Thursday, October 27, 2011

Apartment Hunting, Commuting, Fitting in and Connecting

So I'd forgotten what it's like to live in this weird limbo of expat-ness.

That weird place where you're not exactly Russian but you're not exactly American. I think I'm working on trying to reconcile the two selves into one American-Russian-Christian-Glob of Globbiness. I'm not really sure.

A woman and her mother are staying at the church because the woman is trying to adopt a child from here. I call them Americans. "The American women came. We didn't recognize the Americans" and so on and so forth.

Yet, when I called about an apartment yesterday the woman asked where I was from "I'm an American." She promptly hung up on me. When I called back I was informed that they would only rent to Russians.

I'd forgotten how strange this country is.

For those of you who don't know, I moved out of the church. The aforementioned women needed a place to stay. So I'm now living with a young couple, Brad and Lena. I'm really enjoying it here so far too. They make me feel really welcome.

The only thing I don't really enjoy is the 50+ minute commute to the church. Although it got better when I started taking a book with me. My mother reminded me that I used to drive that far often over the summer. I replied that at least when you're driving, that far you're constantly moving. My city commute involves me walking to the bus stop...and waiting for the bus. Then I walk to the metro, drop in my token, get on the escalator...and wait to get to the bottom. Then you have to wait for the train...Once you're on the train you have to wait for your stop... Then I have to change lines so that's another more stop and you finally get to get off. But then you have to go up the escalator... Finally I leave the metro and walk several blocks to the church. Oh yes, it's good times indeed. Plus, I would be really cranky by the time I got to the church. Taking a book along helps me feel productive while I'm waiting and also gets me some escape time. So now while I don't know that I necessarily look forward to the commute, it's definitely not as terrible as it was the first couple times.

In other news, I'm looking for a room to rent. As I mentioned, I called about one yesterday. I also went with Luka and Natasha to go look at a room last night. Yeah that was interesting times... we're not going to be renting that room. The man and his wife were rather strange and the atmosphere we looked around and promptly left. Luka is putting me in touch with an agent who can help me find something. In the mean time I've had several conversations with God about it and I know a lot of other people have been praying about it as well. I'm not too worried about it as I figure God's always got something in the works.

By the way, the best part about going to look at the room yesterday was hanging out with Luka and Natasha. We went to a cafe afterwards and hung out for a bit. It was good times.

That's the other thing I'm really enjoying. Just getting to know people. Learning about their personalities, their lives, making connections. But then after all that's what I love to do... make connections.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cultural Respect

I had a bit of a revelation the other night about cultural insight. This post is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to my youth group explaining what I learned. I hope you blog followers find it interesting as well.

I wanted to tell you guys some things about culture that I think you'll find interesting. One of the most important things to remember if you ever go out on the mission field, or even just a trip is that things are going to be different. When I was an exchange student it was explained to us like this: It's not necessarily better or worse than in America, it's just different. 

Learning about other people's cultures is extremely important. Through learning about this, it's possible to connect with people on their own level, one that they understand. I include language learning in this. Language and Culture are intertwined and it's impossible to separate them. I encourage you all to, even if it's a short term mission, learn as much of the language as you can before you go. It will make you more effective and people will appreciate that you've taken the time to learn about them.

Also, don't be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. It's all part of the learning process. When I was an exchange student, I was often afraid of speaking up. I didn't want to sound silly or dumb. I was afraid of being judged for not knowing anything if I admitted I was wrong. This time around though, I'm much more open. If I don't understand, I'll say so. If there's a word I don't know, I'll ask what it means. In some ways, my learning experience here in St. Petersburg is a lot richer in only two weeks than probably half of my exchange just because I'm trying to open up and connect with people, even when my language skills are lacking. 

Let me give you another example. This time dealing with how things can be different. I recently had a conversation with one of the brothers here, Dima. He was explaining to me that a Fire Inspector was coming on Friday and how it might be necessary to essentially pay him what we Americans would consider a bribe. I said that things like that often happened in Russia and that I thought it was strange and dishonest. He then informed me that things Americans do seem strange to Russians. I asked him for examples and he cited things like taking each other to court all the time and whistle blowing if someone is breaking the law. An interesting cultural thing he pointed out was that often Americans will say "Maybe" when they mean "no" I was kind of mentally laughing when he said "It's dishonest." That made me stop and think. 

