I remember the thrill of excitement when I found out I would be studying abroad in St. Petersburg for the summer. I remember thinking how beautiful, how unique of an experience I will have. I thought back to everything I had learned about Russian culture and wondered how I would do my best to assimilate.
As a foreigner, fear can take over when one attempts to enter any culture other than their own. (That is entirely normal.) When all signs on the street are in the Cyrillic alphabet, all the conversations on the metro are too fast to comprehend, or no banks seem understand all you want is to exchange money. (All three happened to me.) It is okay to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, especially when you think back to how much Russian you’ve studied and wonder why it is so difficult to communicate.
After the first day, I dared myself to not only discover the Russian culture but to learn to live like Russians do. I channeled the fear into something positive. It has only been three weeks but what I have learned the most about adapting quickly to a new culture is that being willing to “go with the flow” (even if you do not entirely understand) makes a difference. If a Russian offers you to go out for tea, say yes. If a Russian invites you to see a play outside of the center, say yes. If your host mom is eager to learn about you, stay at the dinner table for more than hour. But also, do not sit back and wait for the Russian culture to come to you.
One of reasons I started learning Russian is because I am a dancer— dancing anything from ballet, ballroom dancing, contemporary, jazz, to salsa. Before arriving to St. Petersburg, I did my research online and found a dance studio (Kannon Dance) five minutes away from our local university (Herzen Institute). After a few days of academic classes, I walked into the studio, not knowing exactly how to explain what I wanted. It was terrifying. I immersed myself in ballet classes where I followed mostly the ballet vernacular and muscle memory. By the second ballet class, the teacher asked my name and on the third class discovered I could not 100% understand the corrections she was giving me. I realized how universal the language of dance is and that you can truly learn how to give directions after dancing a full barre in Russian. By the fourth and fifth class, fellow dancers would ask what dance class I was taking and where I was from.
We (as in Russian language learners) are blessed to be attempting to assimilate to the Russian culture. Russians are talkative, curious about who you are as a person and your tastes, and open to reveal what Americans might perceive to be too personal of details. They do not perceive embarrassment as Americans do, so thankfully you can make mistakes and they won’t “judge” you as people back home might. And lastly, they love to have a good time. Of course, generalizations are not always true for everyone.
Being in St. Petersburg for summer means I can witness the spectacular White Nights. Yesterday, I stood under the 1 am sunrise in Дворцовая площадь behind the Hermitage, with American and Russian friends, dancing to lyrics I did not fully understand. All because I said yes to going to dinner with friends, who had Russian friends in the city. Speaking Russian with Russians is a challenge, especially at 11 pm at night. But those are the memories we live for. Those are the treasures that last a lifetime.
By: Mariela Dyer
Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program
Term: Summer 2017