Post Program Reflections

1. Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience.

Perhaps most importantly I realized while abroad how many gaps in my language skills there were. My expectation had been that at the very least I would be able to function in day to day life in Moscow. Upon arriving, I all at once realized how very little I knew, especially with day to day tasks like ordering a coffee. However, it helped me realize very quickly what I needed to focus on while studying Russian which I would not have figured out in the States. Additionally, I discovered that the Russian I had been learning in class was very different from spoken Russian. I picked up on nuances and how Russians thought by the phrases I kept hearing over and over. For example, when I understood something, I wouldn’t say “I understand” but rather “[This is] understood”. Over the summer, I acquired a bunch of stock phrases; some of which I am still not certain how they’re spelled but I know how to pronounce and use. At the beginning of the summer, my goals were rather nebulous but my progress is certainly what I wanted it to be.

2. Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

Although my bank account is now almost empty, I am very glad I went to Russia. Even though it was only a short amount of time, I made sure to experience as much as I could. At times Moscow seemed like such a foreign, fairy tale-esque place and at other times it seemed as familiar to me as my own hometown. The most important insight I gained was simply how to exist so outside of my comfort zone and away from a support system. It’s something one can never really prepare himself or herself for and it’s something I would recommend anyone planning on studying abroad to fully embrace. Something I didn’t expect to learn was to appreciate how difficult it is to learn a new language as an adult. It helped me appreciate even more the struggles my parents have gone through as immigrants. Not being able to communicate can be so frustrating and isolating at times but also allows room for creativity. In addition to fully embracing the foreignness, I would also recommend anyone planning to study abroad to stay away from English speakers. It can be really easy and comforting to only spend time around English speakers, but one will lose the mentality of the other language and waste the time of being abroad. Furthermore, as far as language acquisition is concerned, one will pick up more language walking around and being surrounded by the language than locked up in a room, studying from books. One can do that back home; but the constant environment isn’t so easily replicated.

3. How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future?

As soon as my Advanced Russian class started this semester, I was so grateful that I had spent the summer in Russia. I would never have developed the listening comprehension to feel comfortable with the fluid Russian. Even having only been in the States for a few short weeks, I can already feel the Russian slipping away (although I still sometimes accidentally thank people in Russian) but I make sure to keep up with my Russian friends and Skype them on occasion. As I get more settled into a regular schedule, I plan to incorporate more movies and music in Russian into my daily life to at the very least to try and recreate the background Russian I was so used to in Moscow. I look forward to someday returning to Moscow (preferably sooner than later) and incorporating the language in a professional sense, whether that be when treating patients or in the international research community.

Little Victories

As my flight back home comes closer and closer, the more reluctant I am to leave. I knew the summer would feel short, but I didn’t realize how much I would feel at home in Russia. While my Russian still has a long way to go, there are a few events that have proven to me that I have improved despite still feeling utterly incompetent.

