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Mis(s)adventures

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October 2013

Not Much Time for Sleep!

It’s amazing how much can happen in a week here! Here’s a quick update on what has been going on in Tatarstan.

Weekend in Kazan

Last weekend, I was invited to Kazan(the largest city in Tatarstan) by the daughter of a teacher at the Institute, who works there as an English teacher and completed her master’s degree in TESOL in the states. Kamila and I hit it off right away, and Iwehad a wonderful weekend exploring the city, drinking tea, and discussing all things language related. Kamila took me to Театр Юного Зрителя, (The Theater of the Young Spectator,) where we saw a comedy called, “Здравствуйте, Я Ваша Тётя” (“Hello, I’m Your Aunt.”) This play was reminiscent of Mrs. Doubtfire: Set in late 19th or early 20th century England, two love-struck young men ask their friend to dress up like a woman so that they can invite two girls over without a chaperone. What results is a hilarious and disastrous chain of events.

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The next day, Camilla took me to the museum of Soviet Life, which showcased realia from the institution of the U.S.S.R. until its dissolution. Let’s just say the star of the show was Lenin. Here are some pictures from the museum:

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“The Truth About American Diplomats”

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From a Soviet textbook: “Our Motherland, the U.S.S.R.”

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I learned that chewing gum was a status symbol in the Soviet Union, because it was so hard to come by.

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“Soviet Woman”

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“Soviet Pioneer Uniform”

After we left the museum, it was time for me to return to Kazan, and other than the irritated GPS that yelled at you if you made a wrong turn and the driver deciding it was a good idea to race through the breakdown lane on occasion, the trip back was uneventful.

Overcoming My Fear

One of the girls I met at the local English Club, Elmira, has been kindly helping me with my Russian once or twice a week. One day, we stopped by a store to get some water, and she noticed right away how nervous I got when I approached the store workers. “Why do you get so scared?” she said. “Then you stutter and they can’t understand you! They’re just people, just like you.”

It’s true, although I’ve studied Russian for quite a few years and can carry on conversation fairly easily with people I know, there always seems to be a barrier when I approach people in stores or cafes. My heart starts beating quickly and my tongue decides to have a seizure. I asked Elmira then, if we could go out one day and just go up to as many people as possible in an attempt to overcome my fear. She agreed, and on Tuesday, we went to the market for an adventure.

First, I went to a market to try to find a hat and gloves, and I managed to talk to the woman without too much trouble. Next, she took me to a fast food place which served a Tatarstani treat.

“You have Big Mac, we have сосиска в тесте (fried dough covered hot dogs). You haven’t been to Tatarstan until you’ve tried one.” She told me what to say, and when I ordered, the woman actually smiled at me and asked me where I was from, then started to make conversation. So not everyone is scary. We went to a few more stores, and my fear started to dissipate. I still get nervous and I know it will be a process, but I am so thankful that Elmira took the time to help me fight my fear.

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Eating сосиска в тесте in front of Elabuga’s “Big Ben”

Explaining America to Russian History Students

The next day, I had another opportunity to use my Russian, as I was invited into a history class to share about my country. In true Russian style, I wasn’t told exactly what I needed to prepare until the morning of, which resulted in lots of frantic Googling and Wikipedia searches. I may be American, but I am not an encyclopedia!

After presenting on the symbolism in our flag and great seal, students asked me questions about my country. Questions ranged from the American economic system to family relationships, and I did my best to answer them as truthfully as I could with my non-native handle of Russian. Some questions, such as those about American family relationships and why I decided to come to Russia, were easy to answer in Russian because they were not sensitive issues. However, I found that when asked questions about Americans’ view of President Obama and President Putin, it was hard to answer both diplomatically and truthfully. Concerning President Obama, I brought up that his approval ratings had dropped since he became president, and that a large percentage of Americans were not satisfied with how he acted concerning Syria.

