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Teaching English in Russia

Hard Times and Happiness

An often-told Russian joke goes like this: A Japanese man visiting Russia is asked what he thinks. “You have beautiful children,” he says. Each place he goes throughout the country he’s asked what he thinks, and he always answers the same: “You have beautiful children.” Finally, a Russian asks him why he always gives the same answer. The Japanese replies, “Because everything you’ve created with your hands is so awful.”

This story, which I heard repeatedly from grinning Russians, illustrates two points: Russians have an admirable sense of humor about themselves and their “crazy country”; there is an undeniable bleakness to Russian life.

I arrived in Moscow late in 1999 and taught there for a month before taking a 22-hour train ride south to Volzhsky, a town of 300,000 near Volgograd (formerly Stalin-grad). My students ranged in age from 15 to 50. They were extremely bright and I enjoyed their great sense of humor. In fact, having a good time in class was their first priority.

I found the job with Language Link, www.jobs.languagelink.ru, a British company with schools throughout European Russia and a few in Siberia, on the Internet. Pay was very generous by local standards: $450 a month and a free apartment (local school teachers made about $25 a month). Language Link pays not only for accommodations but for all visa costs, return airfare, and transportation.

Safety in Russia today is a complicated issue. Violent crime is usually limited to business disputes, and I felt fairly safe. Russians are themselves quite cautious, however. In Moscow I was told by everyone I met not to go to Volzhsky, that it was a manufacturing town full of ex-con labor. In fact, it was quiet and pleasant.

Yet there is reason for caution. I kept my American identity a secret as much as possible. Russia is a poor country with lax law enforcement and a Wild West atmosphere. The strong—those with connections and money—can do what they please with little worry about the consequences.

Aside from crime, there are everyday difficulties: I regularly went without hot water and occasionally without gas, heat, or electricity. And yet I miss being there, due mainly to the Russian people who overwhelmed me with their hospitality and openness. I sat in their homes, danced with them in their restaurants, listened as they ranted about the government or the police or sung the praises of their language, their literature, and even their bread.

My advice to prospective teachers: emphasize fun in the classroom and remember that “in Russia everything must be difficult.” The waitress disappeared for 30 minutes? The hot water disappeared for your morning shower? The buses are filthy, decrepit, jam-packed?

Russians look at these problems as they do harsh winter weather—there’s nothing you can do to change it, so why not have a sense of humor about it and enjoy life anyway. And they do.

CADE WHITE has worked as a writer, editor, and English teacher, in Prague, Hong Kong, and Russia.

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