  • Being able to order a meal. It’s not just about the language skills, although this is an important part. There’s a very different set of rules in Russian cafes and restaurants than in America. Waiters and waitresses are to be addressed as “young man” or “girl” which I’m still not entirely comfortable with. There are five or six different ways of ordering, depending on the impression one wants to give. Additionally, one rarely has to pick up one’s tray, even in a fast food place. The system of etiquette goes on and on, and I’m happy to say I can navigate it without too much trouble. I think back to the first meal I ordered and what a mess that was and am astounded at the ease with which I can do it now.
  • Successfully giving directions. Learning a new city is hard enough without the added difficulty of not being able to speak the language. I tried to visit some place new every single day, to facilitate my learning the city and to see as much of Moscow as possible. During my first week in Moscow, a woman asked me for directions. Not only did it take me a while to understand what she wanted, but I also had to explain it was my first time in that particular Metro station. I frequently get asked for directions, but by this point I not only know where the place is located but have developed the language skills to explain how to get there. I always get a surprised look from the Russian when they first hear my accent (Oh no, I’ve asked a foreigner; they won’t know) but in the end, they understand me and know where to go. It’s something I never thought possible so soon.
  • Getting my bag repaired. Moscow can be pretty hard on clothes, shoes, and bags. I’ve lost a pair of shoes, an umbrella, and various other things to this city. At one point, one of the straps of my bag ripped off. Fortunately, one of my professors was able to recommend a repair shop not too far from the university. I was successfully able to discuss the repair and price with the repairsman, all in Russian, without any outside help. It was one of the first things I did independently, and I was so satisfied to get it done without too much difficulty.
  • Holding conversations with Russians without disrupting the flow too much. I can really only do this for two or so hours at a time until my Russian starts to really degrade. All the members in my group had ‘tutors’, who were Russians who were interested in culture exchange and were willing to show us the city, have conversations with us, etc. I used my tutor primarily as a conversation partner. We would walk around a park and chat about our lives and studies. The last time I met with her, we talked for a little more than two hours and I didn’t once not understand her or have to stop to look something in a dictionary. This more than anything really shows me how far I’ve come.

Although my time in Moscow has come to an end, I intend to keep practicing regularly and someday return to Russia. I’ve seen sights I’ve only ever read about, traveled outside of Moscow, and now have an idea of what Russia is really like. It’s not the foreign place it was not so long ago. I can’t imagine not ever coming back.

Tea on the train from St. Petersburg

Tea on the train from St. Petersburg

Finally becoming a Russian grandmother.

Finally becoming a Russian grandmother.


Tours week 6: learning french cuisine

My host family has finally let out her frustration about american cuisine. At the dinner table one night, she suddenly laid down her fork and knife, cocked her head to one side and inquired, “do you really just eat burgers and fast-cooked meat in the States?” It was such a silly question that my roommate from Michigan and I was too surprised to answer right away. But given our stay here we have experienced first-hand how the French cure, smoke, bake and cook their meat, and to be honest, the “American way” just cannot compare. In our household, the simplest steak is first soaked in spices or sauce then sautéed in melted butter. To add to that we were sporadically served French Terraines or slow cooked roast, and for dessert souffles and home-made gelatos. The unhurried way the French make their food, every dip and taste, sauté and frappé is thoughtful and measured. My Madame showed me her recipes—each christmas she collects ideas and traditional recipes from her family all across France and publishes a little booklet of recipes, which she distributes to each family member. It has become a little tradition within the family, she explained as she waved her hand theatrically over a little pile of twenty or so booklets.

One evening, I decided to join Madame in the routine dinner preparation, after all, what better way is there to learn conventional french? When Madame heard that I would like to learn gastronomy, she was both thrilled and flabbergasted. After a short while we decided to try a pistachio chicken french terrain. The process was surprisingly complicated; we pureed three different concentrations of cream fraiche and chicken, smashed the pistachios, and boiled the sauce. Then we assembled the layers in a traditional terrain pot and laid it in the oven. The whole procedure took about 3 hours and by then end our hands were clay and our foreheads were beaded with sweat. About an hour later, my first terrain was ready! Once turned over, it held its shape well and had four different colors and layers. But what was most exhausting was communicating in french, especially when learning techniques, I had to combine the movements gestures and words to slowly understand what I’m supposed to do. But in the end it all turned out a huge success—both the food and my gain in vocabulary!


Moscow has countless parks from small neighborhood parks to former palace grounds. Tsaritsyno is one of the former palace grounds. The palace was built for Catherine the Great but ultimately she was unsatisfied with the results. Today, it’s a sprawling park with several small museums and a large forest park.

One of my Russian professors had recommended Tsaritsyno as part of a list of places to see in Moscow that only Russians usually see. I wandered through the park’s entrance and immediately was handed a bottle of free grapefruit juice. For some reason, there was a line of workers handing out bottles of grapefruit juice. When I left four hours later, they were still handing them out with no sign of stopping.

