Upon our arrival, and as a way to gauge my students’ English language skills, I asked them to tell me what came to mind when they hear the words “America” and/or “Americans.” It was quite revealing both in terms of their perceptions of the United States as well as what it implied about their feelings toward their native Russia. The one word that was repeated over and over again with reference to America was “dream”; the common symbol mentioned was the Statue of Liberty; and the first place they want to visit is New York City.
“I dream of visiting America” or “I dream of moving to America” was written repeatedly. In addition to NYC, Florida and California (specifically, Hollywood) were the top vote getters for places to visit in the U.S. But there was also a recurrent desire expressed to move to America permanently. Many young people have friends studying in the U.S. and none of them want to return to Russia. Moreover, these feelings about America have been confirmed in our interactions with other, older Russians (up to early forties in age). These two generations, the younger ones who never experienced communist rule, and the generation that preceded them, the ones who came of age during the fall of communism (1989-1991), share in the belief that America remains the land of opportunity. Conversely, they see a limited future for themselves, at least at this point in their country’s historical development. Such attitudes, regrettably, do not bode well for the future of Russia if all their best and brightest want to leave the country.
Their view of Americans as a people also had some recurrent themes. Most prominent was the belief that Americans are very open, friendly, and that we smile a lot:) One of the more curious descriptions of Americans was that we are “lazy but creative.”(!) The student who wrote that explained that Americans are constantly trying to figure out better, more efficient ways to do things so in turn we can be lazy. Maybe she’s right!
If there is an American icon for young Russians it is undoubtedly Steven Jobs. Apple products are very expensive, but coveted by their generation. Russian youth love technology; in fact, Russians spend more money per capita than Americans on high technology and related gadgets. It’s no wonder Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg visited Moscow last month. He ate at McDonald’s, judged a technology competition, and met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, all as part of his bid to better position Facebook in the Russian social media market.
In short, there is great interest in all things American and learning about America. And great admiration, too, for the place we are fortunate to call home.
Next post: Food (i.e., adventures in Russian grocery shopping!)