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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Blending in With the Locals




In December 1997, I flew to Los Angeles for the holidays and ended up talking about the problems of contemporary Russia with Michael Jackson's wife as we ate corned beef sandwiches.


It was one of those only-in-L.A. moments. After my parents picked me up at the airport, we had lunch in a popular deli, where we shared a table with two young women who wore denim and too many rings.


The blonde, it turned out, was Jackson's wife, Debbie Rowe, who had been to Moscow the previous year. She detested the place. They stayed in a luxury hotel filled with guys with shorn heads and leather jackets.


"I was scared the whole time," she said. "I didn't even stay in town for my husband's concert. I had to get out of there."


The next day I looked up an old copy of People magazine in the library. Sure enough: The woman at the deli was Jackson's wife.


This was not as surprising as it might seem, because Michael Jackson has become an obliquely recurring figure in my life. I once interviewed a cult leader, for example, who ran a petting zoo whose Bengal tiger had been donated by Michael Jackson.


And during a high school church group party at my friend Brady's Brentwood house, the Gloved One himself wandered over from his estate next door when we started throwing girls in the pool. Maybe he thought children were present.


But my real concern here is the effect that shorn heads and leather have on impressionable wives of foreign pop stars.


This has been troubling me ever since late December, when in a strange series of coincidences, I got a leather coat and had my hair shorn krutoi-style. I got the haircut on a lark, but suddenly I am no longer instantly recognizable as an American, with my puffy down jacket and puffy haircut. Were it not for the distressing fact that my head turns out to be shaped like an egg (pointy end up), I, too, might spook the wives of visiting rock 'n' roll stars.


After three years of standing out in a land of dark leather and buzz cuts, I enjoy blending in. But the reviews of my new look are mixed.


Last week the barber gave me another trim that ended up in a borderline skinhead look, and then a handful of women from our Russian parent paper went into hysterics at the sight of me.


A professor at Far Eastern State University's Russian College for Foreigners, where I take classes, took me aside and recounted her grandfather's lifelong advice for young men: Grow your hair and beard long in the winter, shave it all off in the summer.


"We should listen to the old people," she said.


Meanwhile, it has become fashionable in certain circles to rub my head like a good luck charm. In fact, I can't stop rubbing it myself. Velvety, if you smooth it forward. Bristly,if you push it back. It is probably why I will never make it as a tough guy. I cannot stop fondling my scalp.


In other news, two thoughtful screeds arrived last week from Sergey Tochlin, who has an ox.ac.uk e-mail address, chastening me for the dullard Yankee Cold War mindset of last week's column on "Lenin's English." Tochlin takes issue with my urging the youth of Russia to memorize the dialogs printed on the Korea Herald's Business English page ("Wow, man, you look like you amped out in that picture").


Tochin adds, "Language you are promoting ... is certainly not English, it is called Mid-Western American cowboy slang. I am surprised you do not know these things. Unless you are yourself is a victim of U.S. education. Cowboy slang you suggesting to learn as a second language in Russia will certainly be out of place in England and in Europe, including Russia. Just try to submit article on this language ("Russelskii-workinskii languagisky") to The Moscow Times and we will see what happens.


"No-o-o-o-w-w-a-a-y-y-y-m-a-a-a-a-a-a-an this article will be published."


Alas, Richard A. Spears' "Dictionary of American Slang" has not yet caught up with Tochin's research. He describes the word "amped" thus: "intoxicated with amphetamines ... Hank got himself amped last night."


But in all fairness, I should warn non-native speakers that I was kidding. Please do not use the word "amped" unless you are wearing love beads and a tie-dyed T-shirt. And, of course, a Stetson.