Turkey 2013/2014

Photography, Travel

I’m posting some pictures I took on my winter trip to Istanbul. I wasn’t able to capture as many street scenes/human interactions as I would have liked to, but here are some views.

Israel 2013

Photography, Travel

I won’t write much about my latest trip to Israel. It was a landmark trip for more that one reason. Against all economic and vacation-time odds and despite decade-long family tensions, I regained my voice and revisited my family and my former home of two years for the first time in more than 10 years.

Changing Host Families

Exchange year in PA, US Stays

I think I am now ready to relate a painful but defining point of my exchange student experience–switching host families during my high school exchange year. It’s been 10 years this year, so I believe the statute of limitations to stay silent out of respect for the parties involved has expired. If you were involved in the events described and would like to share your view on things, I will be happy to post it here.

As I previously wrote in this blog, I was selected to take part in a year-long high school exchange program in the US. I was supposed to stay with a family in the rural US and go to a local high school in order to learn more about the local community and, hopefully, become a part of it.

A month or two before the start of the program I was given the name and phone number of my future host mother — let’s call her Ella. She was a single 63-year-old woman living in a small town in Pennsylvania. I called Ella once before I left for the US. She was excited I was coming and told me she had told the priest at her church and that he was excited to meet me, too.

Once I arrived, Ella seemed to like me. I could overhear her calling her friends, telling them how I was “mature for her age.” She took me places and introduced me to people in the community. I started spending time with my upstairs neighbor Lauren, who became my dear friend during my time in the town. I joined the youth group at my host mother’s church and went on various trips with them.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we had been told about culture shock during our pre-departure orientation, so I did expect the “honeymoon period” to wear off. I had been told in a month or so we could start feeling homesick, getting headaches from speaking English all the time, hating the local food, etc. That didn’t happen. Instead, what happened was a series of red flags that belonged in the interpersonal relationship rather than cultural realm.

My host mother would get annoyed at certain things I said, which I thought was normal to happen between people from different backgrounds, who were just getting used to one another. Yet, sometimes her reaction would seem unwarranted to me. For instance, she would take me to a festival, and I would say something like “You can park your car here.” Ella would answer, “I know what I can and cannot do.” (While I understand the directness of using ‘can,’ one could probably have a little more patience and flexibility with an international student.) We would be walking to the church and I would say, “They need to plow the sidewalk.” Ella would answer, “You have an opinion on everything.” Other things would come up. According to the program rules, the host families were supposed to give us $1.25 a day for school lunches. Ella said that was teaching us the wrong things about the US. (This may be true for all I know, but imagine what it feels like for a 15-year-old foreign student, who can’t work legally, to be told the $1.25 is spoiling them.)

I suppose it might have been that my host mother was used to more vocal displays of gratitude and humility, and it might have been that I lacked them. She had a picture of a young girl in India, to whom she sent money, and from whom she would get thank you letters with pictures. Perhaps that was the kind of low-involvement interaction she was used to.

As I said, I see how the little things I did could be annoying, but I thought this was a normal part of the host-and-student dynamic. We were supposed to get upset at one another and figure things out. After all, they had told us at orientation that we were to be not guests, but members of the family, with all the chores and other forms of involvement in family life.

The first external warning sign came as early as October. My host mother didn’t have internet at home, so I went to the library to check my email. I received a letter from my coordinator Lea asking how bad my cat allergy was (which, to this day, is pretty bad). I put two and two together and, once I returned to Ella’s, I asked her if she wanted me to move to a different family. She avoided answering me directly but was visibly displeased that my coordinator had asked me that. My guess is that Ella wanted to negotiate my transfer with my coordinator without me being in the know.

Every now and then Ella would mention that I may be better off with a larger family who could take me places. Whether she meant it or just needed a pretext to have me transferred, I don’t know. Perhaps a little bit of both.

Fast forward to December and a few confrontations in between — by confrontations I mean nothing that an average US teenager wouldn’t do to their parents, such as ask for a ride at the last moment, so the parent damages their mirror pulling out of the driveway.  I was getting excited about Christmas and meeting my host-mother’s children and grandchildren, who she talked a lot about. As I already mentioned, we were told by our program coordinators that we were going to be part of the family, taking part in all the celebrations and what not.

