Up until my late teens, Valentine’s Day was a stranger to me – I had never witnessed it, never heard of it. Growing up under the Soviet regime, I was ‘programmed’ to know only the Soviet holidays, see only the Soviet cartoons and learn history solely from the Soviet perspective. Although this locked-in environment of communism had disadvantages, through years I’ve come to appreciate its strictness and sober moral norms, as they saved a good portion of my childhood innocence.
I came to know Valentine’s Day through the several times I went for studies to America. Coming from a country which had just shaken off the chains of the communist regime, I found America with its pompous culture of exaggerated celebrations quite alien. I felt somewhat lost in the dating culture tension of high school life and the many high school dances, to which only ‘couples’ were welcomed. “Sweethearts Dance” for celebrating Valentine’s Day was pretty much about showing off your ‘special person’ to the rest of the school. All the talks of celebrating the beauty of love faded into the background in the wake of this plain and straight-forward propaganda of teenage dating culture.
Later, during the years at university, I learned yet new angles of what Valentine’s Day meant for common Americans. Living in Minneapolis with its “The Mall of America” (the biggest shopping mall in the country), I clearly saw how businesses were cashing in on people’s romantic feelings. Sasha, my exchange student friend from Russia, who worked at “The Mall”, admitted that the holiday seasons were a nightmare for her. Were it Easter, Christmas or Valentine’s Day, the whole mall was transformed into a money sucking machine, mesmerizing the unaware customers with Christmas trees, eggs, bunnies, hearts and the music of the season into opening their wallets for the sake of… spending money, of course! If for customers the red hearts and love songs added a pleasant touch to their Valentine’s Day’s shopping spree, to Sasha such daily diets created a clear aversion.
My American roommate Sarah, a graduate student of sociology, quite shocked me with her perception of what Valentine’s Day could be about. One day, as we were sitting and talking in our living-room, she showed me some booklets on ‘safe’ sex and said that she would mail them as a Valentine’s Day gift to her niece, who had just entered her teens. “Nobody else is going to tell her about this anyway, so I thought I should help her out,” was Sarah’s rationale. I couldn’t believe my own ears! I learned that Valentine’s Day was also about promoting the responsibility-free and commitment-free partnerships.
However, I was hard hit by the reality of this partnership culture through my other roommate Cathy, a Ph.D. student of geophysics. Cathy was a very bright student, but she had some psychological issues and was on daily anti-depressant drugs. For most of the January university vacation, I was out of the country, so I was unaware of what was going on in her life. One evening, just a few days after I returned, Cathy came to me with a bottle of medicine in her hand and asked me to count, how many pills were left. After I counted them, she realized that about thirty pills were missing. She told me that her boy-friend had left her and she felt so depressed that she just kept on taking these pills in an attempt to calm down her emotions. Thank God I had a driver’s license and could drive her in her own car to the nearest emergency room, where she was transferred to the psychiatric ward for a few days. Doctors had diagnosed her as attempting to commit suicide. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I was not ready to buy into talks of spreading love in humanity, because with my own eyes I had seen the reality of the dating culture this celebration stood for.
May be my angle on Valentine’s Day is quite unusual, but it is the one that I have come to experience. So whenever I hear ‘Happy Valentine’s Day!’ I feel like the statement should end with a question mark.