Sunday, June 27, 2010

AIGA PKN Recap: Lessons from Siberia

It's been a few wonderfully exciting and eventful weeks since AIGA + AIA's PKN event on Thurs, 6/17 at the Rex Theater. This post has been on my mind and to-do list for some time, but a great meetup with other internationally-minded folks helped to bump it up to high priority on my list. To give them a quick shout out: check out the Pgh Foreign Language Enthusiasts meetup group here (really great people):

To set the stage, PKN is short for Pecha Kucha Night -- a Japanese word, pronounced 'pay-cha-cha' and loosely translated as 'chit-chat'. It is a presentation format that keeps you from being long winded; you've only got 6 mins 45 secs and 20 slides to communicate your points and then you 'sit the hell down' according to the AIGA event description:)

In the meantime, below are the presenters and presentation titles (in order of presentation). It was a fantastic, eclectic event with many types of presentation styles as well as topics:
  • Why Russia is Better Than You: Lessons from Irkutsk, Siberia
    Stephanie Rexroth
  • Form Follow Formula
    David Roth
  • Carrara Stone & Craft
    Joanna Beres
  • Civic-Minded
    Peter Margittai
  • Shameless Self-Promotion: Trying to Find a Job During a Recession
    Amanda Ray
  • (Intermission)
  • My Life in Music
    Paul Rosenblatt
  • Bovine TB & Me
    Laura Miller
  • Parallel World Views & Built Form
    Freddie Croce
  • Zombie Apocalypse/Robot Apocalypse
    Michael Hellein
  • Bridges Places
    Jon Jackson
Not only was it great to present at this event, it was a great networking opportunity as well. Since PKN, I have met with three of my fellow presenters and we are working on different sorts of collaborations (details to come in the next few weeks:)
While up there in the spotlight, it only felt like I was up on stage for about a minute and that I  didn't get to share as much as I had hoped; I assumed as much beforehand. With this post, I'll expand upon the few quips I was able to get out for each slide and give you a glimpse into the far, far away land (on the opposite side of the world, to be more exact) of Siberia. Sit back folks, this is going to be a long one:)


Lessons from Siberia: 1-month, Irkutsk, 2007
Stephanie Rexroth

Disclaimer + Setting the Stage
My disclaimer: I do not claim to be an anthropologist, a sociologist or even a historian. However, it is based on my personal experience in Siberia. Since you may not meet too many-a-folk who have ventured out there (by choice/on purpose) and returned to tell the tale, enjoy the ride for what it's worth -- my 2¢.

It is impossible to share all the experiences of that 1-month, life-changing journey. Instead, I've chosen to share some key experiences in relation to life lessons I've learned and conclusions I've drawn, now 3-years later.

Irkutsk is located on the southern tip of Lake Baikal (largest freshwater lake in the world), is just north of Mongolia and a two-hour flight from China (I know this fact because a drunk Siberian boy suggested we travel there together:).

In short, it's pretty much on the opposite side of the world from Pittsburgh. It takes 36-hrs to get there (18-hours of flying -- 10 hrs from JFK to Moscow, 8 hrs more to Irkutsk -- plus you fly 'into the future' through 12 timezones and of course it also includes layovers like 6 hrs in Moscow).

Beforehand, I was in disbelief that such a trip could possibly take so long in our 'modern, technologically advanced' society with 'the gift of flight'. The harsh reality: it takes 36-hrs -- no cheating it -- and your body will hate you when you touch ground again as day is night and night is day there with the 12-hour time difference. Perhaps my first travel epiphany/discovery: jet lag is your body's rebellion against you and subsequent punishment for traveling so unnaturally -- so many miles in so (relatively speaking) little time.

Lesson No. 1: Courage = being @#$%ing scared to death & doing it anyway.
When I tell people I've been to Siberia, they think it to be a brave and courageous feat. I want to be as transparent as possible... I have never been more terrified in my life and the trip itself was quite unpleasant while I lived through it (a combination of nerves, being waaay over my head and hardcore culture shock).

