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January 2014

Why I’m Not Upset that My Score Didn’t Improve

I just took my post-language program oral proficiency interview, and according to the results, I didn’t improve.

I scored a 10 out of 12 before I left, which signifies “advanced plus” proficiency, and I scored that same 10 three months later, after an intensive 9 to 10 hour a week program with some really great teachers and a lot of hard work.

Before

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After

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But to be honest, I wasn’t disappointed by that number on the screen, because I know that it didn’t  represent the strides I have made linguistically in the past three months.

To give a little background on why I was taking these tests, along with my Fulbright teaching grant, I also won a supplementary grant  to study Russian for 10 hours a week for a minimum of three months. The program required me to take pre and post program oral proficiency interviews, which I was familiar with since I had to do the same before and after my Critical Language Scholarship in Vladimir. With CLS, we were given an interview on the ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages), and I felt I received a fair score both before and after, Intermediate High and Advanced Low, respectively.  This time though, I was interview through ALTA, a different language service, and when I first took the test, I didn’t feel the results were accurate. I remember before taking the test that my goal was to shoot for an 8, which was the equivalent of ACTFL’s advanced low proficiency, the level I’d attained after CLS. If I got a 9, I’d be really stoked, since I’d spent a good part of the summer watching the Russian news, reading detective novels in Russian, and Skyping with a friend in Vladimir. The test itself went strangely. Unlike my two ACTFL OPIs for CLS, the woman on the other line seemed inexperienced and a bit flustered. Nervous, I started off speaking very fast and in a huff she told me “it will go better for you if you slow down!” Our conversation ranged from where I wanted to be in ten years to the environment to the three questions I would ask Barack Obama if I had a chance, and although I got my point across, I still felt like I was grasping for words and stuttering like a stuck record. When I got my test results back and I saw the 10, one part of me was excited, the other part perplexed. On the one hand, the results seemed to prove what my family and friends kept telling me (you are fluent, I know it!) to which every time I responded, “no, I am most definitely not.” When I got to Moscow, I definitely didn’t feel like a “10,” struggling to understand what the server at MacDonalds was saying and struggling to get past my shyness to do the simplest of things. No, I thought, that test couldn’t have been accurate.

Anyway, when I got to Elabuga and began my language program, although I technically had a high speaking level, in practice, I didn’t have the confidence I needed to function in public or at work. I avoided going to stores where I had to ask someone to get something off the shelf for me(these are everywhere in Russia) because I got so nervous I could barely stutter out simple words like black tea, let alone pytilitrovaya voda, the term for a five liter jug of water. For the first two months, there was a soundproof wall between me and the outside world, no matter what my test results said. And then, around the third month in, the fear that I had had when going to stores or interacting with others began to gradually melt away. I felt myself begin to ask for things in stores with more confidence, even if my requests and sentences were littered with mispronunciations and mistakes. I’ll never forget the euphoria of realizing that I could book a taxi for myself and that it would actually come, that as one of my favorite proverbs say, “my tongue could get me all the way to Kiev.” Before long, I was comfortably doing these things, as well as learning vocabulary and phrases that would help me in the Russian workplace. I felt my grammar getting better, my phrases flowing more freely, and I felt myself beginning to actually think in Russian. Although I’ve been to Russia many times, I had never before felt the confidence that I could actually get things done in the language, but this time, although it was unquantifiable, I knew had finally broken through this barrier.

When I got the results back this time, of course I was hoping for the 11, the “almost fluent” score, but I think I knew that if I rated myself, I would give myself a 10, which I never would have done back in August.

My whole life, I’ve tended to give too much weight to the grade, to the lifeless two dimensional mark, and in doing so, I’ve often missed the value in the process, in the subjective experiences that an A or an improvement on a twelve point scale can’t quantify. And for the first time in my life, I looked at that 10 and realized just how little of my journey it represented, that it couldn’t see the September girl scared to set foot in a store transformed to the January one who sometimes even strikes up conversations with cashiers. I looked at the score, laughed and thought, “to hell with it.” And maybe that’s the biggest achievement of all.

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The Realest Day on Earth

On a bone-biting, rainy day back in October, the millennium-old Elabuga received a new tag line that I have no doubt will go down in the annals of Russian history. No sooner did Nick, one of my fellow teachers, arrive in his future residence in Kazan than his hosts dragged him off for a weekend to a little town which turned out to be a hybrid of traditional Russian and Tatar soul and mysterious Slavic eccentricity. Nick told our Thanksgiving clan that as he hiked through the countryside in freezing rain, Elabuga made an unforgettable impression on him. Then and there, Nick christened Elabuga “the realest place on earth.”

