Spotlight on Sochi: A UW Exploration Seminar Experience
by Amy Paul
The author with the proprietor of Hotel Mashuk.
This summer, the tropical city of Sochi, Russia played host to the University of Washington's Exploration Seminar "Culture, Language and Community Health," led by Professor Valentina Zaitseva from the UW Slavic Department. The three-week program was designed for students from diverse backgrounds of study to experience modes of cross-cultural communication through investigation and observation.
As one might expect, an integral part of the program was developing greater competency in the Russian language. During the three weeks, each morning we gathered to hone our Russian language skills (or for some of us, begin learning the language from scratch) on the balconies of our hotel. Even our temporary home, the Hotel Mashuk, was part of the learning experience, allowing us to get a feel for the area and gain context for the culture. Nestled in the Bytkha district atop a hill overlooking the Black Sea, the hotel is juxtaposed between new condominiums and century-old sanatoriums, a physical tribute to the culture's mix of tradition and modernity.
Professor Zaitseva addressing Sochi students and Exploration Seminar students during our first meeting.
Our morning language lessons formed only one part of our Russian knowledge, though. During our afternoon linguistics seminar, we discussed non-verbal communication theory, miscommunication and socio-cultural aspects of the language. We focused specifically on the mechanisms through which culture works its way into language: through body language, iconicity, Russian terms of address, genderlects and more. Each day also incorporated lab work: to observe language in action by "going into the field" to observe and interact with the locals. Surrounded by casual conversations in Russian, day-laborers shouting at each other on nearby rooftops, and Russian music floating up the hill from the stereos of cars stuck in the probka (traffic jam) below, it was impossible to come up short on data.
View from the balcony of Hotel Mashuk.
Fieldwork, we soon realized, was the core of this program. In or out of class, any interaction, experience, and observation we might make was fair game for analysis. We needed only sit back and train ourselves to recognize what we were seeing and hearing in the marshrutka (public transport vans) during the ride home, during an exchange with the clerk at the grocery while trying to make change, or with the women we tried to pass on the narrow sidewalks. As we wandered around town with non-verbal communication thoughts in our heads, sights of women holding hands and linking arms became an extension of the kinship metaphor and an expression of cultural solidarity rather than a funny social habit. Every moment of our day was "live action" time recorded for later analysis and dissection. When else would a disagreement over luggage with a hotel owner be an exciting piece of data rather than a potential headache of frustration? An open mind, an attuned ear, and a watchful eye were all we needed to see the theory we learned in seminar teeming in the city life around us and during organized visits to sanatoriums and schools.
A doctor discussing his work at the Sanatorium.
An underlying value of Sochi's culture is its focus on personal health. The history of Sochi is steeped in the concept of health and restoration. As a warm and beautiful destination rich with mineral springs, Sochi was founded as a town in which Russians (and, later, Soviet workers) could come to relax, rejuvenate, and receive any necessary care at one of numerous sanatoriums constructed just for this purpose. While many of the sanatoriums fell into disrepair since the fall of the Soviet Union, Sochi today has reinvested in its health centers and is gaining international attention for its health resorts. We were fortunate to visit two sanatoriums in Sochi and receive detailed tours of each facility. Staff members answered our questions and explained their services. Between the 360 degree massage showers, mineral water regimens, and prescribed walks on the beach, all of us were ready to sign up for a two-week stay by the end of the tour! But in all seriousness, each of the sanatoriums presented an impressive breadth of services and served a diverse population of clients.
On a repeat visit, each of us had the opportunity to observe actual doctor-patient interactions - to be a very visible fly on the wall of a doctor's office during a typical appointment. Such access allowed us to observe first-hand the particulars of body language, ways of questioning and communicating about health, use of English phrases and terms, and occasionally witness situations that gave particular insight into social roles and power differentials expressed through language. For example, when observing a conversation between a male doctor and female staff member, we heard the words, but were perhaps more interested in the way the doctor's the broad pose, direct eye-contact, and emphatic gesturing contrasted with the woman's collapsed stance; her arms were crossed and eyes diverted. The traditional male-dominant social role, reinforced by a profession position of power, was evident through body language. This interaction was a marked change from interactions we saw between female doctors and female patients or staff, where different social dynamics exist.
As a public health student, I could not help but notice the contrast manifested by our very presence in the examination room - when would study abroad students be allowed in an appointment without prior approval in the US? No consent forms, no written permission required, just a brief explanation that we were students; a quick nod or shrug of approval sufficed.
Sanatorium "Metallurg" in Sochi.
Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the seminar, from the public health perspective, came from just being in Sochi. Hearing the warnings frequently given about the safety of drinking water, produce and dairy products, and seeing the ease with which tobacco and alcohol products were obtained was certainly a contrast to the more developed public health provisions in the US. However, I also recognized the importance of understanding the cultural framework of the underlying population. On a ride home in the marshrutka one evening, I was motioned at by the driver (who used what I then discovered was an iconic gesture for "seatbelt") to pull the seatbelt across my torso in order to abide by Russia's recent law requiring all front -seat passengers to use a seatbelt. While attempting to comply, I noticed that there was no latch for the buckle, just an empty hole on my left in which the belt could dangle, giving the appearance of being secured while completely circumventing any safety benefit. The driver was more interested in complying with the letter of the law than minimizing potential health hazards. For me, this underscored the important role of public trust in the field of public health. The apparent erosion of public trust in government, whether justified or not, ultimately undermined an attempt at regulatory or federal interventions for benefit. In a culture notorious for corruption and a less-than-transparent government, public health has its work cut out for it! Understanding these cultural circumstances before attempting to intervene, though, is a critical step.
Public health, in addition to many other disciplines, often involves working in diverse teams and environments. This makes communication essential to success. As our societies become more interconnected with increasing globalization, it will become even more important to proceed in our professions with a sensitivity to the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of our friends and colleagues. It takes an effort to look more closely and to examine our perspectives objectively, yet when we do, we are rewarded with a new, broader perspective to take away with us.
Visiting a homeroom class on the first day of school.
Teacher-student interactions provided valuable data for making cross-cultural comparisons in language, specifically in instructional discourse. We had the chance to sit in on classes in groups of two or three to observe classroom dynamics directly. A common observation was that Russian instructors can be very demanding, quite literally! While American students are used to being politely asked to turn in homework, offer responses and share our books, Russian students are frequently not given the choice. Use of imperatives in instructional discourse is much more frequent in the schools we visited than what anyone experienced at home. "Read!" "Write this!" "Stand up!" "Finish, quickly!" Sound harsh? Initially, yes, but we also learned to pick up on other nuances of the language that conveyed more warmth, such as the use of informal pronoun "you," or, particularly with children, the use of diminutives to communicate more affection simply through terms of address. What sounded harsh to us was perfectly normal to the culturally attuned Russians in the class.
Fortunate to be in Sochi on the first day of school, we experienced another cultural difference - the National Day of Education. Each year, on September 1st, the first day of school is more than a grudging return to study or even a reunion with friends; it is a celebration. School No. 9 was kind enough to host our delegation this day as we attended celebratory performances and heard the first ringing of the bell. Complete with music, choir performances, confetti and balloons, the event brought together parents, city officials, education administrators, and, on this particular day, visitors from abroad.
Sailing on the Black Sea.
As we learned throughout our stay, information in Russia is sometimes incomplete and rarely comes early - in other words, we often were not sure where we were going or what we would do until we were there, doing it. Such was the experience on a later school visit, where we thought we were going to have lunch with the students at the cafeteria and then observe classes. It turned out that there was a delightful lunch set out for us in a special dining area; after a leisurely meal, we were escorted to an auditorium not to observe, but to become an active panel of experts on American culture in a round-table discussion with students, many of whom had been waiting while we ate lunch. Surprise! After a few minutes of reorienting ourselves, we were engaged in a fascinating discussion of cultural perceptions and stereotypes: Do all American police really love donuts? Do all Russians really love vodka? Okay, those were easy opening questions, but how about these: Are Americans more patriotic than Russians? What does "feminism" mean in your country? Are drugs really a big problem? After much back and forth, we resolved that our perceptions were indeed quite different, not only between Russian students and Americans, but even within our respective groups! The opportunity to speak to students so directly and openly became, for many of us, an unexpected yet welcomed highlight of our stay in Sochi.
Sochi and beyond
A toast from Hotel Mashuk owners on our final night in Sochi.
Cross-cultural communication studies can happen anywhere, but studying in Sochi presented a unique opportunity. Sochi is a mixing-ground of old and new; it is a place in transition. Sochi is a site of geographical juxtaposition that pushes the senses to higher levels of observation than could be achieved at home. This seminar offered the chance to develop the skill of removing individual bias from interpersonal interactions – the ability to see these interactions objectively, as a set of culturally and linguistically infused data that are a part of every conversation. Study abroad programs are valuable for many reasons, but this seminar was particularly valuable in the way it encouraged each participant to see more, to reflect more, and to understand the challenges of communication and culture on both a practical and theoretical level. It left me feeling not only enriched by the experience, but able to have greater patience and renewed appreciation for the culture that confronts each of us every day - in our home country or abroad. Ultimately, I felt ready to take my newly learned theory, sharply trained eyes, and highly tuned ears to experience the world anew.
Amy Paul is a graduate student in the Public Health Genetics program at the University of Washington. The Exploration Seminar was her first visit to Russia.
For more information about the Exploration Seminar “Culture, Language and Community Health,” contact Professor Valentina Zaitseva at firstname.lastname@example.org.