From Kellie’s Russian Adventure by Trinity alumna and former Trinitonian news editor Kellie Benn. Benn is currently on a Fulbright grant as an English teaching assistant in Orel, Russia.
Last night I was sitting in a cafe with a few students from the technical university enjoying some wonderful orange tea and conversation. We sat there for a few hours talking (in English mostly) and laughing and enjoying the evening. As we sat there, I observed the people sitting around us. Most of them seemed quite surprised to hear a large group of people speaking in English, and I could tell they were curious about who we were and probably mostly about who I was because it becomes obvious very quickly that I am not a Russian. As the evening passed, people came and went, but the reaction remained the same. When one of the other girls pointed out this same phenomenon, we all looked around and laughed about it for a moment before continuing our conversation. In that moment, I came to what is probably my most important realization of my time thus far in Russia.
It seems so simple that I do not know why it has taken me two months to realize it. It is the root of my struggles here in Russia. And now I will pass this bit of wisdom on to you: Itâ€™s okay to be a foreigner. There, I said it. Itâ€™s okay to speak with an accent. Itâ€™s okay to not understand everything. Itâ€™s okay to ask someone to repeat something. Itâ€™s okay to make mistakes. Itâ€™s okay to ask for help when you do not understand the rules or laws or customs. People realize quite quickly that you are not a native Russian, and thatâ€™s okay. They are not offended when you mangle their language, and they are not offended when you do not understand something the first time and ask them to repeat it. Most of the time they will help you, and most of the time they are quite pleased to speak with a non-native. And so I must learn to live my life here without fear of being a foreigner, and I canâ€™t tell you what a relief it is to finally realize this simple concept.
I donâ€™t know what it is about Russia, but something in the air here makes everyone think about the deeper meaning of their lives and their place and existence in the world. It is the same for me. Part of this journey is certainly one of self-discovery. Iâ€™ll admit that I am not a naturally brave person and I am not a naturally outgoing person. Some of you may be surprised at this admission; some of you I know will not be. It is very difficult for me to go outside of my comfort zone, and it is for this reason that I so often push myself beyond what is comfortable for me. Iâ€™ve realized recently that Iâ€™ve been like this since I was a teenager. I was afraid to go on stage and speak in front of a lot of people in high school, so I got involved in the theatre and made myself do it. Everything about the Army terrified me â€“ leaving home, weapons, punishing physical exercise, the yelling and discipline, the possibility of war, so I made the decision to join when I was 18. In the Army, I was regularly confronted with things that I thought I could not do or was afraid to do but had no choice and so I did them. I was not necessarily afraid of coming to Russia to live but it was definitely very far out of my comfort zone and so it became something that I had to do. The saying is trite but true: Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to overcome those fears. Every time Iâ€™ve pushed myself to what I thought were my limits, I found out that I could go farther than I thought I could. And as I continue to confront and overcome fears in my everyday life in Russia, I realize that this is okay, too. There is only one fear that I probably will not overcome while I am here: I will probably never not feel like I might die every time I get into a car with a Russian. I will just have to live with this one.
I certainly donâ€™t want this blog to become some kind of lessons in life for my few constant readers, but if there is one thing I wish everyone could realize about themselves, itâ€™s that your own possibilities are limitless. You just have to be willing to try. You are not human without feeling some kind of fear, but itâ€™s what you do with that fear that makes you the person you are. Donâ€™t be afraid to become the person you were meant to be.
And now I will step back down off of my soapbox and tell you whatâ€™s been happening in Russia. I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving with one of my colleagues and her family. We had turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauce plus a couple of Russian and Armenian dishes. Everything was delicious and we all had a good time celebrating the holiday. Although it is a little late, I want to say that I am most thankful right now for my friends and family who have always supported me 100% no matter what crazy thing Iâ€™ve decided to do, my current adventure included. I couldnâ€™t do anything without all of you having my back!
I have been spending more time with some acquaintances Iâ€™ve made here in Russia. I finally learned to ice skate, so I can check that off of my to-do list. I spent a cold but lovely day at Orlovskoye Polesâ€™ye, the national park near Orel, where we had a wonderful picnic lunch of Russian shashlik and just simply enjoyed the beautiful nature. I have also been meeting with the students from the technical university. I always enjoy my time with them, and one of the girls told me last night that she enjoys spending time with me because I am always happy and smiling and laughing and so I make them smile and laugh also. In the States, people always think Iâ€™m somewhat grumpy; in Russia Iâ€™m the happiest person ever â€“ go figure!
In other news, bus fare here was raised from 10 rubles to 12 rubles and 15 rubles after 8 p.m. This does not make me happy, and it is quite inconvenient. As one of my friends said last night, now Russia needs to make a 12-ruble coin!
With my new realization firmly in my grasp, I can finally say that I am learning not only how to survive life in Russia but also to even enjoy it. Even so, I am looking forward to Dec. 22 when I can take a break from the madness of Russia and relax and enjoy the holidays with my friends in Finland!
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