2014 Davis Grant Recipient
We All Smile in the Same Language
Mari El, Russia
My name is Shauna Taylor and I am (fingers crossed) almost done completing my first year of graduate school at the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago. I am originally from Decatur, Georgia and moved to Chicago in September of 2013 to attend school. A proud alum of the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!), I double majored in Social Work and Psychology. During my junior year of undergrad, I attended the Camp Russia Study Abroad Program, which allowed me to be a camp counselor at Camp Lesnaya Skazka (Camp Fairy Tale in English) in Mari El, Russia for a month. That experience was one of the most memorable of my life so far and had a profound impact on my life and future career plans. After returning home from my trip, I began to develop a desire to pursue International Social Work, which is one of the main reasons I chose to attend SSA at the University of Chicago.
When I first learned about the opportunity to apply for a Davis Projects for Peace grant, I immediately thought about returning to Mari El. Not only had I kept in contact with my friends and campers, but I always felt in my gut that I would return to camp for some bigger purpose. Fast forward to now, about three weeks before I leave the United States to return to Lesnaya Skazka, and I could not be more excited to embark on this new adventure. My project is titled “We All Smile in the Same Language” and I will be teaching a diversity class that utilizes games, skits, crafts, and group exercises to teach campers to value and appreciate the diversity in themselves and in others. Mari El has recently experienced racial tension in the area and my hope is to help spark an awareness of these issues in the campers who take my class, to the point where they are inspired to create positive change, personally and in the larger Mari El community.
I have set a pretty high and lofty goal for this summer project, but I am optimistic about the experiences I will have this summer. The individuals, both young and old, I met during my last trip to Mari El were truly amazing people and I feel honored to be able to, in some small way, make a difference.
Вот к лето, полное приключений!
Found out that I received the Davis Grant.
Spring quarter begins.
Planning Davis Project for Peace while balancing a busy schedule at I-House and surviving Econ class at SSA.
Arrive home on Tuesday, June 10.
Leave for Russia tomorrow, Friday, June 13, 2014.
The past few months have truly seemed like a handful of blinks and I honestly don’t know how so much was packed in between them. Friday June 13, 2014 has been etched in my brain (not because I’m superstitious) as the day I would leave for Russia and that day is literally just around the corner. Most things are, surprisingly, in order and all I have left to do is pack up a few things and get ready for a crazy awesome summer!
In some ways, I don’t think the adventure I am about to embark on has really hit me yet. Like I mentioned above, time really flew the last quarter and my brain is still trying to catch up. It was so convenient to plan this project during the busiest season of my job and my toughest quarter so far (one word: Econ). Hopefully you were able to catch the sarcasm in that last line. Organizing this project has not been an easy task for many reasons: coordinating with camp directors in Russia, working with my budget, compiling a curriculum for my class, getting my visa, shipping items abroad…to name a few. Thankfully, I had the support of my family, friends, advisor and fellow American embarking on this trip, Gwynn Powell, and I-House staff to keep me sane during the process. Even when I might have been complaining about how tired and stressed I was, I never lost sight of how blessed I am to have the opportunity to even have the grant. I always told people that using $10,000 on a project I am passionate about is a good problem to have!
One of the main questions I am asked about my trip (right after people remove the look of pure shock from their face when I mention I am going to Russia for the summer and ask why I want to go there), is where in Russia am I going. Instead of me trying to explain, I’ll rely on my friends Wikipedia and Britannica to give a brief history of Mari El (see the links below).
Now you know as much as I did when I went to Mari El almost 3 years ago to the day. Congrats!
A big point I feel that I should mention about my project is the fact that I was invited by the directors of Camp Lesnaya Skazka to come back and teach my class. After taking a course this past quarter on international social welfare programs, I am more sensitive and aware of how many organizations and countries try to “impose” and “force” others to conform to their viewpoint or just assume their way is better. If I did not have my previous experience at the camp and didn’t feel I was qualified or welcomed back, I would never have applied for the grant. It is mainly because I am a former counselor that I feel my project can be successful; instead of learning about diversity from a stranger, campers will learn from their old friend Shauna. I don’t underestimate how big of a deal this is and the possible impact it can have for the kids and counselors at camp, and don’t take my role as a diversity awareness teacher lightly. How fortunate am I to be able to play a part in changing the way a camp thinks about the world around them? Come to think of it, that’s one of the reasons I came to grad school!
