National Heroism and the “New Cold War”

It took seven months of living in our Moscow apartment to finally figure out how the cable worked (it came pre-installed). And once we did, we figured out that 1) watching Adventure Time in Russian is even trippier than watching it in English, and 2) watching dubbed episodes of Storage Wars is a great way to practice recognizing numbers.  We’ve also been exposed more and more to Russian television, though we like the advertising more than the actual shows sometimes.

On March 9, Channel One marked the birthday of the deceased Yuri Gagarin with a rather lavishly produced and thoroughly engrossing biopic with visuals that were stunning enough to make up for the almost total (for us) incomprehensibility of what any of the actors playing Soviet engineers were saying on screen. A number of things about this film have stuck with me. First, the fact that most of Russia was basically in the nineteenth century at the time when Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961. When he falls back to earth (and a big part of that fall, by the way, was done in the manner of skydiving–no protective shuttle pod encasing him once he’d cleared the upper layers of the atmosphere), he falls into the middle of a field, where a farmer is leading his horse under a traditional harness. It’s a region not unlike the place where Gagarin grew up in the village of Klushino. One of the final images of the film is the remains of the spacecraft lying in a similar spot surrounded by a military barrier, the Space Age aesthetic of the Vostok a stark contrast to the timeless agrarian idyll surrounding it.

And then there were the shots of students pouring out of Moscow State University–students for whom the unparalleled suffering of WWII was still a living memory–and heading toward Red Square, where the film cuts between shots of the actors and actual newsreel footage. And as this sense of celebration and idealism builds to a climax, with young people shouting “В космосе!” the thought that kept going through my head was, “And on the other side of the world, America collectively shits its pants.” It’s not saying anything particularly new to observe that what for the Soviet Union was a moment of triumph not just for the USSR but for humanity was a moment of both terror an humiliation for the US. Because the Soviet Union got there first, and if the Soviet Union could put a man in space, it meant they could likely put a nuclear missile in Los Angeles or New York.

A while back, I posted pictures of a visit to the All-Russia Exhibition Center (ВДНХ) and the Monument to the Conquerors of Space that sits outside of it:

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One of my Facebook friends asked me to remind him of the name of the guy who scared the crap out of his parents’ generation, and he was talking about Yuri Gagarin. And here’s the thing, in the film, Yuri Gagarin looked like this:

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And the real Gagarin looked like this:

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He was freaking adorable. In the US, Yuri Gagarin would be played by a young Tom Hanks (there were a number of parallels between this film and Apollo 13). And while the end of his life is an utter tragedy, what he accomplished was without question heroic. And what the Soviet Union did in putting him in space was both a centerpiece of nationalist propaganda and a triumph for humanity. That the narrative in the US tended to lean toward framing it as an act of military aggression is an artifact of the zero-sum stakes of the Cold War and mid-century ambivalence about technology’s erosion of boundaries that traditionally kept us at least feeling secure (a theme which is also subtly explored in this film).

As commentators increasingly point (irresponsibly, I would argue) toward the beginnings of a New Cold War, the stakes have once again become zero-sum, and the conversation is once again tainted by a pervasive sense of paranoia and a tendency to treat as naked, calculated aggression acts that are probably in reality far less rational, far more motivated by immediate local politics, and far more self-defeating than they are portrayed to be.

I need to back up for a second. People keep asking me questions about how I’ve experienced the Ukraine crisis in Moscow, and some family members have asked why I haven’t blogged about it. And the reasons why are as follows:

  1. Like pretty much everyone in the States, I’ve been following the Ukraine crisis via television and the internet. It’s impact on my day to day life has been negligible aside from the daily fluctuations of the ruble and occasional emails from the Embassy reminding Americans to stay away from public demonstrations.
  2. My opinions change almost daily.
  3. The American expat in Russia finds herself in a tough spot, ideologically speaking. Because on the one hand, you want to defend Russia against the more sensationalistic and divisive parts of the American media while at the same time not appearing to be a Putin apologist.

It’s that last one, naturally, that is the thorniest. Because to have a nuanced opinion on what’s going on means having to resist a lot of false equivalencies: comparisons to what is going on now and Hitler’s Anschluss are not helpful, but neither are comparisons to America’s incursion in Iraq (on the one hand, we didn’t annex Iraq–on the other, the Russian army has yet to fire a shot). And while the spin you see in American media is depressing, it is not the same thing as what the Kremlin-backed Russia Today is doing.

But if there is one equivalency that can at least be roughly sketched it’s that for all the very important ways in which they are different, Russia and the US love to frame themselves as heroes on the historic stage. For a good swath of the population here, the annexation of Crimea is not an act of aggression, it is an act of rescue. And yes, the words “greeted as liberators” have crossed my mind.

But even if I’m avowedly skeptical about that rhetoric, I’m also skeptical about any framing of the issue that positions the US as hero, particularly when it involves double standards and overt hypocrisy. While I most certainly prefer American-style democracy to whatever we’ve got going on over here, what the zero-sum game of the Cold Wars, old and new, enables is a narrative of American righteousness that stokes a similarly problematic nationalistic fervor and precludes any kind of honest self-reflection about the nature of American or Western privilege.

Here’s an example. Back during the Sochi Olympics, this image came across my Tumblr dashboard:

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It was framed as an act of unparalleled courage. Said Scott Wooledge on Twitter, “Tourists attempting what Tilda Swinton did in #Russia are subject to 15 days in jail. #Courage.” On Tumblr, it was accompanied with the message, “Tilda Swinton risked her freedom to stand up for LGBT rights in Russia.”

But here is the thing, Tilda Swinton was almost certainly at no risk when she did this. Why? Because she is Tilda Swinton. And this was the middle of the Sochi Olympics. And Moscow officials are almost certainly not stupid enough to arrest an international movie star–who brought her own photographer with her–at the precise moment when Russia was trying to make a splash on the international stage. Yes, there is a certain kind of bravery to what Swinton did here, but whatever danger she was in was not the same as what the actual activists here–who get little to no notice from Western media unless they are two very specific former members of Pussy Riot–face on a daily basis.

The LGBT-rights situation in Russia, like the Ukraine crisis, has often been covered by Westerners in ways that are disgustingly self-serving, opportunistic, and ignorant. The conversation about the Swinton photo, I would argue, isn’t really about LGBT rights in Russia. It’s about the heroism of one Western (Scottish) actress. Note also that the above-quoted tweet says nothing about what actual Russians face for similar acts but what tourists in Russia face. LGBT Russians are nowhere in that image or the conversation around it. It’s an opportunity, rather, the celebrate how Westerners are both more free and more courageous.

