15 April 2008

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship: Better Than a Ouija Board?

Fun fact: I looked up how to spell "Ouija" and learned that it's from French oui and German ja. I'll never forget how to spell it again. Ah, the power of etymology!

Two years ago, I was drifting aimlessly.

Ok, you're free to laugh. I realize it's hard to argue that you're drifting aimlessly when you're about to get a B.A. from Yale. What I mean is that I could see several different futures ahead of me, but somehow none of them seemed particularly desirable. I didn't feel like graduating and didn't feel like making any decisions about the course my life was going to take. I hadn't heard about getting the Fulbright yet, and I intended, if I got it, to turn it down. Nothing seemed like a better idea than wasting a couple of years in a non-threatening environment like a linguistics laboratory (not Russia, which is about as threatening an environment as is appropriate for a recent college graduate to venture into alone) while I figured out what I wanted to really do; but on the other hand, even that didn't seem like a terrific idea. I was totally stuck in the doldrums.

Enter Fulbright. Standing in the Yale post office, opening that thin envelope and seeing the word "congratulate" in the first line of the letter felt a bit like being unexpectedly shoved off a cliff and finding out you can fly: a lurch of disbelief, terror, and then a sudden exhilaration. At the disbelief and terror, I burst into tears. The exhilaration didn't do much to fix that, though I managed to calm down enough for my seminar ten minutes later that as long as I didn't open my mouth, I wouldn't start crying again. That may seem like overkill, but it really was a huge shock for me – Russia was not something I felt ready for, emotionally, linguistically or otherwise. But as soon as I opened that letter, I knew that my fate was sealed. There was no possible way to say anything but yes.

(That, despite the fact that I had spent months imagining how I'd coolly turn down the offer, convincing myself that there were no good reasons to go to Russia and a wealth of good reasons to play it safe and stay home. I'm good at fooling myself.)

So, two years passed, of which sixteen and a half months have been spent in Russia. It's now April 15th, which is the deadline for graduate school decisions. Reflecting on that while brushing my teeth this morning, it occurred to me that of our little cadre of English Teaching Assistants that arrived in Moscow two Julys ago:

A1 is about to get her MA in Russian and East European Studies from Stanford.
A2 stayed for a second year, and now it's looking like she might be in Russia next year, too. (She has an interview today, so send good interview vibes in the general direction of Moscow!)
J1 is starting an MA program in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Washington in the fall.
J2 is about to get his MA in Russian translation from Columbia.
J3 is MIA (the only one we've lost touch with).
S stayed for a second year, and is starting a PhD program in Russian history at Toronto in the fall.

And me? I'll be starting an MA program in Russian and East European Studies in the fall, at Georgetown University.

Granted, not all of my fellow ETAs were as Russia-ambivalent as I was, but nonetheless... I feel like you can go to France or Germany or Spain for a year or two to teach English and then move back home and get on with your life. Russia, on the other hand, doesn't seem willing to let you do that. The needle of fate swings and quivers, and then points east, back toward the Kremlin spires, the Volga, the steppe and the Urals and the Siberian taiga beyond, across Baikal and down the winding Amur to the oil rigs off Sakhalin and the smoking volcanoes of Kamchatka beyond. All in a direction you never saw yourself going.


Katie said...

Yep, going to need your help...

Lisa said...

Congrats on the decision! It looks like I'll be trying to visit D.C. a bit next year (Alissa has informed me that once she moves there, we'll be in a "long-distance relationship" and I should behave accordingly), so added bonus that I'll get to see you, too!!

And I hope this means we'll have an excuse to take an E.Europe trip together sometime!

Talk to you soon! *hugs*


Celine said...

I'm so glad that apparantly you are not good enough at fooling yourself to actually have stayed in the States, I'd never have met you! So here's to common sense and great adventures!
And of course congrats on the decision. I'll move DC up on my to-do-list.


Rosa said...

Hooray! Come visit!

Nana said...

Frankly, I'm disappointed that you didn't take up rhythmic gymnastics and have an affair with Vladmir Putin. Now THAT would be a direction you never saw yourself going!

Julia said...

Look at us all, so Russia-y! I do wonder what happened to J3, though...