Life in Russia is full of adventure, and since my eldest son has started public school, I am amazed at the new insights into Russian culture I have received almost daily.
A few days ago I was helping him with his reading homework. We were reading a skazka, or fairytale, and it was full of magic and superstition.
“What does superstition mean?” my seven-year-old asked. As I struggled to define the word, I had a flashback of the perfect example that happened six years ago…
I was sitting on a hard bench in the lo-o-o-ong hallway of my neighborhood health clinic, trying to hold my squirmy baby boy. It was one of the first times I had taken him to see the Russian doctor, and I was nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing. Russians love systems and uniformity, and being a foreigner meant I was always “outside the box”—outside the system.
As we waited, my bouncing baby boy cooed and gurgled to the babushka, or elderly woman, sitting next to us. She smiled at him for a while, then eventually shook her head, and…spit on him three times. Well, okay, it was not real spitting; she “fake-spit.” Just made spitting noises. She continued to smile through the whole thing, so I knew it was not meant maliciously…but still, did this woman just spit on my baby??!!
I did not know how to respond, and she seemed to see nothing wrong with it, so I made a mental note to ask my husband about it later. Even though he is Ukrainian, the cultures are very similar.
That night he explained it to me: spitting is to ward off the evil eye. Supposedly if you have something of value, like a beautiful child, then others may become jealous. In their resentment of your good fortune, they may give you the evil eye so that you lose whatever you have that is valuable. Thus spitting is a way of “tricking” the evil eye—if I spit on him, then it means he is not a beautiful baby, and thus no one will be jealous of him, and no one will be able to curse him with the evil eye. I even heard stories later of it taken to such a degree in parts of this country that when a baby is born no one is allowed to say anything positive about the baby for the first year. Instead, only insults are to be given, as “protection.” Spitting is not just for infants; it can be used as protection in any good occurrence or windfall.
As I told my son this story he got hung up on the saliva (“It was pretend spitting, honey!”), and I again tried to make sense of this huge, fascinating, terrifying, and enigmatic country that has been my home for 10 years now. I see how the father of lies can so twist our perceptions and escalate our fears that we proclaim something beloved and perfect to be hateful and marred.
My prayer is this: Help me Father, to see the beauty in this great nation and people, and to voice it, compliment it, and extol it. Help me not to be intimidated by the pressure of conformity around me, but to stand for truth and love.
Question to consider: How do you practically stand for truth and love in the culture in which you live?