Likewise, those demanding that the US intervene militarily in Ukraine seem less concerned with actual Ukrainians than bolstering an image of American strength that will somehow bring Russia to heel, as if the past twenty years of foreign policy have been all about breaking the resolve of Russia rather than integrating it into a productive international dialogue. Some would argue that that has in fact been the case.

For all of the talk about anti-American or anti-Western sentiment in Russia, I’ve experienced none of it so far. I don’t see Americans with cameras about their necks being taken aside in the metro and asked to show their papers. I do see that happening to people who look like they are from the North Caucasus. The Western expat–particularly the white one–enjoys privilege here but is not particularly special. Which is why I am troubled by any attempt by Westerners to make this “about them.” Like the attempt to put the first man in space, it kind of sort of is, but in a much bigger sense, it really isn’t. Russians, based on what I’ve seen, don’t spend a ton of time really thinking about Americans. Like most people, they spend most of the time thinking about themselves.

What I Learned on My Winter Vacation

Among the many reasons people cite for travelling internationally, broadening your perspective and growing as a human being is probably the most well-worn. What precisely that means, however, varies dramatically depending on what type of growth results you are looking for. Making your Facebook friends jealous and being able to trade tips with your yuppy friends on what to order in a Paris café are some of the more mercenary goals, perhaps. But at the bottom of all of it is the belief that encountering more kinds of people and more ways of living makes you a better human being.

I do actually believe that, otherwise I would have chosen the kind of life I’m living. But often what we think of when we talk about the kinds of experiences that make us broader, wiser, more tolerant people are the kinds of experiences that teenagers write about in their college essays: either the types of experiences that put us in touch with the goodness in all humanity (including our own) by bearing witness to triumph over adversity or the types of dramatic self-discovery that occur when our plans and expectations are radically upended.

I’ve been living abroad for six months now, and I’m not really sure that I’ve had either type of experience. Perhaps that is because I am living the same kind of middle-class, 9 to 5 (well, 10-6 because Europe does everything an hour later than America) existence that I would in the States, associating primarily with other expats and intimidatingly well-educated, cosmopolitan Russians. The Russia I live in is a fairly rarified on. The challenges I have experienced have been of the “Thanksgiving is coming and I can’t for the life of me find ground cloves!” variety. Ok, a few weeks ago, an entire work day on the last day of classes was hijacked for a two-hour cab ride with five other colleagues to the Immigration Office in brutal Moscow traffic in which one of the cabs got into a wreck, and the cab driver had to pay off the other driver so that we could make it in time.

But maybe that’s the point. Rarely are we given the opportunities for the kinds of apocalyptic self-examination that make good memoirs. I know people who have had those sorts of experiences, and I am not excited to follow in their footsteps. For the most part, it’s in this kind of mundane bullshit that you come face to face with your limitations and the places where you could stand to change and adapt and, you know, “grow.” And the reason why travel abroad is often associated with that is because for those of us who don’t have children, going to another country is the best possible opportunity we have for being ruinously inconvenienced.

At least that is what has happened to me on our winter vacation to Southern Italy. Vacationing in a different country is, as it turns out, a very different beast than living in a different country, and in many ways, it is a fiercer one. There is far more pressure to have the time of your life, for example. “I have spent quite a lot of money to be here,” you tell yourself on a daily basis. “I had better not spend it playing another level of Plants vs. Zombies when I could be out there having a good time.” “Italian food is amazing,” you tell yourself as you realize that you are possibly doing permanent damage to yourself with the amount of wine, pizza, and gelato you are consuming in the name of seizing the moment. And it is in the name of making the most of your time in this place that you consider waiting in a queue for the Sistine Chapel so long that it would give you a rage stroke if you encountered it outside the context of this vacation.

I do not want to set you up for the expectation that this has been a bad trip or that I am ungrateful for this opportunity. Far from it. Please believe that I did jump up and down when I saw the Colosseum and that I have been gleefully uploading photos to Instagram every night. I embarked upon this trip overflowing with optimism. And maybe because of that, it has also been a particularly acute period of encountering the disappointing limitations of both the trip and of myself as a human being. I have learned that I am precisely the type of over-ambitious, type-A vacation planner I always thought I wouldn’t be, treating the guide book like a check list and becoming livid at my spouse because he broke up the day’s itinerary with his suggestion that we go back to our Air BnB in the mid-afternoon after five hours of walking and have a nap. In other words, we have become the most disgusting, overworn stereotype of travelling couples ever.

I have also learned that in both psychological and physical terms, I am completely inflexible when it comes to my tea intake. I am basically a grouchy, be-tweeded Brit or Uncle Iroh (take your pick), and Italy is coffee country, where the best a tea-drinker can hope for outside of certain very specific Roman establishments (where tea is served as a sort of novelty or sop to tourists) is a bag of Lipton Yellow Label served in a cappuccino mug. And a reliable wi-fi connection is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. “The internet connection is really just there for checking tourist information,” my landlord tells me when I complain that it is too slow and cuts out all the time. “You are history’s worst monster,” I think, mourning the episodes of 30 Rock that I planned to watch quasi-legally via VPN connection. (If an Italian coffee-shop–those places where you guzzle espresso while standing at a counter–advertises Wi-Fi on their front door, take it with several grains of salt. This is not a country where you can expect to park for several hours with your laptop.)

I, who like to think of myself as a tolerant, open-minded person have found myself characterizing the inhabitants of an entire country based on the rude, pushy behavior of off-brand tour guides outside of the Vatican, a couple of obnoxious waiters, and that family in front of me walking very slowly and taking up the entire sidewalk while throwing their trash on the ground.

I will not, as it turns out, wait for multiple hours to see a Michelangelo masterpiece. I will instead buy handbags. 

It occurs to me that I may have sort of lucked out by landing in a country that happens to support most of my addictions and neuroses, where it is dark most of the time and the free wi-fi is plentiful, where I can swill tea around the clock even if it does keep me awake at night and where the locals share my preference for putting on a set of headphones and staring sullenly into the middle distance while using public transportation, avoiding eye contact with strangers at all costs. If a Muscovite complains about the fact that everyone on the metro stares at their mobile devices rather than striking up friendly conversations with the person next to them, they probably exile him or her to California, where fiends like that belong. If someone is standing on the wrong side of the escalator or is blocking the door of the metro car, you can shove them out of the way. No one will blame you. This is Russia, mofos. 

