Notes from the Field

I thought instead of a blog – which I am obviously not very good at keeping up – I would post a couple “random notes from the field.”

On language:

I’m conquering Russian like anyone conquers anything: one word at a time. One Одно. Word Слово. At В. A Time То Время. Every word I learn unlocks another door, opens another window into communicating with the people I came to serve. Every new word I recognize and speak is a small victory, a cause for celebration. Way too often it’s overwhelming to think of fluency, of teaching in Russian, of understanding 100% of everything going on around me…but it’s not overwhelming to memorize the word for apple (яблоко) or cup (чашка) or cat (кошка). I can do that. Anyone could do that.

On relationships:

A few weeks ago I decided any time I get a chance to be with Russians I’m going to take it. As a matter of fact it’s up to me to make those times happen. I didn’t come here to be comfortable and stay in my own Americanized bubble and venture out now and again. I don’t subscribe to missionary compound mentality. But until you’re on the field you don’t realize how easily it can happen to you…I am dedicated to staying vigilant to my assignment of being light and salt here in Russia and that means pushing myself to make relationships my top priority.

On culture clashes:

Ask any EXPAT (ex-patriot) about their experience living overseas and you’ll hear hundreds of stories of culture clashes. What actually happens is that no matter how prepared you are that things will be different, the differences inevitably show up where you did not expect them. That’s why they are “clashes.” My beliefs and views of the world come up against yours and we find out they are vastly different. But the clash is good, it’s really healthy and vital, that’s what we need to understand. Because when we examine our beliefs and views of the world and where they came from, we understand their source. And we discover we have the power to change them if we want to. Or we find they are too precious to who we are to ever change. No matter what, we are better off for having them challenged.

In the Russian Zoo

I have nothing to say about Russian zoos: I’ve never been to one. What I want to talk about is the meaning of being foreign, and how it feels to be gawked at, stared at, talked about in whispers…it might be a bit of a stretch, but yes, maybe a little like an animal displayed in a zoo.

In America, the great melting pot, a foreigner is as common as someone born and bred in our nation. A Muslim with her head covered standing next to a Korean talking to a Mexican is an everyday occurrence. Hearing Spanish at the grocery store or the post office doesn’t even make a person blink. But here in Russia, things are much different. With the exception of Moscow and St. Petersburg, a foreigner is definitely not part of the common scene. Foreigners still elicit much interest and speculation, especially when they find out you are an American. And as you can guess, this definitely has its pros and cons.

Like I spoke about last week with language, this can really separate the short termers from the long termers. On a short term trip it’s pretty fun to be foreign. It’s delightful to be considered different, even “exotic.” As a matter of fact most short termers use their foreignness to their advantage, beginning conversations with common people who wouldn’t give you the time of day if you weren’t a visitor to their land. It works quite well and God uses those advantages. But the fun does wear off after a while, I have to admit. Just ask Connor, who refuses to go to the playground if there’s a bunch of little kids because, as he says, “They just stare at us and talk about us Mom!” Yes, indeed, they certainly do. If I had a ruble for every time people heard English coming from my mouth and stopped what they were doing to look at me…well, ok, I wouldn’t be rich, because a ruble isn’t worth much, but I’d have a pretty big stack of them all the same!

In spite of the discomfort that it creates to always be “different,” there are some huge advantages as well. The biggest pro is the same open door given to the short termer, the ability to converse with people just because you are interesting to them. My family has had many, many conversations with Russians who were completely closed off to other Russians but warmed up to us just because of the deep native Russian curiosity of anything foreign. And when they discover I can speak Russian, the questions don’t stop! “Where are you from? America!? What city? Is the weather the same? Why are you here? How did you learn Russian?” etc., etc. The opportunities are there, day after day, to show people the love of Christ simply through being different. I can’t say I always do a great job of using every one of those opportunities, but the times are do are deeply rewarding.

The truth is being in the “Russian zoo” is never going to change, because even if I spoke perfect Russian and wore the requisite high heels (i.e, appearing like a Russian woman), I would soon be found out. My foreignness isn’t something I can change, nor should I try. What I have discovered over the last year is to focus on the advantages the position naturally brings. God has sent us to a land full of beautiful people, naturally curious, incredibly hospitable, and the opportunities are part of the package. My prayer is that I have the eyes of Christ to see them. “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity…”(Colossians 4:5).

Conjugatin’ Verbs for Jesus

It’s easy to guess what the most obvious barrier is for most missionaries: language, language, and once again, language!

Of course, it’s wonderful to marvel at those “gifted” people who pick up languages like it just falls out of heaven like manna (“Last year I just picked up Greek on my 2 week trip to Athens!” “Really?! In two weeks?” Ugh. Let me resist the urge to stick out my tongue at you.) Or those real, bonafide miracles of God granting language ability to people, like the Russian I met last year who told me she went to sleep one night and woke up speaking English. (It’s true, her English was perfect, and she never studied a day in her life! Let me resist the urge to shout “It’s not fair!”)

But then there is the rest of us, the like 98.9% of us, who must endure the pain, frustration, and helplessness of feeling like we are 18 month old children again, trying to point and grunt and gesture and put together two or three words together that make some kind of sense. For us, language has become the overwhelming hurdle of our everyday lives. You can’t do much without communicating in words, and when that freedom to communicate is taken away, it becomes a true test of the lengths you will go to in order to gain it back again.

And this, my friends, you simply cannot experience on a short-term trip, or hanging out with your Hispanic or Chinese friends learning how to say “hello”, or in a carefully controlled language classroom. No offense, but this lovely test is reserved for the long termers, those that have chosen to stay and battle the barrier over the long haul.  The ones who can’t go home, where everything makes sense, because the land with the crazy language is home.

And no matter how great Google Translate has made our lives, nothing is going to replace the power of the language of the people coming from our own lips. I want to be able to look someone in the eyes and say in Russian exactly what I want to say, without hesitation. I want to pray for them without a translator, because translation in prayer feels stilted and disjointed to me. I want to bless people with my words, like I could in America. And in order to do that, it takes one thing: work. A whole, whole lot of freakin’ work (excuse my French).

Yes, dedication to work, with tenacity and a big dose of patience. When people ask me how much Russian I know, I often quip, “Just enough to get me in trouble.” And it’s so true, I constantly begin conversations that I can barely finish because I just get to a place where I’m going, “Oh Lord, I have no idea what I’m saying or that other person is saying! Help!” Of course, I make it through with my two year old vocabulary, but still, the need to work much harder at communication is obvious. And it means I am going to have to lay down my time, effort and energy on the altar so God can give me what I say I want. (Um, that’s kinda deep. Goes beyond learning language…chew on that awhile with me…)

Can conjugating verbs really serve Jesus? Is memorizing the 6 cases for nouns and adjectives in Russian on par with prayer and fasting? Can I really convince myself that the most spiritual thing I can do today is to study synonyms? I don’t know exactly how He views it, but what I do know is Jesus gave up everything he had to communicate with me in my vernacular, and to do so for others can only be considered an act of love. “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you…”