After walking past the first square, the first thing I saw was a large fountain with alternating bursts of water. I sat there and people watched for a while. I witnessed a wedding party taking photos at the fountain while I fed some pigeons. By the end of the day, I would see some thirty different wedding parties. This only attests to the park’s beauty. Eventually, I got up to continue my wandering. I decided to see only the grounds and not buy tickets to see the inside of the palaces since the insides were deserted. I doubted there was anything particularly interesting if no one was in there.

The next three hours were a blur of wandering around forests and palace grounds, coming across the strangest and most wonderful things. There was a chess tournament set up but few people playing; however a giant chess set was located in the middle of a meadow with a game in full swing. In the nearby forest, I came across statues of Greek gods and lampposts randomly scattered about. There was even a ruin crumbling away on a hill.

My favorite was an arch with Greek inspired designs and Sphinx statues in front. There wasn’t really a purpose to this open air hallway. It was just kind of there. I couldn’t find a single sign to identify it. It took me a while to find my way out of the forest, and I never did find the end of the forest. Part of the park’s allure is the fact that all the buildings match- they’re all the same coral colored stone with white trimmings.

To end my day, I got a late lunch at a little cafe on the palace grounds. It served traditional Russian foods and had an open air patio. So much of the time, I’m constantly running around Moscow, trying to see as much as I can since time is short, and often I’m with a group as well. It was nice to take a relaxing day by myself to explore on my own.

Chateau (Sha-Tow) Villandry field trip

After a month of hesitation, I’ve finally signed up for a château (castle) tour offered at the Institute de Touraine—and I’ll never regret that I did! Tours is a village that embraces the Loire valley, the only natural river that flows from the sea straight through the heart of France. Probably because I walk past the river every day, I have grown used to its roaring body of water, but if you zoom out on a map until tours is merely a point on the line that resembles the river, you’ll see that old, amazing castles dots the river all along the way. These castles date all the way back to the middle ages and they look as if they popped out of a fairytale book.

A profile of me in front of Chateau Villandry in Tours, France.

A profile of me in front of Chateau Villandry in Tours, France.

Castles are a great part of the culture at Tours—it is what draws tourists from all across France and from all the world. A bike tour following the river is rated one of the best family vacation ideas since the Loire du Velo project, which built safe and well-guided biking trails along connecting all the castles, was launched.

The one that I went to this week is Chateau Villandry, which is well-know for its magnificent gardens. It is rumored that the botanist who designed the gardens of Villandry was ordered by the french King to plant herbs and flowers in the great gardens of Versaille. We arrived at the south side of the castle, which faced the river. This side was made to resist attack from other dukes and foreign power; all of its towers facing the outside were well-rounded (so projectiles will physically scrape the walls but won’t accumulate much damaged). To add to the defense look, there was an actual drawbridge complete with chains and old-fashioned turning wheels. Yet once you cross the bridge to enter the tunnel, come out into the courtyard and look back, the castle looks like one taken from the film-production of sleeping beauty. All the windows are large with decorations and some with terraces. What’s really amazing is the gardens, which had intricate designs, from a walkway sheltered with vines to fountains in a field of lavender. I was more then relieved that I could understand everything the tour guide was saying in French; I felt that my french has improved and my vocabulary grew immensely.

You Can See Finland From Here

Not too long ago, I visited St. Petersburg with some other students from my group. We were on our own with no resident director to guide us (although two of the students became quasi-resident directors). On the second day, we visited Peterhof, Peter the Great’s palace in the Gulf of Finland. Initial construction of Peterhof began in 1714 and finally ended in 1723. While there are many methods of arriving to this island, we took the hydrofoil across the water, allowing us to see a waterfront view of St. Petersburg and some other boats in the gulf. Supposedly, on a clear day you can see Finland from the pier. The path from the pier to the main palace follows the Marine Canal, which allowed the tsars to sail right up to their palace.

Marine Canal

Marine Canal

Directly in front of the palace is the Grand Cascade and the Samson Fountain.

Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain

Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain

It’s a stunning sight, but it’s hard to get a good photo because of the large number of tourists. People crowded the slippery steps, everyone waving around their phone, professional camera, or even selfie sticks. I have seen more selfie sticks on that three day trip to St. Petersburg than all of my combined years in America. As I walked up the steps, there were two little boys climbing the banister as opposed to the actual steps with their grandmother scolding them, telling them to be careful. I even saw a few wedding parties taking photos here and there.
While one can pay extra to visit the inside of the palace and the grotto, I only had three hours to explore the entire island, so I chose to wander around the grounds that hid fountains, statues, and mini-museums. The rest of the grounds were significantly less crowded than the palace and as I walked among the perfectly manicured lawns and gardens, I could almost imagine the tsars and their family and guests wandering around the grounds, just around the corner or on the other side of the trees. Two of my favorite spots were a little house-museum and another cascade fountain. The little house-museum stood at the end of a perfectly square pond with ducks and ducklings swimming in it. Tourists relaxed on benches around the pond, with the best spots being under the trees. Despite the colder weather, the sun was still fierce. The cascade fountain was a good distance from the palace and had marble statues at regular intervals up the cascade. It was flanked by two large jets of water, at least two dozen feet into the air.

On the way back to the pier, I rested on the beach and simply watched the waves. The water was too cold and probably too unclean to swim, so people simply sunbathed on the sand or the rocks. In Moscow, I try as much as I can to blend in and not look like a tourist or a foreigner. Sometimes this works too well when people come up to ask me for directions and I have to admit that I am as lost as they are. But in St. Petersburg, I allowed myself to be a tourist and simply enjoy the sights.


A Weekend with Tolstoy

Purely by chance, I ended up having three Tolstoy related excursions in a single weekend.
On Thursday, my group went to go see a ‘drama-lecture’ of Anna Karenina with Nabokov’s commentary. We first had a back stage tour at the theater “U Nikitskih Vorot” (transliteration is hard), which was this small, very avant-garde theater. Our tour guide, the son of one of the set creators, told us the theater was only non-professionals. We asked him how long the show was (we had a very early morning the next day), and he told us it was about 3 hours long. I had very low expectations for how much I would like the show, but it turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. It was essentially the entire story of Anna Karenina but with Nabokov acting as narrator, commenter, and occasionally comedian. He really helped move the plot along; for example, I only started getting sleepy when he stopped commenting as much early on in the second half. Although I could only follow the dialogue half of the time, the actions of the actors helped me fully understand the storyline. True to the avant-garde nature of the theater, the music included everything from African tribal music to Tchaikovsky, and some of the scenes were rather abstract.
The following morning, we all met at a Metro station in one of the most southern districts of Moscow at 7:30. From there, we took a two hour, non air conditioned bus drive to Tyla, the town closest to Tolstoy’s estate, where he spent his final days and where he wrote Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s estate is officially called Yasnaya Polyana, and the rooms are much like how they were when Tolstoy lived there. It’s a beautiful estate, with sprawling gardens, orchards, and buildings for the serfs who lived there. There’s even a school that Tolstoy opened, now a literary museum. It was wonderful to breathe the fresh air after so much time of breathing Moscow’s city air and walk without hearing the sounds of passing cars. While there, I had to be careful to not accidentally become part of a wedding party’s photos. Even so, I think American students showed up in the background of several photos. If one walks down a long path, deep into the forest, one can come across Tolstoy’s grave. It’s a simple grass covered mound, with no headstone or fanfare. On our return, we stopped at Тульский пряник, Tyla’s famous gingerbread store and factory. I bought some for my family back in the States because according to my one of my Russian professors, they keep for a year.