In other words, the ways in which travel forces you to grow are often far more mundane than the ones you think are worth writing home about. In truth, it’s the times when a little kid dumps tacos in your purse that you come face to face with your humanity and are forced to become a better person. I hear that having human children gives you this sort of opportunity all of the time. I also think I’m content to remain precisely this selfish and this limited for now. At least until my next vacation. 

 

The Student Has Become the Master: Flipped Classrooms for Advanced Students

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I realized today as I started preparing materials for my class on “Urban Environments in Literature and Film” that my students are pretty much teaching my class for me. Yesterday, I asked the day’s assigned group leaders to send me a list formulated in conjunction with their peers of 3-5 big questions they wanted answered or issues we should track as we proceed through our final novel, LA Confidential. Today, I am compiling some links and background readings based on what they sent me. I am doing work in response to an agenda that my students have set.

This happened by accident. The cession of power happened so gradually that I don’t think any of us noticed it, and the even bigger surprise is that it’s working out swimmingly. As a literature student and instructor, I am, of course, well indoctrinated in “student centered” classroom methods that incorporate Socratic dialogue and small group work. But never have I been in a situation in which the roles have been so radically reversed, in which I am essentially doing homework for my students. And what’s even more surprising is just how swimmingly this is working.

The first half of our semester proceeded pretty much like any advanced literature seminar. I would come to class with a very brief informal lecture prepared, lay out some issues in order to guide the subsequent discussion, and then the students would respond based on the agenda I had set. This seemed to be working just fine. The Bachelor’s level students here are elite students, and the level of participation (with way more than 50% of the class talking on any given day) was far exceeding my expectations. Not only do these students talk, they have opinions. They read texts critically and have interesting things to say about them. A couple of them read the scholarly introductions. I know for a fact that one finishes the books early and seeks out secondary sources on his own.

It was illuminating, then, to find out that the students themselves were dissatisfied with their level of participation when it was repeatedly cited as a weakness of the course on the midterm evaluations I had them hand in. I’ve had excellent students complain about their disengaged classmates before, and no one likes awkward silences. But the dissatisfaction in this case turned out to have a lot to do with my students’ varying degrees of comfort with spoken English. They are excellent readers and solid writers (the range of abilities is roughly equal to that of the American students I have taught but with different areas of difficulty). Students who didn’t talk very much said that they had things they wanted to say but that it took so long for them to put a coherent sentence together in their head that inevitably a more proficient student would beat them to it or the discussion would wander away from the topic. Several said they wished they had more opportunities to prepare what they were going to say in class outside of their daily journaling. And others said that they simply had a hard time understanding what was being said–either by me or by their classmates–if voices started overlapping or if we started speaking fast because we were especially engaged in that topic.

I had also noticed that my students seemed not completely comfortable with the kind of free-flowing discussion I was trying to foster. They still raised their hands to speak. They felt like they needed to have perfectly formed thoughts in order to participate. Some of this is a cultural issue–Russian secondary education has a reputation for being pretty authoritarian–but it was also clearly a confidence issue.

So, I decided to try and maintain the discussion format while giving students more opportunities to engage in a more structured, prepared way. I started having them do quick presentations on the subjects of their papers (two students per class session for a total of 10-15 minutes of class time). And for each session, I assign four student leaders who prepare topics and questions ahead of time for class discussion. They are then broken down into four small groups, which the student leaders guide through the subject matter they have prepared. At the halfway point, the groups have to produce some kind of deliverable (a presentation to the rest of the class, a visual map of the chapter, a set of unresolved questions, etc.), and what we do for the rest of class is determined by what they deliver. After about a week of this, I was doing very little in class aside from observing groups, synthesizing their conversations, and filling in gaps. No more lecturing, no more coming into the classroom with a pre-determined agenda.

Flipped classrooms are certainly not a new concept, but it’s something I deployed reluctantly for two reasons:

1) I was afraid that they would not arrive at the discussion topics that I thought were most important. This turned out to be unfounded, largely because my students are well-trained readers (Russian education is also highly literary). A class with a much lower level of ability probably could not handle this level of freedom. My students wound up covering almost precisely what would have covered. The leaders asked good questions, and they weren’t afraid to return to topics previously covered in order to figure out if peoples’ views had changed. In cases where I thought they had missed or glossed over something, I could use the second half of class to insist they delve into it deeper. During one discussion of a middle section of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the groups were consistently noticing the fact that character names get re-used, but they didn’t make anything of it other than, “Huh, that’s weird.” So I had the group leaders go up to the blackboard and take direction from their peers in mapping the way names were used across storylines to figure out what was going on.

2) My “good student” impulse sometimes supersedes my “good teacher” impulse. What I mean by this is that I as a teacher at the beginning of her career frequently feel the need to “prove” my mastery of the content to my students, when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Thus, class becomes a performance centered on the teacher rather than a collaboration facilitated by the teacher.

So, what began as an exercise to give every student an opportunity to talk, to lead, and to prepare what they want to say (each student leads twice) has resulted in class sessions where I do almost no talking, which is a kind of platonic ideal for some instructors. And it’s resulted in a situation in which my students have set the agenda for the remaining three weeks, and I am taking my lead from them. Approaching LA Confidential, I would have started by talking about noir genre tropes, but these kids are already past that (our last “text” was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where they had plenty of opportunity to reflect on and discuss Nolan’s and the Batman franchise’s indebtedness to noir). Instead two of the three groups spent the majority of class time discussing immigration, crime, and racism in the novel’s first section. This makes sense. Coming off of Rushdie earlier in the semester, immigration and cities as cites of multi-cultural interaction are already very much on our minds. Immigration is also a very raw political issue in Moscow at the moment. But it meant that instead of feeling the need to explain things they already understood, I instead started putting together a list of sources to help fill in background knowledge on immigration from Mexico to California in the 1950s.

In conclusion, this is a classroom model that has worked well for the past several weeks and one that I would likely deploy again with necessary adjustments for students’ level of ability. But if you have a class that is capable of setting a substantive agenda and independently performing good critical analysis, then sometimes its just best to get out of their way.

Image source.

What Matters in a Statement of Purpose

I’m seeing an awful lot of SOP/grad school flailing going on on my various social media platforms, so here are some highlights from the workshop I ran for our students a couple of weeks ago along with the handout I distributed. All materials are the property of the New Economic School Writing and Communications Center.

