I wasn’t sure what to expect from living with a host family. Everything I knew about Russian culture came from my professors. They did their best to teach me about life in Russia and the former Soviet Union, but there is only so much you can learn at a distance. The day my host mother came to pick me up, I couldn’t speak because I was caught up in listening to everything she said.
Since moving in, I have felt rushed to get from one place to another, to meet up with friends, to go on excursions, to get to school. But when I get home, my host mother is always waiting to have tea. It’s the first thing she asks me, and I always say yes. She puts water on to boil, I sit down to wait, and we just talk. About life, about our opinions, about how things used to be. Our discussions tend to last a few hours, and several cups of tea, but they’re always fruitful and encouraging.
I think that since coming to Russia, these tea breaks have become a steady and welcome addition to my day. They give me time to relax, to think, and to experience Russian culture in a more authentic manner. I think I have gotten more from our talks at tea than I have from most classes I’ve sat through, which is saying a lot, considering how much I’ve learned from them.
The thing that separates my homestay experience from the classroom is that we don’t just talk about Russian language and culture, we discuss the overall theme of life. I knew I’d learn a lot from living with a host family, but never did I imagine that I would be sitting down and discussing honey for over an hour, just to switch over to a conversation about crochet. At the end of that conversation my host mother showed me her grandmother’s crochet hook set. I think that was more meaningful for me than any excursion or class. Just two people discussing something they both enjoy over some tea. All I had to do was slow down long enough to listen, and for her to find out I enjoy a non-traditional hobby. Our shared interest helped open a door for deeper conversation and better understanding.
That night is one in a long line of such events. A few days before this, my host family was visited by their granddaughter, a high schooler. She is young, opinionated, and energetic. And acted just like so many high school students I have met in America. She talked about her school projects, why she wanted to do certain things but hated doing others, could go on for hours about her experiences in school, and throughout all of it, I was reminded of home, and the teenagers I’ve worked with, either for a class or because I was volunteering. The only difference seemed to be that this student spoke a different language.
I think that these tea-time treasures have emphasized how important it is that I learn a language. Before I started on this path, I knew nothing about Russian language or culture. Then I started to learn more and more about it, but everything I learned was skewed by the teacher-student dynamic. There was always an inherent air of professionalism that made it difficult to truly grasp the similarities and differences in life between our two worlds. Now that I’m here, and I’m living amongst native speakers, it almost seems that while the culture might be different, the personalities are the same everywhere. When you slow down and take the time to find them, anywhere can be home.
By: Jeremiah Saxton
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, St. Petersburg, Russia
Term: Summer 2019