One day Ella approached me and said she would like me to move out of the house for Christmas because she wanted some “private time” with her family. This was fully unexpected and ran counter to all we had been told. Looking back, I think the smart thing to do was to involve my coordinator right then, but I felt so powerless in the face of this change. So I asked the leader of the youth group if I could stay with her, and she agreed.

The whole situation was so awkward and surreal. I remember going to the drugstore where my friend Steve worked and looking at the pet adoption ads. I had been to Steve’s house only once or twice before, so his father looked surprised when I showed up at the doorstep. No one was expecting me, and I knew that, but I wanted to share with someone what I was going through. So I told Steve how I soon would be like the kittens in the adoption ads. Before I did move to my youht group leader’s house, I confronted Ella and told her, “When I come back, I’m not staying, am I?” She wouldn’t give me an answer and said she needed time to think about it. I already knew what the answer would be, and I wasn’t mad, but I just wanted her to tell me once and for all.

So, Christmas went well, if a little awkwardly, being away from the town I lived in with Ella and all my friends. I didn’t feel quite at home at my hosts’ place, so I would collect my laundry in a plastic bag. I went back to Ella’s once the week was out. She was upset I had brought my dirty laundry back. And she did tell me she couldn’t host me any more (anyone surprised?).

At that point, I called my coordinator Lea. She told me that, ideally, they would try to keep me in the area, going to the same high school, and asked if I knew of anyone who would be interested in hosting me. I started naming some people I knew. My host mother stormed into the room and told me I wouldn’t be going around begging to stay with people.

It was decided that Lea would pick me up as soon as possible and I would stay with her until she found a new family for me. She was going to try and place me with a family that had a cat to see how I did. I spent the rest of that day crying at my friend Lauren’s and her mother’s. I might have spent the night there, too; I can’t recall any more. I just didn’t want to be around this person who obviously wanted me out as soon as possible.

Lea did pick me up, and I spent the night with her. I ended up staying with the family who had the cat for the balance of the year. They had to open my locker at the high school to return the books to the library. Because my move was so minimal notice, I wasn’t even able to finish the quarter at the high school. My stay in the first town was very abruptly interrupted. I did visit Ella once or twice on subsequent visits to the town. She asked if I liked it better with the new family. I told her I was having a great time.

I will leave this story without any moral. Perhaps appearances of decency were more important to my host mother than actual decency, but, most likely, she just didn’t realize what she was getting herself into, and once she saw it wasn’t what she had hoped for, she couldn’t find a graceful way out of it.

Communicating with Americans — Speaking on Equal Terms

Exchange year in PA, US Stays
Girl on Her Phone

Image by lusi

I have had a few breakdowns in communication with my American friends and host family that could perhaps be explained by peculiarities of the American communication style. Feel free to correct me if I am overgeneralizing here.

Example one. During my year as an exchange student in Pennsylvania, I had a good friend — the daughter of my host mother’s tenant. We spent quite a lot of time together until I moved to my second host family. In any case, we naturally grew apart over the 8 years I spent away from the US.

However, once I moved back to the US, I thought we could reconnect. So I started sending my friend detailed personal emails, asking what she was up to and telling her about where I was in life and what got me there. I used email and Facebook some 3 to 5 times — no answer.

I had pretty much given up on our friendship, but then I was going to fly to Florida via Pittsburgh, the city where I knew my friend now lived. So without much hope, I skipped the personal touch and posted a very impersonal and almost rudely straightforward message on her Facebook wall (something I don’t normally do) that ran “Can I stay with you in Pittsburgh on such and such dates?”

Need I tell you I got an answer this time? My friend checked with her roommates, and I stayed with her on my way to Florida. She explained that she had not answered my messages because she was at a point in her life when she didn’t feel like she had anything to share about her life.

Another example. Not once did my second host family, who I stayed with after the move, call me after I left the US at the end of my exchange year. I was always the one calling, asking how everyone was, and hoping to come back to visit. I had witnessed their previous exchange student come and visit while I was there, so kept thinking to myself, “What am I not doing right?”