And whn they asked me about Putin, and I felt a little cornered. The history teacher asked me, “so, what do Americans think about Putin? Because, you see, we love our President.” So really, what was I supposed to say to that? I said something to the effect of that Americans respect Putin, but of course there will always be tension between the two countries because we are both powerful and want to hold the number one spot. Then to dispel the tension, I tried to bring in some humor, fumbling for words to try to explain the funny memes we have on Facebook that portray Putin as a strong, “most interesting man in the world” type. I didn’t do very well at explaining this, and when this article came out the next day reporting on my presentation, it said that “Americans consider Putin a ‘superhero.'” Ok, so not exactly what I wanted to say; sorry America! Also, in the article, they put in some things that I never said, for example, that all American homes have an American flag. So here’s the link if you’d like to put it into an online translator and read it, but don’t take everything as my definitive view 🙂

http://kpfu.ru/main_page?p_cid=61095&p_sub=6207

Overall, it was a great experience to answer students’ questions about America. People in Elabuga are very enthusiastic about meeting an American, because unlike in larger cities, for many, I am the first American they have ever met. The local news will be interviewing me on Monday as well, so I will make sure to keep you up to date on that.

Girls Night Out

Finally, my week ended with some girls from my advanced class inviting me out to a café. Most of them are only a year younger than me, so it feels a little strange to be their teacher. It was great to be able to hang out with them outside of the classroom in a more relaxed environment. They were determined to speak English the whole time, which didn’t seem difficult, since their English is already excellent. After pizza, coffee, and desert, we strolled around the city, at which one point, two college guys started to follow us in their car. While walking down the sidewalk, they put their car in reverse and went backwards, trying to talk to us, for at least 10 minutes. They were persistent and would not give up, but we felt safe, since there were about 10 of us. Russian guys seem to be much more forward than American guys. But can you blame them? Look how beautiful all the girls in my class are:

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The Country Where the G.P.S. Scolds You: A Little Post on Cultural Differences

After about a month of being here, I am still finding it hard to adjust in certain ways. I am not yet used to what, through my cultural lens, appears to be unnecessary harshness and scolding. Although on the logical level, I understand that American and Russian communication styles differ greatly, I have still taken the seeming abrasiveness very seriously, avoiding or dreading situations that will involve being scolded. My knee-jerk reaction is to take it all very personally; for example, I still felt upset hours after a marshrutka driver yelled at me when I forgot to close the door to the bus. This was all until I experienced G.P.S a la Russe.

After a restful weekend in the city of Kazan (more about that in a later post), I ordered a charter taxi-van to bring me the 3 hours back to Elabuga. I was the first passenger, so the driver (who used so much slang I had no idea what he was saying) plugged other passengers’ addresses into his G.P.S., and off into the city we went.
So you know how in America, when we make a wrong turn, a robotic but decidedly female voice says, “recalculating”? Well, when the taxi driver decided he knew better than the G.P.S., a slightly less robotic male voice blurted out in an irritated tone, «Зачем отклонились от маршрута!?», “Why did you go off the route!? You must turn at the next left!”

I thought I had misheard; after all, in my mind, there was no possible reason for actually programming scolding into a G.P.S. system. As the driver wove through the city traffic, I listened closely, and heard it again and again. “Why did you go off the route!? Why did you go off the route!?” Just to make completely sure, I typed it into Google on my phone, and sure enough, it yielded lots of results for Russian G.P.S. systems. As the taxi gained more and more passengers, not one Russian seemed to think that the constant scolding was anything but normal. As for me though, I was trying my best not to burst into laughter, both at the absurdity of programming scolding into a GPS system and at the Russians’ non-reaction.

I am sure it will still take me quite a bit more time to get used to the Russian communication style, but at least I am starting to understand it more. My experience with the G.P.S. showed me that Americans and Russians perceive scolding in very different ways. I have yet to understand exactly why scolding plays such a prominent role in Russian communication or how exactly Russians perceive it differently than Americans, but I realize now that I shouldn’t take it personally. So the next time I am scolded and am tempted to hang my head in shame, I’ll remember the irritated voice of Mr. Russian G.P.S. and do my best to crack a wide American smile.

Second Language

It is an uncomfortable way to live, to be able to understand yet to lack the means to be understood, to be able to receive, but not to give, to be able to perceive the inside but still be an outsider, desperately pounding on a door you’ve longed to enter for almost a decade.

