Expressing Empathy in a Foreign Language

Anyone who has ever been to a Russian-speaking country knows it doesn’t take long for your acquaintances to ask for (sometimes intimate) details about your family. I flew to Almaty, Kazakhstan this summer to study Russian. The second or third day here, after I had finally recovered from the jetlag, my host mother asked me for all the details. My answers were very scripted, as I was so used to quickly popping this off in class: My father is a mechanic, my mother is a substitute teacher, they divorced when I was ten, I live alone. I have two younger sisters, one is pregnant and has two kids already, the other just graduated from high-school.

This was all normal, even rudimentary. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. My host mom quickly told me her husband died two years ago in an accident, leaving her to raise her two kids alone.

I was stunned, and I’ve thought a lot about my awkward, quick response since then: izvinite, kak grustno (“I’m sorry, how sad”). If I said this in English it would sound blunt and dismissive. I immediately hoped my childish Russian saved me from appearing rude. This will be my fourth year studying Russian, and in that moment I actually felt like a four-year-old. But I think she understood from the look on my face that I was affected by her loss. I didn’t know how to tell her what I really wanted to say: I see your pain and I’m sorry. The world is both generous and cruel. It’s a testament to your strength that you were able to keep going, raising two great kids despite it all. I thought about telling her about the people I’ve lost in my life, but I wasn’t equipped for that in Russian either — at this point I count it as a victory if I can order food at a restaurant without messing something up — so I just remained in silence. Her follow-up, my dolzhny prodolzhat’ zhit’ (“We have to keep living”) said everything that needed to be said.

Later, after the awkwardness of our initial conversation faded, I asked about her family again. And that’s when I realized that she wasn’t trying to make me feel awkward by talking about her loss. She was sharing something very important with me, a part of herself. I figured the only way I could show that I appreciated her was to ask more and more questions. She loves talking about her family, especially her sons, and with good reason. They are wonderfully smart, so generous and forgiving. The youngest boy even gave up his bed for me, the goofy American. At the end of this conversation my host mom said, a ty moi tretii syn (“and you are my third son”). I still can’t think of a better compliment.

My biggest takeaway from studying Russian abroad is the most important things are often the most difficult to talk about, especially in a foreign language — but you have to keep trying. Learning a new language is not just learning how to read newspapers from a different place or getting A’s on your tests. It’s about connection, understanding that love, loss, and strength are universal.

By: Jesse Wesso

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2018

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