In fact, the Sunday before the trip, I was sitting on the kitchen floor of my parents' house lamenting to my mom. I had put myself into a depression by that point prior to the trip with the stress of the unknown and was desperately seeking ways/reasons NOT to go. I felt that I was not going to be of any use or help to anyone in the current state of depression that I had found myself.

Thankfully, I have an awesome mom, who, in spite of the fact that she was also terrified to see her oldest child go to the land of our Cold War enemy, encouraged me to go anyway. She dispelled my grievances as best as possible and simply said, Stephie, you have to go. If you don't you'll regret it for the rest of your life. In my typical stubbornness, I replied, Fine, I'll go. But... I HOPE that it is the most stressful thing I ever experience, so that when I return nothing is ever this stressful again. Which brings me to Lesson No. 2:)

Lesson No. 2: Be careful what you wish for...
I mentioned that prior to the trip I was in a foggy state of depression induced by stress. Allow me to briefly recount the reasons for the stress: 1) I had only ever flown once w/in the States, just one year prior to this trip; 2) I was traveling all the way to Irkutsk alone and meeting two other Americans upon arrival; 3) I was fund raising for this trip and the final 1/2 of the $$ came in at the last minute (literally 3 days before I hopped on the plane); 4) I only knew a little Russian that I had been learning (self-taught) and knew if I became lost or was stolen, I was a goner; and 5) being depressed, I had zero energy and little of my normal mental capacity for thinking or speaking let alone problem solving.

In short, I was quite the hot mess (internally; on the outside, I just looked numb) when my roommate dropped me off at PIT the morning of my departure. As she drove away and I found myself as one little girl with three really big bags in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the terminal, I thought to myself: Okay... here we are. I guess this is really happening. So, here we go?

Lesson No. 3: Culture shock is an understatement.
36 hours after stepping into PIT airport, we touched down in Irkutsk in what looked like an aging, run-down old farm. I stepped off the plane in the pouring rain and walked across the tarmac into a small, rickety looking building that was the arrival gate. My translater for the trip, Sasha, found me at the wooden luggage carrosel and greeted me with (and I kid you not, you can't do this with more epicness in the movies), Welcome to the real Russia.

Upon which I immediately thought to myself, Holy #$@?! What the hell have I gotten myself into? Point #1. And, #2, how do I get the hell outta here and back home asap?! The reality of the full duration of time that 1-month is, of how far away from home I was and that I was going to be 'stuck' there for what felt like an eternity hit me like a dump truck.

Culture shock is such a cliché. Like most, because of its ubiquity, the actual weight of its meaning is lost until you experience it first-hand. Even now, I'm going to struggle to explain just what it felt like. I'll break down a few reasons for the shock, but keep this underlying thought in mind as you continue with the rest of my story, I basically felt like I was going to die for that entire month:
  • Perception v. Reality: Like most Americans, I thought Siberia was going to be a cold, baren wasteland with little quaint villages spinkled over the tundra. Reality: Irkutsk is in southern Siberia and in the summer (August) it gets above 100 degress; I actually got a really bad sunburn while swimming at a lake. Irkutsk is also 3 times the size of the City of Pgh in size and population (700K people) and the downtown area reminded me of San Fransisco. Additionally, in Far East Russia (everything east of the Ural Mts), they are culturally closer to the Eastern pace/way of life. Where I expected life to be simpler, it was actually very fast paced, modern and more complicated than the US.
  • Spectator to conversation: I've watched Lost in Translation several times since returning from my trip. It's amazing how right on that movie is in depicting how as an outsider you simply observe conversation happening around you but never really participate in it. It's almost like your life becomes a movie, but there are no subtitles for this foreign flick.

    Additionally, I was hanging out with college-aged kids. Most of our time was spent sitting around various kitchen tables drinking tea and talking the night away. It was very strange for me and I never did pick up or recognize any of the language -- to my chagrin, the Russian I had been learning was Moscow dialect, completely useless in Siberia.