It is a frustrating way to exist, to love the rich sounds of this language, your ears delighting in the dance of trilled rs and softened consonants, but to find them uncomfortable and awkward on your tongue, your mouth seemingly filled with gravel. And if your mouth is filled with gravel, your brain is like a record player that constantly skips, the possibility of beautiful music constantly mocked by jarring stops and starts. No sooner have you started a sentence then you realize that it will lead to the dead end of your native framework, a constant impediment to truly entering this second language.

You know thousands of words, but it turns out that words are not enough. Knowing how to say “blackmail” and “lisp” and “intangible phenomenon” do nothing to help you break through these invisible barriers. You know that they can be prevailed against, many before you have somehow broken through, but their secret is a mystery. These barriers are abstract and non-quantifiable, and no formulas or textbooks can explain why your heart still races when you enter a produkti, rehearsing over and over in your head the simple words that you learned years ago, “chai chorniy.” You can read Chekhov and understand the rapid speech of news anchors, yet you stand foreign and awkward when someone addresses you on the street, either silent and confused or offering a messy version of the words that you know in theory so well.

You want to know what it feels like to think in this new framework, to walk down the street and realize that your wandering thoughts were actually in the language of this country, but for now, all you can do is wait. All you can do is keep chipping away at the barriers, mouthing the soft “Ls” as you walk to work, forcing yourself to offer conversation when all you want to do is be silent. All you can do is keep pounding on the door steadily, claiming joy in each fragment of paint that you scrape off, with the hope that one day in the not so distant future, you will break down the door and enter.

 

 

The First Blow is Half the Battle

The theme for this week’s meeting of the Elabuga English Club was “English Proverbs,” and the proverb I was asked to explain sums up these first few weeks. “The first blow is half the battle,” accurately describes the front-loaded nature of adapting to a new culture, job, and social group simultaneously. These first few weeks have had ups and downs intensified by the newness and disorientation of a new way of life, but I have finally started to settle into something resembling a routine, and I can confidently say that I really think I’m going to like it here!

The biggest concern for me while preparing for my time here was teaching; after all, I wasn’t an education major and I had had little experience. You can imagine then how overwhelmed I felt when I found out that I would be teaching 4 classes on the college level. Five months ago, I was taking 14 credit hours, now I was expected to teach them! There was little time to reflect on my role change, however, as I was given a textbook and thrown right into the classroom. I am happy to say that it was not as scary as I had imagined it to be. My students (who are only a year younger than me!) are a joy to teach, and I already see the seeds of positive relationships being built, the development of which was one of the main reasons I wanted to teach.

A little about what I am teaching: I teach two sections of conversational and written English for fourth year students. My first group is from the English department, and they are definitely at an advanced level of English; we have already had many interesting conversations about the government shutdown, Syria, politics, and cultural differences. I also teach a current events/news class for them once a week, which they seem to be very interested in. My second group is from the Tatar Department. Basically, there is a separate department for those who want to study Tatar Language and Literature (usually ethnic Tatars), but there is also an English track within the department. Their level of English is lower than my other group, but I have found that the textbook they are expected to use doesn’t help. It is way above their level, and if I were in their position, I would feel overwhelmed and discouraged. In addition, the teachers seem to have given up on them. I have heard quite a few times, “they really can’t speak English. You just have to do drills and vocab with them.” It is true that they really don’t have the ability to speak conversationally, yet! It is going to be a challenge to learn how to teach them effectively, but I already had a small success yesterday when I modified an assignment on reported speech. By the end of the lesson, I felt like they all understood the concept, and they had fun doing it. I even got to teach them “hangman,” which they were really good at!

Finally, I am teaching a creative writing class once a week, which I am creating completely from scratch! Well, not completely from scratch. I had the privilege of taking a Creative Writing nonfiction class last semester with an excellent professor at Gordon College, and I am modeling the format of the course after this class. In short, each student will write a poem, short story, and personal story in English, and there will be lots of peer review and workshopping. I started the class by writing a cinquain as a class (an easy form of poetry), and the students chose to write about how terrible school was, which was actually really funny. I told them I understood, since I had been in their shoes just a few short months ago. Then I asked them to write their own cinquains, and I was very impressed! I believe every one of them has a poetic bone in their body. I read them “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I don’t know if they understood all of it, but I sure felt like Anne of Green Gables reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” We will also be starting a wordpress blog to showcase student writing, so be on the lookout for that!

