When I was in high school, the only thing I ever learned from talking to people about college was that I absolutely had to study abroad because it would change my life. That wasn’t really on my mind in my first year at Oberlin when I signed up for a first-year seminar about the ecosystem of the local watershed, but when the seminar was canceled due to lack of enrollment, I was left with the other seminar I had picked, something about Depressed Russian Writers and the Meaning of Life. I figured you couldn’t go wrong with a title like that.
My professor was Tom Newlin, a jovial member of what came to be my favorite group of people at Oberlin, the Russian Department. (While he was teaching one of my classes, he was also learning Irish and taught us how to say, “the donkey is at the door.") Anyway, while learning the meaning of life, I fell in love with the absurdities of Russian literature and decided to take Russian language classes to see if I would like it even more in a language that seemed almost as bizarre as the stories and the writers themselves (who writes about throwing yourself under a train, and then dies in a train station?). Somehow this led me to a tiny village outside of Moscow on New Year’s Eve, drinking vodka and looking at family photo albums from Turkmenistan in a language I never thought I would understand.
They say you know that you have learned a language when you have a dream in that language. Sometimes I still dream in Russian, but I feel ashamed that when awake I can barely remember the endings for the instrumental case (not a problem in English). Really, my first Russian teacher was Arslan, a young man from Turkmenistan who also spoke Russian as a second language but who did so much better than I did – and lived there, to boot. If I could tell his story it would be a whole lot more interesting than my own, but I’m afraid at this point there’s no going back.
Arslan was my first love. He studied English, but in order to fall in love with him, I had to learn Russian for real, because he was always too shy to speak English with me. In a sense, it was equal playing ground, both of our second languages, but he definitely had an advantage (Turkmenistan has been part or close to a part of Russia, or the USSR, or Rus’ or whatever, at several times in history). I brought my dictionary everywhere, but sometimes I was amazed that two people could connect in a way, especially with humor, that didn’t always involve complete cognitive understanding. He was the part of “study abroad” that changed my life forever.
Sometimes I think about the time I spent in St. Petersburg, and I wonder about Arslan, and I wonder how our lives would be different without the cultural and geographic divide. There are eventually some things that happen in relationships that require complete communication, and there are some times that cultural differences are frustrating, like the way women and minorities are viewed still in that part of the world. For as much time as I spent holding back tears while going through customs, and crying in airports around the world, I am so glad I made some of the choices I did, to go to Russia, to come home from Russia, to study music, and to take that first-year seminar on the Meaning of Life.