When I first told my family I would be spending the summer in Russia, they were a bit confused, to say the least. “Do you really have to go that far?” was my dad’s initial response. I couldn’t be too disappointed in their reactions, because the truth was that I was feeling a bit hesitant as well. I attended a university two thousand miles away from home for the past three years, so I hoped that a few extra thousand miles wouldn’t make much of a difference. The university was also primarily white, so I knew I would be able to handle feeling out of place as a Mexican-American. I also spent a summer at Middlebury College’s School of Russian, so an intensive all-Russian environment wasn’t unfamiliar to me. I expected social differences, even culture shock, or home sickness, but what I didn’t expect were all the little similarities that have made me feel a bit closer to home every day.
During my previous work in Russian area studies I found many commonalities between the culture I was studying and my own, which was a major influence on me deciding to continue my education in this field. Perspectives on femininity and masculinity, family structures, dual belief systems (dvoeverie in Russian), rich and extensive folk cultures are all elements of Mexican and Russian ideologies and practices that have a surprisingly large amount of overlap. So, of course, I knew there were many fundamental parallels, but I never expected to be reminded of my own culture by things as simple as smells on the street or hanging my clothes to dry.
As a Mexican-American, I find myself straddling the borders of two cultures every day stateside, but the endless day-to-day commonalities I’ve found between Mexico and Russia here in Saint Petersburg came as a huge surprise to me. While walking on busy avenues I see street corn venders that remind me of eloteros (the Mexican equivalent), babushkas just as kind, lovely, and sometimes as chiding as abuelitas. I am scolded for not drying my hair before going out the same way I would be at home, I encounter merchants on the street selling everything from fruit and flower to underwear and umbrellas, a practice just as common in Mexico. While I expected signs in English and U.S. staples like McDonald’s to help ease the transition, these seemingly commonplace aspects of daily life are actually what have gotten me through the roughest patches of homesickness.
Despite the similarities, I am not, in fact, in Mexico, or the United States for that matter. I am reminded of this every time I find at a loss for words when speaking with a store clerk or a waiter, when the sentence structures I am forming in my head in Spanish or English are too difficult for me to translate into Russian, and, of course, when I have to wait until the perfect, one-hour window every day to call home. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions the first few weeks, but I am comforted by the small reminders of home and by the fact that I am living a dream that I’ve had for years. I hope to find new similarities in my remaining time here and even more of the cultural aspects unique to Russia.
By: Guadalupe Barrientos
Term: Summer 2016