First, a few statistics:

  • Of all of the students who enter any kind of PhD program in the United States, only 50% actually finish (Cassuto).
  • In 2010, a study followed 583 students entering various university PhD programs in Economics beginning in 2002. After 8 years, 59% had earned the PhD, 37% had dropped out, and 4% were still writing their dissertations (Stock 176).
  • Of the 59% who finished, 45% took 5 years. The remaining 55% took 6 to 8 years.

What does this mean?

  • Graduate school is a long-term investment that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
  • Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources in terms of stipend money and advising and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is that you will finish and get a good job, thereby boosting their completion and placement numbers and conferring additional prestige. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and GRE scores.
  • Your Personal Statement is the document where you make the argument for why you will be a good investment, demonstrating:
    • That you understand what advanced academic work in your field entails and that you have at least a general plan for getting through it.
    • That you have thought about your areas of interest and are able to describe the shape that your future research might take.
    • That you have done research on this specific program and understand how their specific strengths fit your goals.
    • That you have some idea of what you want to do with your degree (even though that may be a decade in the future).

Brainstorming:

  • Start writing early. Your personal statement will likely go through many drafts before you are ready to submit it.
  • If a school asks you to answer specific questions, be sure to do that. It’s crucial to show that you’re individualizing your application for each school and that you have thought seriously about their questions.
  • And even with a specific set of questions, you still must work to make your answers meaningful and unique.
  • Ask yourself the following sets of questions as you brainstorm.
    • The Field:
      • Why do you want to be a _____? Don’t think about why other people may choose this profession; why do you want that as your profession?
      • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the profession?
      • How and when did you learn about the field? Was it through a class, reading, work experience, or a professor? Is that story important to your story? What have you learned about it that has further stimulated your interest?
      • What particular path in the field interests you now? What are your career goals?
    • The Program:
      • Why do you want to get into this program? Don’t talk about Economics programs in general, but Harvard’s Economics Program or Stanford’s Economics Program. Maybe there’s a particular professor with whom you want to work. Maybe the school offers excellent research opportunities or teaching experience to graduate students. If you’re not sure, do more research about the school or talk with a professor or student.
    • Yourself:
      • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you and your story?
      • Are there details about your life that can help the committee understand you or that will make you stand out from other applicants?
      • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (i.e. economic, familial, physical)? Admissions committees are interested in unique personal narratives and evidence of having overcome adversity.
      • What personal skills or characteristics do you possess that would make you successful in the field? How can you show admissions committees that you have those?
      • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school and/or more successful in the field than other applicants?
      • What are the most important reasons the admissions committee should be interested in you?
      • Does your academic record have gaps or discrepancies you need to explain (i.e. excellent grades but poor GRE)

What Makes a Poor Personal Statement:

  • Isn’t specific or unique—relies on clichés “I have always wanted to be an economist” or “I have always dreamed of attending Harvard.”
  • Doesn’t indicate that you’ve researched the institution
  • Doesn’t indicate your past work that serves as evidence of your potential as a student
  • Rambles or includes irrelevant information

General Tips:

  • Tell a story—show what you want to say through concrete experience. Rather than “I have an adventurous spirit,” tell us about the service trip you went on with a group of strangers to India.
  • Find an angle—most people have “normal” stories, so a focus that makes yours interesting.
  • Be focused—if the application asks you to answer specific questions, answer them. If there are no specific questions, still maintain focus. Choose important qualities/characteristics and write only about those.
  • Be specific—do not make claims you cannot back up with experience.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Be coherent—the way you write indicates the kind of person you are. Someone who writes clearly is likely a sensible person.
  • Interpret material for your readers. Don’t repeat the material in your application—instead, explain how those experiences relate to the program for which you’re applying.
  • Don’t be afraid to be personal, as long as it’s appropriate.
  • Tell what you know about the field or profession. Share what you’ve already learned—refer to experience (work, research), classes, conversations you’ve had with people who work in the field, books you’ve read, seminars you’ve attended—and then show why you’re well suited to the profession.
  • Research the school.
  • If the school’s location provides a major geographical or cultural change, consider writing about that.
  • If there is a word limit, stay within it.

More, including samples, here: Personal Statement Workshop Handout

Why English and Rhet/Comp Graduate Students Should Consider Career Choices Abroad

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If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be able to walk here from my apartment, I’d have…done…something.

November starts tomorrow, which means that job hunting season for new and expectant PhDs is about to really get going, and I am having bad acid flashbacks of weekends spend queuing up Interfolio dossiers and hoping I remembered to change the receiver’s address on each cover letter. I am hoping to stay put in my current job for a good while, and not only because I’m hoping to avoid crying in restaurants for a few years, but because I can honestly say that I am enjoying my job. Really, really enjoying it. And even though it wasn’t Plan A and even though I wound up here through a bizarre series of coincidences and chance encounters, I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up here rather than at one of the other places that offered me interviews (but didn’t offer me jobs). Now, I certainly can’t say that my experience is typical, but it’s enough for me to recommend that English and Rhet/Comp students (and all fields, really)–facing increasingly dire prospects on the US market–look at an international career as a viable option. Some reasons:

Travel, duh.

Some of my current satisfaction has to do with location and the thrill of travel. I made a pact with my spouse when I began my job search that–and this is the exact wording–we would not die in Waco. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can guess some of them. Cut to three years later, and I am at interviewing for a position for a university in Waco. And I interviewed for two more jobs that were in places very much like Waco but with different weather. For many, no doubt, Waco is a brighter prospect than Moscow, where the sun currently comes up around 8:45 am, but a couple of weeks ago, we walked from our 600 square foot apartment to Red Square on a chilly day in the rain, and I was overwhelmed with disbelief that this is my actual life. Different isn’t always better, but when you’ve felt yourself grow stale in a place, going somewhere completely different feels like a rebirth. You aren’t better, but just by virtue of changing your life so radically, you lose a lot of bad habits and pick up a few new ones. You find yourself challenged and engaged in ways that are completely unexpected. And you learn a little bit about surrender.

Working Conditions

Speaking in more practical terms, the set of conditions under which I’m working are quite a bit better than what I could have expected in the US. Though this isn’t a tenure track position, it’s a renewable contract with an institution that was willing to make a pretty considerable investment in getting me over here. I am getting paid at near the top end of what Assistant Profs make in my field in the US. I have a research budget. I got to design and teach my own literature elective my first semester here. I teach a 1/1 load alongside my Writing Center admin responsibilities. My students are Ivy-League caliber and turn their assignments in on time and have forever ruined me for teaching in the US. I have health insurance. I could go on.

