Dad Comes North

My dad visited me last week, and it was wonderful to see him, as always. “Inspiration” is not quite the right word for him, so much as “motivation” or “reason” or “root.” He took me out of America for the first time, when I was 9, to Madrid. That trip caused me to study Spanish, and ultimately to return to Madrid for a semester when I was 20. He took me with him on his Fulbright to Montenegro when I was 15, and that trip in many ways directed my path in college, to Russian, to Moscow, to follow in his Fulbrighter footsteps. His influence on me is something I’ve been privileged to take for granted, because his cosmopolitan attitudes and assumptions have pervaded my upbringing since I was very small. Seeing him here in Arkhangelsk, getting to be the reason for his first trip to Russia, was a wonderful opportunity to take a closer look at the motivations and purposes in my life.

We had a good balance of us-time and of spreading the Fulbright Word. Beyond my own personal story, the mission of the Fulbright has been more fully fulfilled between the two of us than I’ve been able to even begin in my five months here. My being here facilitated him connecting with another history professor here, and, hopefully will result in their students connecting and sharing their different understandings of World War II. Dad lectured at the American Corner and at the university, and also had time to chat one-on-one with some of the professors from my department.

And then he went home. I think that is such an important part of the Fulbright. It’s something I bring up every time I try to explain myself to people, when Russian and American stereotypes inevitably come up. I’m not here to preach America, to convert anyone. I’m here to teach about America to those who are interested. But my contract requires me to return to the U.S. I’m also here to learn about Russia, and take that knowledge back to America, to give Americans a more complex and nuanced image of Russians.

For me, Dad represents that constant seeking out of new experiences, new knowledge, new culture. But he also represents home, the going back and putting that knowledge into the American context and using it to inform a more well-rounded American perspective.

Story Map

I love maps. I don’t really understand them, and I’m not actually that good at using them, but I think they’re beautiful. They tell a story about how we think about our world, how we want it to look, where we see ourselves in connection with the rest of the world.

This week’s topic for the American Studies class I’m teaching was “Geography and Population.” No big deal. An hour should be enough to cover that, right? Right. Last week’s role-playing of the American government system proved to be enjoyable and successful as a super-condensed lesson plan, so I wanted something simple and interactive for this week as well. So I made a bunch of labels of major geographic features (Rocky Mountains, Lake Erie, Mojave Desert, etc.) and brought in my road map of the US, spread it out on a table, and invited them to gather around and figure out where everything went (with some help from me– one group guessed that the midwest was a forest).

That went well, but did not take nearly as much time as I had anticipated, so I improvised by telling them stories about everything. I told them about how horrible driving in Boston is and about the bells along the Camino Real in California. I talked about migration west and Manifest Destiny by describing the Oregon Trail computer game. I wish I could reproduce for you the gesticulations and sound effects I used to demonstrate the Gold Rush. They got a kick out of Seward’s Folly, because most of them knew that Alaska was bought from Russia. They surprised me by what they didn’t know– and what they did. Some of them had never heard of the Rockies, but one guy had heard of Jesse James, and most of them knew more about Route 66 than I do (though I am prepared to attribute that to the restaurant in Arkhangelsk called Route 66).

When we put down markers for the ten most populous cities in America, I took Los Angeles as a starting point for a story about my family’s geographic history, hopping from Arkansas to Denver to Pittsburgh, back to L.A., and then branching out to Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Mexico. They were really interested to see my family scattered across the map, but I think they were more interested because it was a story about me, a real person, instead of a list of facts about a monolith on the other side of the globe.

And the questions they had! They all wanted to know, had I been to Niagara Falls? The Grand Canyon? New York City? One group asked what my favorite place in the United States was. Another group wanted to know more about the Native American genocide. I am loving this class. On the one hand, I surprised myself with how much history I spontaneously remembered (did not even look up Seward’s Folly on Wikipedia last night). But on the other hand, I am going to learn so much this semester.