Minorities Abroad Project
Name: Annie Choi
Destination: St. Petersburg, Russia
Time Abroad: Spring 2009
Ethnic Self-identification: Korean-American
(Photo by Elise Bergerson)
My ethnicity had a profound effect on my experience of Russia even before I set foot in the country. I remember the trepidation that filled the weeks leading up to my decision to study abroad in St. Petersburg and later in the days leading up to my departure. It was October 2008 and Amherst College had never looked prettier or more inviting, making it harder to decide leaving it for a place that could potentially be dangerous to people who looked like me. Or so I was told by cautious advisors who did not wish to discourage me from going to Russia but also wanted me to be aware of racist sentiments and the threat of physical violence that existed for minority students.
I am Korean-American, and I look the way you might expect a Korean-American female to look like, though I can also be confused for a number of different ethnicities hailing from Central Asia or the former Soviet Republics. It was interesting to think about all the ways I might be hated for my perceived ethnicity when my initial interest in Russia was sparked by a man who did not look typically “Russian” in my then very limited understanding of the word. Viktor Tsoi, born to a Korean father and a Russian mother, was a famous underground rock star during the Soviet era. To me his existence was like a revelation: multiethnic and multinational identities are a fact of life in Russia, too! In my naiveté I wondered how racially motivated violence could thrive given this reality. Obviously, this was a complicated issue that could not be explained using simple analogies to my American experience.
Contemplating this question did not really help in my decision-making, however. After all, there was the possibility of actual bodily harm and the paralyzing fear of “what if.” The possibility of danger was mitigated by the fact that I was female and not African-American, but did I really want to go to a place where I was made to feel a sense of relief at the expense of others? For the first time in my life, I was confronted with the prospect of anonymity and the fact that it might not provide the kind of immunity from open discrimination I took for granted in this country. Having to think about this potential “threat” was an uncomfortable reminder of who I was. I realized how self-conscious I was of my own perceived ethnic identity and how much I let it shape my understanding of the world up to that point.
In retrospect, it is interesting that I felt so much dread in the face of such an exciting opportunity. I hope not too many students feel the kind of anxiety that I put myself through. Although if you are pursuing a degree in Russian literature, there’s a good chance you are the type of person to torture yourself with such ominous thoughts. I think at the time I just wanted someone to tell me that nothing bad would happen to me. Of course, there are no guarantees in life. It was hard to remind myself of this fact in the comfort of my college dorm room where everything was provided for.
Eventually, my curiosity about the country and the desire to improve my Russian overcame my fear. I was very fortunate that I never had to fear for my safety in any serious way. My white American friends and US Passport afforded me the kind of privilege that many Asian and African international students did not enjoy. My experience in St. Petersburg was overwhelmingly positive. I got along with my host family reasonably well, though we did not bond in the way that I had hoped. If they harbored any prejudice towards people who looked like me, I did not notice. They were too busy with their own lives to care about much else. I loved my Smolny professors and staff who were some of the most dedicated individuals I have ever met. My Russian Avant-garde class, though challenging, never failed to inspire me. And the friends I made in the program remain some of the most cherished people in my life.
If you are considering not going to Russia because you are afraid of what might happen to you because of the way you look, your fears are probably exaggerated. This is not because there is zero chance of something bad happening to you, but because the chances of something amazing happening to you as a result of this experience are much greater. I hope that students of color hoping to study abroad in Russia will not be deterred by words of caution. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had decided against going just because I decided to assume the worst about Russia and its inhabitants. I would have gained nothing. Being in Russia is risky but it is a manageable risk. It will be the first of many more risks you will have to take in your adult life and what better way to start than in Russia!
Annie currently works in website localization for a NYC-based translation company. She can be contacted via email.