Building Something New

I teach at an institution that is only two decades old in an English department that is only a few years old. For some, I think this would in and of itself be anxiety producing. And there are drawbacks. The building I work in is decrepit, though that’s largely because the school invested in world-class faculty on the front end rather than facilities. The former Rector had to, you know, flee the country under the threat of political persecution, but we have a new Rector who seems extremely qualified and energized about where the institution will go next. In short, the people who work here seem to think that they are involved in doing something extremely important and urgent for their students, their research field, and their country, and despite the specialization of the school, the English department is part of that. And that, to me at least, is so much more exciting than slotting into a long-established literature or writing program at a centuries-old universities where the possibility of making a genuine difference means working against entrenched interests and traditions.

This Writing Center is only two years old and is the first of its kind in Russia. The US model Writing Center is rapidly becoming a very attractive import for many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern universities. Not only does this mean that there are jobs out there but that international, multi-lingual writing centers and writing programs are becoming a new frontier for research.

International Colleagues

Which brings me, of course, to the fact that the American academic universe is pretty much hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And particularly in the areas of rhetoric and composition studies, there is a LOT of interesting work that could be done if there were more exchange of ideas internationally. There’s always some noise about the need to do so, but very little of it actually happens in practice.

And then, of course, there is just the stimulation of having colleagues from all over the world just down the hall. I work with people from Belarus, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy as well as Americans who have made their entire careers abroad. And I’m interacting with these people in a place where “Americanness” isn’t neither the default nor the goal, where we are all foreigners.

Marketability

For the reasons discussed earlier, Americans with English and Rhet/Comp degrees are extremely marketable on the international market, especially if they can bring some ESL/EFL experience together with expertise in a content field. the TESOL jobs site and the International Writing Centers Association website are good places to look for openings. Be aware, however, that in addition to talking about your research and teaching, you will need to be able to articulate–both in your cover letter and in your interview–why you want to work abroad and why you want to work in that country specifically. The turnover rate among expat employees is high because people get homesick or have a change in family circumstances or whatever, and schools who pay for moving costs invest a considerable amount in their faculty up front. So you need to be able to argue for why you are a good investment.

I was warned before taking this job that working abroad could hurt my marketability if I want to return to the US. I have heard anecdotal reports that this is true, but the person I replaced had two job offers in the US, so take that for what it’s worth.

Caveats

Working abroad is not for you if:

  • You are seeking the traditional middle-class American experience with children, extended family in easy reach, and steady, reliable employment. Granted, for many of us, this simply isn’t an option we can count on. But the truth is that going abroad means being uprooted, many times, potentially. And it means going long periods without seeing your parents or siblings or old friends. If you go abroad, you need to wrap your head around the fact that this isn’t study abroad. This is going to be your life, and if you have doubts, it’s best to grapple with them early on.
  • You shun hassles. I mean, I don’t know anyone who likes being inconvenienced, but moving internationally is a giant effing hassle in every possible way. I have had to deal with more paperwork than it took to sell our house (and most of it in a language I don’t read well). Shipping a few boxes of personal items and research materials has been an undertaking so grueling and expensive that I question whether it was worth it (probably not). And airports, man. Airports.

The takeaway here is that it’s not going to be a glorious experience for everyone or 100% of the time, but it’s a career path that is very seriously worth considering as an alternative to stringing together adjunct work, taking a 9-5 office job, teaching a 4/4 lectureship with no opportunities for research or career advancement, or even *gasp* a tenure track job in quite a few cases.

The Best Money I’ve Spent In/Before Russia: Soggy September Edition

For the benefit of anyone planning to come here for business and/or funtimes:

- Insulated, waterproof North Face jacket with hood: according to the Moscow Times, this is the rainiest September in Moscow since they started keeping records. And during the day, the temperatures are in the 40s and 50s. Many Russians maintain the same standards in outerwear that they do in footwear, so if you need to aim for utility, it’s good to have something that looks pretty decent as well. Single regret: I should have gotten a dark color.

Rubber Wellington boots from L.L. Bean: Drainage on the streets is poor, so it’s helpful to be able to splash through puddles without caring (ok, that’s an understatement – it’s ridiculously fun). The hems of my work pants are grateful. I keep my heels in my office. I’m glad I sprung for the insulated liners, but unfortunately they are in Germany with the rest of the belongings I shipped.

The Oxford Russian-English Dictionary app: At $19.99, this is expensive for an app, but it’s a searchable bi-lingual dictionary in your pocket that also has lists of case endings and verb conjugations. It’s a no-brainer.

The Moscow metro app: It’s free. It’s also the best metro system app I’ve ever seen.

Turbo-scan app: Russia = asstons of paperwork. This app uses my phone’s camera to scan everything to pdf. It does multi-page scans, and the file compression is a lot better than most expensive scanners. It’s two bucks.

*Now is probably the time to mention that a smart-phone–if you can afford one–is a major asset here. I was able to get AT&T to unlock my iPhone 4. I might post a tutorial on it later.*

- Good bedding: Moscow is a big, loud, crazy city, so you need a space that feels like a sanctuary and where you can genuinely get some rest. Plus, I believe in investing in the place where I spend the most consecutive hours of any given day, so I got the best mattress pad, pillows, and comforter available at Ikea (which delivers same day or day after anywhere in Moscow for a nominal charge). This also speaks to another aspect of assimilation: if you are going to be in a different country semi-long term (say, a year or more), it’s worth it to invest in things that make your space genuinely feel like home, whether that’s nice sheets or cooking supplies or frames for family photos. You need to do things that psychologically reinforce the fact that you are here to stay and do your best to make it a place that you will want to stay.

Electric tea kettle: Lucky for me, a coffee hater, Russians are tea fanatics. There are gourmet tea shops all over the place. An electric tea kettle is considered a standard appliance (whereas toasters and microwaves are not) and comes in every furnished apartment. I bought another one for the office.

- Brita pitcher: I can’t get a straight up or down answer on whether or not the tap water is safe to drink. Many say it’s fine, but a little Googling will quickly tell you that–like most substances on Earth–Moscow water will give you cancer. A couple of weeks ago, they were repaving the parking area outside my building and cut the hot water line (hot water is centrally provided, not heated on-site with a boiler). When it came back, it came back brown. It’s normal now (it was probably just sediment that got into the line), but it spooked me but good. I have never been a germaphobe and roll my eyes at people who panic about this sort of stuff in the US, but contamination phobias are apparently a normal part of culture shock. Most Muscovites only drink bottled, but I’ve also been told that you have no way of knowing where the bottled stuff actually comes from. The filter is more eco-friendly anyway.