The following Saturday evening, I traveled to the first professional ballet I would ever see. In Moscow, of all places. It was Anna Karenina, at the Moscow Academic Musical Theater. According to my resident director, it has an even better troupe in the summertime than the one that takes over the Bolshoi theater’s stage in the summer. I had a great seat, second balcony, first row, from where I had a commanding view of the stage and also of the pit, where I could observe the musicians. The ballet itself was everything I had hoped for and more. The dancers didn’t miss a beat, I couldn’t find a flaw with the orchestra’s playing, and the ballet included sets with lots of dancers and overwhelming color but also simple duets. At one point in the second half, the orchestra started playing a piece I was shocked to recognize from my study play list. While I grappled with organic chemistry, I never imagined myself hearing the same piece at a ballet in Moscow.

Московский Академический Музыкальный Театр Им. К.С. Станиславского и Вл. И. Немировича-Данченко

Московский Академический Музыкальный Театр Им. К.С. Станиславского и Вл. И. Немировича-Данченко

What my Russian Grandmother Taught Me

I chose to live with a host family during my stay in Moscow and upon my arrival, still had no idea about the composition of my host family, their interests, language skills, etc. Olga Dmitreevna, my host mother, doesn’t speak any other languages besides Russian, and I speak only poor Russian so it’s been a fun game of learning how to communicate. While the first night was frustrating, by this point we’ve figured out how to talk to one another and how to hold conversations. After a few weeks of living with her, Olga Dmitreevna has taught me a few life lessons:

  • “No Exit” or “No Entry” in the Metro stations isn’t always true

When I first arrived in Russia, I was careful to observe all laws and social etiquette. It’s painfully easy for Russians to spot foreigners, and sometimes attention can bring trouble. Almost every day, I have to take the Metro to my university. At the station closest to my university, Белорусская, I have to leave the station, cross the street, go up a flight of stairs, and then walk down the street to my university. On my first day of classes, my host mother went with me so I didn’t get lost on Metro. As I prepared myself to go through the annoying paces to get on the right side of the street, I watched as my host mother, blatantly ignoring the two feet tall sign indicating “No Entry”, walked through the entrance and took a much easier path to my university. No one attempted to stop her and as I watched, a few more people did the same thing. Since then, I’ve always followed Russians’ lead on how to navigate street and Metro signs.

  • Sour cream goes with everything.

Blini. Soup. Salad. Potatoes. Pelmeni. Bread. Cabbage. Everything. I’ve only ever used sour cream as a way to cool down spicy food, and I’m pretty sure I’ve had more sour cream in the past couple of weeks than the past five years. After I arrived in Russia, I first started putting sour cream in my food because I decided “When in Rome…” but now I’ve learned to enjoy it. As to whether that will stay true once I return to the States, I’m not entirely sure.

  • Tea is not a drink but an occasion.

Since moving in with my host mother, a cup of tea has never taken me less than thirty minutes. I’ll have a cup of tea with every meal (even on days when the temperature reaches 40 C) and sometimes another cup if I come home earlier than usual. I love to drink tea but before coming to Russia, it was always a solitary, unwinding kind of drink. With my host mother, tea is a sociable drink for sharing with others. At first it was difficult with the language barrier but as my Russian improved, so did the quality of the conversations. Even so, I’m still terrible at small talk.

  • Patience is worth it.

As mentioned before, I speak very poor Russian, and my host mother speaks only Russian. I consider her a saint because she makes an effort to have conversations with me and not only over necessary things like food and laundry situations. The first couple of days it was like pulling teeth. It wasn’t fun, there was a lot of repetition and charades, and sometimes we just gave up. Even now, after particularly difficult days of classes when my Russian has gone down the drain, she still makes an effort to ask about my day or family or how I how liked whatever museum or park I had gone to that day. Sometimes I have to break out the dictionary. Sometimes I stop declining my nouns. Sometimes I understand but have no idea how to respond. Despite all of this, she still stubbornly makes an effort, and that has made all the difference in the world.