Nick’s description of Elabuga has really stuck with me, because in just a few words, it describes the town’s effects better than I could in five pages of narrative. Something about this place, with its simultaneous raw intensity and idyllic quaintness, leaves an impression on you that you can barely describe in any other way than just “real.” If I seem vague, it’s because it’s a “realness” that can’t be described, but needs to be experienced (hint hint: I’d love to have visitors!). Since our get-together in Thanksgiving, our quasi-Tatarstan кружок (circle) has used Nick’s tag line to both humorously and seriously refer to any and everything that goes down in little old Elabuga… which brings me to last Tuesday, what I like to call the realest day on earth.

For the first time in my life, I went skiing.

I know what you’re thinking: “Did she end up in the hospital? Did she run over a babushka?” Well, my friends, I’m happy to say I didn’t do either, but I will say that quite a few babushkas actually showed me up with their skiing skills, and that I did have a few head-on encounters with the snow.

The adventure started when Ksyusha, a woman from the English club, invited me to go skiing on Russian Christmas (January 7th). Feeling a little stir-crazy and missing physical exercise, I quickly agreed. We went with a motley group of high-schoolers, college-age guys who were clearly very sportivniye, and a few thirty-something women. I started out a little wobbly, but was surprised that I didn’t fall right away. I actually did considerably the first half of the forest trek, since there were few steep hills that I had to go up; it was mostly little dips that even someone with my experience could handle. We reached красная гора (Red Mountain), which boasted a beautiful view of a frozen lake and miles of field.

Here we drank tea, ate hazelnut chocolate to give us an energy boost, and took a bunch of photos. The three Russian guys, who had been shy before, even began to warm up to me, one suggesting that they should all pose around me for a picture of “three bears and an American.”

It’s good they warmed up to me, because they basically had to carry me back to our starting point. It all began when I couldn’t get my skis on. Before I knew it, I had two good-looking Russian guys trying in vain to connect my big feet to the skis. After what seemed like five minutes, they finally succeeded in hooking my feet in, and we were off.

It was right about now that I started falling. A lot. And whereas before, I was with two girls from English club and could discretely pick myself up, now I had three guys behind me, simultaneously making me nervous with their presence and ready to pick me up every time I fell. There were three especially memorable moments from our trip back. First, two babushkas were skiing right toward me; I didn’t have the talent to turn away in time, and they barely missed me. Instead of ignoring it, one of the guys starts yelling at the babushkas, telling them “it’s not your road,” and “can’t you see she’s bad at this!” Thanks for the confidence boost, buddy.

Secondly, after struggling for five minutes to get up a hill (after falling on my face as the guys tried to pull me by my ski poles, and after being instructed by a middle-aged Russian man), this babushka flies right past me and conquers the hill as if it were nothing. If I learned one thing that day, it’s that you should not underestimate the babushka.

Finally, and perhaps most embarrassing, I found myself before an even larger hill that there was no way I could climb. This time, one of the guys had to hold my hand while the other skied both our weight and pulled me by my ski pole. The awkward “ride” seemed to go on for hours. Overall though, I had a great time, and the guys were good sports about helping me get through my first time on skis. They also gave me the benefit of the doubt, noting that the skis I had rented bore the number 13. And most importantly, I didn’t hurt myself before my long-awaited trip to the land of the Britons.

My knights in shining ski gear

After our skiing adventure, I stopped at the store for food (where the security guard now knows me and told me in English “good day!”), then met Hanna at the bus stop for a snow hike to the Devil’s Tower. The Devil’s Tower, or Чёртово Городище, is one of Elabuga’s claims to fame, a mysterious lookout surviving from Volga Bulgaria that is thought to date from the 12th century. Of course, most of the tower is a reconstruction, but if I’m not mistaken, it still has some of the stones from the original.

The view is breathtaking, and it is definitely a place I’m looking forward to frequenting once the weather gets a bit warmer.

Hanna and I made sure to bring the necessities for a snow-hike in the realest place on earth. TEA!!!

Breaking the Silence

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a word. I haven’t felt able to write, the depth and heaviness of all that has been going on in my heart has not easily translated to words; the tools of sounds and letters that usually make meaning have run like sand through my clenched fists as I have grasped for a way to make sense of guttural, overwhelming consciousness. For a month, all I have been able to do is to open my mouth and utter an unintelligible, emotional groan, words seeming irrelevant when the waves I thought should have subsided by now keep slapping me, and I am only able to form the words, “help me Lord, I need you.”