HMA (Hide My Ass) VPN subscription: For when I want to change my IP address for reasons. Like, let’s say, Netflix reasons.

The Past is With Us

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The ceiling of the Taganskaya metro station depicting the Soviet flag on a blue background.

During my summer in Boston, I came across a couple of op-eds by Mary Baker Eddy on the goings-on in Russia at the close of the nineteenth century, and I realized for just how long Russia has served as a kind of foil for the United States. Even before the rise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War, even before we became rivals, Americans looked to Russia as the incarnation of old-world tyranny standing in stark contrast to America’s beacon of freedom. And in the highly self-serving op-eds that Putin and McCain each served up recently, we see that that this condition persists to a certain degree.

When Americans think about Moscow, I think the image they typically conjure up is the Moscow of the 90s in much the same way that people who have never left the South or the Midwest picture Times Square in the 80s when they think of New York City. It’s difficult to shake the stark imagery and Manichean drama of the Cold War when that defined our view of Russia for so long. But when I’m standing in a subway car surrounded by people swiping away at iPhones with ads for Audi dealerships on the wall, the only thing that really reminds me that I’m not in the US is the fact that the ad is in Cyrillic. So dramatic has the change in this city been in just a couple of decades that I’m repeatedly stunned by the fact that people exactly my age remember standing in lines with their mothers for bread and toilet paper. Russia is still a complicated place beset by inefficiency and corruption, but it has also made some stunningly rapid strides in the direction of what many Americans would call progress at least in terms of adopting Western consumer culture.

Stalin-era apartment buildings viewed from my office window.
Stalin-era apartment buildings viewed from my office window.

Vestiges of the Soviet era–and of an even older Russia–exist everywhere. There are the few remaining statues of Lenin, for example, and the utilitarian apartment buildings. But the remnants that stand out to me are the ones that more directly impact everyday life. You can tell, for example, that customer service is a recent concept here both because of it’s absence in some places and its almost aggressive presence in others. Russian service workers vacillate between the almost overwhelming enthusiasm of the Japanese and the hostile aloofness of the French. The employees at one grocery store chain all wear crisp green and white uniforms, and they take your fruits and vegetables from you and weigh them on the spot before you go to the checkout counter. Many gas stations are full-service, and if you decide to browse the selection of mugs in Starbucks, chances are a very cheerful employee will be right there to tell you all about them within seconds. Elsewhere, you will have to physically grab a customer service representative to get them to take your money. One time, after finishing a restaurant meal, I asked for my check and watched my waitress nod and then walk off to take a smoke break. Waitstaff–for whom a 10% tip is considered highly generous–routinely ignore you, which means you can sit and socialize for hours without feeling like anyone is trying to turn the table around but also means that you may sit there forever before you get your credit card back.

Of course, that’s if they take credit card. Cash is the standard here, even for very large transactions. Many cashiers will ask you to provide exact change, and a few will still get very irritated with you if you don’t have it, an attitude left over from a time when currency was scarce. In fact, my most hostile encounters with Russians have involved quibbles over change. The worst was at the food court of a mega-mall.

And then there is the paperwork. Every transaction that involves the Russian government requires everything besides a blood sample (actually, you need one of those to get a work visa) and a letter from your first-grade teacher. Things that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really complicated and vice versa. To get an apartment, you need to have a lot of cash in your hand and the ability to sign your name. There is no credit check or tax return requirement. The landlord just needs to like the look of you. (I just assume this means that they get to break your thumbs if you’re late on the rent). However, getting a bank account (getting a bank to allow you to GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY) requires two forms of ID, a notarized translation of your passport, verification of employment, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. Right now, we are trying to get our belongings through Russian customs, which requires a letter from my employer (I need to prove I’m employed to bring my stuff in the country…why exactly?) and a notarized power of attorney to allow the moving company to pay the customs officials for me. To get this document notarized, I waited in a notary’s office for an hour and a half while it was passed around to three different people and while they found a translator who could make sure I understood what I was signing even though I prepared the document in the first place.

(Aside: I should note that bureaucratic nonsense is alive and well in the US as well and can appear just as irrational, judging by the letter I had to sign in order to prove that L. Ashley Squires and Laura Ashley Squires are the same person, a step that was apparently essential to the sale of my car in the state of Texas. Also, the US also puts foreigners through an unbelievable amount of bullshit, but this is my little complaint corner right now. The way to cope with it in either country is to be patient, have a sense of humor, and pray.)

But the secret of this Kafkaesque nightmare is that very little of it actually matters. All these papers you need are merely boxes that someone in some office needs to check, and it’s unlikely that they actually pay attention to what’s in them. But you need to do them correctly because one day someone might, and that will of course be at the moment when the consequences are the worst for you.

But elsewhere the lingering evidence of the Old Russia is simply puzzling and amusing. Occasionally, it’s delightfully so. The building I work in is a Soviet-era office building, one of those structures that was built quickly and has quickly fallen into disrepair. As is typical in Moscow, the public areas (lobbies, hallways, etc.) are dilapidated while offices and classrooms are fully renovated in the modern style. It still has a stolovaya, a cafeteria where lunch would have been provided to employees but where you can now buy a very inexpensive meal. At the entrance are two security guards who stop no one from walking in the building and a woman whose ostensible job is to issue passes that no one bothers to ask for anymore. She sits all day looking at an empty visitor notebook like a character from a Pynchon novel.

There used to be guards on every floor who would give you your office key and take it from you when you left for the day. This still exists but only on the nineteenth floor, which, incidentally, is where my office is. Every day, I ask for the key from a man who has probably been working there for 40 years and whose job it is to take it off a hook on the wall and hand it to me. When he’s not handing out keys, he watches internet videos. This is actually a Russian workplace custom that pre-dates the Soviet Union. In Dostoevskiy’s Crime and Punishment, there is a floor guard who fails to notice anything when Raskolnikov is murdering the landlady.

While it can occasionally feel like evidence of backwardness, this litany of customs and procedures and personnel that probably had a point that expired some time ago is really evidence of just how rapidly Russia has and is still changing. This country’s national literary tradition didn’t take off in earnest until Pushkin in the nineteenth century, and in just a couple of generations, it produced Tolstoy. And in less than a generation, it has gone from bread lines to Starbucks. This makes it often frustrating and even frightening, but it also makes it rich and exciting and dynamic. One of my Russian colleagues said that she left the US to return to Moscow because the stability and samey-ness of life in America just got boring, and I can see what she’s talking about. But truthfulness, this historical dynamism, this pursuit of chance at a breakneck pace and all the messiness that comes with it, is something that Russians and Americans share.

