Surrender

When I tell people I’m moving to Russia in August for a minimum of three years, I find I often have to spend the remainder of the conversation taking care of them. I’m not talking about my family. For the most part, they have been like, “That sounds like something you would do.” I’m primarily talking about strangers, like the guy who notarized a copy of my diploma for apostille purposes, who looked at me as if I had a fever. “Do you speak Russian? Have you ever been there before?” people like this usually ask, assuming, I suppose, that this person they have known for 30 seconds can’t possibly have thought this through long enough. The truth is, the answer to both of these questions is, “No,” which makes it sound like they are probably right.

Some of this is, of course, brought on by the word “Russia,” which I think most Americans learn about from action movies. “I just rewatched Air Force One,” one of my sisters said the other day. “I think you should reconsider this whole thing.” (She was kidding, but I there are people out there who agree with her). Moscow is about as exotic as you can get while still telling people you live in Europe, but it is still almost at the exact opposite end of the world from where I live now.

It’s hard listing off the reasons why this whole journey seemed so appealing to me in the time it usually takes to wrap up a conversation with a retail associate (“I’m moving to Russia” is now my go-to excuse for why I can’t sign up for loyalty programs and store credit cards. “I’m currently homeless” is another one.) I can tell people that my husband and I have always wanted to live abroad and travel together and that the job opportunity (with a school I have worked for before, albeit briefly) is excellent. I can talk about my romantic ideas about cold, snowy weather, that I think another August/September in Texas might literally kill me. I can tell them that in academia you go where the job is, but I don’t usually like to give off the impression that this is something I defaulted into out of desperation. Even though it’s sort of true (the job market: it is as bad as you’ve heard), it was also a conscious choice. None of my advisors or colleagues would have faulted me for turning the offer down. But I sent the application in the first place–never dreaming that this was the one would pan out–for a reason even though it’s difficult to nail down.

The truth is that even though I live in a city that–like Portland and Denver and Brooklyn–most people consider a final destination, I can feel myself rotting here. Based on anecdote, I’ve come to understand that this is common among people who are finishing up grad school. Even though it’s been the center of your life for the better part of a decade, it’s difficult to feel sentimental about a place that has been the scene of what I can only describe as so much trauma. Don’t get me wrong, I would do it all over again, but as with any mountain climb, I’m glad it’s over and I’m ready to get the caked mud out of my socks.

But if I had to summarize why this all appeals to me in one word, it would be “surrender.” Relocating to a new country is an enormous undertaking that involves navigating the bureaucracies of two immense nations, unloading of most of your worldly possessions, re-homing your pets, and flinging yourself into a culture that is almost completely alien and where you do not speak the language. In other words, it involves reversing what is usually thought of as the prescribed trajectory of adult life, which typically involves the accumulation of competencies and things. Everything I own now fits in a 7 foot POD, which means that we are leaving Austin with less than we brought (and will be leaving the US with even less as most of it is family keepsake stuff that will be left in my parents’ attic). My list of big adult responsibilities, like maintaining auto insurance and buying pet food, is diminishing. And having made my proficiency with the English language my bread and butter, I will now be headed for a place where that means precisely dick when it comes to buying groceries and finding a mobile service provider. I will become a hapless foreigner. Having trained to become a professor, I will find myself in the position of learner once again.  And yet this is a role in which I find myself most comfortable.

And I know many people wind up seeking or stumbling upon the transformative possibilities of helplessness at many points in life. Some find it in having children. Some find it in moving from the suburbs to the city or changing careers or going to graduate school. In many ways, it probably was this same impulse to be awed in the face of what you don’t yet know that drove me and many others to graduate school, though grad school has a weird way of both cultivating and crushing that out of you. The realities of academic labor are such that words like “marketability” and “job security” occasionally crowd out words like “discovery,” and while I’m now hating myself a little bit for saying that so cheesily, at bottom I’m trying get at the fact that in the face of the academic career trajectory and its immense challenges, it becomes difficult to sustain the kind of curiosity and even risk-taking that got you there in the first place. A PhD does not promise a secure middle class existence, but I’m starting to think that while we should be fighting for better working conditions for grad students and adjuncts, there are some appealing alternatives out there to tenure, though they demand a kind of faith that is often difficult to muster.

I guess this is my long-winded way of saying that I am simultaneously terrified and thrilled about what I am preparing to do. It is like cresting the first hill of a roller coaster and waiting, breathless, for the drop.

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2 thoughts on “Surrender

  1. As a doctoral candidate going to defend this July, I have thoroughly enjoyed your postings, and I’m wondering if you’re still going to post while in Moscow?

    Regarding working in Moscow… while the Czech Republic is not the same as Moscow, several of us were teaching assistants in Prague, and two of my friends stayed and taught there for two years, until funding was cut. They loved it. But then, we all loved Prague. One of this group traveled to Moscow to see about extending our study abroad program, but said the conditions weren’t ‘suitable,’ whatever that means. That said, I’d jump at the chance you’re getting.

    I saw that you received the Mary Baker Eddy fellowship in 2011, and I had to laugh at this: “The stipend of $2,800 will allow Ashley to spend the next year completing her dissertation…” These people honestly must think we are homeless…

    Anyway, I do hope you continue. I’m embarrassed, sort of, to say that I have three blogs… one for teaching (jodoran.net), which I’ve used relentlessly for years, one for knitting, and one for random acts of reading – which I can rarely fit in (cjodoran.com), in case you want to keep in touch. Not that you’ll have time or even might be interested… but just in case.

    Good luck Ashley,
    Jo

    1. Jo,

      I hope it’s clear that I really do see this as an amazing thing but that it’s not the easiest move to explain to people. I absolutely plan to continue posting while in Moscow, since I’ll presumably have more interesting things to write about than “today, I stared at an empty Word document and hated myself for 90 minutes.”

      And as for the fellowship, I think the wording of that release was really misleading. I had support from my department in the final year of my dissertation that amounted to a whole lot more than the summer fellowship. That $2800 really just paid for airfare and living expenses for 4 weeks in Boston. I’m doing another stint at that same library this summer.

      Good luck yourself!

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