An eye-opening experience: The lasting impacts of the College on a language TA

I came to the College not long ago, to teach my native language, with a certain mindset, and I am leaving with a different one. How has it changed? Why has it changed?

The first, and probably most important aspect, is the perception of Russia, my home country. As a language teaching assistant (TA), I have spent an enormous amount of time with my colleagues. We are a temporary family of 13, and our baker’s dozen has spent a lot of time together over the last nine months that we have been here. That implies countless conversations about all sorts of things between people of completely different mindsets and opinions. This may sound like a recipe for many personal discoveries (or fights, but fortunately, not in our case).

For instance, the Russian, predominantly pro-Kremlin media keeps feeding its audience (which is, sadly, the majority of the population) tales about the Russian troops in Syria as purely good guys fighting the Islamic State  of Iraq and Syria. The rhetoric surrounding Russian involvement is very positive, portraying it in a favorable light. I have been exposed to the oppositional media for more than three years now, reading a newspaper that is based in Latvia because it avoids any control from Moscow. However, it never really changed the general Russian outlook on the Syrian conflict that I had in my head. Then, one day, when we – the TAs – were having dinner in Paresky, the conversation drifted into politics and someone very casually dished out, “Putin simply invaded Syria.” The sheer confidence with which it was uttered! I remember the surge of indignation firing up inside me. But instead of ardently parrying that, I swallowed my pride and the thoughts I had of me being a representative of my home country that has to defend it in such an international dialogue and took it in for an internal questioning.. This was followed by a couple of hours of Googling and reading various sources on the matter, the result of which was, indeed, becoming even more critical of Putin’s policies.

The second major thing is my attitude towards LGBTQ people. I have always stuck to the “live and let live” rule, but even such a principle could not erase a very subtle, subconscious, almost imperceptible intolerance of gay people which is, sadly, a product of living in a very conservative and deeply homophobic society. I can admit to having these notions because now they are simply gone. It feels like getting rid of those toxic feelings has opened up space inside me for things far more positive. Interacting with people of the LGBTQ community (my best friend here at the College is gay) has really changed the inherent bias that I had coming from a conservative country that still has ways to go to finally let go of all the outdated, hateful conceptions that fill the minds of millions.

Thirdly, aside from the skepticism and criticism that I have developed towards my country after being in the U.S, I have found that I appreciate Russian culture even more than before. I genuinely love my mother tongue and, despite the enjoyment that I get from knowing and speaking English, I just crave Russian. On top of that, Russian music has become a major addition to my tastes. It is not my first time living abroad, which makes me aware of the fact that it is not just a typical surge of patriotism that people develop when they leave their country for a while. Instead, it is a very sober appreciation.

Reflecting on all of this makes me think of Russia’s past. In particular, I think of December 1825, which was a precursor of the revolutions and the civil war that ravaged the country and conceived the Soviet Union a century later. It all would not have happened if some people had not gone abroad and soaked in all that it had in store for them. I realize that I definitely fit that narrative. I am just yet another Russian who lived elsewhere, had his eyes opened on many things and now wants to go back home, enjoy all the good that it has and make a difference in the bad.

Yes, an eye-opener – that is what these nine months have been for me and I am forever grateful for all the things that this experience has given me. It was certainly broader than what I have described in this text, but this leap in personal growth is what I probably value most.   

Red Bushetara is a teaching assistant in the Russian department from Moscow, Russia.