 

The US Model Writing Center in Russia

The New Economic School in Moscow is a rather unique place. Created in 1991 by a group that included a Russian technocrat, an Israeli economist, and George Soros, its ideals are fundamentally internationalist, designed to train the best and brightest from Russia and other CIS nations in economic theory, send some of them to the US or Western Europe for advanced degrees, and bring them back to become the business and academic elite here in their home country. For that reason, by the time they graduate, students are expected to be fluent in English and fully acculturated to academic norms in the West.

For that reason, NES has deliberately sought out foreign faculty and foreign educational models. Even the Russian faculty tend to carry PhDs from places like Cambridge and MIT. And when the school decided to start offering a liberal arts-model BA in addition to its two Master’s programs, the idea of importing the US Writing Center/WAC model followed almost immediately. Because most of the Economics faculty are not equipped for writing instruction in English, this program has been staffed with faculty with Humanities degrees from overseas. Right now, the English department is roughly half Russian/half American. Three of the last four Writing Center administrators have been American (including myself, obviously), and all four have had experience working in American writing centers.

So in a number of important ways, our Writing Center resembles the one I was trained in: we train consultants to use the non-directive, process-oriented pedagogy advocated by foundational scholars like Stephen North. In addition to providing consultations, we provide resources to faculty to support the integration of writing into their curriculum. We encounter similar issues of misunderstanding and resistance from students and faculty when it comes to our Socratic, non-directive pedagogical model, though these are perhaps a bit more pronounced given the authoritarian model of Russian secondary education.

But in some very huge and perhaps rather obvious ways, our Writing Center will probably never look exactly like a US one. NES isn’t the first non-US institution to adopt this model (though it is the first in Russia), which is becoming more popular worldwide (indeed, recent Humanities PhDs with a sense of adventure ought to seriously consider exploring the international market, which often offers more attractive opportunities than the US market). And for that reason, the specific challenges we have here are worth discussing. Naturally, this is a subject that I will continue to reflect on as my time in Russia progresses, but here are a few broad points that have come to the forefront as I’ve begun working here:

For starters, ours is a bi-lingual Writing Center, offering consultations in both Russian and English. And when it comes to English, we have to assist students with widely varying levels of proficiency. Which means that we are involved not only in teaching writing in English but in teaching the language of English itself. Students can come in not only to get help with their writing assignments but to practice their pronunciation or conversation skills. We offer workshops in oral presentation skills in addition to writing skills. For that reason, we call ourselves the Writing and Communications Center (literal translation from Russian: “The Center for Written and Oral Communication”). And while the difference appears subtle, consulting on oral vs. written communication for EFL students requires a different set of competencies for consultants. Simply being a native English speaker helps but isn’t quite enough on its own. Some linguistics training and a basic understanding of English vs. Russian morphology makes a gigantic difference.

The differences between English and Russian extend beyond the mere mechanics of language, however. In the past few weeks at NES, we have come to think of essay writing in English as a completely different genre than  essay writing in Russian, where the argument often appears at the end and the writing tends more toward circularity than toward the pyramidal model we teach in Freshman Comp in the US. It’s not that the Russian way of writing is incorrect, it’s just that audiences in each language have different expectations when it comes to the structure of an argument, and students must be taught to tailor their papers and presentations to fit each. Therefore, this is a Writing Center that has to address the idea of “good writing” not as a set of universal rules but as a set of culturally and linguistically mediated practices.

And finally, as Tzu-Shan Chang reports in this article about Taiwanese writing centers, it is nearly impossible to find qualified peer tutors for consultations in English. We have three American interns (who all hold either a BA or an MA) and one PhD student from Moscow State University, but otherwise, all of our consultants are faculty. Particularly at such a small institution, this requires us to adopt dramatically different roles in our encounters with students as instructors rather than consultants. We do not take consultations for work in our own classes, but it is possible that we will see our students for work assigned by other professors. And I tend to hold that certain superficial (and maybe kind of dumb) distinctions–such as asking students to use my first name when I am working as a consultant–are important to distinguishing my role.

I am here.
I am here.

Life in Russia has two paces: geologic and gunfight on the top of a runaway stage coach careening toward the edge of the canyon. There is no in between. Things tend to either not be happening or to be happening all at once. Example: the professor who vacated the office that the other Writing Center Director and I are occupying left a whole bunch of boxes behind. Last week, he came and removed one box. On Tuesday, he removed…one more box. At this rate, he will be fully moved out sometime in mid-November. However, there are a bunch of Writing Center materials that needed to be moved out of the room where they were being stored so that a new research group could move in there. And feeling their pain, we decided to go ahead and move that stuff into our already full office, which meant putting the former occupants boxes in the hallway. Except the items we needed to move included a large bookcase that was about a centimeter too tall to fit through the doorway. And this was all happening minutes before I had a consultation scheduled in our office because the Writing Center room had to be commandeered by a class that had been kicked out of their seminar room for something else. So at one point, there were like 14 people in our office (you know, give or take) moving crap in and out and trying to decide whether or not to take the door frame apart, and I am watching the clock knowing that this student could be arriving any second along with the new consultant who is coming all the way over from Moscow State in order to observe.

Finding an apartment here was sort of like that, except the stakes were a little bit higher. In many ways, finding a place to live in Moscow presents all the same challenges as any other major world city. Real estate is ludicrously expensive. Properties move extremely fast. Apartments tend to be small. Landlords do not have to work very hard to find tenants. Quality and cleanliness vary widely. Things that are unusual: the renter pays the agent fee and the entire transaction is handled in cash (more on that later). Also, many apartments come furnished, which is nice because you don’t have to buy that stuff, but you do have to be able to live with the landlord’s particular taste. Some apartments are decorated in an ultra-modern style. While others are in the old Russian style that tends to include ornate Persian rugs, fussy looking furniture, and gaudy wallpaper (or even carpet) on the walls.

Within days of arriving in Moscow, I found an apartment that seemed to be perfect. It was in our price range, newly remodeled, sort of on the small side but in a convenient location. I wanted to jump on it, but it was late August, and the landlady went on vacation, as so many Europeans do. She was gone for two weeks and did not respond to phone calls or emails. So we waited, feeling sort of ok about it because the apartment wasn’t being shown to anyone else. Then, last Tuesday, after waiting 14 days, we found out that she had decided, spur of the moment, to sell the place rather than rent it. I got that text an hour before going to teach my first class.

