Do you think I’m fat? Because some Belarusians do and, in November in Belarus, they weren’t afraid to tell me.
Positive remnants of Soviet culture remain in Belarus, such as the immaculately clean cities and no one living on the street. It’s so safe here that young children travel to school via public transportation without a guardian.
People look out for each other, too. A drunk man fell over at a bus stop and an old man helped him lay down on the bench. I highly doubt someone would’ve helped that drunk man in the States.
However, there are also a lot of frustrating remnants of Soviet culture. I expected these cultural differences in September and October, but I was still wide-eyed and busy-tailed with my new home that they didn’t bother me.
Note: I am in no way idolizing the Soviet Union. There were bad and inherently flawed aspects of that society; however, there were also positive things that we can reflect and learn from, just as we can from every civilization and culture.
Earlier Stories from Belarus that I Looked Past
For example, there wasn’t hot water in my dorm for the first three weeks I was in Belarus. The city was replacing the old pipes and shut off the hot water for my area. Cold showers were less than ideal, but I figured I was better off than the locals because they only had cold showers for several months. There were even several non-consecutive days without any water at all…something that I believe never would’ve happened in the States.
Although the weather was near-freezing temperatures at the end of September and beginning of October, there was no heating in my dorm. Belarus has government-controlled centralized heating. The government decides when to turn on the heating and how much heating to send to each apartment. It took them several freezing weeks until they finally turned on the heating.
Then, the weather decided to be warm. I went from sleeping with four blankets, a sweater, and socks to sleeping with zero blankets and only wearing my underwear and still sweating. So, the government turned off the heating…just in time for it to be cold again. It’s like the government plays cat and mouse with the weather. I wished I could simply control the heating myself.
Again, I want to stress that I’m not complaining. While I didn’t know what bumps and cultural differences to expect in Belarus, I expected there to be some. I didn’t move to Belarus to be comfortable, after all. And I honestly found these annoyances humorous at the time. When it became personal, I stopped being able to laugh it off.
I’m Fat According to Some Belarusians
The main trainer at the gym told me I should lose 10 kilograms if I want to run, or else I’ll injure myself.
Some Belarusians had hinted in earlier months that I was bigger, but the trainer was the first person to tell me I should lose weight.
As I said earlier, a remnant of Soviet culture in Belarus is that people take care of each other. Sometimes this means the main trainer at the gym telling you to lose 10 kilograms because they’re “looking out for you…” even if their logic doesn’t make sense.
Firstly, many things can prevent running injuries, such as stretching and hip and mobility exercises, however losing weight is not a medically-accepted preventative measure.
Second, I don’t need the advice from male trainers who continue the sexist idea that women only train to look beautiful instead of training to feel healthy and strong. Belarusian trainers assume I exercise to lose weight. When I tell them I train to feel strong, not to lose weight, their raised eyebrow and snicker proves that my reason for training is incomprehensible to them.
Thirdly, I don’t want to look like the women in the gym who fulfill the Belarusian standard of beauty. While I will never hate on another woman’s physical appearance (you do you girl!!), I also recognize my “ideal” physical appearance doesn’t match theirs. Also, I question how many of those women actually feel confident and beautiful in the bodies they worked so hard for…or if they trained and ate to look like that because that’s what the patriarchal society told them to do.
Fourthly, I recognize this issue is not exclusive to Belarus and I hope you realize that too. The patriarchy exists everywhere. Women around the world are slowly chipping it away, but that takes time. Some countries are further advanced than others. I am privileged to have been raised in a house and community that encouraged and supported strong and independent women in their education, gym routines, and more.
Despite my self-confidence and recognizing the previous four points, this random trainer’s opinion of my body spiraled my body confidence. His comment triggered past unhealthy relationships with food and exercise and hurt my self-confidence.
The worst part? My limited Russian prevented me from saying how I really felt to the trainer in response to his comment about my weight. I told him that I enjoy running, my doctor says I’m healthy, and I am beautiful. There was a lot more I wanted to say, but instead, on the first day of November in Belarus, I sat in the women’s changing room and cried.
Thankfully, I already had plans to visit my friend Lisa in Vitebsk that weekend.
Friendship was exactly what we both needed that weekend because we had both struggled in November in Belarus with various aspects of our new life abroad.
We went to a halloween party with one of her students and we dressed up as sirens. While I’m not usually into make-up and dressing up, both of those things were exactly what I needed to boost my confidence.
Lisa and I also went to a Belarusian rock concert with her coworkers. Apparently this band used to be illegal in Belarus and the lead singer had been arrested several times. Many people think the band made a deal with the government because now the band can legally have concerts. They also don’t say as much as before about “changing the system” in their lyrics.
The weekend after I was in Vietbsk, Lisa and I visited Grodno during Belarus’ 3-day weekend.
