Rooms I have been In

It’s coming friends! The Russian American School of Tomorrow, the book I’ve been working on for more than a decade, will be available for purchase soon. It is my true coming-of-age story starting in Alaska and ending in the crumbling Soviet Union Asian middle-of-nowhere.

When I went to Russia back in 1991, I didn’t speak the language. I knew the alphabet slightly when we landed. But I could barely ask where the bathroom was:”Gdye toilet?”

For sure I couldn’t understand the answers. Hand signals, please.

But I got better. I started to understand after a lot of trying and failing. I made friends with people who could speak my language and asked them to teach me.

After about a year I made friends with a neighbor who did not speak English at all. I delighted to visit their apartment and drink tea and talk. I could tell them about what I had done that day in Russian, and we had a grand time.

Here’s the thing: I could talk and I knew what I was saying. The conversations went smoothly and quickly if I was doing most of the talking. I felt a little bad about dominating the time with my stories, but as long as I was talking I knew what was being said. Once the sisters started talking, I couldn’t be sure of what they meant.

That was awkward, and required flipping out the translation dictionary to look up and be sure what was communicated.

I was learning. I was figuring out this country and it’s language.

But there is another thing I’ve learned since. It’s the inverse of the same thing. If I am the one talking, I know what is being said. That’s not a very powerful position to be in.

It doesn’t do me much good to repeat what I already know. How am I supposed to learn anything if I am always talking? Or, for that matter, if I am hanging out with people who are not going to say anything I don’t already know.

If it turns out I am the smartest person in the room, I better find a different room.