the office where the other woman was sitting down, ready to write down the problem which I encountered. No smile again. No hello, no goodbye.
Oh, my gosh, I had lost my appetite to move forward and wanted to go back to Indonesia somehow. Yet, they found out that the airline’s company forgot to bring my baggage from Frankfurt! And I needed to wait there till the next flight arrived.
After I solved my problem with my baggage, 4 hours later, I went to an outskirt city where my boyfriend lived. Looking through the taxi window, what I saw was just an impossibly grey landscape with an extremely grey sky. Pine tree and pine tree along the way. But I admit that It was my fault to go at the end of October, when the weather and season wasn’t as its best.
WHY DON’T RUSSIANS SMILE MORE OFTEN?
There’s no smoke without fire. At the time, I kept asking myself why they didn’t smile like other people, and got beaten by the fact that everything wasn’t as tremendous as I thought. In my imagination: they smile on the regular, answer my questions happily with a tendency to offer big help They’re friendly people on the street that smile at you when your eyes meet accidentally. BUT NO! AGAIN, NO!
I was going through culture shock for a year. It was getting worse as I didn’t speak their language. So, make sure, if you go to live in another country, learn their language to have better understanding. I was afraid to go out, as I lived in a small town where everybody speaks only Russian and when I answered in English, their gazes fell upon me.
You might wonder why Russians are so serious everywhere. The answer is easy. After I immersed myself in Russian culture and asked everybody whom I’ve met about this, especially my husband, I’ve found the answer: they don’t find any importance in smiling at strangers.
How do you think?
It sounds strange even for me, as my country is well known as one of the most friendly. I felt really uncomfortable when I smiled and some people just kept their eyes on me, thinking that I wanted something from them. In Russia, they smile only when they know you or when they want something from you! So, if somebody smiles at you on the street and draws themselves close to you, they might want something…
I was shocked to hear such an awkward explanation. But after living here for about 4 years, I do understand their way of thinking. For Russians, being expressive is unnecessary. They are really straightforward people that will tell you “NO” if they don’t like, and “YES” if they mean it. You will know directly whether that person likes you or not without a need to guess or to read minds like Professor Xavier (...sometimes we need this). You are free to express your dislike! It’s interesting, as in my country, expressing dislike is something impolite. That’s why sometimes we can’t just say no, we can’t refuse any offer directly and we often change the way we express that we don’t like something. I can’t deny that I am happy with my new freedom. At least I’ve learned, for the first time, how to say ‘no’ boldly, refuse all kinds of things which I don’t like and be myself without being afraid of what people think about me if I become more straightforward. Because sometimes you don’t know what’s hiding behind somebody’s smile, do you? Better I refuse to smile to express how I don’t like something than stabbing somebody in the back while I am smiling, am I right?
I have even mastered how to act like a Russian on the street. Even a director from Hollywood that likes to make movies about the Russian mafia might recruit me as one of her actresses if only I had a typical Russian girl’s face…