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No, I’m Not Married

So you’re going to the philharmonic with your host mom for the first time, and you’re making small talk along the way. She asks you if you’re dating anyone, and you say her, you have a boyfriend. She then jumps to the conclusion that “boyfriend” means “husband” and asks “so how long have you been married?” You have to hurriedly explain that he’s just a boyfriend, and though you’ve been dating for three years, you’re not engaged. She doesn’t believe you, and continues to refer to him as your fiance anyway.

You’re wandering around the mall with your local Russian friend, and you both spot a shop with a wedding dress on display in the front windows. She then tells you that she can’t wait to graduate so she can marry her boyfriend and throw a fabulous wedding. She asks about your wedding plans, and when you say you don’t plan on any, her eyes become the size of grapefruits and she just gapes at you, silently.

In a taxi with a Muscovite as the driver, he asks you if you have any kids. You say you don’t have any, so he jokes “ah, but they’ll soon be!” You try to politely explain that you don’t want kids, but he can’t believe this because, well, you’re a woman after all.

Family is a huge deal in Russia. While nowadays it’s more common to see younger generations trying to move out of their family’s home, multiple generations living together in one apartment is perfectly normal. My host family consists of my host mother, her younger half sister, and I, but often times their grandchildren will come to spend the night, and their children will come for tea and conversation regularly as well. When they ask my about my own family, they’re shocked when I say that we’re not very close. “But you’re family!” they exclaim. As if in the very definition of the word there is an intrinsic meaning of closeness and loyalty.

A Russian family of nesting dolls/matrioshki

In my course on Russian culture and civilization, we’re discussed that this is another form a collectivism, a factors that plays a large role in Russian society. Within the Russian family, traditional roles tend to take place in a relatively loose way. That is, while the man of the household is typically the breadwinner, and the women of the house take care of the home and children, it’s not unusual if a family doesn’t fit this cookie cutter mold. However, it does impose some gender expectations of both sexes, as far as I can tell anyway. Hence, the countless times I’ve been asked if I have children, or I’m looking forward to my wedding day. On the subject of marriage, Russians tend to get married at a much younger age than Americans – say, in their early twenties or thereabouts. I have a friend of a friend living in St. Petersburg who is 29, and she is already a single mother.

You can see young couples getting hitched every weekend in Russia – just take a step outside

These types of gender expectations also shape etiquette in Russia. For instance, if you a young man sitting on the metro, and you see a woman get on, it is considered polite to give up your seat for her. If she is an elderly woman, or babushka, it is expected that you give your seat up (elders in Russia are very respected, unlike in the United Stated). When I was travelling through the metro with my heavy rollaboard suitcase, countless times men would rush to help me carry it up flights of stairs. They would also hold open doors for me and help me load my baggage into the metro cars. For me, this was a pleasant surprise, and again goes back to the cultural phenomenon of collectivism.

When I go out with male friends of mine, I’m also not allowed to pay for anything, despite my protests and trying to sneak money into their backpacks when they’re not looking

In Russia, there is a sense that there is always someone to help you. Be it your family, or strangers on the street, you never feel like you have to face the world alone. For this reason, I don’t mind the gender stereotypes in Russia much. They’re not set in stone, and the provide a structure of chivalry that is refreshing, comforting, and reliable – in a world where so much isn’t.

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