Like I mentioned earlier, I am almost done with getting everything together for the trip. The only thing I wish I had more time for (other than spending more time with my family and sleeping for a week) is studying Russian. Knowing Russian wasn’t a requirement to attend the trip I went on 3 years ago and I learned a little bit when I was at camp, but I have forgotten much of what I learned. I have been trying to “re-learn” Russian over the past few days and, shocker, my brain is not working at its optimal level. My friends and campers were kind, gracious, and patient with my poor Russian skills last time and I will have to rely on those qualities again. Honestly, I think they enjoy laughing at my horrible pronunciation too much to even care about my ignorance. But I am determined to learn and learn I shall!
On the flight back to Atlanta a few days ago, I reflected (like all good social workers do) on how blessed I am to have several “homes” around the world. To me, home is where you have people who love and care about you as much as you do about them. Chicago is now a home for me and three years ago, I discovered that a tiny republic in the middle of Russia was another place I considered home. In Russian culture, it is common to leave a small article or trinket that belongs to you (such as a hair clip, pen, or jacket) at a friend’s house as a promise that you will come back to visit, since you have to come back and get what you left behind. In 2011, I left pieces of my heart at Camp Lesnaya Skazka, so, in keeping with tradition, I must go back.
It’s hard to believe that one full week has passed since I arrived at camp. I have pretty much recovered from jetlag and think I have finally started to come to the realization that I’m actually back in Russia. I have been keeping an extensive journal for several reasons: 1) it helps me to wind down at the end of the day 2) I like to write 3) it helps me organize the many thoughts that I have throughout the day. My entries are, like most of my thoughts, pretty random, so I will divide this post into different sections to make it easier to follow. I apologize in advance that this is a long post: I tend to be wordy anyway, but a lot of stuff happened this past week.
Trip to Russia
The trip over to Russia was long, but smooth. I travelled from Atlanta to JFK, and JFK to Moscow. In total, I was in the air about 12 hours or so and I dozed off for about 30 minutes over the entire journey. During my layover in New York, I had my “final” American meal that consisted of a bacon cheese burger, fries, and a coke. It was so good! I also grabbed a cup of coffee to stay awake (I was dozing in the airport and didn’t want to miss my flight), which probably explains why I was so wired for most of the flight to Moscow. I was so happy that the plane had a TV screen to keep me occupied, so the flight itself wasn’t that bad at all. I also had nice seat mates along the way, which is always a plus when you are travelling in the air for so long. In the airport, at the passport control station, the agent took an extra-long time looking at my passport. I guess she was confused to what an African-American female traveling alone was doing in Moscow. She kept asking me to smile, take off my glasses, and even looked at my passport under a microscope to make sure it was real. After about 5 minutes or so, I was starting to worry she wouldn’t let me through! Thankfully, she let me pass and I was able to catch a taxi to the hotel where my advisor, Gwynn, was waiting for me. It was so great seeing not only her, but other friends living in Moscow. Everything looked so familiar and brought back so many happy memories. Like a whirlwind, we had lunch, met a few people, and caught another taxi to the train station. The train ride from Moscow to Mari El is about 16 hours, which might sound like a nightmare, but I actually enjoy it, especially since all I could think about was sleeping for most of the ride. At the time we boarded the train, I hadn’t slept in well over 24 hours so I was definitely in need of sleep. Before I knew it, it was early the next morning and it was almost time to get off our stop, where I knew a group of our friends would be waiting to take us back to camp.
There is something truly special when you look at someone’s face and see that they are just as happy and excited to see you as you are them. That is the look and feeling I have had many times over the past few days. It was almost like a dream seeing faces I haven’t seen in person in a few years, giving hugs to campers who had grown a few inches since I last saw them, and squealing with delight when I saw a friend from across the room heading towards me. I had day dreamed often about what it would be like to be re-united with my friends, but in this case, reality was much better than I could have imagined.
