Kristen is an alumna of the 2014 NSLI-Y Russian Summer program.
Forty-five kilometers south of St. Petersburg, the city is best known for The Great Gatchina Palace. Built-in 1766 under the guidance of Catherine the Great, it was a favorite summer home of the Romanovs. My host family and I often walked the expansive grounds, marveling at the captivating architecture, ornate statues, and serenity of the acres of unexposed beauty.
Upon arrival in Russia, Gatchina was celebrating White Nights, the celebration of the weeks surrounding the summer solstice, where, due to its proximity north, the sun never sets. Relishing the sunshine, my host mom, 11-year-old host sister, Nika, and I, often went for walks in the late evenings. As we strolled through the park, my host mom would teach me Russian vocabulary by pointing at items we encountered. One day, Nika interrupted us, eager to share her desire to visit America. She inquired about New York, “does the city really not sleep?”, and she asked me about McDonald's, “Is that what Americans eat every night?” Nika continued, she wanted to see Hollywood and go on rides at Disney World.
My host mom’s response indicated that Nika had expressed this before. She reminded her that the United States was very far away – it was too expensive to get there. Nika moaned.
Then my host mom stopped, pointed at me, and said, “Это Америка”, meaning, “that is America”.
It was that late night in June, when due to White Nights, our shadows looked infinitely long in the gravel sand of the park, that I realized what people-to-people diplomacy meant; I was the face of America.
I felt an overwhelming responsibility to represent an entire country to this little girl who would share with her friends everything I told her. What I said, and how I acted, was a representation of an entire nation.
For the rest of the summer, my host sister and I explored Northwest Russia together. She introduced me to her country, the culture, ideals, and language of a place that seemed so foreign just weeks earlier. We went to the bowling alley, swam in the Baltic Sea, and ran track. She introduced me to her friends, and we ate блины together. All the while, I was cognizant of the responsibility I had of showing the highest integrity towards my host family and community because they were learning about America from me.
One day, Nika decided she wanted peanut butter, a delicacy in Russia. After searching the entire city, we finally found it. I pulled the рублей out of my pocket to pay the cashier and handed the smallest jar of peanut butter to an elated Nika. Content with the snack, we returned home to make french fries. It was the 4th of July in America – and Nika wanted to celebrate.
Living in Russia gave me the tools to recognize similarities and better understand differences of cultures, religions, and ways of life. Learning a different language has made it easier to empathize with, appreciate, and discover various perspectives of people from around the world.
I was at my host family’s дача, or country home, when MH17 was shot down by rebel forces on the Russian Ukrainian border, Crimea had been invaded months earlier, and our NSLI-Y cohort was the final group to study in Russia with American Councils. It has been nine years since I arrived in Russia, and often I am reminded of our obligation to one another. We must remember that we are all citizens of the world, each of us worthy of safety, security, and respect.
I believe a more peaceful world will be a more successful world, and NSLI-Y taught me that language is a powerful weapon to cross cultural boundaries and be an undeniable force for change.