After I came back to the US for grad school, I kept calling the family and kept getting the same polite but disinterested replies. My emails with updates largely went unanswered. I would only get a Christmas card with a picture of the family that otherwise never initiated communication with me.

I suppose you know where I am going with this. The moment I wrote a “dry,” factual email to my host dad, letting him know my new mailing address and not once asking how the family was I received a much more detailed response where he even said he might visit me when in the area.

Again, I am not trying to make broad generalizations — certainly not on the basis of a less-than-statistically-significant sample. However, it may well be that these isolated examples do illustrate a real trait of intrapersonal communication in the US. You are not supposed to approach anyone as an asker. People who may want something from others make many Americans uncomfortable (and I don’t blame them!). Therefore, to be talked to, you often need to approach others as an equal, even if it means acting more “callous” or disinterested than your native culture warrants.
International readers and people who have traveled abroad, would you agree?

Being an Expatriate in Europe

Stories, Travel
Bern's Clock Tower

Clock Tower in Bern, Switzerland


As some of you may know, I spent this past summer as an intern with an international organization in Geneva, Switzerland. I had stayed abroad for extended periods of time before, either as an immigrant or as an exchange student, and thought I had a fairly accurate idea of what “living abroad” would be like. Yet my expatriate experience was quite different from my other stays abroad.

An external observer might have described me as a typical expatriate – one who is brought to a country because of their job or other similar circumstances, never bothers to learn the language, and sticks within their own expatriate circle. Let me explain. I found out I would be going to Geneva on a very short notice. I had never taken French before. I was to work in an international organization.

As a result, I ended up speaking English at work, and, while I did go out and meet people, I mostly found them through expatriate networks. Needless to say, the people were fellow expatriates who spoke English. The whole experience gave me a different perspective on expatriate communities. I had, too, been quick to judge them as self-contained and unwilling to embrace the host society.

However, my summer in Geneva shed some light on why expatriates tend to be isolated from the mainstream society. First and foremost, working in an office with 1 (one) Swiss co-worker and thirty times so many foreigners, I had very few chances of even meeting locals. In a place like Geneva, with so many foreigners working in the city, it’s natural that the expatriate scene is quite vibrant, with thriving fully-English social network websites and events.

Language is usually another big accusation directed against expatriates. Why was I not much better at French after 3 months in Switzerland? While I do commend those who manage to learn a language on their own, I must say working full-time is not really conducive for it. With many language schools closed for the summer or offering classes in the afternoon while I was at work, I found my only French resources were the two self-study books I had brought with me. Again, I do believe it is possible to learn a language on your own, but I think it’s safe to say a lot people need some sort of formal learning framework to make progress, if only to receive guidance from a language professional.

So, here I am, having been the ugly, scowled, unadjusted foreigner abroad. What I took out of my time in Europe, which was by no means lonely or miserable, is that “backstage” of expatriate living. I remember my own disapproval of some foreigners I would encounter in Russia. Perhaps you’ve experienced similar feelings? Stop and think, though, what opportunities are their for expatriates to mingle with the locals? Are there any language classes full-time workers can take?

Meeting my host family

Exchange year in PA
White house

My first house in the US

Last time, I stopped at the point where my program coordinator Lea picked me up at the airport after what seemed like an hour-long wait to me. I don’t remember who the girl that was with her was. Anyway, Lea drove me to a parking lot in some town (I’m assuming it was somewhere in the vicinity of Uniontown, PA), where my host mother Esther was to pick me up.

I am now getting into a dangerous zone where my experiences intertwine with those of other people. I’ll try my best to respect their privacy and present a balanced view of things, revealing only as much as is necessary for telling my story. In any case, dear people who were around me during my FLEX year, if I hurt your feelings in any way – let me know and I’ll edit my entries.

My host mother was a red-haired middle-aged woman. Her looks involuntary struck me as homely, but I quickly suppressed the feeling. She drove me to what was to become my home in Carmichaels, PA.

I think it was evening when we arrived. My host mother occupied the first floor of her house, the second one being rented out to tenants. The girl from the upstairs family would become my friend for the time I was in that town. I saw the white fluffy rugs on the floor, saw the big bed, a crucifix and a cabinet, but no desk in my room. I believe I went to sleep pretty soon that evening as I had not slept during my 20-hour flight.