Camp Lesnaya Skazka is much the same as it was when I left. It was like stepping back in time or as if I had never left. Same people, food, music, my old room with the same bed, and even dance moves at disco dance parties. It was cool to see that they hadn’t forgotten about me as I had not about them: two pictures of me (along with the two other American students who were with me) are featured on the camp’s official poster. It is huge! The Americans who visit Mari El and the camps are, in some ways, like legends and myths: the memories of their visits never truly leave the camp. I was surprised at how easy it was for me to fit right back into the camp routine. It was like a muscle memory or something. How weird is it that I feel right at home in the middle of Russia? Instead of being in awe of the novelty of everything around me, I actually knew my way around camp, how the schedule ran, how to maneuver using the two bathrooms on my floor, etc. An old camper told me that I now have three homes: one in Georgia, one in Chicago, and one in Lesnaya Skazka. I couldn’t agree more.
I think it is important to talk a little about Russian culture, and more specifically, Russian camp life (at least based on my experience at Lesnaya Skazka). I am by no means an expert, but I probably know more than the average American. One thing that I had to remember is that Russians, in general, do not smile very often. There is a quote (I’m not sure by whom) that
basically says that to be Russian is to be cold on the outside, but warm on the inside. I have found this to be true: some of the people with the most serious faces are some of the most affectionate! For someone who smiles a lot, even by American standards, it was hard for me to try not to smile too much when I landed in Moscow because I didn’t want to draw even more attention to myself than being black already was. But here at camp, I feel free to smile all the time.
People have often asked me what I eat at camp and for the most part, it is nothing atypical. Bread, potatoes, fruit, cucumbers and tomatoes (the typical Russian salad), beef, chicken, soup, and some type of warm cereal for breakfast make up most of my diet. Russians are also crazy about tea and sweets of any kind. I have never been much of a sweets person, but I definitely have become a fan of tea after visiting Russia. You will never find a Russian without a box of tea and a bag of candy.
Four other points to mention. First, I never ceased to be amazed at the creativity and resourcefulness of Russians. Every day I see this creativity manifested in the most practical ways and it is truly cool to watch. Second, driving in Russia is a very scary experience! The roads are not in great condition because of the drastic changes in temperature between summer and winter. The potholes in Chicago have nothing on the ones in Mari El! Plus, most people drive pretty fast and there are cars frequently passing in front of each other. I feel safe driving with my friends though; otherwise I would not drive with them! Third, Russians can really dance! I guess the stereotype that white people can’t dance only applies to Western Europe. Disco at camp are some of the best dance parties I have been to. The entire camp just lets loose and dances their hearts out to techno music mixed with current Russian and American music. I don’t think you have truly been to a dance party until you have been to one at a Russian camp! Fourth, there are tons of American culture present throughout Russia. Most of the shirts I see are in English and feature American symbols, brands, flags, etc. Russians, in general, listen to American music, watch American movies, and some fashion trends from the past are still alive and well (for example, the mullet is still a thing here). Very interesting to see so much “American” stuff so far away from home.
I knew when I received the grant that I battling fatigue after two long quarters of grad school would be one of my biggest challenges and that has proven to be true. Jetlag definitely didn’t help. Also, being the center of attention wherever I go is also exhausting! The fact that I am both American and black gives me a double dose of fame in a way. While some people may have met an American before, they have never seen a person of color in real life. I am like an exotic creature from the movies, and the fact that I have long braids this summer only adds to the mystery. Everywhere I go, people stare (often with mouths wide open), do double takes, ask for pictures, and some kids at camp have even come up to rub my skin to see if the “black” will rub off. The same things happened to me last time, so I expected it, but it still takes some time to get adjusted to. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever will get used to it.