I like to think of myself as culturally aware. But I'm still American and embedded in that culture as well. Sometimes I think we (and I include myself in this) tend to look down on people because they don't have the same ideas that we do about life, freedoms, security, government and so on. We might say "Oh it's wrong for the Russians to have to pay bribes to pass fire inspections and they should have the same ideas about basic rights as we do" but if you stop for a moment and look at the historical events that have shaped each culture it makes perfect sense why each country feels the way it does. 

America was a state founded by people who were trying to escape oppression. When they set up the government, they wanted to make sure the oppression they escaped from wouldn't happen again. Because of this, they wrote out the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. The ideals that every man had basic rights and freedoms was extremely important to them and became embedded in American culture. They felt that the government's job was to serve the people, not the other way around. 

Russia has always been a country where the government was the be all, end all. The people were to serve the government not the other way around. In earlier times, the Tsars ruled. These monarchs were seen as fatherly figures whose job it was, as head of the "household" to make decisions. Father knows best as it were. Later on, during Communist times, telling on people meant you were working with the repressive government. It was necessary to pay bribes to get things done. Everyone was supposed to cooperate in order to build a utopian society. 

What I'm trying to say is that we, not just Americans, but everyone need to be respectful and understanding of other cultures. Does it mean we have to deny who we are culturally and take on characteristics of other societies? No. We just need to understand that people have different values and we need to be respectful of those values when we interact. Remember, it's not better or worse it's just different.

Keep on keeping on!
In Him,

Monday, October 17, 2011


I'm not even going to lie, it's kind of scary how much I'm loving being here. I'm really enjoying this time. I mean, is it lonely? Occasionally, when it's late and I should go to bed but don't feel like it. But generally I'm keeping busy and things are going well. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop because I feel like it should not be legal for me to be having this much fun.

Maybe it's because everything is sort of subconsciously compared to my exchange. This is completely different though. There was a part of me that never fully got used to living in Yakutsk. I mean, my goodness all I did was cry the first three days and then tried to make it through every day in order to get home. I learned a lot. There were some definite good times, but there were also some very bad times too.

I think some of my enjoyment of this comes from automatically having a family. I mean, you have host families while on exchange. But honestly, with one exception I never felt particularly close to my host families. This time it's different. As soon as I got here, I felt welcomed, loved and accepted. Oh, I still have awkward moments, you have those any time you live in a foreign country. But among my church family I'm not afraid to admit that I don't understand, not afraid to make mistakes with the language, not afraid to ask for help. It's a nice feeling. My host families were willing to help me, but sometimes I could tell I was a burden or that they didn't really want to be dealing with me. They accepted me to a certain extent because they had to. The church people kind of have to as well, but the difference is they don't mind. I feel like there's an attitude of "Great! You're here! What can you learn from us and what can we learn from you?" Because we are all trying to be Christ centered, we automatically have that in common and it makes things easier.

But I didn't start writing this blog post with the intention of preaching. There are other factors that are making this transition easier as well. For one, I already know the language an culture. My exchange took me through the difficulties of learning a language and adapting to the culture. The first few days I was in St. Petersburg were a little rough language wise. I wasn't used to hearing full-on fluent Russian spoken all the time. Last week as I believe I mentioned, however all of a sudden it was like I kind of slid back into it and now every day it gets easier. I'm understanding a ton of what people say. I'm speaking more too.

The one thing I regretted after my exchange was I felt like I didn't practice talking enough. Well, that's being remedied now. If exchange was Russian 101, this is the next level. I talk a ton more than in Yakutsk. Plus, I talk and listen to more in depth subjects. I guess I really am conversationally fluent. People tell me good things about my Russian which makes me feel good. I know that I don't speak perfectly, not by any means, but to have native Russians tell me that I sound good, or that I form my words well, or that it's good when I correct myself means a lot to me. It's like they notice I'm trying and that makes me feel good and want to try harder.