  • Being as helpless and dependent upon others as a baby again: As first born, I've always been a little more independent, out of necessity. This was the first time in my adult life where I was completely dependent upon another person (and strangers, to boot, who thankfully were not hateful/psychotic) for getting anywhere, speaking to anyone and being fed. A truly humbling experience.

  • Language differences that put you on edge: In addition to not understanding what is being said, the Russian language has a sing-songy rhythm, but is spoken with intensity. Whether agression was intended or not, to me it sounded like 'oh, crap... mom's mad; everybody look out' all the time, even when they were just chit-chatting with each other. Quite unnerving.

    Furthermore, Russians have an idomatic saying for everything, but sadly it rarely translates. After a while, I just stopped listening as soon as I heard, We have a saying in Russia... To be fair, I heard, This is not possible, or, Stephie?! Ah, er... NOT healthy?! a lot when I did anything that was a no-no and difficult to explain to me the exact error of my ways.

Lesson No. 4: Russians are hardcore.

Russians don't eat, play hard and live for the day. No one is overweight or out of shape, everyone takes pride in their appearance, they are incredibly creative & multi-talented AND they strive to be THE best at whatever they do.

On public transportation (like the tram), I was specifically coached by my translator to NOT say, Excuse me, or I'm sorry. It would be a dead give-away that I'm an American. Although Russia is a huge country (almost 2x the size of the US), most of the population is densely packed into the cities -- giving literal meaning to the phrase 'mass transit'. If you happened to get lost in the sea of people and had to get off at the upcoming stop, it is customary to just push your way through. Even if a babushka (grandma) is blocking your path, she is fair game and no apologies are necessary. Like I said, hardcore.

Another example is in this above pic. We traveled by tram, bus, foot and marchutka (sort of like a 12 passenger van) for over an hour to congregate outside of this Russian Ballet Theatre. Not to go to the theatre, but to play ultimate frisbee on their concrete court yard.

What you may not be able to see from this pic is that this was an uneven playing field (in addition to it  being made of concrete slabs). Many of those slabs were missing or pulled up to pile/cover up the gapping hole that must have been a former sewer/manhole just over the goal line (in the foreground). I stumbled up and almost into that hole once while playing. That error promptly stopped the game while some of the guys pried up new slabs to replace the ones that I had knocked into the hole. Again, hardcore.

Even their language is hardcore. English is stupid easy for Russians to learn/pick-up. It's taught in the schools, but some of the people I met had picked it up from American visitors that their families had hosted for only a few weeks, several years ago; crazy. Conversely, Russian is incredibly difficult for Americans. Not only are there sounds and characters that are almost not possible for us to pronounce, every word in a sentence can have up to 26 different endings depending on where it falls and how it's being used gramatically.

An example of the character differences and complexities:
(По-русски) Здравствулте! Как дела? Меня зовут Стефани. Я из Соединенные Штатыы. Россия красивейшая страна. Я изучаю русский язык но я не говорю хорошего русского.
(In Russian) Hello! How are you? My name is Stephanie. I'm from the United States. Russia is a beautiful country. I study the Russian language but I do not speak Russian well.

Lesson No. 5: Russians are crazy drivers?!

While they drive on the same side of the road as we do in the States and they also have two lanes, the rules of the road are quite different in Russia and extremely terrifying to experience. For instance, those two delineated lanes can be 2-cars-wide or up to 5-cars-wide depending on how traffic is flowing and inching past each other. Another rule: anywhere your car can physically travel is fair game -- off road, on sidewalks, through yards or fields around buildings; the world is your road, no matter how rough.

The most interesting thing I observed as a safety-conscious American was on the marchutka. As I mentioned, it's similar to a 12-person van; like the shuttles that you take from the airport to your hotel here in the States. Usually in the States, there is a passenger limit, somewhat less than the actual occupancy of the vehicle (like 8-10 people). However, in Russia, in order to pack as many people onto the marchutka as possible, the proper etiquette is to file in and fill the van from back to front. Once four people squeeze into the back seat (that's really only supposed to seat 3), a small bench that is bolted into the side of the van (after-market) just behind the sliding door is folded-down for another passenger to sit in the next row of seats.

