Starting to Speak

The first two thirds of my time here in Moscow, I was hindered by fear and regularly hid behind my new Russian friends when it came to speaking to other Russians. Speaking in Russian publicly with other Russians was a major source of anxiety that I acknowledged, but convinced myself was not as big of a problem as it really was. This all began to change for me – that is, my attitude and courage – when I decided to get a haircut by myself.

I already had one haircut in Moscow, but I asked my Russian friend, who is fluent in English, to arrange everything and essentially speak for me. After this, I realized my fear was not entirely warranted and that I missed a neat language and cultural opportunity. So, one day after classes, I plucked up my courage and went to a random mall to find myself a salon. I made an appointment, wandered around the neighborhood where I happened to see an interesting religious parade, and returned to get my haircut. The woman was young and sweet, we talked a little bit and I cut off quite a bit of hair. She even fixed my bangs (which I had attempted to cut myself) without me asking, and they turned out awesome.

And that was it.

There was no debacle, no frenzy, no angry Russians nor miscommunications we couldn’t work out. Of course, I was nervous going in completely solo, kept forgetting the word for ‘haircut’ and only knew the number of centimeters I wanted to cut off, and yes, I didn’t understand everything they said the first time they said it, and okay, it’s true I made a slight fool of myself when I sat in the wrong chair and put my backpack in an off-limits area. However, nothing that I was so afraid of happened. Imagine how I felt walking out of that mall with a fresh haircut and on the other side of a successful solo endeavor. That kind of satisfaction and confidence was what I was looking for this entire semester.
It’s not as though I suddenly understood more Russian, nor did my language skill immediately jump up 100 levels, but there was a kind of invisible barrier between me and the rest of the world that abruptly dropped once I changed my way of thinking. Instead of stressing about others recognizing me as a foreigner or ‘other,’ I simply stopped caring about being noticed. What’s so bad about a librarian/cafeteria worker/store clerk/security officer knowing that Russian isn’t my first language? It’s a given that Russians would notice a foreigner speaking Russian. Especially in Moscow, foreigners are not a big deal to most Russians. The vast majority of the looks I receive are because there is something not quite Russian about me or my language, but that’s all these looks mean. I don’t believe people look at me because I’m unwanted or doing something bad, I think it’s just because sometimes people notice that I don’t come off as your average Muscovite.

With a new mindset, I started speaking to Russians on my own.

Soon after the haircut, I held a conversation with a taxi driver. We were stopped by the police where other taxis were also stopped in order to check the driver’s documents. We waited and waited, then he had to go sit with the officer and I continued to wait and wonder what was going on. Everything was quite calm and seemed to be a part of a routine, so when the driver finally returned, I decided not to sit on my curiosity and ask him about it. He told me about how it was the third time he was stopped that day, what they talk about when they sit with the police officer who has their documents, and what it takes to get back on the road. When that conversation ended, I asked other questions about the driver and his life. He told me about where he came from, his favorite spots in Moscow, and we even discussed language and culture. Forty minutes later, we arrived at my destination, wished each other well, and I was taken aback for a moment. I carried a conversation with someone in Russian about various topics and we understood each other completely. Not only that, but it was interesting, I learned a lot, and I didn’t struggle as much as before.

Since these two instances with my haircut and the taxi driver, I have spoken with numerous Russians about various things in various places. Our group traveled to Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir, Suzdal, and Volgograd on a couple weekends, and we met many interesting people. I now have a friend in Volgograd with whom I hope to keep in touch, and have had meaningful exchanges with some wonderful women on a train. Also, a sweet retired couple from Kazan asked me to pass on their greetings to America.
As my time in Moscow ends, I plan to explore more of the city and hopefully have a few more conversations along the way. I can honestly say that I am so happy to be able to communicate with the people who live here, even if I am still somewhat limited. Thanks to their patience and our mutual curiosity, we learn a lot about each other in every exchange.

By Liv Sullings
Program: Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program
Term: Spring 2019

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