This recent post by Cincy prompted me to write about my own experience teaching foreigners English (albeit, in my case, indirectly).
Back in the summer of 2003 I took Russian language classes at Moscow State University’s Center for International Education, a division of MGU formed to teach Russian to promising young foreign Communists back in the days of the Soviet Empire. As for me, the American, what better way to spend my summer than sitting in a stifling hot classroom (no air conditioning, comrades!) cramming my head with verbs, vocab, and cases for five hours a day, five days per week.
Moscow State U. – breeding ground for future party bureaucrats
Our only respite from this constant barrage of language was our lunch period, which was spent in the stolovaya, or cafeteria. The decor was strictly Soviet – this was, after all, an educational center for the proletariat. The food, as you could imagine, thoroughly sucked, yet the Russian teachers, police officers, and soldiers seemed to enjoy it. We instead chose to purchase chips, candy, and soda from the outside kiosks, much to to the chagrin of the surly cafeteria ladies. I usually opted for a Fanta and large bag of bacon or chicken flavored chips (yes, they really have chips with those flavors). Nevertheless, it was a time for us to just relax and speak some damn English without our teachers yelling at us. We were an odd bunch – a few Yanks, some Brits, a couple of Spaniards, a south Korean, and a pair of Pakistani diplomats. Most of us were college students with an academic reason for spending the summer at CIE, while others were there because their oil executive or stockbroker fathers thought it best they learn the local language.
So one day we were sitting there when a CIE staff member comes barreling through, speaking so fast I could barely understand. Something about a computer, I dunno. Liz points her finger at me, and the next thing I knew, I was being dragged to the director’s office.
“They want you to fix a computer or something. I told them you knew stuff about computers.”
“WHAT! Windows is going to be in freakin’ RUSSIAN!!”
I got to the office and there was no computer for me to fix. I was thoroughly confused, until they introduced me to a representative from a language software company. She said her company was developing a new program to teach young Russians the vocabulary of their American counterparts and they would just need my help for an hour, hour and a half tops. I agreed, still unsure as to what exactly I would be doing, until she e-mailed me a list of subjects we would possibly be discussing. Oh man, I thought, they’re going to record me?!
I had spent the following weekend in St. Petersburg, and arrived back in Moscow on Monday morning, stumbling off the train and rushing to make it back to CIE, all while ridiculously low on sleep. Oh yeah, I could already tell that this “interview” was going to be stellar. I met up with the software representative and we hopped on the metro. The “studio” was located in a stereotypical crumbling office building/factory of some sort. Man, that place must have been buzzing with economic inefficiency back in the day.
They sat me down in front of a mic, gave me a mug of scalding hot tea (it was July, mind you), completed the sound check, and the questions started to roll in. The interviewer was a very nice fellow, and explained we would be discussing sports. Sports, hey! I can talk about sports!
Q: What are your favorite sports?
My favorite sports are soccer, baseball and surfing.
Q: Do you go surfing in Washington?
No, no opportunities for surfing in Washington, only when I go back to California.
And so on and so on. They had me explain the equipment you need to go surfing, so I covered the various types of boards, talked about the importance of a leash, and mentioned that wearing a wetsuit was probably a good idea. This was critical information that young Muscovites needed to know.
The next set of questions centered around a typical day in the life of Lindsay Fincher, student at George Washington University:
Q: What is your favorite place to eat?
We have a favorite place, called ‘Lindy’s Red Lion’, and it’s a bar and restaurant, and they have some… some very, very good hamburgers. I eat a lot of hamburgers, so, if a place has good hamburgers, then I like it.
Brilliant, Lindsay…just brilliant. If hordes of young Russians descend upon “Lindy’s Red Lion” while strolling around Foggy Bottom, now you know why.
Q: Do you have a vacuum cleaner?
I don’t have a vacuum cleaner myself, but each dorm has a vacuum cleaner in it, and if you want to use it, you can go downstairs and get it.
What kind of bizarre question is that?!
Q: What time do you go to bed?
I usually go to bed at two in the morning.
Q: What time do you get up?
I wake up at eight thirty.
Q: Is this time enough to sleep?
Yeah. It’s enough time.
After the interview was finished, they handed me a nice, crisp 500 ruble bill (around $15 back then) as payment for my time. Ooh yeah, I ain’t reportin’ this to those suckas at the IRS. I promptly spent it on cheesy Russian souvenirs, like Soviet leader stacking dolls and propaganda posters.
I hadn’t given the program much thought after I left Moscow. I never knew if they had actually made it until, out of curiosity, I checked the company’s website about a year ago and found that it had indeed come out under the title “Frankly Speaking: Real American” (cue theme song from Team America: World Police, please). You can even buy it online for a mere 816 rubles ($30), just make sure you have at least a Pentium 200. Or, you can read the script that I found online (and from which I grabbed all the dialogue from while simultaneously reminding myself of what an idiot I must have sounded like). I’m listed as Lindsay Fincher, USA, George Washington University, студентка по специальности Political Science and Russian History in sections Спорт от софтбола до серфинга and День, как день. (Sorry if you can’t see the Cyrillic, but whatev, download the language pack if you are so inclined).
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about this…except for my friends at CIE, obviously…but not even my parents. It’s just one of those things you forget about, and then remember and think to yourself, “That was pretty odd.”
Nevertheless, I hope that at least one Russian learned something from this program…maybe picked up a hint of a California accent, got a craving for a Lindy’s Hawaiian burger, or is now poring over a map looking for Russian surf spots. I dunno, surely the oil and gas mecca of Sakhalin has some waves? Just gotta watch out for those ice floes.