Who Are You?

“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!

pancho villa
Pancho Villa

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.

Crowds at the Victory Day Parade. Here, I talked to a man who works at a nearby bar.

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.

Angar18, one of the gyms I went to

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.”

Article written by jonlinc

2 Responses

  1. michael gutkin
    michael gutkin at | | Reply

    ok looks like another try. let me see if I can remember what I said!
    we found moscow to be quite clean, and sans homeless people in the streets ( even in warm weather ). the combined gothic and art deco style of stalin’s seven sisters ( there were eight at one time, and the university is the epitome of the style ) was said to be a response to stalin’s desire to have iconic architecture similar to that of the art deco empire state building, which he apparently saw in NYC ( remember, verticality, massing, and decoration? ). the pushkin museum is opposite a magnificent church, the church of the holy redeemer, I think, and it is set in a beautiful park. it was stripped of its religious role by stalin and made into a museum; it has a heated indoor pool where one of my patients actually took his exercise. like other locations in moscow, it is festooned with beautiful flowers whose plantings take advantage of the long northern days. we also found muscovites to be exceedingly friendly and I half think that their antipathy to gay people is because there is a biologic need for reproduction in russia, whose population is only starting to grow ( takes two sexes to make a baby ). we were impressed by the warmth of the russians we interacted with ( of course a selected population which knew a little english ) and while they exhibited great pride, their admiration of america was hard to hide. I am sure it would stand you in great stead if you acknowledged the staggering sacrifices they made in WWII and I trust you have visited the tombs of the unknown soldiers from battles such as leningrad, stalingrad, smolensk, etc. also watch for military rifle and horse drills off red square, near the tsar cannon.on reflux

  2. michael gutkin
    michael gutkin at | | Reply

    incidentally a good guiding principle which served us well during our trip: don’t believe what you read about russia in the american press and don’t believe what you read about america in the russian press. so happy you are seeing for yourself and you must have a nice long breakfast with us again on your return, or just hang out in our apartment before your return to the north country

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