Q: I understand that you come from a very international background. What is that background?
A: I am what sociologists call a “third-culture kid”—my parents are from the Midwest of the United States and met in a study abroad program in Marburg, Germany. I was born in Reutlingen, near Stuttgart, and then moved to Marburg when I was still a baby. We lived there until I was three; my parents were the on-site staff for the study abroad program where they had also been students. You might say that my very existence is a result of study abroad! After the stint in Germany, my parents moved back to Indiana for a few years, then relocated the family (now with three children in tow) to Vienna, Austria, when I was eight. My Dad was a pastor of church congregations that met in German, English, and French (this was a Francophone congregation, largely made up of people from West Africa), so my immediate world was always global.
Q: Did you ever study abroad as an undergraduate or graduate student? If so, where did you study abroad? What were the most important or salient lessons and/or skills that you learned while abroad?
A: After high school, I moved to the U.S for college—I studied at a place not unlike Pomona, just colder—Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. There I tested into second-year Russian and kept at it. My sophomore year, I was part of the first cohort of the Carleton-run Moscow program. It was 1995, so a very tumultuous year for Russians—the Soviet Union had come to an end in 1991 and there was a lot of political, social, and economic uncertainty. There was also a boom in book markets: starting in the late 1980s, writers who had been unpublished during the Soviet era came back with a vengeance. There were booksellers on every street corner, and I shipped pounds of multi-volume sets of the Russian classics home. One of the required “courses” involved going to as many cultural events as possible and keeping a journal about them. I went to tons of operas, plays, concerts. After college, I went abroad again on a Fulbright to Vilnius, Lithuania. This was both one of the best and one of the hardest times of my life. I again started in a homestay, but eventually decided to live on my own—it was first time I had lived alone and it was both exhilarating and sometimes lonely.
I thought I would be able to use my Russian. Once I was in graduate school, I made regular trips to Russia, including a year-long leave of absence to work as a night-time editor/translator of English language digests of Russian news in the provincial city of Tver—this is where I met life-long friends whom I still visit every time I go to Russia.
Q: How do you view the intersectionality of living abroad, language, and culture?
A: For me, the three are absolutely connected—I get frustrated when I go somewhere where I can’t communicate in the language, so my approach is always to learn the local language and to speak it—however imperfectly. It gives visitors immense traction with local people if they at least make the effort—even if English ends up being the most effective means of communication. To me, learning languages is a way of showing respect, and it also allows me to access nuances of culture that would otherwise remain opaque. That said, I live with the sad fact that languages are lost when they aren’t used. For all of my language-learning history, at this point I’m only comfortable in three—English, German, and Russian. But the lost languages have each left a mark—each one of them has given me access to worlds that otherwise would have been closed off to me. And I think I am better able to communicate with all sorts of people because I understand that my own assumptions and understanding of the world in which we live has been conditioned by the set of places and cultures that are familiar to me. I can imagine that other worlds and viewpoints that seem strange or even off-putting to me are perceived as completely natural by the people who were shaped by them.
My hope is that Pomona students have similar insights when they study languages here, or when they study abroad.
Q: What suggestions do you have for students who are preparing to go abroad and who have returned?
A: Be flexible. Don’t be easily offended. My first host-mother in Russia would stand by the door with lipstick because she was worried that I didn’t look feminine enough going out into the world. I took it with a grain of salt, and learned not only that gender roles vary from culture to culture, but also that notions of privacy and personal space diverge widely. I was exasperated, but not offended. Everyone studying abroad will have some version of this experience, that is, will encounter a behavior that seems strange, impossible, and possibly offensive. I would suggest that students approach the new place as cultural anthropologists, not as judges. Study Abroad is a form of participant observation—active participation and critical self-reflection are needed to get the most out of it. Study Abroad has changed dramatically with the arrival of the internet and the cell phone. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I lived abroad, e-mail access was first non-existent, and later spotty; international phone calls were prohibitively expensive. I therefore only rarely checked in with friends and family back home. Our current ease of communication has both plusses and minuses. It’s good to maintain relationships, but I do think it can hamper true immersion, which is often lonely and scary, but ultimately transformative. To get that immersion, I would suggest doing something you do at home in a new environment—for example, I take yoga classes when I’m in Russia—it’s a little bit scary, but you learn a lot of new vocabulary and also that yoga studio etiquette is completely different. Join music groups or sports clubs; take walking tours of your host city in the language of your host city. You will learn a lot!
Q: How does your academic, cultural, and personal background, inform your current work?
A: Well, I’m a Russian professor and now Faculty Director of the Oldenborg Center, so obviously cross-cultural encounter is at the heart of everything I do. But I think if I had become a journalist or a doctor, or a therapist, or a dog trainer (all options I have considered), I would still carry the insights of living abroad with me; they would still shape my day-to-day interactions with people and the larger goals I set for my life.