“Where are you from? Why would you ever want to study Russian? Do you like Moscow? Who are you?” These are the questions I’m greeted with each day as I make my way around the city, talking to servers at restaurants, coaches at gymnastics gyms, Russian students who live on my floor at МГУ (Moscow State University), and anyone else who will patiently listen to my slow and broken Russian speech.
As an American student who since high school has been dying to study abroad, I came here full of curiosity – curiosity about culture, language, politics, city planning, social roles and expectations, moral pursuits, perceptions of inequality… the list is endless. The sociology major in me is excited by observing patterns in social behavior and by finding differences between Moscow and my hometown (Seattle) or other U.S. cities. I take notes on sights, sounds, smells and flavors – even at Pancho Villa, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of Moscow where six of us ate dinner last night, and where we spoke to the waiter in a combination of English, Spanish and Russian. What a strange experience!
But somehow, upon arrival in this magnificent city, I was not prepared to respond to the curiosity that Russians experience when they meet me. Russians cannot tell by first glance that I’m a foreigner; I am sure of this because, today alone, three people have stopped me to ask for directions. However, my wonky Russian speech quickly gives me away. Once it does, people assume a half- smile, at once curious, restrained, and tactful. This is quite often followed by “Where are you from?” in accented English.
By attending gymnastics classes by myself, I have had the opportunity to converse more extensively with Russian speakers. My coach has asked me many questions that he knows may be sensitive, and he is obviously restraining himself from asking them all at once or in an impolite manner. “What do you think of Trump? How about Putin? What’s your opinion on Ukraine, and gay people, and diplomatic sanctions?” I attempt to answer truthfully, but neutrally, often repeating that these matters are complicated, and part of why I’m here is because I want to understand these issues from more than just an American perspective (not that there’s only one). I ask these same questions of my coach, and by doing so I am slowly starting to better understand his mentality.
In this way, cultural exchange seems effortless. People are naturally curious about the lives and countries of others, especially when two countries such as Russia and the U.S. have a history of dissonance. On a personal level, people can interact, relate, and learn from each other without the veil of bias found in the news, social media, and television. It is natural to assume difference, even if, as I’m finding, Muscovites and Americans are not so different. So, to answer the question “Who are you?”, I can do nothing but tell the truth. “I am a student who is studying your country and is learning to speak your language simply because I’m curious about you, just as you’re curious about me.”