I was pretty torn between studying in Athens or St. Petersburg; the final decision was primarily “from which will I get the most cultural experience?” That and being reminded of how hot it gets in Athens over the summer versus Russia. Temperature aside, I crave language, culture, and people and I decided Russia had more of what I was looking for than the more classical history of Greece. So Russia it was.
Perhaps I’m not the best person to ask about the study abroad process and deciding on a program or country. Unless you’re a bit of a free spirit, in which case you should just jump right in! In fact, I can’t even give a good reason why I picked Russia. Or I’ll at least try.
A few years ago, when I was naïve and confused (alright, I’m still that way four years later), changing my major every semester, I needed to fill my language requirements to graduate. Easy enough. Having a Panamanian mother and grandparents who don’t speak English make it quite easy to be completely bilingual. Maybe that’s why I was a glutton for punishment and peered through the languages my school offered. French, German- all perfectly beautiful languages in their own right, but one caught my eye right off the bat: Russian. The 8th most widely spoken language of the world with 144 million native speakers. The language synonymous with clandestine, stone faced Soviet comrades with ushankas and vodka. When you already live on the cusp of two varied cultures, you’re aware of stereotypes and the ease that they provide. I was born near the end of the Cold War and three months before the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The mysterious world of espionage and competition still exists in the minds of many Americans and were passed on to me. Of course I had to pick it up and that’s where everything started.
Jump to November of 2012. Two years of Russian language long behind and a few semesters away from graduating as an anthropology major. I have books on East Slavic poetry, an iPod filled with Russian and Ukrainian music, and a small collection of matryoshkas. I’ve created a juxtaposition of the cold, frigid Soviet stereotype with my tropical Panamanian paradise all in my Maryland home. I’ll admit, my love of culture doesn’t end with the Slavs. Either because of my biculturalism or the career path I’ve chosen, I’ve sort of wanted to become, as the great poet, Eugene Hütz said “a walking United Nations.”
That’s sort of where this blog begins. Do I hope to have a career centered in Russia? Perhaps. Maybe I’ll choose another country. A semester of medieval Norse literature and a week-long excursion to Iceland has made me fall in love with the land of the Vikings. Modern Greek history and culture has been but up to now, a hobby of mine since coming to terms with the difficulty of working or studying there. There’s always Panama to fall back on and trust me, I’m in no way ashamed of my heritage. The main thing I wanted to get from study abroad has been getting to see the world and understand people. It’s one thing to learn about things, especially different cultures, from a book or a case study. It’s a different one to actually be in the moment, trying to convey thoughts and concepts in ways the other person doesn’t understand. It’s a whole new way of thinking to understand how people view their history, how they view themselves, and how they view you and that’s something that I can take with me no matter where I go. That constant reminder that people think and act differently than you and being aware of those differences changes you as a person.
That might be the best way I can answer my own question. Why did I want to study in Russia so badly? A 70 year political struggle left a sort of mysterious exoticism about the country to whet my desire. It’s both tangible, but it’s not. Russia would be considered European, after all. It’s misunderstood, overlooked, and feared. A country where I grew up thinking everyone was a spy or got drunk all the time. But Russia, like any country, is more than that. Much more. And when you learn that, you want to learn as much as you can about an area. That’s my main goal for studying abroad: to learn about places and people.