Understanding the other side: valuable lessons about domestic politics from abroad

I’m a junior studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’ve already spent 2 months here and have less than half left to go until I return to the purple bubble. People usually perceive study abroad as a time to learn about other cultures and to polish language skills, but I found that it also serves a third, perhaps more important function. As a result of my time abroad, I have gained a new perspective on the political divide back home in the United States.

Learning Russian has been a journey full of new adventures, people and surprises. But there has been a recurring theme throughout the years, which is that Russians are more similar to us than we realize. Just like us, Russians are annoyed by professors who assign readings that are pointless. Just like us, Russians time their Instagram posts to maximize the likes. Just like us, Russian parents want the best for their children. Of course, we have our differences, especially regarding politics — Did Russia really hack the election? — political correctness and gender roles. But every culture has its differences.

As I navigate through this foreign culture, I’ve been reflecting on my subconscious prejudices against Russians. Some are benign and inane, while others are more sinister. Regardless, many of these prejudices were based upon the Hollywood trope of a Russian mafia or a super villain. I’ve been able to shatter many of these prejudices as I began spending time with everyday Russians. Tearing down that wall of bias is an important step in truly understanding another culture and its people. And quite frankly, I was personally very proud of how far the demolition of my personal wall had come. But on a national level, that wall against Russians continues to exist and is further reinforced by the us-versus-them rhetoric we so often see these days.

As I looked backed stateside, I was reminded that this us-versus-them mentality was caustic enough to tear apart the nation. Given the divisiveness of the election, I don’t think I need to convince anyone that the United States is suffering from extreme political division. The Left and Right seem to be marching in their respective directions without looking back in an effort to understand the other side.

This article isn’t political in nature. That is, I’m not writing to convince you to be liberal or be conservative. Each person has their own opinions and each should argue passionately for them. However, that argument, debate, discourse – whatever you want to call it – should be respectful. No one should hurl blanket insults at the “other side.” How do we make that happen?

I think the answer lies in my story about Russia. Prejudices and biases can only be overcome if they are tackled headfirst. If you think all Trump voters are racists and fascists, you might want to consider speaking to a Trump supporter to find out why they voted the way they did, and how their environment and circumstances affected their vote. Chances are, they had very personal reasons that justified their vote. (I had a discussion with other Americans in my program about why people back home voted for Trump and it was enlightening for me.) In the same vein, if you cannot stand those taking a knee or protesting, you might want to consider reaching out to the other side to understand why they are doing the things they do. Chances are, if you were in their shoes, you would do the same. Ultimately, the goal is to argue passionately but also compassionately. Only by understanding the other side and where they are coming from can Americans begin to bridge this political divide.

Growing up, I never thought I’d have Russian friends or even live in Russia. Alas, here I am studying Russian in Russia, writing this article on Russian WiFi while talking to my Russian friends. It’s this kind of exposure that has helped me realize that Russians aren’t so different from me. I think this principle might be useful in healing the political divide back at home. I hope that more people will reach out to the “other side” and realize that they’ve been standing on the same side.

David Han is a political science and Russian double major from Iriving, Calif. He is currently studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia.01