How's Russia?

The two most banal questions I am ever asked about living abroad are "How is/was Russia?" and "What do you think of Russia?" The former mostly come from Americans, the latter mostly from Russians. What are you supposed to say to that? 

Last week I was talking to another Fulbright ETA in Russia. We both agreed that we can't get over our inclination to be polite and not explicitly say anything bad about Russia to any Russians, no matter how frustrated or displeased we may feel. If someone asks us what we think of our students we will find something nice to say, even if we find our students frustrating. If someone asks us about our dorms, we will find something nice to say even though the buildings leave something to be desired. 

After all, what are Russians expecting us to say? The other day I ran into one of my students on the bus and she asked me "HOW'S RUSSIA?" ("КАК ВАМ РОССИЯ?"). What did she expect me to say? We were on a crowded bus, there was a freezing drizzle, and her group happens to be one of the groups that has trouble listening to me when I give directions in class, so I can't say it's one of my favorite groups to work with. At that moment, Russia wasn't doing much for me. And even though there are things I find very positive about Russia in general, those things are too deep and serious for small talk on a bus. 

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The problem with the "How's [whatever]" question is that it is a banal question born of small talk that begs for two things that are inappropriate during small talk: honesty about your feelings towards something, and existential depth about what that thing means to you. 

Everyone who has ever lived abroad is familiar with these constructions. "What do you think of this place? How's it going for you in that place? Do you have a blog? Do you have pictures? Do you have videos? Did you post about it on social media?" Haven't you been spending your entire time in a new place recording your experiences and preparing to retell it to everyone who's interested? Don't you have concise opinions that can uniquely sum up the perspective on the world that you gained by being in a new place, thereby sprinkling our silly small talk with a light dusting of cosmopolitan Truth that will make the whole conversation sound more worldly? 

I actually always dread trying to explain things that happen in Russia to other people, especially things that are difficult. Good things, exciting moments can be turned into thrilling adventure stories that are met with appreciation and wonder. I think this is why Facebook is so dominated by positivity. People know how to react to a happy story, and as a result the story becomes easier to tell. You, the listener, know how to behave and I, the teller, know what to expect. In contrast, no one knows how to react to an unhappy story. Should you feel sad? Should you say "I'm sorry"? Should you try to offer advice? Should you try to cheer the teller up? The role of the teller becomes difficult, because she cannot prepare herself for the reaction of the listener. The role of the listener becomes impossible, because an improper reaction could hurt and upset the teller. Telling unhappy stories is stressful, and it's often easier not to do it. 

It's much easier to tell you about the pumpkin pie I made with some of the students for Thanksgiving. It's much easier to tell you about the sharlotka (шарлотка) I made this week with one of my students for Christmas. It's much easier to tell you about the different foreigners I met at a Thanksgiving dinner I went to, or the Tunisians I met at French discussion club, or the guy who works at my favorite anticafe who's a musician. It's easier to tell you about how happy I was to see my dad while he was visiting, than it is to tell you that I had a breakdown while he was here, and it was really good he was around to help pull me out of my emotional hole. It's easier to tell you about the times I go out than about the times I can't get out of bed. It's easier to tell you about the professors at my university that I like working with than to tell you about how emotionally drained I feel after having fought with my university over administrative issues.

It's also much easier for you to listen to the happy things. Then you get to be happy for me, and maybe a little envious that I'm having this experience. But what if I told you that I've been feeling depressed and miserable and I don't like being in Russia? How would you react? Would you feel sorry for me? Would you try to offer me advice about how I can feel better? Would you think that I was ungrateful for the opportunity to be here in the first place? What if you offered me advice and I told you your advice was stupid and unhelpful - would you resent me? Would you not want to listen to me anymore?