This week has been a unique experience and I will be sharing all the cultural events I have had the opportunity to participate in in my next blog. For now, I want to introduce all the amazing people of Irkutsk with whom I have had the opportunity to interact with. To start, this is my host mom Elena (Елена-Yelena)
Elena is loving and caring. She is always talking to me in Russian and helping me to speak. She took me around on my first days here and helped me get through all the paperwork for my registration. I call her “The Boss”. She has a degree in economics, is an amazing cook and is the coolest person I have met in Irkutsk.
Alexander (Александр or Саша – Sasha is short for Alexander) is my host dad and he is always telling me stories and describing Russia to me in ways in which I can comprehend.
Sasha owns his own business and has a great sense of humor. He is always taking me around and showing me little hidden spots throughout the city that are very interesting. He loves classic rock and we often rock out to Deep Purple and The Rolling Stones or relax to Pink Floyd while we travel around.
I got to meet Sasha and Elena’s son Eugene (Zshenya) and his wife Olya (Olga). They were both extremely compassionate and I look forward to hanging out with them during my stay here.
This family has taken me into their home and treated me as one of their own and for that I am eternally grateful.
It can sometimes be challenging for me to articulate my thoughts and express them in a language I am still learning. However, I find that when the people I am interacting with are eager to listen and want to help me speak, it becomes easier because they will help me articulate my own thoughts. Often, when we are having dinner together, they will be telling me a story, and though I may not know every word they are saying, I can usually understand through context. Also, if I do not understand what they are saying, I simply just tell them that I do not understand a certain word, or phrase, and they will take the time to either use different vocabulary to express the same meaning, or act out whatever it is they want me to grasp. Whenever I am trying to express something and I am not saying it correctly, they will take the time to figure it out for me and then repeat the sentence the way that I should say it so that I can repeat it to them. I cannot really say what I wish I knew how to say before I got here, because I wish I knew everything.
While traversing the city I knew that I was going to have to interact with people and instead of shying away or seeking out places where people spoke English, I decided to go everywhere and talk to everyone. I was expecting people to not be so inclined to put up with my inability to communicate perfectly. I was again humbled by the affinity of the Russian people. As I wandered around town, I wanted to talk to as many people as possible, and that meant I would have to challenge myself to speak (probably incorrectly) in a foreign language that is quite complicated. I approached many people and would break the ice by introducing myself and then asking them if I could take a picture with them. This was the response of the people of Irkutsk,
I was on my way to eat at the London Pub inside the hotel and I saw them sitting behind the desk. They did not look too busy, so I walked up and asked them if I could take a photo. I did not say it correctly, so they asked me if what I wanted was a photo. I said yes and motioned for them to come together. They kindly agreed and posed for a photo.
Again, I asked for a photo and they insisted on a selfie. It can be a little intimidating to walk up to random people and attempt to have a conversation but I find that as foreigner, it is easier for me to break the ice with a photograph. The nice lady in the back was too shy to be in the photo, so I made sure to stand in a position where she would be in the photo as well.
I have been asking everyone to take pictures with me. By approaching random people and talking to them, I find that they are appreciative of the fact that I try to speak their language and will correct me when I say a word or phrase incorrectly. This is extremely helpful because I usually learn best by making mistakes.
There is one person who pushes me the most to speak and speak correctly. My professor Uliyana (Ульяна).
Uliyana is an amazing instructor. She only speaks to me in Russian (even though I know she speaks English) and explains everything to me in Russian which can be difficult because I may not have any idea what we are talking about in the first place. She is constantly pushing me to speak in Russian and because of her constant encouragement I am more and more confident to ask more and more random people for pictures. Also, I am becoming more proficient at interacting with people in everyday situations like ordering food in restaurants, shopping in stores, and using the post office. She is constantly finding new ways to challenge me and I am honored to be her student. I hope that one day I can come back and have a full conversation with her.
My program coordinator Mikhail has been taking me around and showing me some interesting places as well.
He is extremely knowledgeable about the history of Irkutsk and knows all the best spots for food, shopping, museums, and local hot spots. He has also introduced me to many local Russian students. Most of them are his students and they are amazing people. I do not have pictures of all of them yet, as I have not received all the photos. I will introduce the rest once I receive all the pictures.
Jenna is another American student studying Russian here in Irkutsk. She is also from Montana and is currently studying at Yale University. Dasha is a freshman at the Linguistics University and has a big heart. She took the time to show Jenna and myself around the city and explore some unique events, which I will share later. She also introduced us to a friend of hers.
Masha was introduced to us by Dasha and hung out with us at a local pub. Masha then took Jenna and I around town to see some fireworks on the Angara river. The more I get out and meet people, the more I get to listening to Russian native speakers and practice speaking. This is very beneficial because I can ask someone I know to speak a little more slowly so that I can get a better grasp of the language. They of course, are always willing to help.
Due to all the people I have got the chance to meet, I have been going out more and talking to more people and taking more photos of them.
It is becoming easier to talk to people. I can ask simple questions, and respond to simple questions. Russians may appear like stone walls, but once you start talking to them, they brighten up and are very friendly and caring. Sometimes they can be so comfortable around a stranger that they will use you as a pillow.
It was a bumpy ride, I do not know how he stayed asleep. But I was fine with him leaning on me. During one of my random adventures, I met and had a short conversation with a Russian. The next day I got invited out to go see a free concert. I was introduced to some of her friends as well.
The people of Irkutsk have continually found ways to communicate with me and helped me to communicate with them. The more and more I continue to meet people, the less and less I am intimidated to speak with people around town. I know that my vocabulary is limited at the moment, and they know this as well, so they teach me how to use words correctly in sentences so that I can communicate for effectively. Everyone I have met has introduced me to someone else. Once that introduction is made, it is much easier to communicate with people. For example, I had met Christina’s boyfriend the previous night and he invited me to come to the bar he works at. I did not understand and missed the invitation completely. She explained this to me, and I asked her to apologize for me and that I will definitely visit him. Now I feel more comfortable going in since he knows that I will be stopping by and that I will be eager to hang out with him.
I find that in the absence of a shared language, finding a common interests usually helps with communicating. I have got to know most of these people because I would just walk up to people, introduce myself as a foreigner and that I am studying the Russian language and I would like to talk with them a little bit. I then would add that I would like to take a photo with them and it has led to meeting new friends and having a blast while learning a language. The only people I have not been able to obtain a photo with is the local police. I have asked several, however, they so far have politely refused. I will continue to seek out the few officers who are willing to pose for a photo. I will get at least one before I leave Irkutsk.
Communication is key to understanding a people, their culture and their values. The more I am around the people of Irkutsk, the more my desire to learn Russian grows. I find it to be a pleasant frustration because although I may not understand everything that is being said, I have noticed that I am picking up more and more. I’ve also noticed that I am able to get my thoughts across more effectively. What better way to learn about a culture than to dive in head first and meet the local people of Irkutsk.
See you soon!