a big beautiful mess

Out of Deep Freeze

Today is April 17, which means that 2 years ago, I found out that I got the Fulbright. And about 8 and a half months ago, I got back to America. And I am finally feeling as though I’ve recovered from reverse culture shock enough to talk about it.

Zhenya came to visit me a few weeks ago. You remember Zhenya, the superstar shkolnik I always raved about, who was a real friend to me in Akrhangelsk, and helped me adapt and talk out some of the culture fatigue things I was dealing with. And who now is finishing up his own year abroad, as an exchange student at a high school in Minnesota.

Zhenya in Pittsburgh

We had a nice time, seeing some of Pittsburgh’s sights, and making a breakneck 48-hour trip to Washington, D.C. His visit put some things into perspective for me. We talked about his time in America the same way we used to talk about my time in Russia, walking along the Embankment in Arkhangelsk. We talked about loneliness and homesickness and religion and culture. And about the foods we missed the most.

He seemed different. A little more reserved, a little more sarcastic, a little more Internet-hungry. And about halfway through the week, it struck me how different I must seem to him. Where in Arkhangelsk I was a fish out of water, quiet and pensive, reserving judgement and laughing infrequently, here I was completely at ease, effortlessly moving through the world, finding humor in everything, worrying about the subtleties of social relationships because I had to exert virtually zero emotional energy on paying cashiers. I was confident and happy and flexible.

It was particularly odd to notice this when I spent the first few months after my return feeling a little deadened, as though everything had been dialed down dramatically– my energy, my ambition, my confidence. Russia quieted me down, froze me up a little, forced me to look and listen more than I talked or participated.

I thought that the Fulbright experience would transform my life in obvious and big ways. But it turns out that the ways are small and insinuating, creeping up on me months later, even as I fret that nothing in my life has to do with Russia anymore.

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