Another month has flown by in Moscow, and suddenly I find myself over halfway through this program. I realized that fear holds me back more than anything else, but I’m still having trouble shaking it. On weekends, I feel uncomfortable going places by myself because I’m afraid that some sort of miscommunication with result in a disruption or upset people. I’ve been told repeatedly, and have seen for myself, that Russians on the whole are very welcoming to foreigners, if only out of curiosity. If I ask someone for help, odds are they will simply help me out. However, I’m more embarrassed and apprehensive because of the chance they will not understand me in the first place.
Earlier this week, I went to get my hair cut at a salon. I’ve made a couple Russian friends here, so I asked one who speaks English fluently to help me out. She made the appointment for me – which I did acknowledge as an opportunity for me, but was too scared – and came with me to help explain what I wanted. I got bangs and a few centimeters cut off, but I saw that I likely could have done it by myself with only mild difficulty. The hairdresser asked me about the length a few times, or if I wanted the bangs a certain way, and I was at a loss because I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand everything she was asking. However, there was a neat moment when I answered a couple of her questions without really thinking about it. I didn’t talk much, and she addressed the questions more to my friend, but I was able to nod or say yes that’s what I want or no not that style without the fiasco I was so worried about. In the end, the haircut was successful and I left with the resolve to get my hair cut once more before I leave, but to do it on my own.
More often than not, when I order food or ask a question in Russian, and the Russian immediately understands that I am not a Russian speaker or that I speak English, they start to use their English to communicate. Our resident director said that oftentimes these incidents happen because Russians see it as an opportunity to practice their English with a native speaker – something that is considerably rare in everyday life here. I understand this, and it is sometimes comforting if I’m tired or we have difficulty communicating, but it also creates a situation in which I don’t have to leave my comfort zone. I and other students are working through this together, and it’s not exactly offensive to me when this happens, but I hope to be able to speak more regularly with Russians even if they do speak English with me for a bit. I know that all it takes is more communication, and I’m nervous but excited to work at it a bit harder.
I think all of this comes down to my fear of being noticed or seen. It’s not that I am afraid of people looking at me or knowing that I am a foreigner or American, but I’m afraid of being trapped in a situation I can’t navigate because of my language level. I’ve been asked by some friends here why I try to hide, but I didn’t think of myself that way before. I see now that they are right, that it’s okay to be noticed, and that it’s a given (and okay!) to receive attention and looks if I want to improve my language. Thus far, I’ve gained the impression that Russians don’t particularly care what you do, wear, or look like, so long as it’s not affecting them. Of course, if someone is wearing a neon jacket, he/she will get all kinds of looks, but that’s all. I’ve been told by quite a few Russians that you should wear and do what you want, even if it’s not quite “normal” or typical. When I ask a question about what I should do, or what would be best, they always respond with, “what do you want?” as if it’s a given. They’ve asked me why I would do something or wear something I don’t want to, just for the sake of someone else or to blend in. This effort to blend in is something that I always did out of habit without giving it much thought, so I’m thankful to my Russian friends for pointing it out.
Comfort zone. That’s what all of this is about. Everyone said so before – that growth only happens when you are pushed outside of that zone of comfort – but I didn’t appreciate what that really means in practice. I feel myself growing each day here, and now that I see more clearly where I could go if I push myself, I want to see just how far I can get.
By: Liv Sullings
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, Moscow
Term: Spring 2019