Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Sting of Cultural Submersion

***There's no life lesson or spiritual parallel in this entry....just thought I'd lighten this thing up a bit.***

A handful of years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the college on the hill, I was Super Christian! Ok, well, that's not true. But I WAS involved in a campus organization that was evangelical in nature, and I must say, a little bit like being in a cult. I don't say that to belittle their mission or anyone who works for this ministry, because it IS a ministry, and the staff are incredibly devoted to their cause. However, after several years of involvement with this group, I learned that they had their own way of doing things that differed from pretty much everyone else on campus. They had their own "language," and, in all honesty, if you didn't act or think like them, then you were labeled "carnal" and a group of them would gather to pray for your soul. I know this, because at different points during my college career, I was both in the group doing the praying...and in the carnal lot of souls being prayed for.

In the summer of 2002, before I was engulfed by my own carnality, I took part in an extended mission trip to Russia. A group of college students from several different universities all converged on the streets of Perm, and we took up residence in the Ural Hotel. Our mission was to work with Perm University students. We were there to wrestle as many of them to Christ as possible, shrouded under the clever rouse of teaching them English. Since many of the Russian students already spoke an impressive bit of English, and almost none of the American students spoke a single syllable of Russian, our disguise was comical to say the least. I think the cat was undeniably out of the bag as soon as any of us Americans tried to order food. We would stand at the counter, look helplessly at the overhead menu, and then sort of point and grunt until the clerk realized that we were, in fact, complete Russian illiterates. She would then take mercy on us, sometimes while rolling her eyes, and give us whatever food there was a picture of. I like to call this little maneuver the "American Point and Purchase."

We spent the next few weeks building relationships with the Russians, and I learned very quickly that while our lifestyles were very different, the heart of a woman remains the same regardless of her nationality. These young women struggled with how they looked, what boys thought of them, and what their futures held. They were, in many respects, just like me. And they had such an intense desire to show us the very depths and heart of their culture. We ate their food, accompanied them to their homes, learned some of their favorite hangouts, and took part in a traditional Russian experience that I will NEVER forget.

I had heard about Russian bath houses. Our group of American students had been talking about it the entire time we were in Perm. However, this concept was somewhat similar to the city of Atlantis. It was interesting to talk about....intriguing to imagine going there even....but I was certain I would never end up there.

I was wrong.

On a hot summer day, the young Russian women decided it was time to introduce us to the bath house, the pinnacle of cultural submersion. A Russian bath house is similar to an American group of women spending a day at the spa. Only different. At a Russian bath house, the men go in one side and the women go in the other, so you are safely sequestered there with only your same sex. The first room is a changing room. And what do you change into, you ask?


That's right. You walk into a room full of 60 other people. Half of them are people you know, because they are your American or Russian friends. The other half, you don't so much know, but you CAN so much see their aged, sagging breasts tickling the floor tiles. And there, in front of God and the sagging breasts, you disrobe. Every stitch of clothing that you own comes off, and you stand in this room with all of your friends, who have also removed their clothing. And everyone collectively looks for a safe place to divert their eyeballs, because when you agreed to do ministry together, you didn't realize that meant getting up close and personal with the who-whos of your ministry partners.

From there, you walk into the shower room. This is a huge room, full of open shower stalls that continuously spew cool water. In a last ditch attempt at modesty, most of the American students had one hand placed firmly on their exposed breasts, and the other hand shielding the aforementioned who-who. The Russians are not so modest. Their breasts and who-whos are right there, out in the open, for anyone and everyone to see. Because there are many more people in the shower room than there are actual showers, you take turns standing under one of the shower heads and rinsing yourself with chilly water. The purpose of the bathhouse, or bano (pronounced bon-yo), isn't to scrub with soap. In fact, I don't recall there being a bar of soap anywhere in the shower room. The purpose, I was told by my naked, cone boobed, Russian friend, is to improve your circulation.

The next stage in the Russian bath house experience is to move from chilly shower water to the small room that is heated to what felt like 200 degrees. When you walk in to this heat, from the cool of the shower, your nose hairs literally feel like they have been set aflame, and it's honestly difficult to breathe. There was a long wooden bench in the hot room. I didn't sit down. All I could think of at this point was my father, who religiously wears his shower shoes in even the fanciest of hotels for fear of the funk that might be growing on the floor. I could only imagine how much respect he would lose for me if he knew that I had sat my buck naked ass on a sweaty wooden bench in a public bath house deep in the mountains of Russia. So I declined my Russian friends offer of a seat, and stood there trying to breathe through the heat and the steam and the sweat.

And that is when the old naked lady started beating me with sticks.

Apparently this is the part of the experience that is "good for the circulation." In the heat of the sauna, an old, stark naked, Russian grandmother, with deflated balloons for breasts, takes a bunch of sticks tied into a lot, and beats you with them.


And these aren't special sticks. They aren't sticks that are designed for bath house use. They are in fact, twigs of green wood that someone gathered from the grounds outside the bath house, similar to what you used to go rip from a tree when your grandmother told you to "get a switch." They are strapped together, leaves still on them, and then used to beat any naked body and every naked body that enters that hot room. And my turn had come. This old lady snuck up behind me, seemingly from nowhere, and began beating me from my feet to my head, her saggy boobs flying to and fro with every lashing and leaves leaping off the angry twigs, sticking to my damp skin. I was too stunned to even protest, although I think my hands instinctively went to my face, as I endured...

the culturally appropriate lashing of my life.
After that the rest of the bath house experience is simply "Rinse and Repeat." I did partake in the "rinsing" part, because...well....I was covered in leaves...but I left the "repeating" to the Russians. I'm all for cultural submersion. In fact, I even encourage it, as it obviously leads to an educational and memorable experience. Eat their food! Drink their ale! Speak their language!
However...I draw the line at being beaten with sticks by a wet, naked, woman. Once was enough.
But maybe that's my carnality talking. I dunno. Pray for me.


Emma said...

Favorite. blog. post. ever. I love you for bringing this ridiculous memory to mind and making me laugh out loud! :)
--Emma :)

Amy said...

This is written so much better than the way I remember hearing this story so many years ago!