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).