On the flight back from Irkutsk, the hard looking Russian man in a black mock turtleneck folded his arms to register his displeasure at the Latin letters of my ebook. But as soon as he thought I couldn't see him (of course, I could see his reflection in my screen), his eyes traced every line of Anne Valente's Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Before long, he was nodding and wincing and shaking his head along with the beautifully troubling text because, of course, he could read those God-forsaken shapes just as well as I could. But as soon as I looked away from the screen, the arm fold tightened and the grimace returned. Sometimes we're so absurdly busy being what we think we're supposed to e that we forget to simply live.
As the previous paragraph intimates, I got to travel this week—my first voyage outside of Moscow and Novosibirsk. I took a trip to Irkutsk, the self-titled Paris of Siberia (the French folks with whom I shared a hostel enjoyed the city but agreed that the nickname is a touch stretchy.) On the way, I managed a 19-hour layover in Krasnoyarsk, which meant two cities explored on the price of one plane ticket. It was nice to see some new parts of Russia, to meet some new travelers, to try some new foods. It was the food, though, that led to the most important moment of the trip, one that wasn't nearly as pleasant as it was informative.
Following the guidance of every tourist site and expat guide available, I stopped into a particular Mongolian restaurant. Given that Irkutsk is just inside Russia's border with Mongolia, this seems both reasonable and appropriate. I also considered it a key part of my cultural exchange period to compare suburban mall out building style Mongolian Barbecue with Actual Mongolian Barbecue. Let me first say that the best analogy is Taco Bell and actual Mexican food.
After shedding my coat, I was seated in a side room within the festively decorated restaurant. I navigated the menu well enough and made a choice—a meal called the Mongolian Horde. But since I knew the menu contained some things I didn't want to ingest (horse, chiefly), I got out my phone's translation device to double-check my decision. The kind, observant, and responsive waitress noticed this, and with a broad smile, she produced an English language menu.
This kind act is what started unraveling things. The only other party in the room was seated behind me, and a large, wobbly man appeared in my periphery shortly after I got the new menu. He said something fast and slurred, and I asked him to repeat. He reached out to shake my hang, and we we were done with a shake that felt more like a staredown, he stumbled back to his table. What he said next, I sorted out as something along the lines of, “See, I told you he doesn't belong.”
He was only getting warmed up. We went to the waitress station next. I pieced together that he was refusing to pay because a non-Russian had been seated in his room.
Keep in mind, this is a Mongolian restaurant. This whole scenario felt largely like a suburban white guy walking into a Chipotle burrito shop and becoming enraged because a Guatemalan walks in. Even beyond the obvious, it just didn't make sense.
But humans don't always make sense. By the time the cranky and drunk patron had shoved two waitresses and threatened to fight pretty much everyone in the restaurant, the staff had a deescalation plan ready. One of the waitresses distracted him by talking about the Russian president while the others scurried me first, and then my tea and place setting, to another room.
The distraction didn't last long: he quickly returned to ranting about non-Russians, banging his fist on any nearby furniture, and wobbling into the bar, where the bartender pretended not to see him and then disappeared into the kitchen.
The man's group eventually left—shouting the whole way out—but now everyone in the restaurant wanted to see the foreigner who caused it all.
Necks craned. Fingers pointed. Brows scrunched and torsos twisted. A couple of chairs scooted further away. Some people whispered. Some just flat wondered out loud why I was there. Even in a town know for tourism and souvenir stands. Even in a place where the street signs are trilingual. The comments got quieter once I thanked the waitress in Russian.
“Do you think he understands us?” one lady asked in Russian.
“Does it matter?” I mumbled in English.
None of these people would have reacted in the slightest—none of them would have cared about me—if there hadn't been a single inciting agent. But sometimes that's all it takes to turn otherwise good people loony, isn't it?
It's among the most uncomfortable experiences I've ever had.
But the point here is not to win anyone's pity. This was so mild compared to what people I know and have know deal with daily. The times during my life in which I've felt true discomfort were nearly all moments in which I was intentionally exploring, pressing the boundaries of my comfort in order to learn. Everything I felt in that restaurant, there are countless people who encounter far, far worse than that in the regular routine of existing on account of whatever small difference someone can't bring themselves to handle. Race. Class. Neighborhood. Gender. I'm far too guilty of doing this in connection with sports: growing senselessly irritated at whole cities on account of a silly competition, and it's sobering to watch how quickly some dumb, drunken remark can escalate into something incredibly damaging. We do this over religion, too. Politics. Geography. Any number of inexplicable causes for people to lose civility. Last week, my news feeds, inboxes, and headlines were filled with stories of this sort of even happening to people in America. Emboldened by political events, there's been a disturbing wave of taunting claims, of people abusing those who are in some way different. My few moments of minor discomfort reminded me what a precarious line society can walk, and how brutal it can feel when you're on what someone perceived to be the wrong side of that line.
It rattles you to see such anger in someone's face and to know it's aimed at you, and for no reason.
I've earned people's anger before, but this was a different thing altogether.
You recoil, hard.
You question everything about yourself.
You blame yourself, needlessly.
You try to find answers, even when the only one is that someone else is either a lousy human or, at best a mediocre human having a lousy day.
That event colored my whole week, which is a shame because Irkutsk is an incredible city, and the things I did and saw there deserve the attention of this space. One of the best coffee shops I've ever visited, Engineeria Coffee, is located there, and the staff were some of the most lovely, kind people I've encountered on this planet. But even as they described the products about which they're so passionate, I couldn't help think of who else was in the room, about what nasty thing they might be thinking but not saying. Getting publicly ridiculed because of a perceived difference affects you in ways you can't control and can't shake. And yet, I've seen parents chuckle and offer pithy remarks while their kids do it on a playground. I've heard people offering excuses for each other's crummy behavior. I've seen incredibly intelligent and kind-natured friends and colleagues lumping millions of people unfairly together in their digital comments. I've listened to students tap dance around opinions in the supposedly safe and exploratory space of a campus because they're legitimately afraid of how people will react to questions or diversions.
This goofy dining experience came at a prescient time. My friends at home are unsettled, wondering, nervous about what politcal things might come in the next years. There are a lot of questions. Big ones. Difficult ones. But from my vantage, the answer comes down to a very small thing: be good to each other, and demand that from the people around you, the people you love. Without fail and without hesitation, be good. Without distinction and without mitigation, be good.
Just. Be. Good. I think that's the only reasonable answer any of us have right now, and there are too many people too willing to shirk that duty. So the rest of us have to be even more intentional about it, and we've got to do it with consistency and fervor.
There are happier things I wanted to talk about this week.
The taxi driver who tried his English on me via a joke: he says he can always fly through the righ lane on Karl Marx Street because all the traffic keeps to the far left.
The awesome Dutch guys I met at a hostel, and the hike we took around an abandonded stretch of the CircumBaikal Railroad.
The two days I spent at the world's largest lake (by volume) and the freshwater seals who popped their heads out of the water to watch us walk.
The sculptor's studio I visited. The artists whose paintings moved me some much I'll bring a couple home to hang in my own studio.
The way my frozen nose hairs felt when the temperature dipped to -40 degrees.
The joy of finally managing to order a cab, and the immense freedom of mobility it created.
The Russian lessons that have, in two months, progressed from learning letters to reading chapters of Turgenev. I don't understand all of it yet, but my mouth is forming proper syllables and those syllables are beginning to coalesce into real items and ideas.
But no matter how many bright things happen, there's always a jerk who wants to take attention away from the world's many amazing facets. And there's always a need for the rest of us to remember it's our job to counter him at every turn, and with every smile.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.