Another thing that is making this easier is the place itself. Honestly, sometimes it doesn't even feel like I'm in Russia. There's a McDonald's two blocks down and KFCs here and there. I mean, it's obviously a Russian city, but it doesn't feel like it. I don't really know how to explain it. It just has a different atmosphere. After living in Siberia, and Yakutsk in particular, this place is like a wonderland of joy and joyness. The stores don't have empty shelves and there's always a selection of at least two or three brands of whatever item you want. Yeah, stuff is more expensive here, but they also have what you want. When you want it.  I'm constantly surprised at the things they have in the store here. Pre-made dough for Pirozhki? What? Or a product similar to something we have in the states that I couldn't get in Yakutsk? Wow!

I can already tell that it's going to be really hard to go home next fall. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Missionary Part 2: Settling in

I thought it would be fun to do one of these posts while I'm still settling in so here it is. This was my day on Tuesday.

9:50 am: Wake up because I'm supposed to meet with Joel at 11. Check Facebook and discover he is going to be late. I lay in bed a bit longer then get up and get ready for the day.

11:00 am: I'm having Chai in the kitchen and reading Mere Christianity when Sergei walks in. He asks me if I can get Wi-fi in my room. I tell him no. He then asks if I need the computer that's in my room. I again tell him no and he says that he will move the computer out and hook my notebook up to Ethernet. I abandon my chai and we go take care of that.

11:30: After returning to the kitchen and finishing my chai, I go back to my room, where I have a message from Joel that it's going to be a little longer. I start working on fixing a topical study he wanted me to fix because I didn't quite understand what I was doing the first time.

Noonish: Joel shows up and I show him my flier for English conversation lessons. He tells me to take it across the hall to have Lena print it.

12:30: After Sergei and Lena mess with the printer and help me tweak said flier, I finally have five copies. Joel and I proceed to the dormitory across the street where Joel has a chat with the Kommandant (The woman who's in charge of the dorm) and she allows us to go through the dorm and hang the fliers on each floor.

1:00 pm: I return to the church to see that Luka has arrived. I stop to chat with her she asks if I would like to have chai but I decline and explain I have work to do but maybe later. I work a little more on the study.

2:00 pm: Luka comes by my room and tells me she has a song she wants me to listen to. I listen, then she tells me she's going to translate it and asks if I'll look at it when she's done. I agree.

2:15: Dima comes by and asks if I would like chai. I start to decline and then he says that there are blinchiki too. So I agree and off we go to the kitchen. Once there, we are joined by Galina Mikhailovna and Sergei. Conversation ensues.

2:45: Luka comes in to the kitchen and I go over the song lyrics with her, helping her clarify some things.

2:50: Immediately following, Dima brings in a letter he wants me to answer from a woman in Yakutia who wants to learn more about the bible.

2:55: Whilst putting some things away in the kitchen Dima grills me with questions. I do my best to answer. He asks how I came to God and the Church and so I tell my story in rough Russian.

3:00 pm: I return to my room where I sit down to finish my study when Joel IMs me and asks me to come by his office.

3:45 pm: I have a meeting with Joel.

4:45 pm: I am very tired from the lots of Russian and the meeting. I stop by Dima's office to find out exactly when I'm supposed to write this letter.

5:00 pm: Dima comes by with the main points of what the woman wrote in her letter so I can get a better idea of what to say in mine.

5:30 pm: I work on this blog post. Whilst doing that a girl calls about English lessons. She asks them in Russian and I do my best to answer. She says she will call back after thinking about it. I don't think she will.

6:45 pm: Dinner time

7:00 pm: The chorus practices in individual parts, so I went and sang with the sopranos

9:00 pm: We have chai after rehersal and the girls discover it is my birthday. Congratulations ensue. I manage to follow most of the conversations over chai pretty well.

10:00 pm: Luka is cleaning up the auditorium after rehearsal. I stop by to say goodnight and she asks me to sing a bit for her. Afterwards, she asks if I would be willing to help the altos sing because their strongest alto might not be able to come on Thursday when they are recording. I agree to learn what I can and help them on Thursday if need be.

10:30 pm: I hide in my room, play guitar and relax.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

First Sunday

I know, it's already Tuesday, but I wanted to write about my first church service. I was tired yesterday.

