By Ben Gelman
Why so many Muscovites thought that I might have directions for them, I do not know. It wasn’t just me either, many of my fellow participants of the Moscow Global Seminar this past summer were approached at one point or another on the street by a confused local asking incomprehensible questions about how to get to their destination. None of us spoke enough Russian to understand what they were saying, just enough to make out that they were lost and needed some help. My response was always the same: “извини я не говорю по русски,” or “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Russian.” This was, ironically, one of the few Russian phrases all of us had mastered, taught to us on the first day of our Russian language class by our tutor, Katya.
Katya’s classes, while very well crafted and informative, were too infrequent to ever lead to any real Russian proficiency in our short, 6 week stay in the country. This was by design, as the focus of the class was to study Russian history, politics, and culture, and the language classes served as a basic introduction as well as a convenience that would allow us to read directions, order in restaurants, understand signs, etc. At first, I found this limiting as I had never visited a foreign country for longer than a few days without speaking the language. My lack of Russian skills made it almost impossible to speak to strangers in restaurants and bars unless they happened to speak English, placing a significant roadblock in the way of my efforts to interact with locals.
It was not just language skills that were holding me back from fully immersing myself in Russia. In lectures I frequently found myself simply absorbing as much information as I could, unable to come up with any question specific or meaningful enough to be worth asking. Assignments that required me to come up with my own interpretations of Stalinism, Russian architecture, or any other element of the country’s landscape were quite challenging as I wondered how I could possibly have anything of note to contribute to the study of such a complicated place. We would catch glimpses of Russia’s contemporary politics though meeting ambassadors and political scientists, or even encountering a Communist Party rally on a quiet Thursday afternoon, without ever truly having the background to fully appreciate what we were witnessing. The six week period that we spent in Russia seemed to be the exact, unfortunate length during which I could be teased with the possibility of comprehending the sociopolitical realities of the nation, but not actually arrive at any grand epiphanies.
My dissatisfaction soon gave way to a change in my attitude though. The clock was ticking toward my inevitable departure, and I began to let go of my grand desire to grasp every intricacy of Russian culture and instead embrace my status as a tourist, and as someone who could never hope to see this place as the locals did. I started walking down the streets not with a sense of bewilderment and confusion, but with awe and curiosity that I knew could never be fully satisfied. In my final cab ride to the airport, a conversation that occurred almost entirely through Google translate became one of my most memorable. Neither me nor the cab driver could get anything profound across to the other as we discussed our different cultural norms, but the simple exercise of conversing with someone of such a radically different background was invaluable and illuminating.
This attitude toward study abroad seems extremely relevant to me, especially as a Princeton student. At Princeton we are drilled to value mastery and comprehensive knowledge. However in this Global Seminar, I was forced to accept checks on my learning abilities, and this opened me up to a less forced, more natural learning experience where I absorbed what I could but still accepted that I had barely scratched the surface. Perhaps my papers weren’t breaking new ground in the field of Slavic Studies, but they became more meaningful to me after I accepted that I was writing not to come to some brave new conclusion on Russian history, but in order to experience a small amount of this field of scholarship.
I hope to take this mindset with me to any international experiences that I may have in the future. Having an awareness of our own limits as temporary visitors allows us to approach other countries with a sense of humility and wonder, not with anxiety about not learning enough and an urge to rush and consume as much of the nations’ culture as we can. Of course, I do not want to dissuade anyone from attempting to immerse themselves in another society, which can obviously be an invaluable and life changing experience. However, where cultural immersion is not possible, it is important to recognize the value of brief, partial experiences in other countries, which can provide us with perspective on how big the world is and how narrow our own perspectives can be.