Seems harmless enough until you're one of those poor souls sandwiched in the hot, stuffy/sweaty back seat and you realize your only emergency escape route is no more. Thankfully, I'm not claustrophobic. People will even sit on the floor next to the sliding door if there's not enough seats and they are desperate enough to get to their destination more quickly. I guess I also forgot to mention that the concept of personal space is unique to the US and does not exist in many other places; particularly not in Russia.

Lesson No. 6: Women-to-men ratios matter...

Russia is still dealing with the after-effects of WWII where there continues to be an inbalance of women to men (2:1). Consequently, Russian women (most of which are amazingly stunning and model-esque) are in competition for the few men who are nothing to write home about, in comparison. I first observed this cultural nuance at the airports. As I was waiting for my flight in Moscow, I saw many women strikingly dolled up; most walking around in stelletos. In sharp contrast, at US airports we might shower the day of a long flight and most dress-down in pajamas for comfort; sigh... we really are a nation of slobs:)

Another example of this inbalance is demonstrated above. There are only a few guys to a court full of us 20-something girls. This cultural difference had it's effect on me personally as well. Going on this trip, I was expecting something much different than what I got. I brought clothes to work (not really ones to play or look nice), I didn't wear much makeup (plus my face was in rebellion against me with one of it's worst breakouts to date) and my hair wasn't liking Russia's water either. In short, I looked kinda vagabond-ish and I was surrounded by really beautiful chicks. When I returned to the States, I wore dresses for a month to restore the hit to my self-esteem:)

One last note about this imbalance to set up the next slide: while the ratios are skewed and women are in competition, so to speak, for the men, those Russian women will not take any crap men trying to be fresh with them. A boy who tests those bounds will walk away scratched, bruised and beaten in addition to a damaged ego. Most Russian boys know that American girls do not hold that same strictness, and they take advantage of that knowledge. So without further ado, ...

Lesson No. 7: My 3 Russian almost-husbands.

Okay, it's kind of in jest. For example, Valara (the first pic) just looks super cool, so I had to include him in this mix. He was one of the few respectful and gentlemanly boys of the group who wasn't constantly flirty with me. Despite looking quite aweful, I had the American appeal going for me. I'm completely aware that the appeal was solely for the ticket to the States and the opportunity for a new and exciting life, but I'll take the flattery where ever I can get it. Misha (middle pic) was a lady's man, but was a nice boy as well. Vitalia (last pic) was also a flirt, but it probably came off that way because of the lack of personal space thing and how we as Americans interpret people being in our faces.

Two boys not shown (and a story for another day) were Jenya and Roma. Us three American girls joked about these boys being our Russian husbands as we kept chance 'happening' to run into them throughout our final weeks. Roma, who is in the ultimate frisbee pic from a few slides back, was quite the gentleman, but was also one of the few who did not speak any English at all:( I do still have the little pin and note he gave to me at our last group outing and, of course, I'll always have the fond memories.

Conclusion No. 1: Challenge everything (you think) you know.

In addition to lessons learned, I left Russia with many epiphanies that have had profound effects on who I am today (and hopefully forever). It seems that any international experience has this effect, which is why I'm such an advocate of traveling.

A few brief examples of things that my eyes were 'opened' to from this experience:
  • Germs don't exist: I discovered that we as a society are germophobes and the paranoia is quite unnecessary & extreme. To be fair, where as we freak out about the possibility of germs, bacteria or infection, Russians are terrified of doing anything that could effect fertility (however superstitiously and non-sensically). It probably is a combination of old-wives tales (which hold more weight in Russia) and the men-to-women imbalance. This is one of those instances where I often was told: 'Stephie?! Not healthy?!