Daniel, another Fulbright ETA, lives and teaches in Grodno. He wanted to move to a cheaper apartment, so we came to help. With Lisa’s Russian ability and my recent experience moving in Belarus, we found him a lovely new apartment.
With our apartment-hunt complete, we explored Grodno on an unusually sunny day in November in Belarus.
First, we went to the Museum of City Life, which is basically an old man’s collection of what, at first, appears to be junk. The old man gave us a tour of his yard.
Most of the items were from the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Some things were even older, such as money from the Russian Empire. He even had a letter from the Soviet Union’s Olympic ice skater, who was apparently pen pals with someone in the States. Lisa purchased a Soviet women’s military jacket from the man as a souvenir.
Before the tour, we met a local journalist named Ruslan. We went to his office in the evening for tea. He showed us his articles and hundreds of photos people sent him.
Grodno used to be part of Poland and was only part of the USSR after WWII. A lot of the Jewish history in Grodno was erased when it became part of the USSR. Ruslan now helps people reconnect with their family history and heritage in Grodno.
He’s also piecing together Grodno’s forgotten history. People from around the world send him photos from when they used to live in Grodno. He’s written a book about Grodno’s Jewish history completely funded by his online fans.
He told us about his struggles to collect information and people’s struggles to share their stories from a time with such destruction, despair, pain, and sorrow.
Apparently, a family album was found while a building was being demolished several months ago. The parents, he learned, died in a concentration camp. Ruslan suspects the family hid the album inside the house, expecting they’d return one day. One of his fans said he once knew the two little girls in the photo and that they survived the Holocaust and possibly live in New York now. This man sent more photos of the girls, confirming it’s them. Ruslan is now trying to find these two girls to return their family album, on top of all the other projects he has.
This was such a special moment for me in Belarus. It reminded me why I love traveling. Traveling is more than just seeing artifacts in museums. It’s about connecting with people and hearing their stories.
We later ran into Ruslan while Lisa, Daniel, and I were walking between bars. We joined Ruslan and his friends at a bar and then enjoyed a spontaneous 2am drunk tour of Grodno led by Ruslan himself.
Daniel, Lisa, and I also met up with a few of Daniel’s students for a game night. It was the first time in Belarus that I felt true connection with locals my age.
To be honest, I was upset that I hadn’t made friends in Belarus yet. There are lots of people who generally care about me, including my coworkers, but I hadn’t developed real friendships yet. I wanted a friendship that meant my Friday nights were automatically reserved to drink wine and make jokes. A friendship genuinely invested in helping me learn Russian. Commonly, people became my friend to learn English.
I also felt I couldn’t relate to anyone in Belarus. It’s not normal for women and men to be just friends. Most conversations with women I had led to movies, music, fashion and other similar topics…topics I don’t care about. It’s hard to build friendships with nothing to bond over.
Loneliness became a familiar feeling in November in Belarus.
Grodno inspired me to take more of an initiative to make friends. I invited some students I had somewhat connected with to my house for a game night. It turned out to be a lot of fun and a great bonding moment!
Problems with Teaching
My teaching schedule was pathetic.
I worked an average of 8 hours per week at the university, even though I should work 12-15 hours per week. To make up for the missing time, I visited local schools.
About four hours of my week was spent messaging professors and teachers to coordinate a schedule and 15 hours a week commuting between all the different schools I had to visit in a day, on top of my other teaching responsibilities.
Eventually, the lack of consistency and the overwhelming task to coordinate schedules and teachers between 4+ schools affected by teaching. I was late to classes and completely forgot about classes. Even my planner couldn’t help me.
Finally, I told my department’s director/boss that the schedule wasn’t working for me. We clarified the scheduling process and one massive misunderstanding–my coworkers told the director I never taught because I was always traveling. She thought I was avoiding my teaching responsibilities, but I was only traveling when I didn’t have lessons scheduled! My reputation was at stake.
(Thankfully I meticulously detailed my teaching schedule and the number of hours I worked inside my planner. Any thoughts of me avoiding my responsibilities was quickly overturned.)
The Belarusian higher education system is different than in the States. There’s a standardized curriculum, meaning professors have to teach every single lesson by the book on the scheduled day. This strict teaching schedule leaves little to no room for me to teach since I’m only a guest lecturer. My coworkers rarely invited me to their classes to teach because they had to teach their curriculum.
The conversation between the director and me clarified a lot, but it didn’t resolve anything.
I like my coworkers at the university, but I wasn’t sure how to approach this situation. So, I asked one of the embassy employees to help. Almost overnight, the situation was resolved.
Now the director will manage my schedule, which makes sense because she knows all the professors’ curriculums and schedules best, so the director can easily schedule me for guest teaching. The new process goes into affect in December.
