Foreign Correspondents: Thinking About America in Siberia

By SEAN HOWARD

Charles Smith ’20, Annie Blalock ’20.5, and Sean Howard ’20 standing on frozen Lake Baikal in Irkutsk, Russia. COURTESY PHOTO/ILYA PATOV

Alongside drinking crappy beer and “finding yourself,” it is an American college tradition to be jaded about our country. I am no exception. I am a jaded, beer-drinking American college student trying to find himself. So, when it was time to go abroad, I was ready. I did not want to hear about the shutdown. I did not want to hear about an election still two years away. I escaped to Irkutsk, a medium-sized city deep in Russia’s Siberia. 

It was the perfect to place to go. I am meeting a people that fearlessly battle frigid temperatures and possess warm personalities that blossom over a cup of tea. I am learning a beautifully complex language that has both amazed and humbled me. I recently saw the stunning, frozen expanse of Lake Baikal — a true natural wonder. But the most surprising part is how I am learning a lot about America, too. I am learning to appreciate it. This is what’s been in my head:

My car. Americans use cars for everything. Whether it be going to work, school, or Starbucks, there is almost always a car involved. In Irkutsk, public transportation reigns supreme, and it works well. Public busses and trams move tens of thousands of people everywhere around the city, every day. My personal favorite is the marshutka, which is a small van that weaves through traffic at dangerously high speeds, without seatbelts. Marshutkas during rush hour feel like Tavern parties on the first weekend of school, except everyone is completely silent. And if you want to get off, you must break the silence and yell out your stop. Awkward. But after a while, I began to miss my car. That feeling when you get to your car after a long day is irreplaceable. It is an “almost home” feeling that means “this is my metal box and I am safe inside of it.” Throw some friends into the backseat, roll down the windows and turn up the music and you have a distinctly American experience. I admittedly kinda miss my nerdy Honda CRV.

The American College experience. College in Russia is a world away. Most Russian students grow up and go to college in the same city they were born in. This brings a welcoming sense of comfort in a challenging time of life. Mom, dad, brother, sister, and the dog are not far away. Most students don’t live in dorms and go home after class instead, so the idea of college being more than just academics is almost nonexistent. For most Americans, it is the opposite. College is the capstone of our teenage angst. We get to leave high school and our hometown behind, so we can reinvent ourselves hundreds of miles away. This means our campus takes on a whole different meaning. Middlebury is more than just a school; it’s a place where we live, laugh, cry and fall in love. We celebrate life and learning together for four years and complain about to-go containers while we’re at it. A very American experience, indeed.

That quirky American spirit. It is well-known that Americans, especially young ones, are incredibly optimistic about their ability to shape their futures. Optimists say it is admirable. Pessimists say it is naive. My Russian friends don’t share the same mindset. They are very realistic and pragmatic about things. They often accept the status quo and work with it. They may not plan to change the world, but they will do what they can, given the constraints. I know I share a similar mindset. Maybe that’s why we get along. But that youthful American energy that wants to change the future is still something that I admire. And it is something I should pay more attention to. Just think about Middlebury. A dedicated commitment to tackling climate change by generations of Middkids is the reason why we are carbon neutral. It is why Middkids actively try to change their lifestyles to fight climate change. I always thought this American energy was naïve. But maybe I’ve changed my mind because it actually does deliver change.

There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated about America. And we should be. Being content with the status quo is not a part of that quirky American spirit that wants to change the world. But my time abroad has convinced me that there are many things to be thankful for. Living in a small campus community dedicated to learning both in and outside of the classroom is something you don’t see often outside of America. Blazing down the highway in a big SUV with the windows down, music up and the company of friends is a distinctly American experience. So, go study abroad and learn a new language and a completely different culture. You might learn something about America, too.