Worship was the same but different than at home. I liked a lot of what went on actually. When we got started, there was singing of course, but one thing we did which I think we don't do enough of at home, was scripture reading. Between every song, there were chunks of scripture that were read. Sometimes we read them all together and sometimes, one of the men would read them. We went through a good chunk of Matthew 5 which was pretty cool.

Another interesting thing, I knew all the songs but one. How? Well because they were all songs we sing at home, but (obviously) in Russian. We actually sang one of my favorite songs, "We Shall Assemble." I'm hoping to learn the Russian version. I guess it should be obvious that we sing the same songs, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite so many. Maybe because the Baptist church I attended in Yakutsk sang a lot of different songs. I've only been here one Sunday though, so what else is sung remains to be seen.

After much singing and scripture reading led by Igor, it was time for communion. Dima got up and said a few words and then we passed around the bread. It was much like home (Well, the bread was a little different. Was all crunchy) except that instead of eating it right away, we waited until everyone had a piece. Then Dima quoted Jesus "This is my body, do this in remembrance of me." And we all ate. We did the same thing with the juice after passing it around, then our little communion cups were collected.

Oleg, who I guess you could consider the main preacher, did the offering. Following that, they had all the children come to the front. It was cool because they asked the kids if there was anything they'd like to pray for and then they had a prayer for the children. After the prayer, the kids went to their respective classes.

Oleg then preached the sermon. It was pretty interesting, what I understood of it anyway. About halfway through it got easier to understand which was awesome. The lesson was about persecution.

Oh and apparently, worship here (like the scripture and stuff) isn't always the same. I just got done having tea with Dima, Sergei and Galina and they told me that the beginning part changes depending on who is leading that part of the worship. Dima also told me that this congregation is actually one of the more progressive churches of Christ in Russia. Which was interesting. It would be interesting to see how some of the more traditional churches run worship and interact with each other and the world.

There wasn't an invitation song or anything which was actually kind of nice. We just prayed at the end of the sermon. Then there were announcements. Igor got up and congratulated the couple who got married last Wednesday and then they introduced me and Joel talked a little bit about who I was and why I was here. Then we said a prayer and dismissed.

I really enjoyed worship and I've been enjoying getting to know people and getting involved with the stuff going on here. Doing this is one of the best decisions I've ever made...

Saturday, October 08, 2011

First Day in Piter

My day started at 5am. No lie. I went to bed last night at midnight and set my alarm for 9. I was like "this is going to be perfect."

At five I found myself lying wide awake in the room at the church where I'm temporarily lodged. My sinuses were draining down my throat so I took some medicine and went back to sleep. Or, I tried. See the problem was that I was tired. I could tell that my body needed more sleep but it wasn't working out so well. I alternately tried to sleep and journaled. Finally, about 8:30 I found myself relaxing enough to get to sleep. The next thing I knew, I was awake looked at my clock and saw that it was noon.

Now, this wouldn't have ordinarily been a problem except that Joel and his family were coming to get me at noon to take me to meet a sister named Zhenya. You can imagine my distress upon waking. Thankfully, things don't run as fast here so my ride wasn't here yet. I promptly jumped in the shower and probably coined a new record for the fastest shower. Ever. I'm talking two minutes max. (Good thing I have short hair.) As I was drying off I heard the buzzer downstairs which meant that Joel & Co were here. I answered the buzzing telephone, explained I overslept and that I would be down as soon as I was dressed.

Fifteen minutes later I made it downstairs. I did have a moment of panic tearing through my suitcases looking for socks before I realized they'd been packed inside my boots. It also took me longer because Russians love locks and I had to lock up the church behind me. Which took a bit.

Once in the car I was informed that instead of being taken to Zhenya's house as previously thought, she would be meeting me at the nearby McDonalds. Which is like two blocks away. The Pettys drove me there. Inside, Zhenya eventually came along and we proceeded to gulyat'. This is a Russian word that means walk. But not really walking to get anywhere. Just walking and talking basically. Which is what we did. All day. We ate at the McDonalds and chatted for a while. Then we wandered down the street and found a place where I could buy a cellphone. I was really glad Zhenya was with me because the guy at the store talked really fast and was really trying hard to upsell. It was kind of intense.

