The same thought flies through my mind every time I cross the yellow line at passport control at the airport — even now, almost 25 years since I landed at JFK International for the first time:
Is this really happening to me? Am I about to arrive to America?
Is it just me, or have all those countless immigrants who arrived in this country felt the same exhilaration and trembling facing the unknown, not only making discoveries about their new country but learning many new things about themselves?
I remember, on that first arrival, calling my only American friend, in Minnesota, to tell him how excited I was to be in the USA. I was rather disappointed to hear his emotionless: “Please leave your message after the beep.” The phone was apparently used here not to share the thrill of the moment but to relay data. When I managed to get through to my friend, my enthusiasm was again thwarted by another discovery: To be “here in the USA” did not mean the same thing as to be “here in Minnesota.” A 31-hour trip on the bus from New York to St. Paul made this distinction very clear.
I actually learned a lot from traveling all those hours in a limited space with strangers. I learned, for example, that I do not have to move closer and closer during a conversation as the other person moves farther and farther back until he or she is pinned against the wall. The concept of “personal space” is virtually unknown in Russian culture, and I was constantly poking through.
Speaking of spatial perceptions, I found Americans to be just as bad in comprehending world geography as I was in keeping proper personal distance. On my first day at Bethel Seminary, I was shocked at how the rest of the world looks to some graduate-level students in the American Midwest. One of them greeted me as the first Russian student in this school’s almost 200-year history: “So, you are from Russia, yes? Do you happen to know a friend of mine from Prague? His name is Joe.”
Really? Wasn’t the Iron Curtain supposed to keep the Soviet population ignorant of the rest of the world — not the other way around? How did it happen that I knew so much U.S. history and geography by reading Longfellow, London, Twain, Henry, Salinger, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Vonnegut and Dreiser, while my Minnesota classmates didn’t even recognize many of those names?
And yet, while a reputation as the one who “knows things” (especially about world history and culture) served me well through my master’s degree programs, I had to pick up a few basic learning skills that Americans start encountering in kindergarten. My knowledge-focused education in Russia only prepared me to deal with what I had been taught. It left me clueless about how to develop a research strategy in a new area. I was stunned when a professor started our first class by giving us a list of study questions. Wasn’t he supposed to first give us a lecture? My classmates quickly broke into study groups according to their strengths and interests as I was sitting alone, waiting for the real teaching to begin.
Somebody tapped me on the shoulder: “What are you good at? Research? Presentation? Analysis?” “I … know … things …” was the only answer I could come up with. “OK, we can use somebody like that on our team.”
I was humbled by how much of my “knowledge” was difficult to retrieve from memory when it was needed, and by how fast my team was in finding what we needed. I was just too slow.
Time! I had never before thought of it as having such a high value. Time in Russia is measured in events. I will, for example, have to finish this essay tomorrow — after breakfast and before my court interpreting assignment in the afternoon. And then, after dinner, I will play some tennis.
My American friends drove me nuts asking for the exact time that we would meet for dinner or for a bike ride around the lake. What if cooking dinner requires an extra hour, or what if a conversation becomes too interesting to leave? How can anybody possibly know the length a church service will be, when anybody might feel led by the spirit to share an impromptu testimony or to sing an extra hymn? We are done when we are done, not at a given point of time.
Haven’t you Americans noticed that time is not linear — that a minute of boredom lasts forever, while a day of fun with friends flies like a minute?
With a real friend, that is. A friend for life. Many Americans treat friendship, and perhaps other relationships, as also linear. On my many trips back to Russia and Ukraine with groups of short-term missionaries, I couldn’t help noticing frustration and disappointment in the eyes of people they met and befriended, staying in their homes and even leading some of them to Christ. Then, suddenly — “mission accomplished” — they were already saying goodbye and planning their next tour to some other country in some other part of the world.
My daughter, who was born in Moscow but grew up bilingual and bicultural in Minnesota, has found the best metaphor for this difference between America’s goal-oriented culture and Russia’s relational one. She says Americans are like apples. With very thin protective skins, they easily open themselves to new relationships, which can be easygoing, soft and “juicy” long before you get to know the person well and reach his or her emotional center. Russians, by contrast, are nuts — very hard on the outside, protective and defensive. But once you crack them open — the person is all yours, forever. No “project friendships” no “short-term commitments.”
