Close Encounters of the Russian Kind

“People are going to stand a lot closer to you than you’re used to.”

It’s not just Russia. Most countries outside of the United States, and some cities inside of it, lack the concept of ‘personal space’ as formulated by most Americans—for both cultural and, as I see it, purely logistical reasons (I can’t imagine how a perfectly individuated queue of people could manage to make the metro in time.) People touch here, we’re told, so don’t be alarmed.

This is, actually, one of the things I have heard about Moscow that has held most true—sitting on the metro or the bus, in the grocery store. In a couple of cases, people coming up behind me have very gently moved me physically out of the way, tugging my shoulder a little or tapping me on the back in the direction they want me to move. As someone who gets very nervous about being a hindrance, that’s actually come as somewhat of a relief: it’s much easier to know what’s expected from you on a noisy escalator when the person behind you brushes past instead of waiting in increasing irritation on the step above. I have found that the physical contact which we were warned would disorient us has been one of the easiest parts of Russian culture to assimilate: I like the sense of comradery, and the expectation that we will figure out how to fit in together, both literally and metaphorically.

One of the first topics broached in our orientation—and, I would expect, in any orientation designed to tell members of one culture what to expect when immersed in another—was the concept of boundaries, physical and emotional. Americans, on the whole, it is said, live comparatively isolated lives, in the sense that our boundaries are very clear; in Russia, boundaries are more flexible, and we should expect people to be more open and less removed than at home. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, so I haven’t found that to be a problem—although I do have to remind myself that grinning at total strangers is a kind of familiarity best left behind in the states.

Nevertheless, I have been thinking a lot about boundaries; I have spent my whole life thinking about them. OCD is a compartmentalizing disease; I, and, I think, a lot of other people coping with obsessive-compulsive disorder, exert a lot of effort figuring out how far I can go, what I can do, what’s going to tip the balance and make me too uncomfortable to cope. And Russia is a challenge to that. Traveling, generally, to be sure, raises a host of potential issues—but especially here, in a country where, despite five years of study, I only brokenly speak the language, where there are sharp differences—cultural, yes, but also practical, like how to buy produce and how to locate an address—from what I am accustomed to back home. Part of maintaining boundaries is planning, and here planning is difficult—an unexpected question from a shop clerk breaks the script I have in my head and sends me scrambling for a word I find I don’t know.

And I love it. One of the first things my friend asks me when we meet by the metro is “privykla” (“have you adjusted?”) And what surprises me most is that, in many ways, I have. Any study abroad experience, in addition to sight-seeing and language acquisition, is about breaking down barriers. Most of these barriers are cultural, but some are personal, and one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences here so far has been watching my own personal boundaries in flux, and finding out that I can do much more than I thought I could.

I should be clear: I don’t mean to imply that study abroad is for everyone. I could never have done this in undergrad, and I feel incredibly blessed that I am able to now. But I have loved finding that barrier between myself and the world around me and discovering that it can change, that what I thought was permanent was in fact just a snapshot of something in flux. If I could transmit one message back home to my younger self or to people like her, it would be this: boundaries are permeable, flexible, possibilities always arriving. What seems inevitable is not always so; what seems impossible may yet become something you can do.

By: Michelle Schulte

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2017


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