  • Russia is just a bizarro America; and visa-versa: In conversations with the college-age peeps, I realized that we both want to make the world a better place and save it from itself. I think the biggest reason why Russia and the US are always in conflict is because we each hold an ideal of the 'right' way to make the world better; those ideals are in polar opposition to the each other.

  • Our county does the propaganda machine game, too, and quite well at that: I got a dramatically different take on Communism and the Cold War from the people who experienced it that I don't believe I would have ever read in a text book or seen on TV here.

Conclusion No. 2: The human spirit is amazingly resilient.

As I eluded to earlier in this post, this trip was personally/emotionally/mentally challenging; so much so that I was certain I was going to die at least 3 distinct times throughout the 1-month journey. Thankfully, each person I met along the way played an integral part in making the experience bearable (which allowed me to survive with my sanity). I'm forever grateful for the generosity, hospitality and kindness of strangers and of my Siberian friends along this life-changing journey.

One of my favorite pics from this trip is the above one of Lake Baikal. It looks beautiful and exotic enough to be some Caribbean destination, but in contrast this is the place where I was sure for the third time that death was knocking at my door.

As a group, we hopped in a marchutka and traveled three long and perilous hours (crazy drivers, remember) down the mountains to the town of Baikalsk to camp for three days. By the time we had arrived, I had developed a stress headache that triggered a migraine. I've lived through many migraines before, but had always had the opportunity to lie down/sleep/wait them out. This was the first time that I had to work through one -- as painful and unpleasant as it was.

We stepped off the marchutka in Baikalsk and were promptly greeted by heavy rain for the rest of the day to set up camp. Being completely soaked, the guys set up a tarp over the campfire in order for everyone to dry off and begin making/enjoying dinner. The tarp did a great job of keeping us dry but it also funneled the smoke right in our faces -- smells, lights and sounds are all painfully heightened only  add to more pounding pain during a migraine.

The last straw: migraines usually make me sick. I wandered off into the woods to throw up my guts in peace, trying to save my companions from the spectacle. Afterward, I looked around the dismal, rainy scene while my head continued to pound and my stomach growled but wouldn't accept any food offerings. In that moment, I said to myself (rather melodramatically and out loud), This is where I shall die, with the kind of epic calmness and resolution that you see in movies.

Of course, I survived to live another day. But, facing your death does change a person a little. Especially. when you come to the point of expecting, then accepting, that you'll never see home, friends or family again. In that quiet wooded area of Lake Baikal, I came to a point of peace and acceptance about the high probability of my untimely demise and returned to the group, one changed girl.   

Conclusion No. 3: Appreciate what you have in the US. 

A few things that I experienced that have given me an appreciation for our way of life here: 
  • Our government and law-enforcement can be (somewhat) trusted: In Russia, the gov't is corrupt and the police can throw you in jail for no reason other than to pay their bills (aka: wanting a bribe). It was unnerving to walk the streets with that knowledge/fear looming overhead and being always extra careful not to draw any unwanted attention as a foreigner, particularly with the stereotype that Americans are wealthy.

  • Our doctors and hospitals can also be (somewhat) trusted: Their drugs are much more effective for curing ailments, but good luck trying to figure out what they are and putting your life in a doctor's/hospital's hands. I almost had to go to a hospital in Moscow (which isn't quite as bad) when I developed travelers sickness for 12-miserable-hours during the three-day stay before returning home.

  • As US consumers, we've been spoiled into believing that we're king: It was strange not being catered to in retail and other customer-service settings as we are here in the States. It's a combo of the lingering remains of the socialist era, but more specifically, the difference between the capitalistic society that Russia has become vs. the consumeristic society that we've become.

  • Things work here: The all encompassing line that I heard several times a day in response to questions of why something was inconvenient, unnecessarily complicated or not working was simply: Welcome to Russia.

Conclusion No. 4: Absolute relativism...