Many language learners go through a “silent period” in the early stages of immersion. It is a time when the learner is so inundated with new sounds and tones and meaning that he acts like a sponge, not producing any language himself. This doesn’t mean he isn’t learning; speech will eventually emerge, but he simply needs to absorb for a while. This month has been its own silent period for me, as I have struggled just to keep my head above water, simply absorbing what God is doing in and through me without being able to make sense of it like I want to.

Although I can’t begin to plumb the depths of the changes taking place inside me, I am beginning to see how God has used this difficult time in my life to make me more like Christ, to mature my perspective, to bring me to a more daring, vulnerable trust in Him. I feel older, and part of me doesn’t like that. I feel that I have aged 5 years in the past three months, having lost the romance and twinkle in my eye that Russia used to light in me. I feel older, and part of me knows that this is good, that I am stepping out of a transient fantasy into concrete, messy, but colorful reality. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I believed that He wanted me here and I still believe that He does. But every morning that I get up, bundle up and plod the wintery way, I realize more and more that I am a different person than I was in September.

Three months ago, I would have told you that freedom is synonymous with wandering, and that roots are synonymous with chains. I would have told you, if I really trusted you, that maybe this running away to Russia wasn’t as brave as it seemed, since I thought that steady was synonymous with stale and lifeless, and boring was synonymous with depression. That life, real, conscious, colorful life was synonymous with running into an adventure that could swallow me into purpose, where each day could be a story, quantifiably exciting, to be snatched and put in a snow globe, waiting to be shaken up and retold.

And maybe it is not that I am growing up and out of something actually, but that layers are being scraped off, eyes are being cleansed of perspectives that I thought were central to who I thought I was, revealing themselves to be superficial ideals that actually distract me from my calling. My favorite part of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when Eustace, who has turned into a dragon by his own fault, has to have Aslan peel off his scales in order for him to become human again. When Edmund asks him what it was like when Aslan changed him back, Eustace replies (in the movie version),

“No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do it myself. Then he came towards me. It sort of hurt, but… it was a good pain. You know, like when you pull a thorn from your foot.”

What God is working in me hurts, but it is a good pain. I see Him scraping off layer after layer of frivolous Hope and frivolous hope(yes, I just did that) and replacing it with a gaze closer to Christ’s.

Before I left, I was a girl with her eyes always on the country that she fell in love with, using it as a tool of escapism, believing that it was her mission to be there, that life in the States would mean depression, thinking that in order for life to have meaning, it had to be an exciting novel. And then I lived in a foreign country, really lived in it, not in a bubbled, protective study abroad program. I found out that I don’t like living alone. That what I truly desire more than a career is a family. That I still want to write, write, write! And for the first time, I realized that America is home, that maybe roots are a good thing, and that hectic and adventure and unpredictable are still fun, but that stability is not synonymous with stale.

I’m not afraid of boring anymore. I no longer see roots as synonymous with chains. I’ve become more practical in a good way. Like my hero Anne of Green Gables realized the year she went away, “I went looking for my ideals outside of myself.”  I’ve learned that living a life worthy of the Gospel doesn’t necessarily entail drama, but blossoms in the quiet moments, being willing and open to the Holy Spirit and watching Him in awe as he works miracles in the mundane.

I still long for that romance that first drew me to Russia, that summer camp, twelve year old candy-like joy of running through a mile-high forest with new friends, to feel smoky, crisp summer air blow my hair as we tear through the night with a crazy driver, obnoxious pop music igniting our veins.  To have late-night conversations in platzkarts and to find magical swimming holes that are as close to Narnia as we’ll ever be, feeling that we’ve conquered time somehow. And although I am growing up into reality, I know that this romance is as needed and as real as ever, that growing up doesn’t mean losing the song that He put in my heart ten years ago. And in the New Year, He gifted me with a glimpse of what drew me here in the first place, at a time when I thought it was lost forever. As I walked through St. Petersburg at night with a friend I thought I’d never see again, bright lights against the dark blue sky and darker Neva, I felt the years I had gained come off. As we retraced footsteps from a far-away summer and reminisced about where we had been and shared where He had brought us, I walked into light and joy and peace,  given perspective in this time of painful refinement, and hope to press on.

Some treasures from 2 Corinthians that have encouraged me in the past few months:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”

2 Corinthians 1: 8-10

 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

2 Corinthians 4: 7-12

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

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