Road map for US stay

Current affairs

As some of you may know, I’m about to leave for the US, where I’ll attend grad school. I haven’t yet gotten to describe all my adventures during my previous stays, but it’s safe to say, there are things I could have done better (as in any activity, I suppose).

Apart from the inertness and inhibitions I evinced as a teenager, I can recall a few instances where my deliberate actions, rudeness, defensiveness and the such turned people away from me. I’ll hopefully come to speak of these times later on in this blog, but right now I’d like to jot down a few ideas I think could help me “do better” at fitting into American/independent/away-from-home life this time.

  1. Think positively/ look on the bright side
    No whining about your lifestyle, family and skills. If you’re not happy with it, change it, but since you went for it, it must have looked good, so present it positively.
  2. Accept other world views/sets of priorities as legitimate.
    Even if you aren’t crazy about shopping, or athletics, or pet hamsters, for that matter, make an effort to explore why the person next to you likes them, what they mean to them. Keep your options open – that’s the way to discovering new likes.
  3. Plan ahead.
    Find out what possibilities there are and set some goals in advance. Going with the flow is the surest way of ending up with something you don’t like.
  4. Get and stay involved.
    This one is too obvious to require comments.
  5. Be sensitive/moderate in your utterances.
    Neither you nor your interlocutor know everything, so allow for their perspective while sharing the knowledge you have and they may not.

There’d be little sense to these banal-sounding commandments of mine unless I went back and checked my progress once in a while. Any other suggestions?

Flight to the States

Exchange year in PA
View from my hotel window

View from my hotel window

A planeful of exchange students

Fellow exchange students on the plane to JFK (pardon the blur)

View of Greenland (?) from the plane

A view of Greenland (?) from the plane

I was to report to the Moscow division of the American Councils before my departure to the States. All the finalists from all over Russia were sent over in big groups over 2 days.

The Councils paid for my trip to Moscow. My mother came with me to see me off. The “departure base” was in the Izmailovo Hotel. I was given a room with a roommate from my hometown, but stayed in the room my mother rented.

I can’t remember that time very clearly now, but I think we had a paperwork session, where we were given our exchange visitor forms (I forget the number). The next morning all exchange students put on identical blue FLEX T-shirts. We were to travel to JFK as a group with one adult superviser. The idea was that the T-shirt would make us more visible as exchange students and possibly facilitate immigration procedures.

The flight was about 10 hours long, but somehow I never took a nap. We were talking to fellow exchange students, listening to their stories about their future host-families (for those who had gotten in touch with theirs). At that point, I had only talked to my host mother on the telephone a couple of times. All I knew was that I was to stay in a small town in Pennsylvania with a single middle-aged woman named Esther.

I had pretty little layover time at JFK and, for some reason, I had to claim my baggage (customs regulations, maybe?). So I ended up yanking my bag off one belt only to check it right back in. I was too much in a hurry to try and find my way to the gate on my own, so I just put my ticket in the face of the first airport official I met and had them show me the way.

Then came the smaller domestic flight to Pittsburgh. I was now on my own. It was the first time I’d seen a small airplane with only 4 seats in each row and a curtain separating the cabin from the cockpit. I spent the 2-hour flight talking to my next-seat neighbor, a middle-aged woman.

Anyway, I arrived safely, but there seemed to be no one to pick me up. I had been warned that due to enhanced safety regulations, people were sometimes unable to go into the arrival area and we’d have to go to the baggage claim area to meet them. That I did, but there was still no one there. (Oh yes, I did ask airport employees, they told me the same thing about the baggage claim area). Then I went outdoors to some grim-looking concrete ramp. Same outcome. This was all in the pre-cell-phone era, but I had some emergency number. So I went to a payphone and dialled it. Nothing.

What else was there to do but to start crying. I could insert a passage on how I was only 15 at the time, but I’m not sure I’d have acted differently today, almost 8 years after the events I’m describing.

I don’t know how much time I spent in that airport wandering aimlessly. Might have been an hour or two. Might have been half an hour for all I know, but it felt much longer given the frustration I was in.

