The summer after my college graduation, I traveled to Russia on an immersion program for the second time. As we rode in a small coach from the Nizhny Novgorod airport to meet our host parents, I had very little idea of what to expect. At the time, I was nearing the end of my third full year of Russian study, and I was fairly confident in my communication skills. Even so, I couldn’t help but flash back to the first few weeks of my year abroad in St. Petersburg when I let my host mother call me “Candy” instead of “Kenzy” for half a semester because I didn’t know how to correct her, or when we struggled on a nightly basis to decide when to eat dinner because I couldn’t discern the difference between “schas,” an abbreviated form of saying “now,” and “cherez chas,” meaning “in an hour.” I needn’t have worried; I carried on a nearly effortless conversation with my new host parents that lasted hours into that first evening. For the most part, we understood each other very well, with the usual minor mistakes and misunderstandings sprinkled into our interactions.
And then, about three weeks into my stay, my host father asked me a question that I had the misfortune to understand perfectly: “What kind of hydroelectric stations do you have in America?” Grammatically, it’s a very simple question; there are no verbs to trip over, and “hydroelectric” sounds almost exactly the same in English as it does in Russian. Clearly, there is nothing to be lost in translation here. And yet, I was completely stumped. After half a minute, I managed to spit out two words: “Hoover Dam?” It’s all I had. My host father on the other hand, a former military man with an impressive command of Russian geography and fascination with infrastructure, had come to this conversation prepared.
“We have lots of hydroelectric stations on the Volga--it’s a very important river, you know. There’s one not far from here, and your group will pass the one at Cheboksary on the way to Kazan next week. Do you have rivers as big as the Volga? Maybe the Mississippi, but probably nothing quite as important.”
As he spoke, I did what preliminary googling I could manage, trying to split my attention between typing in English and listening in Russian. About two minutes in, I gave up on translating the Hoover Dam Wikipedia page (even though when it comes to size, Hoover’s got nothing on Grand Coulee Dam in my native Pacific Northwest, as I now know), and I tuned back into my host father. Fighting to understand the vocabulary, I let him finish going through the reasons he thought Russian hydroelectric stations were better than American ones, which ultimately came down to national pride (because in case you didn’t know, hydroelectric power was another race that the Soviet Union ran in with the United States).
Finally, after almost ten minutes of nodding and shrugging through a mostly one-sided conversation, my host father decided he had made his point and fell silent. I sat, waiting nervously for whatever topic he would bring up next: the types of lightbulbs Americans used, or how the healthcare system worked, or what the application process to American universities looked like. You know, straightforward topics. But the next question to pass his lips was even more surprising than that.
“Kenzy--you never told us, what are your hobbies?"
The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.