Christine Nakahara studied Russian and Business at Moscow State University (MGU) and even found herself a job at a law firm in Moscow.
SRAS: We understand that your first love was classical music. How did that translate into a love for Russian?
Christine: I’d been seriously playing the piano & violin since I was a toddler. I learned to have a great passion for classical music, but I knew performance wasn’t a strongpoint… so I decided right after graduating from college that I wanted to go into the business aspect of the field, promoting classical musicians in the future. In particular, I was fascinated with Russian classical musicians, mainly for their genuine talent that set them apart from any other musicians in the world, so I decided to pick up Russian in hopes to get to know their culture a bit through their language. I was working in San Francisco right after graduation, so I found a Russian teacher by talking to some Berkeley connections (I went to CAL for my undergrad). I hadn’t taken ANY classes even remotely related to Russian in any way before, but I was lucky because my teacher turned out to be the warmest of all people and I ended up loving the language to death. So after 10 months of language lessons, I decided to go to Russia. Crazy, yes?
SRAS: Not necessarily, we’ve had lots of students who have come without ever having had a Russian lesson. But why did you decide to continue your Russian lessons at MGU?
Christine: To tell you the truth, MGU was the only university I knew of in Russia. I think that is natural, considering that it’s the best in the country. So clearly, my first choice was that when I decided to move to Russia.
SRAS: And did MGU live up to your expectations?
Christine: I took RSL for about 5-6 months from April. At first, my classes were composed of about five American students and we had class just about everyday for a few hours. I met a lot of people through this program, but sadly enough, most of the students there were only on two-week-long programs, so I was “switching” friends quite a bit. But after about three months into the program, it got to the point where I could converse, but just needed more practice… so I decided to switch into taking some business Russian courses and networking w/the Business School at MGU and taking some classes with an economics professor there.
SRAS: We know that you found some interesting work in a law firm while on your program. How did you find and what did your job entail?
Christine: I found my job at an international law firm through the Moscow Times. Actually, it’s funny b/c I sent in my resume one day and applied for one particular position, and the Recruiting Manager called me 2 hours later and she responded to my last line on my cover letter (“I hope to hear from you soon!”) with: “Is this soon enough?!” Haha. I went in for an interview, met some HR people, then met the Managing Partner and got an offer that day for another position! My job was primarily assisting the “big boss” of the firm, but because I am also fluent in Japanese (I’m Japanese-American), I was asked to help out with the Japanese clients and therefore started to help out the firm w/marketing & client communications. It was an AMAZING experience because I was able to participate in client meetings and observe first-hand the interactions between the Russian, American AND Japanese world. It’s incredible how we all live on the same planet under the same sky, but could be SO starkly different from one another. And it’s even more difficult when you start to understand all perspectives. If that’s not a challenge, I don’t know what is!! =)
SRAS: How long did you stay with it? Why did you decide to go back? Are you still doing similar work (or at least work with Russian)?
Christine: I stayed with my firm for about a year and a half. I decided to come back to the states because I realized how much I needed my family & friends with me. I always thought that I could survive on my own, especially since we now had so many ways of communicating (landlines, cell phones, email, internet, chat, etc.). But I was so far off! I mean, don’t get me wrong – I met so many wonderful, inspirational people & friends in Russia who I intend to keep in touch with for the rest of my life. But there’s nothing like home sweet home. I still keep in touch w/almost everyone I met, especially with my former colleagues. They were the most IDEAL colleagues, friends and people and I miss them all very, very much. I’m definitely going back to visit sometime soon.
SRAS: What were your living accommodations like? Did they change after you started work?
Christine: For the first 3 months, I actually home-stayed with my San Francisco Russian teacher’s friends, a babushka and her daughter. It was definitely an interesting experience, but I really wanted to start living independently without having to report back to my family about when I’d be back from my studies, what I’d be doing for dinner, etc. So, I decided to move out after 3 months. I luckily had a contact at the Japanese Embassy and he suggested that I contact some real estate agencies and I found a perfect apartment through one of them. It was smack in the center of downtown, so it was pretty pricey, but definitely worth every penny of it. I’ve heard SO many nightmare stories about landlords and Moscow apartments, but I never had any of that. I never had any problems, my landlords were the warmest & sweetest people and it was such a great distance from my firm.
SRAS: How do you think your experience at MGU and the international law firm has better prepared you for your future plans?
Christine: Wow, this question is loaded.
SRAS: Well, we do have something to sell here… go on…
Christine: I won’t get into everything, but in a nutshell: my experience in Russia was my lifesaver. It’s ironic because most people would think that seeing the various struggles in Russia and experiencing some of the difficulties I experienced there would have discouraged me. Ha!!! To the contrary: it instilled such an incredible sense of confidence in me and I came back to the states with more inner strength than I’ve ever felt in my life. Now I think, “hey, if I survived alone in Russia, I could do anything!” And it’s true. Because we can all do anything in life. We just need to see that in ourselves. I think that’s our biggest challenge, and thanks to SRAS, I seem to have conquered that.
SRAS: And that sells it very nicely, thanks. So, in conclusion, what advice would you offer a student looking to Moscow for opportunities?
Christine: My advice: network, network, network. I may be wrong, but it seems that more than any other city/country, Moscow/Russia is ALL about connections. Once you know a few people, you basically know everyone. As my friend would say, “this city is a freakn’ village!” No words ring truer. And my special advice would be not to just network, but to network with other expatriates. Of course, I understand if students/foreigners want to completely immerse themselves in the Russian culture by only hanging out with Russians… but trust me, it gets lonely. Plus, I hate to say this, but it’s true: the expats live well. Not all of them, but most of them do. And with such advantageous connections come other amazing advantages that you can’t ever get any way else. So keep in touch with everyone you meet – within Russia and out. Connections are EVERYTHING.