Finally, as I was riding an elevator up (as part of my aimless wandering routine), a bigger blonde lady in her late 30s going downstairs asked me if I was Maria. Yes, for God’s sake! For a moment I thought it was my host mother, whom, mind you, I had never seen. But she turned out to be Lea Walls, my local program coordinator. For some reason, they’d changed the original plan, so she was to pick me up and take me to my host mother’s. Either my flight landed ahead of schedule or she had the wrong time to begin with or she was looking in the wrong area – I never really found out the reason. I was glad to finally have met someone who was there for me, and I was now going to what I thought would be my home for the next year…

Getting ready for departure

Exchange year in PA

Once it’s been finalized that I was going to the USA, I was to attend a pre-departure orientation (PDO). It was organized by the closest hub to the city I was living in (Chelyabinsk) – the Yekaterinburg office of the American Councils.

Anyway, all the finalists and semifinalists spent 2 days at what used to be a suburban “summer camp”. I suppose, those who have been to a summer camp would say it was similar to one in terms of the agenda and schedule, but I’d never been to one, so to me, it was all one big adventure.

Looking back, I now realize it was a kind of a cross-cultural training exercise. We had some sessions on family life, academics, program policies and so on. I think, from that point on I was actually eager to go.

How I qualified for a high school exchange program

Exchange year in PA
Me in my hometown before US year

Me standing by the river in my hometown of Chelyabinsk, summer of 2002.

For whoever might care, but mostly, for me, I’m starting this series of random stories I never have the chance to reflect upon in everyday conversations.
I was a visiting high school student to the USA in 2002-2003. What got me there is what causes a lot of great things in life to happen – chance.
The background is that I had just come back from Israel where my parents had undertaken an ultimately failed attempt to move, and started going to the school I had attended before I left Russia.
So I was mostly focused on fitting back in rather than exploring new education opportunities. In any case, my school was a foreign language school, meaning that languages were taught more extensively and rigorously than in other schools.
So, one day, it was announced that “ASPRYAL” would take place. Some time later I found out ASPRYAL was a Russian acronym standing for an association of Russian teachers and was the organisation in charge of the event.
Everyone in my class decided to go to the event (which I had very little idea about), so I followed lead. It turned out to be the first round of testing for a US Dept of State exchange program called FLEX.
Since I wasn’t aware of how serious everything was, I cleared the first round, which contained a basic multiple-choice test of English, without any trouble. The second round was a more comprehensive pre-TOEFL test.

The waiting period for the results was longer this time, and I had a chance to realize this was all serious. When I found out I had passed the second round, too, I received a rather detailed application package where I had to provide substantial supporting documentation, apart from completing the forms. The time had come to decide if I was in.

Of course, I couldn’t let a change like that to slip away. Pretty much everything was covered in the program: travel, study, accommodation. Participants were even paid a small allowance for personal expenses. The goal was to let kids who demonstrated leadership potential live in a small American community for a year. (Dear Department of State! Are you sure the money was not misallocated in my case? I’d rather hope not…)

I made an incredible, but typical amount of mess-ups on my application, starting from format violations to bad handwriting. I apprehended one of them might make me ineligible. But fool’s luck it was. I made it to the finals.

Then (or was it somewhere in between?) came the interview. I had to show why I wanted to go to the US. I had inevitably been warned by my teacher not to say I wanted to hang out and buy new clothes. So I prepared this coherent speech on how I wanted to learn American culture and so forth.

Was I lying that time? Not exactly. I knew embarrassingly little about the country, so I subsequently came in with a pristine, non-stereotyped mind. What was true was the compulsive desire to talk to whoever was speaking a foreign language as their first… which, I must admit, I’ve never gotten over. (Dear friends, don’t you fret, I don’t talk to you for language practice. This obsession only works for strangers, which makes it all the more interesting).

In any case, as the word came out that I had qualified for the program and teachers at school were starting to congratulate me, I was growing more and more uneasy about going. I had striven and succeeded to establish new friendships and get involved in out-of-class activities, and having to leave all I’d achieved didn’t make me happy at that moment.

Next time, I’ll look at my pre-departure orientation and departure. Stay tuned!