The only pre-reque of my trip was to read this book:

An amazing read for anyone traveling internationally... I highly recommend it even if you're just traveling nationally. The thesis, reiterated throughout, is: Nothing is wrong, just different. Americans have historically been arrogant and pretentious jerks when visiting other countries and experiencing various cultures -- to the point that we've gained a crappy tourist stereotype. This book tries to break the habit of labelling different customs as wrong because we don't do something the same way. Basically, throughout the centuries, each group of people has developed their own way of doing very similar/common tasks. The outcome is the same, but the means are different... no one way is correct.

I've applied this principal to various areas of my life in the States since my trip. When I interact with people of different upbringings, generations or regions of the country, I find myself able to recognize our differences as simply different instead of wrong. It saves a lot of headaches and conflicts.

Conclusion No. 5: People are people.

One of my favorite memories of the last few nights in Siberia was spent having tea around the kitchen table talking with (tall) Anya via one of our best translators, Karla. Anya was 1/2 way through her undergrad work at the university for Jewelry Design and was facing the point where she had to choose: to continue on as a designer, or to take the path of a technical production artist.

Anya was interested in my design experience and how she could tell if she was supposed to be a designer. At that time, I was only two years out in the field and still trying to find my place within the field as well. I told her that I was still not sure if I'm 'supposed' to be a designer, but that because most designers are very critical of their own abilities, it's probably a good sign that she's on the right path to become one.

I had the 'people are people' epiphany as we shared similar doubts in regard to our careers. However, upon further reflection, I was struck by the realization that we grew up under very different circumstances. The obvious one is the differences in gov't structure --  communism vs. capitalism. But, Anya was only 2 or 3 years younger than me. When I thought about each of our formative years, the differences became even more striking.

When I was about 10 in 1991, my biggest concern was what to watch on TV or who to hang out with and where to ride our bikes after school. When Anya was barely in the double digits, her family worried about how to survive to the next day as the Soviet Union dissolved, inflation and unemployment ran ramptant and food shortages abounded. I observed that all the college-age kids had a certain amount of life experience and wisdom that is a-typical for people their age. I have attributed the world wisdom to the hardships they lived through, which has made them much more appreciative of what they have and therefore much more admirable in my sight.

Last but not least, Victor.

I conclude with a brief story of my personal measuring stick, Victor. I met Victor in Moscow on my way into the country. He picked me up and drove me to the departure gate 6 miles from the arrival gate... Welcome to Russia:) On the ride in, Victor was the meanest guy, the worse driver and an overall scary and intimidating person.

I met Victor again on my return home as we stopped for a few days to visit and sight-see in Moscow. Just 1-month later, Victor was the nicest, most compassionate man in all of Russia, the best/most cautious driver and very jolly/friendly/personable. Victor, of course, did not change... this shift in character was a reflection of the dramatic change that had occurred in me over that short, intense period of growth by fire.

For the full PDF slideshow:


  1. What an epic post! It's a whole memoir in blog post form. Well done on sharing so much of your adventure -- I'll look forward to hearing what comes next.

  2. Amazing post and experience Stephie! Great advice, "I've applied this principal to various areas of my life in the States since my trip. When I interact with people of different upbringings, generations or regions of the country, I find myself able to recognize our differences as simply different instead of wrong. It saves a lot of headaches and conflicts."

    That is SO TRUE and I wish more people would do that. Unfortunetly, I have never had an aboard experience, but I learned that when I went from living the city life to living the country life and had to deal with the harsh reality of distance does matter for some people.

  3. Many thanks, Mel, for the kind words. I'm so thrilled that you enjoyed the article:)

    I wouldn't discount your own travel experience within the States -- it's only a mere technicality that you haven't left the country, but you've certainly had to deal with your share of culture. Moving from east coast to west coast after college (not only becoming acclimated but also indigenous) has it's own merit that I can not yet claim. Well, besides the transition from country-girl to city-girl after college, myself, too.

    I think your transition/life experience reveals that your own 'culture shock,' when you do go international, will not be nearly as severe as mine.

    Do you have any inklings as to where you might want to go internationally?