This summer, I had the pleasure of spending eight long weeks in Russia to do an intensive study of language and culture. I travelled with a third-party group, named the Council on International Education and Exchange. I studied full time at St. Petersburg State University with other American and British/Irish students while living with a Russian host family.
My understanding of this country and language, which I have previously studied the past few years, completely changed after this summer. First of all, I learned to have no expectations when going into a foreign situation like mine. Even though I went through culture shock debriefings and orientations through my program, nothing can really prepare you for what you will experience abroad. I had some preconceived notions of what to expect as far as cultural norms went, but, as is everywhere in the world, every person and situation is different. When considering understanding myself, I believe I reconfirmed my ambitions and reached my goals for my trip.
On the topic of understanding the culture itself, my experience basically guaranteed I would come out of it with a whole new worldview. Being especially in one of America’s top (political) adversary countries, I was enlightened to gain perspectives of average citizens there. It taught me that people have the same basic desires out of their leaders everywhere, and we are not all so different. The rhetoric that is taught to us through mass media often contains a lot of oversight in order to outline a clear enemy.
The overarching aspect of my project that led me to these conclusions was being fully immersed into the culture. Living with an average Russian family, studying at a Russian university with Russian professors, and fending for myself in society in general forced me to gain the tools to effectively communicate and understand the people with whom I was dealing. Unlike a lot of Western European countries, English is only spoken by a minority of younger people, often with the skill level that most students acquire from studying Spanish in the US in high school. Living with a family that did not understand any of my native language forced me to work 24/7 to improve my fluency to be able to effectively communicate to them my ideas and feelings in a complex fashion.
Everyday situations on the street usually helped to bring cultural understandings to my awareness. For example, one does not simply smile and say hello to people they do not know out of “politeness;” Russians view this as being superficial and unnecessary. I quickly learned this through the odd stares I received when I did this. Another example is the cultural idea of openness, where once acquainted with somebody, not many questions are considered inappropriate. Oftentimes in bars and cafes, others would become interested upon realization that we were Americans and draw up conversations on politics, which in America is usually seen as inappropriate, especially not being previously acquainted with the person. It is also through this, though, that I learned how similar-thinking the people were; drawing clear distinctions between how our governments operate and the political atmospheres with how everyday people felt about each others’ peoples.
These realizations are incredibly important to my education and my general worldview. I had sat in a classroom here in Ohio for three years learning about this culture and speaking this language to the same people. I neededthis type of experience to get this taste of true understanding. Coming back to school here and sitting in class learning about it again, my eyes are opened to my experiences and how I can use them every day. In general, it gave me a huge desire to travel more and become a more worldly person in general. I would whole-heartedly advocate for every person to spend time in another part of the world, as it is incredibly important to see that our way of life is not always the most perfect, and to be open to differences in people.