Running Away…..to London
As you can tell, November in Belarus was kind of crap for me. I needed to mentally hit ‘reset’ so I could make the most of my remaining time in Belarus. So, I went to London.
I essentially turned off my phone for the weekend and spent quality time with friends. We did nothing touristy and nothing particularly amazing. It was exactly what I needed.
Siena, a friend from studying abroad in St. Petersburg, and I visited a zero waste store so I could buy more compostable floss. We ate a wide-variety of foods, and none of it contained potatoes or mushrooms (the main two ingredients in Belarusian cuisine).
My dear friend Celeste (who I previously visited in Montreal) now studies at Cambridge and invited Siena and me to her college’s Friday evening formal dinner. Celeste wore her Sydney College robe, which naturally Siena and I tried on. Later, we went to the Sydney College bar and hung out with Celeste’s friends.
For the first time in months, I had a conversation about the things I’m passionate about in life with people who also care about these topics and have opinions. We discussed, debated, and shared our life experiences. I truly connected with people. It was perfect.
I spent the rest of the weekend with *drumroll* a British man I had met briefly in Minsk in September. We deeply connected during our brief time together in London and were developing feelings for each other. I figured, why not visit? (especially since I had friends in the area to go to in case things didn’t work out) Although we are no longer in contact, it’s a really special memory.
The man, Siena, and I spent the day together eating yummy food that wasn’t made with potatoes or mushrooms to give me a break from the two staples of the Belarusian diet. We went to the Camden flower market and attended Tala’s pop-up shop! Tala is a sustainable activewear company that I’m obsessed with. Not only did I attend my first-ever pop-up shop, which is something I’ve always wanted to do because it seems so trendy, hip, and fun, but I also bought my first Tala piece!
I wrote five pages in my journal about my weekend in London and I could honestly write even more here. But, my time in London is something I want to keep for myself.
Instead, let me assure you that running away is sometimes an amazing idea.
In November in Belarus, running away for a little bit was exactly what I needed.
I returned to Belarus with a fresh headspace and ready to make the most of the last month of teaching before winter break.
Belarus Is An Ideal Placement
Despite a lot of these headaches and heartaches, I’m 100% still grateful for my placement in Belarus and happy to be here.
My Russian language and knowledge about this part of the world is developing in ways textbooks and research papers never could.
I shared this first-hand knowledge with important government officials, such as a man from NATO.
Since President Clinton, Belarus hasn’t had an ambassador from the States. This subsequently restricts how many American officials are allowed in the country. The American embassy staff in Minsk is a small but hard-working group of individuals who perform the same duties as a regular-sized embassy with at least 1/3rd of a regular embassies staff.
Recently, Belarus and the U.S. has agreed to reintroduce an American ambassador to Minsk. This means many American officials can visit Belarus for the first time since President Clinton, or maybe even ever in their career!
This re-opening means the American embassy in Minsk is welcoming more special guests…and adding more work to the small staffs’ already-busy schedules. In November in Belarus, the embassy staff leaned on me slightly to engage with people at events, lunches, etc.
Am I an important American diplomat? Not even close.
However, I am one of the few native English teachers in Belarus. I interact with Belarusians on a daily basis, meaning I have insight into Belarusians’ thoughts, perceptions, and ideas that American diplomatic staff don’t necessarily have.
I know of no other Fulbright teachers who have had this same opportunity because there are very few countries that have been cut-off from American diplomats for over a decade. In November in Belarus, I really recognized this unique opportunity.
November in Belarus
It’s hard to share unpleasant memories from Belarus with the world.
Partially because I hate to admit I’m struggling.
Partially because I hate to share things I, and many of you, will perceive as negative things about another culture.
Six years ago, I learned from Rotary International that no culture is right or wrong, just different. I frequently reminded myself of this during November in Belarus.
I ask of you to also not judge Belarusians or the Belarusian culture.
Every expat experiences hardships in their life abroad. November was unfortunately disproportionally filled with hardships for me.
But my life in Belarus has since improved because I found connection, practiced empathy, and further developed my understanding of this culture.
Do I hope wish some things in Belarus were different? Yes.
Do I hope some things, especially in terms of feminism and political thinking, change? Yes.
But I am not Belarusian nor all-knowing. It is not my place to tell them what is right or wrong about their country. Nor is it for you.
Instead, I initiate cultural exchange.
I share ideas and language with my students and other Belarusians I meet.
Together, through this exchange, we grow to be more empathetic and knowledgable people.
In November in Belarus, I learned more than I ever thought I would about myself, this culture, and the world. I’m grateful for this opportunity.
November ended surrounded by fellow American teachers for Thanksgiving. My heart was as full as my stomach and I couldn’t wait to see what else Belarus had in store for me.
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