Oh, a side note: students at the university had never even heard of a syllabus before! I think this speaks alot to the differences between American and Russian culture. As a person who loves syllabuses/syllabi (take your pick), I very nerdily and enthusiastically explained about how wonderful it was to know what was coming in the future and what was expected of you (two things which don’t seem to exist here).One of my students put it best in her essay comparing Russian and American higher education: in America, students get a syllabus, but “in Russia, it’s always a mystery.” I have made a syllabus for two of my classes so far, and the students seem to like it.

Socially, things have gotten much better too! Two of the teachers from my department, Lenara and Albina(such beautiful names!) took me out to lunch and a movie, and I really enjoyed their company. I also visited the local English club, and people have been eager to befriend me there. I went out to pizza last night with two high school girls from the club, one of whom wants to be a translator. The head of the English club has also asked me to give a presentation on my state next week, so it seems that I may have to start saying “no” to invitations if I am to have any time to myself to recharge.

Finally, I am taking Russian lessons with the head of the Russian Department, who is an excellent teacher. At the beginning of our first lesson, she looked at me and said, “all the other teachers have been praising your Russian and said you spoke so well, but I’m not so sure.” Needless to say, this was an intimidating way to start a lesson, but by the end she had become convinced that I could say more than “Da” and “Nyet.” My Russian is at a point now where I understand probably 70-80% of what is being said, but my speech hasn’t caught up with my head. But unlike other times in Russia, I finally have enough time for my speech to do the catching up! I have no doubt that if I work hard, I will make great strides linguistically during my stay here.

The Russian version of the first blow is half the battle” (хорошее начало, полдело откачало) is translated loosely as “a good beginning is half the work.” It has been an overwhelming, tiring beginning, but overall, it has definitely been a good one, and I now that I have thrown the first blow, I am excited to see how the rest of the year will unfold.

They Call it Culture Shock

It comes most noticeably at first in the assault of your senses: in the din of new sounds flooding your ears, in the thick scent of lead paint that varnishes university walls, in the bright colors of houses that contrast with the crumbling roads and mud-splattered Ladas. It comes secondly in trying to navigate the unwritten rules, those elusive laws you clumsily grasp for when you sit squished by babushkas in a marshrutka, hoping that this time you won’t give the driver a reason to yell at you.

But finally and most deeply, it comes in the subtle strains, in the interaction with a teacher where you both spoke the same language but could not find an общий язык. Despite the fact that the syllables coming out of your mouths code for meaning, by the time the message gets through the filters of culture and intonation and dialect it is sterilized, lifeless. And despite the fact that you stand face to face with each other and her voice is crisp and clear, the meaning is as garbled as words underwater.

In this proverbial game of telephone, you become acquainted with the isolation that comes from a lack of true connection. Every other time you have come to this place, you have had the ability of precise, implicit communication with those from your culture. You took for granted the взаимопонимание, the mutual understanding, because you didn’t realize how similar you actually were. You thought you were wildly different from each other, so different that you would have never become friends had you lived alongside one another in your own country.

And now that there you are the only one, you realize that you are more American than you thought. You had always thought that you didn’t fit into your own culture, with its bustle and extroversion and entrepreneurial spirit. You thought all this when you straddled the chasm between Russia and America, holding tight to the hands of the Americans who came with you to this land while trying to grasp just as tightly the hands of these mystery people who had fascinated you for half your life. And you thought that if you kept letting yourself be pulled in both directions you would split, so you let go of the American hands.

As soon as you let go, you found yourself being dragged over hills, scraping across rocky paths, now using your free hand to wave for help, frantically looking back at the place you left. You now realize that the hands you let go of were hands like yours, and as you are pulled across new terrain, you are lonely. You note the irony, for your eyes were always on the Russians even as the Americans were holding your hand, and now you look at the horizon of nine months and sigh.

But the Russians like to say that hope dies last, and you agree, so you grasp even tighter to these foreign hands, no longer using your free hand to wave for help but to hold on to new hands tighter, knowing that you will be cut and bruised by this rocky terrain but having faith that this road will bring you somewhere breathtaking.

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