And, of course, the longer a relationship lasts, for a Russian, the stronger it gets. Even with things, in a general sense — the older, the better. But my younger son, also raised bicultural, insists that his newest iPad is only good until the next model comes out. America’s future-focused culture drives the invention of new products, research into new technologies, the discovery of new territories. We Russians, on the other hand, value the past. My five-year-old laptop is just fine for me.
Whatever there is to break in it already broke (at least once). I will fix it again when it breaks again. A new machine, although faster, more powerful and potentially more productive, would also be prone to break in a completely unpredictable way.
Only the things that have been tested by experience can be trusted. Only babushka and dedushka (grandma and grandpa) should be trusted in passing the values to their grandchildren — not parents who are still trying new things in life and making lots of mistakes.
I could not believe my American friends, booking a hotel room for their visiting parents and only allotting some very limited time for them to take their grandkids out to the zoo or to a Perkins restaurant. Three generations living under one roof is the norm I grew up with, even though our Moscow apartment was hardly the size of the living room I am sitting in today.
Along with these differences between Americans and Russians in the understanding of space and time, values and relationships, I discovered a difference in the role of language.
As a linguist by my first university training, I certainly enjoyed learning English and, later, Greek and Hebrew as a part of my seminary course. Knowing the language was especially important in the U.S., because the culture here is so much more verbal than Slavic cultures, which are pictorial. A new immigrant from Russia gets easily lost in an American supermarket if they cannot read the labels. Words are everywhere. One would not be able drive a car in this country if they could not read the road signs. Most of them in Russia use symbols.
What is at the center of the worship services in American churches? Again — the Word, that is, a sermon based on the Word of God. In a Russian Orthodox Church one faces the wall of icons (Greek for “image”) telling you the whole Bible story with almost no words.
That being said, and seeing how important words are in the life of Americans, I was surprised not to find many books in people’s homes. Wouldn’t you expect a bit more interest in literature from the nation so word-oriented? Why are Americans preoccupied with linguistic nuances in the speech of their public figures but have no time for a good book? Why more interest in “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” than in “To be or not to be”?
What has probably been hardest on my Russian, community-minded personality is adjusting to personal responsibility for my own decisions and actions.
For the first 30 years of my life, I lived in the Soviet Union — the country and the culture that celebrated supremacy of the communal interest over anything individual or personal. We lived our lives together, fought our wars together, suffered together and rejoiced together. This constant personal sacrifice to the common good, of course, paid off with the comfort of carrying almost no personal responsibility for any of the small and not-so-small misfortunes of one’s life.
There was always somebody or something out there to blame for what was going wrong in our lives — the government, the KGB, the nation’s enemies, a natural disaster or a political crisis. In fact, I am still seeing a lot of that dynamic in Russia today. Americans are blamed for lowering oil prices just to destroy Russia’s natural-resource-driven economy; Japanese plastic producers are held responsible for the campaign against such a wonderful Russian-made natural product as asbestos; the European Union is liable for imposing economic sanctions, etc., etc.
It took me a little while to begin owning my mistakes. My first gut reaction was to look for somebody else or something else to blame: “I was simply following another speeding car, officer” or “My baby son threw up on my paper, professor.” But I was gradually learning to take my life into my own hands and to enjoy the freedom of real choice — of choosing from more than one.
During my first visit to the supermarket back then, I honestly could not believe that Americans needed nine brands of cereal or toothpaste to pick from. Back in the USSR, I was happy to have one and did not need to spend 10 minutes walking along the aisle, reading labels and comparing prices. Back there, if the quality of the product was bad, it was somebody’s else fault. Here, I am responsible for not finding the best product and the best deal.
Have I changed since crossing that yellow line 25 years ago? I hope so. I also hope that I have repaid, at least a bit, the people of this country who have been so kind and patient with me as I have gone through (and am still going through) this extended learning curve.
My hope is that in seeing me sometimes struggle with and often resist this transformation, they had a chance to appreciate what they grew up with and take for granted — personal liberty, the right to work, the availability of quality education and health care, freedom of religion and the spirit of personal enterprise.
And, of course, as I am now frequently traveling back to Russia and teaching at its schools, universities, colleges and seminaries, all of these lessons come in handy.
Oleg Voskresensky, of Shoreview, is an author, professor and missionary with FaithSearch International.