Last week, I bought a set of hair clippers. This action, which would be incredibly simple at home, had a number of layers and difficulties. First, hair clippers are hard to find. Once I located a store that had them, the real difficulty ensued. In a language I do not speak, I had to convince an employee to come help me and navigate the uniquely Russian process of buying an electronic item (the salesperson demonstrates every mechanical or moving feature of the product to prove it works, and you’ve got to approve every step.) I had to handle the conversation of purchasing the item, and when the clerk couldn’t remove the electronic sensor attached to the box, there was a whole debacle at the cash register.
Predictably, some people were helpful, others were impatient. Some were curious. Others were aggravated by the presence of a foreigner. This moment really affected me, and I’m working on a longer essay about it—and a few other overseas experiences I’ve had. I’ll give you the short version today, though: the upshot is that vulnerability leads to the development of empathy. It’s my firm belief that a heavy percentage of the domestic social and cultural issues America faces could be remedied if more people were willing to become vulnerable and therefore develop empathy. A lot of people in positions of power or privilege have never placed themselves in a setting in which they were largely helpless or at the mercy of someone else, and so it becomes easy to see how police violence, mistreatment of the poor and the immigrant, arrogance about language, disdain for the cultural or social "other" and a whole slew of sad or terrible social phenomena can develop in that environment. After all, I have to believe a police officer who has spent time feeling truly vulnerable is much more likely to approach a stranded motorist with a helpful question than a drawn sidearm. And a person who has or who has had trouble buying food or necessities because they couldn’t understand be understood is far less likely to get cranky when a department store invests in multilingual signs to help its customers out.
Travel certainly isn’t the only way to develop these skills, but if U.S. citizens truly want to get to the heart of the legitimate social and moral problems that ail us, A very nice place to start might be to make a passport easier and more cost effective to obtain than, say, a firearm. But that's just me.
On the other side of language, it’s kind of nice at times to go incognito. For instance, here in Novosibirsk, I could stand in the middle of a crowded street and shout, “I respect Beyonce, but sonically her music does nothing for me!” Just for example. Now, try doing that on the Internet...Err, wait. This is going to get a lot of comments, isn't it? Anyway say the same thing in public here, no one would blink. So, there’s a little bit of freedom to being incomprehensible. There’s also a lot more opportunity for quiet and reflection. Most people who know me will agree I talk too much. I get that honestly. (Hi, Dad!) But since there is a limited group of people here with whom I can speak, the conversations take on higher stakes. There’s less idle chatter, and a more purposeful approach to conversation. And in the other hours, it’s a nice writing tool to spend more time thinking, reflecting, watching, and listening rather than speaking so much. This is a habit I’ll try to bring home with me. In the meantime, it’s been good for my writing production: I’ve got drafts of five new stories and three essays so far, plus I’ve put in some good revision work. Silence really is golden, maybe.
There's an added layer of amusement, too: most restaurants pump in music via radio, Internet stream, or a cable music video channel (remember those?) A fair amount of the songs are in English, and in some of the restaurants all of them are. Some of the selections are hysterical: the clear result of unmitigated shuffle functions. For example, last week in a cafe, there was a series of Morrissey, followed by Bing Crosby singing Holly Jolly Christmas, and finally, some unplugged Nirvana. But because very few people understand what's being said in the songs, there's no distinction between, let's say, family friendly and explicit. I was eating in a pizza joint the other day, sitting between a couple of families with small kids. Uncensored T.I. started blaring, and the scene was pretty surreal. Let's just say I've had a couple of quality giggles over this aesthetic
But…I’m working hard at becoming comprehensible. Now in my second week of Russian lessons, I’m still flailing wildly when it comes to the parade of nouns. Folks love to joke about how consonant-heavy the Russian language is, but the subtle nuances of vowel sounds is crushingly hard. My Russian teacher is a poet and professor. Both of us are experts in our own language. But we don’t speak each other’s He’s got great pedagogical efficiency, though: he’s regularly brought in younger Russian pupils who are learning English at the school, placing us into conversation and helping each of us to teach the other. It’s fun, but an incredible challenge. Today after class, he took me to a small market next to the language school and the clerk played along with great humor as I walked around the display cases asking how much each fish cost and responding to the prices.
Yesterday, I got to play Monopoly with a group of first-year college students. Before everyone back in the States starts chanting “USA!” and cracking open a cold drink to celebrate my great victory, I should say that I got absolutely crushed. The students were incredibly amused that they’d defeated (and so decisively) an American in a game concerning money. I didn’t have the heart to temper their joy and explain that they’d probably just defeated one of the least capitalistically astute Americans they’re likely to run across. Instead, we kept it light and talked about tourist attractions, civic highlights.
Speaking of civics: that’s been an interesting dynamic of the trip. First, I’ll say that the students I’ve met are good researchers, and curious ones: often, before I’m even introduced to their class, they’ve already found me online, and they know more about me than I’ve planned to explain in my introduction. It becomes confusing, then, when I explain that I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, which I’ve always considered to be my hometown.
Generally, at least one student will ask, “But, don’t you live in West Virginia? How is that so?” I then explain the amount of moving around that I’ve done for the sake of school and work: Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, Alabama, and Ireland have all been my home for at least a few months. The concept of moving from place to place in order to chase career growth is a new idea to most of the students. Part of that seems to come from the structure of the educational system: universities don’t accept hundreds to students to a certain program when only a couple dozen jobs are available in the region. Most of us would agree that in certain segments of its history, Russia has gone overboard with the scope of centralized planning. But similarly, we’ve underplanned, and the victims are the students and, eventually, the job seekers. I can’t begin to explain how many times (across universities in most of the states listed above) that I’ve worked with a student who simply was not equipped in some way for success in the field of their dreams: the students making a third or fourth attempts to pass community college English 101, for example, who were planning on heading to Yale or Stanford for a PhD programs, or the ones prone to violent outbursts who were excited about a career that involved supervising children. One of the things I love most dearly about America is the freedom to navigate toward the life and career path of one’s own choosing. One of the things that bothers me most is how seldom our system infuses bold honesty and clear information into that process so that students and employees can adapt and adjust their plans to suit their proven aptitudes. I’m fortunate that others went against the grain and did that for me, and it’s something I’ll focus on when I return stateside and continue my professoring life.
This week, I was told, is autumn. Last week was clearly summer, and as everyone keeps telling me in their best, ominous Game of Thrones tone, “Winter is coming.” While Pumpkin-Spice-flavored-everything assaults all the shelves back home, there’s no real attempt to get in the autumns sprit here because, as I’ve been told, it lasts about a week. I picked up a good, thick coat yesterday, and this afternoon, my breath was visible while walking. So, here on the brink of Siberian winter, I have good café news to share: a brand new coffee shop has opened next door to my apartment building. There’s a view of the university from the front window, and the blissful location spares the 60 round-trip bus minutes it takes to get to the city center. It’s going to be a cozy spot this winter, which apparently is scheduled to start any minute. I’ll keep you posted on my ongoing efforts to keep warm. Until then, До свидания!
And of course, since I mentioned the unholy trinity of controversy (gun control, Beyonce, and pumpkin spice) the obligatory Fulbright disclaimer is necessary today more than ever:
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.