We wandered past pretty much all of the major tourist sites: The Hermitage, St. Issaac's Cathedral, Spas' na Krovi and had just gotten to Mikhailovskii Sad when Zhenya got a call from another sister, also named Zhenya. When she hung up she informed me (If I wasn't too tired) that we were going visiting. I was fine with this since the other alternative was to sit alone in the church and off we went.

We spent several hours visiting with Zhenya and her son Mark. He's just a baby and so it was kind of fun to get to play with him a bit. The two Zhenya's were awesome at including me in conversation, but I felt bad because quite a bit of it went over my head as I was getting tired. I was excited though because when I started this morning, I was able to have all kinds of conversation with Zhenya. We talked about family, church, history, boys all kinds of things and I did pretty well actually. I mentioned when we started that I was nervous about talking because my Russian isn't always the best. Zhenya told me a story about how she used to be really judgmental when people spoke Russian badly. Not necessarily foreigners even, but Russians themselves. But then God reminded her that it's not how you say it, it's what you say. I think she has a good point.

I really enjoyed the fellowship today. I think this year is going to go by pretty fast. Please pray that I'm able to be of good use here.

Tomorrow is the "general assembly" which means the worship time (General as opposed to the small groups and other Bible studies that go on here throughout the week.) I'm looking forward to it. It's kind of intimidating because I'm probably going to be meeting a lot of people all at once, but at the same time I'm super excited!

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Am I doing something extraordinary?
Right now, as you're reading this, I am on a plane thousands of miles above your head.
I'm going to New York. In a big metal bird that some how manages to defy gravity... Yeah I don't want to think about that too much either.

But back to my question. Am I unusual?
Because here's the conversation I've been getting of late:

Me: I'm going to Russia on Thursday
Them: Oh? What for?
Me: I'm going to be doing mission work there.
Them: Alone?

Am I strange?
Because apparently people don't normally do this sort of thing...
I used to get this in Russia all the time too.

Host mom: Where have you been?
Me: Out walking
Host mom: Alone?

In Russia I just assumed it was because I'm female. And most young women did go walking in groups. So I just assumed that's why I was considered strange. It's not that I don't like people. I just like alone time once in a while too.

But I'm digressing from my main point. Namely, that people find it odd that I'm going to Russia alone.
It's not like I'm going to wander around the city by myself attempting to preach the gospel on street corners. I explained that to someone the other day. "Well I have church people who are meeting me."
They still gave me a funny look.
What am trying to find out is, even in our "liberated" day and age am I defying a gender norm? Essentially that it's not typical for women to travel alone?
As far as I know no one ever asked my brother this question and he spent two years in China.

I think people sometimes wonder why I'm doing this. What possesses an (almost) 23 year old to run off to Russia for a year at a time? I have no idea. I get the impression that people admire the fact that I'm going, that they're super impressed. I don't know how many people have said "I couldn't do that" or something similar. Like I'm doing something so great.

I just want to set the record straight. Maybe it's not something everyone has in them, but honestly for me it's not a big deal. It's a natural thing that stems from the talents and desires God has given me. It's right and it's good to go back to Russia. There is nothing special about it or me. I'm not trying to debase myself, but I'm saying that just because traveling abroad is what I do, doesn't make me any better or worse than anyone else. Why? Because there are plenty of things I can't do.

For example, I greatly admire people who work with people who have special needs and people who work in hospitals. Why? Because I can't do that. I just can't handle it. If I had to, I suppose I would, but honestly I pray that I am never in that situation because it just makes me uncomfortable. Nursing homes are the same way. It's not where my talents lie. There are people I know who are great at that. They connect with people that way and are able to show love, kindness and compassion. That is where their talents are and they can use those talents for great things.

So my reminder for the day, as I'm flying above your heads, is to remember what Paul said. We are all parts of a single body. We all have different ways of dealing with things, different goals, different talents and we can all use what we have to glorify God.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

What If?

I woke up this morning and the first thoughts in my head were about fifteen "what ifs." I mean, it wasn't anything super horrible. It was just little things. What if I get super sick? What if I lose a contact? What if my passport gets stolen?