So, I needed to find another solution, as the lease on my temporary place was going to run out in a few days, and I felt bad about trying to get it extended again. So, we went and looked at a few more apartments that night and found one in the exact same neighborhood that was arguably better (bigger, more light, though not as new). We had an appointment to sign the contract and get the keys 24 hours later. So, I packed and realized, to my horror, that Bank of America (I do not have a bank account in Russia yet) would only let me withdraw the equivalent of $900 per day.  I needed about $5000. Because Russians do everything in cash. Including taking first month’s rent and security deposit and all of that. It was difficult for me to explain just how weird this is for Americans.

So, I scrambled, trying to research alternatives while Ed went and talked to BoA in person in the US (it was mid-day there). I tried to Western Union the money to myself using my credit card, but it was declined, and Discover–no doubt seeing that someone with a Russian IP address was trying to wire a shitload of money to Russia–cut me off. And to make matters worse, as I was trying to make calls to financial institutions to assure them that this was all legit, I got to the end of my pre-paid cell phone plan and was cut off. So, in desperation, I emailed the person at NES who is always seems to have creative solutions, and within minutes she had a fix that involved me transferring money to another US account and someone coming to my office the next day to count out 160,000 rubles onto a table. I have never felt more like a gangster in my life, and it was sort of great.

(I also figured out how to top off my cell phone, which involves going to an ATM, typing in you phone number, and sticking some cash in the slot. It’s super easy, but no one told me this when I got the phone.)

So that is how I wound up in a lovely apartment in a lively, interesting part of Moscow just outside the Garden Ring, a couple of miles from Red Square, close to parks and good restaurants and the American Medical Center. I hope we never move again until it’s time to go back to the US, because this is not the kind of thing you want to have to do very often.

A Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve been here nearly four weeks, and I haven’t been blogging nearly enough. So, here’s a list of my favorite things about Moscow so far:

The metro. I’ve taken public transportation in Austin, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, and Moscow’s metro system absolutely crushes all of them. Despite the fact that it serves more passengers daily than the NYC and London subway systems combined, it somehow manages to be incredibly efficient. I’ve been stuck waiting for the correct Green line train on the Boston T for upwards of 25 minutes during Red Sox games only to have the next one arrive so packed that you cannot physically wedge another human being onto it. But Moscow trains arrive every two minutes and, while often crowded (rush hour is pretty much all of the time here), aren’t quite that uncomfortable. As a bonus, many of the metro stations are visually stunning works of art, and even the Brezhnev-era ones that look pretty ordinary are at least free of the stale urine and garbage smell that seems to permeate most American transit systems.

Blini and kasha. Russia has the whole breakfast thing figured out. Also, carbs and comfort food. Blini are crepes filled with anything from fruit to caviar and sold pretty much everywhere. And kasha is basically porridge or a hot grain cereal that can similarly be served with anything. I like it with berries and fresh mint. It’s the best thing ever on a cold, rainy day (of which we have had many despite the fact that it’s early September).

Coffee shops. Starbucks and Coffee Bean are definitely a thing here. In fact, the Starbucks right outside metro Serpukhovskaya is pretty great. It’s inside a really neat bookstore and has great seating (and some of the baristas speak English). But you can do as good or better with some of the local chains. Moscow has tons of coffee shops that are essentially full-service restaurants but where they will let you sit there and hang out as long as you want. In fact, you will have to work pretty hard to flag down your server if you want to get your check and get out of there quickly. My favorites so far are Кофе Хаус (transliteration of “Coffee House”) and Le Pain Quotidien.

Parks. There is green space everywhere here. You can find huge, sprawling parks with ancient buildings like Kolomenskoye or modern spaces like Gorky Park, which has cafes, concert venues, and (in winter) ice skating. (Gorky Park also has these giant water resistant pillows and lounge chairs where you can park all afternoon and read, though you’d better go on a weekday). But there are also great little neighborhood parks and tree-lined boulevards where you can escape the city just for a little bit. I also love that though my apartment is in a cluster of none-too-beautiful buildings, there are trees on two sides, which means that my bedroom  feels a little like a tree house.

Muscovites. People keep telling me that Russians aren’t very friendly. Most of them tend to be Russians who have spent time in the US. But for the most part, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Sure, no one really smiles at strangers, people on the metro avoid eye contact, and small talk is not encouraged, but even outside my circle of colleagues, I’ve found most people here to be gregarious and helpful. It’s just a culture that tends more toward introversion. Plus, the way syllable stress works in Russian means that the language sometimes sounds flat or even harsh to foreigners. You generally have to make a connection first, and then people get more expressive. 

The stolovaya. This is perhaps more of a novelty thing, but the building I work in is Soviet-era and quite old. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s still government-owned. Back during Communist times, all workplaces provides lunch for workers in these cafeterias. My building still has one of those, and you can get a very decent meal (I like the vegetable salad and бутерброд с сыром, essentially bread and cheese) for very cheap. The bottom floor has a canteen where you can get fresh fruit, chips, ice cream, or whatever. It’s hard to explain how this is different from your typical college cafeteria, but it just is ok. There are a few Moscow restaurant chains that have reinvented this concept. My favorite is Му-Му (“Moo-moo” – the logo is cow spots).

Points of ambivalence:

Standards of dress. Walking around in your perfectly coordinated Lululemon outfit is not a sign of status here, or of how much you care about your fitness (there is no fitness culture here). The first time I walked around in work-out clothes, I had an Arrested Development style, “I’ve made a huge mistake” moment. No one was rude to me or anything, but I felt like I was wearing a flashing neon sign that said “HASN’T CAUGHT ON.” It is rare that you see someone–especially on a workday–who doesn’t look impeccably groomed by US standards. No one wears flip flops. Or running shoes. I used to think I had quite a bit of game in the whole footwear department. This is because I come from the nation that brought Crocs into the world. I think they confiscate those at customs here. 

The pace. You will straight up get run over if you don’t watch yourself on the street (Muscovite drivers have as much regard for pedestrians as Texans do) or in the metro, but in general, no one in Russia is ever in as much of a hurry as I think they should be. This is especially true when trying to file paperwork or anything involving a bureaucracy. It’s not that people are lazy or incompetent, they just have a different way of setting priorities and a different regard for deadlines. What this means is that you have to be patient and pro-active (just go down and get the projector cable already because no one is going to bring it to you, even if you asked for it a week ago), but also means no one is going to micromanage your pace or expect you to have that thing they sent you turned around in 24 hours or get angry at you for not immediately answering that email they sent at 3 am. As one of my colleagues said, “This Caribbean lifestyle would be great if the weather were better.”