[Editor’s note: Alexander Anand, our guest writer for this issue, is a National Merit Scholar and a 2012 graduate with dual bachelor’s degrees in Russian and East European studies. Anand will travel to Russia to teach English this year with the support of a Fulbright grant.]

When I stepped off the plane on that rainy first night in St. Petersburg, I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, there had been plenty of prep work while I was still in the States, but it flew out the window when faced with the enormity of what I had gotten myself into. When I had been told that the first few days in-country would be tiring, I had underestimated what was to become the most exhausting and enlightening few weeks of my life to date. The cognitive strain of trying to adapt to an alien social climate was unprecedented in my life up to that point. And … it was absolutely exhilarating.

Of course, my experiences overseas “reshaped my worldview” and “expanded my social consciousness” and all the other psychological effects of being a foreigner in someone else’s country for the first time. Even after spending so much time at OU learning about the history, literature and culture of Russia, my time there was still packed with surprises. For the first time in my life, I had to relearn people’s body language, facial mannerisms and tones of voice. Living in Russia also gave me unexpected insight into the dynamics of power and social interaction in my own country, along with a healthy dose of political skepticism.

But when I returned, I left Russia with something more. A fiancée.

I’ve never really been the sentimental type, so my thoughts on marriage when I left for St. Petersburg were not particularly favorable. I was wholly unprepared for what I was about to face. Within two months of my arrival, I was completely entranced by the charm, wit and grace of Nadia, a woman I’d never have met had I played it safe and stayed in Oklahoma. But this is just the most striking example of a wider trend I experienced: I really connected with my classmates and host family in a way I didn’t expect. Even if it took me five minutes to get out a relatively simple idea, my Russian family and friends were so patient and kind that I never felt like a stranger. Thanks to the Russian tradition of “kitchen talk,” sitting in the kitchen for hours and having thoughtful discussions on social, philosophical and even metaphysical subjects, my host family practically poured their collective knowledge and insight right into my skull.

Just talking to my host family, I got a basic play-by-play of Russian society from about the mid-sixties to the present, including loads of delightfully candid political commentary. I was offered an insider’s perspective on everything from the individual leadership qualities of Soviet leaders to the declining quality of Russian romance novels. Russia’s short list of presidents was a frequent topic of discussion, and my host mother took pride in declaring that St. Petersburg State – or, as she called it, “our university” – was the greatest producer of presidents in Russia, since 66 percent of the three presidents had been educated there.

Had I not studied abroad, my life would be very different, and not for the better. Thanks to my two semesters abroad, I am now going on a Fulbright grant to teach English at a Bashkir school for talented students. I’ll be getting married in the fall, and I have uncovered a connection to the rest of the world I would scarcely have believed existed four years ago.


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