So much for my feelings of peace and non-concern about going. I think it's starting to hit me. I've felt kind of sad all day and out of sorts. There are things I need to finish, but I don't have time. And then there are some things that I was like "Oh wait, I can finish this in Russia. It's not like my life is ending."

Mom says I'm going through the stages of dying. Not that I am. But she says that anytime someone has a big change in their life death, divorce, moving, extended travel they go through stages. Apparently symptoms of this sort of thing is avoiding, holding on to stuff, or giving it away, and being angry and/or sad.  She's kind of right.

Even though I'm not completely avoiding, I still am. I'm not completely thinking about it. In fact through the course of writing this blog entry, I've been forced to think about it and therefore am feeling kind of sick.

As for the stuff. I don't know that I'm really holding on to stuff. Unless you count me trying to fit everything into my suitcase as holding on. But I'm definitely letting go of some things. I dated a guy this summer and had some stuff of his. Gave it back to him when he came to say goodbye on Monday night. He was like "Why are you giving me this back?" "Because." It just seemed like the thing to do.

Saying goodbye to people is weird as well. Half the time it doesn't seem like I'm even leaving. Monday night was just surreal. It was like an ordinary night all summer. The guy comes by after work, we sit around for a while and then he drives the rest of the way home. It didn't even feel like this was the last time I'd see him for a year.

Sunday night I went to my college church to say goodbye to all of them. I love those people. They are a tiny congregation but they've been so interested in and supportive of my upcoming journey. It was good to get to talk to a couple of my adopted moms and see everyone. But again, it was weird.

Everyone is like "Bye Abigail. Good luck on your journey, we're praying for you" But it didn't feel like an unordinary night. We had our potluck, and services and I stood outside in the parking lot for an extra hour talking to a couple interested in Missions like I usually do. And then it was like "Well, see ya."

Mom tells me that it's always harder for the people staying behind. I'm starting to believe it because I don't feel much of anything at the moment.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Four Days

I'm leaving on Thursday. This time on Thursday I'll be on a plane. Or, waiting in an airport. In either case, I won't be here. I'm having a really weird time of it as well. There are two suitcases, a backpack and a guitar sitting in the middle of my parents' dining room.

The suitcases have (mostly) clothes, and books and random things like vitamins thrown hither and yon into them. There is no rhyme or reason to it. I have clothes in the washer and a mental list that contains more items than Jewish Law.

I'm leaving on Thursday, but it doesn't feel like it.
I mean the good news is that I'm not avoiding. The above evidence of the suitcases and everything proves that. I know I'm leaving. It's looming over me.

But it doesn't feel like I'm going for a whole year.

I realized this the other day and it's been bothering me ever since.

I don't feel like I'm going to be spending a whole year in Russia. I feel like this is just a little jaunt. But it doesn't feel like I"m going to be back in a few weeks either.

Maybe it's because I know how fast it will go? Maybe it's because I've done this before? Maybe it's because I know life goes on after you go overseas. I mean, yeah you change and the people here change, but life still goes on.

I sure hope it doesn't hit me like it did last time. Last time, as soon as I left my parents in the airport I started crying and didn't stop for three or four days. That would be terrible.

What's nice though is that all my fears and doubts that I had when I first decided to do this, as well as the ones I'd been having in recent days, have completely disappeared. I feel a deep sense of peace about this whole thing. I have visa issues. So what? If God provided me funding to go and has been with me all this time, he's certainly going to provide me with the means of working out my visa. And if not? Well it's because he wants me to work in Ukraine or another country as well as Russia and who am I to argue?

That doesn't mean everything is peachy though. Although it doesn't feel like I'm leaving, I am. And while I don't feel finality that I did last time, I still feel rather weird. It's hard to explain. I feel lonely at times. So lonely I want to cry. I came home from seeing my church family where I attended during college and was just in this weird mood. Went right up to my room. Mom came by later and asked three times if I was okay. "I will be."
"So you're not now, but you will be?"
"Yeah, I guess."

I couldn't tell her exactly what was wrong. I don't know myself. Just an underlying sadness, with a weird combination of nostalgia and anger. It's an odd combination for sure.

Hmmm... perhaps I should be preparing myself for the bi-polarness that comes with living overseas because it seems that I'm starting now...