Tours Week 4

Like always, my week was filled with events and was even more busier than before. This week, a couple of festivities have drawn all sorts of people from their homes, and never before have I seen Tours so crowded. First, on Tuesday there was the Music Festival of Tours which attracted visitors from all over France. Each plaza and park was packed with people and temporary stages were built to host various musicians over the course of the day. Each and every type of music could be heard; in fact, one every other ten feet. A walk in the park at the center of Tours made me feel like I just walked into Georges-Pierre Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.  During the evening after dinner, we went to Place Plumereau (the iconic plaza surrounded by old European style buildings) to enjoy the tip of the iceberg, and we were awarded with delicious treats and wonderful music.

Also during the week is the national bi-annual sale, and the central pedestrian road, Rue Nationale, was packed from start to end with people hoping to land a deal. I loved shopping in the grand shopping malls and little shops, but I loved to walk around the markets even more. There, one can find flowers and second-hand jewelry, fresh pastries and fruits, and what’s more, one can sharpen french oral and bargaining skills. All of the sellers love to chat with you, and each one is eager to hear about stories from United States and my hometown, Beijing.

On the weekend, my host family took me to a charity club meeting, of which my Madame was the president. We cooked finger foods in preparation for the event and then drove to the reception close to the castle Villandry. The meeting composed of a casual pot-luck dinner and a handicap representative who gave a speech thanking the board for their efforts throughout the year. Even though they were reluctant to speak in English, all were very nice and tried to explain to me what was going on. During the dinner, I found myself talking members of the charity on issues such as handicap facilities in the USA, the presidential election, and the EU referendum—all in French!

Underground Palaces

Before coming to Russia, I could count on one hand the number of times I had been on a Metro. Upon arriving in Moscow, I learned I would be primarily using the Metro to get around. I was in a panic! I could barely speak the language and had no idea how to use public transportation. I also didn’t have good memories of the Metro systems in the States. I remembered dark, dirty, crowded places where no one wanted to linger long. After almost two weeks in Moscow and countless trips on the Metro, I can confidently say the Moscow Metro system is one of the most user friendly systems I have ever encountered.
The first station I ever entered was Белорусская. It was like being in a museum or an art gallery. The station was well lit, the walls and floors were well designed and beautiful to look at, and it was so clean despite the large numbers of people passing through. I pass through it nearly every day, and the wall decorations and mosaics still catch my interest. However, the most stunning station I have seen so far is Киевская. It is one of the most frequently used stations and has light fixtures resembling chandeliers, paintings on the walls of the platforms, and statues.

Киевская станция

Киевская станция

Not all stations are as opulent as Киевская, especially as one gets further away from the center, but all the stations are clean and safe. My favorite station is Боробъёвы горы or ‘Sparrow Hills’. It’s close to my home station and is one of the few stations above ground. The station itself offers a beautiful view of the Moscow river and the local park is large and perfect to гулять. It’s also close to МГУ, the most famous Russian university, and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Боробъёвы горы

Боробъёвы горы станция

View from inside station

View from inside station

More importantly, the system itself is easy to navigate.


The efficient beauty of the Moscow Metro System

The different lines are color coded so while I may not have the actual names of the lines memorized, I can always refer to the ‘dark blue line’ or the ‘red line’. If I accidentally got on the wrong train or pass my station, it’s a simple matter of getting off at the next station, crossing the platform, and boarding the opposite train back. The trains pass by pretty regularly (I haven’t had to wait more than three minutes for my train) and the stations are rarely closed or under construction.

The Metro also has unspoken rules that all Russians follow (and make it really easy for foreigners to stick out). If you’re not walking down the escalator, stick to the right side. If you’re walking down the escalator, walk down the left side. Always give up your seat to old бабушки or women with children (thus, all the men tend to rarely get a seat). Get where you’re going and don’t just stand in the middle of the Metro talking. On the Metro itself, don’t speak above what’s necessary for your friend beside you to hear. It’s a beautifully efficient system, and that I feel quite fortunate to experience. My resident director told my group at the orientation that the Moscow Metro system is the best in the world, and after experiencing it firsthand, I am inclined to agree.