This time around, while many things are the same, things are completely different in other ways. Last time, I was at camp with two other students and we were all the rock stars at camp. This time, it is just me and Gwynn (who by the point is a Mari El icon: this is her 10th summer coming to camp!) so a lot more attention is focused on me. It is a weird experience that no matter where you go, people are excited to see you. All day long, I have children coming up to me asking for hugs, taking pictures, and saying “hello” about 100 times. When I walk into the dining room, the kids’ faces just light up and they reach out their hands for me to give them a high-five. It’s hard to imagine people getting that excited to see me. But I realize that for most of these kids, I am the closest to America and people of color they may ever get, which is why, no matter how tired I am, I always smile back, take pictures, and give hugs. What on my part is a smile gesture means the world to the children here and that is truly special.
There have been many special and memorable things that have happened, but here are some that stand out in my mind.
• Seeing old friends and it being like no time had passed.
• Meeting new friends and seeing campers who have grown up to become leaders at camp
• Travelling to the capital city of Mari El (Yoshkar-Ola) several times and enjoying the amusement park (including the new Ferris wheel!)
• First Russian banya!
• Visiting one of my friend’s family’s house for the night and it being considered a holiday that I was there.
• Having Gwynn’s support along the way to help me with my project and being my American counterpart.
• Being called a “hero” by the executive director of camp because I returned back to camp to complete my project here.
• Trying to explain what a water bottle (like a Camelbak) is to people around camp. Apparently they haven’t caught on here in Russia.
• Having Russian language lessons from campers and counselors and being told that my Russian was good (including the pronunciation).
• Being told that my smile brought warmth and sunshine to camp.
• Counselors enjoying my grandma’s brownies as much as I do.
• Being called “chocolate” by the 3 year old daughter of the camp’s craft director. She also thought that mine and Gwynn’s names were “hello” because that is what she always hears people around camp say to us when they see us. Priceless.
I am super excited for the next session at camp to start so I can begin starting my classes! There have been challenges basically at every point imaginable planning this project, but it is almost time for all the hard work to pay off. Many of my friends have been asking me why I have come back. They have seen Americans come every year to camp the last 10 years, but people rarely return. I have explained the grant, my class, and that I just wanted to come back, but my friend Sveta, who has been a counselor at Lesnaya Skazka for a number of years, said it best when she said the following: “I always ask myself why I always return to Lesnaya Skazka when it looks like nothing special on the outside. But when I come back, I realize that what we do here is very special and the only place in the world where we can do what we do.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The day had finally come: I taught my first two classes yesterday and three more today. They went as well as I could have hoped for, which is very encouraging, especially given the challenges that I have had along the way. There had been a few miscommunications about how the class schedule would work, how to distribute the surveys I wanted to give students before and after they take my class (to see how effective the curriculum is on changing the children’s view on diversity), and deciding which groups at camp should take my class. I am truly thankful to Lesnaya Skazka for being so flexible and willing to let me teach this class this summer. Something like this has never been done at their camp, but they are totally open to me doing what I feel is best. We decided it would be best to teach the older children at camp (the five oldest groups) and see how that works before trying to adapt lessons to younger children. In addition to figuring out camp logistics, I was also dealing with waiting for packages of materials to arrive at camp. To make a long story very short, it has been a challenge to have things arrive to camp, but at the time I am writing, half of the things have arrived! Yay! While I don’t have all of the materials I had planned on having at this point, I have enough to make the activities work and have been able to make adjustments and brainstorm like a boss to get things done. So thankful for the support I have from Gwynn, the camp staff, and my friends (Sveta and Anya) who are willing to translate the activities for me! If I had to choose two key words that have described planning this project, they would be persistence and brainstorming.
The kids I am teaching are from about 10 years old to 16 years old. All of the groups have been engaged, having lively and interesting conversations about stereotypes and how people can be treated differently, either good or bad, because of stereotypes. Some were shy at first to talk, but as time went on, the kids became more honest and willing to share their thoughts on the sources of stereotypes (internet, movies, pop culture, family, school, etc) and even times when they had treated someone badly because of a stereotype about that person’s social group. I was honestly surprised at how much the kids knew about certain labels from around the world and how willing they were collectively to talk about them. I could see the wheels turning in their heads and they all seemed excited when I said we would be having more classes like the first class. The counselors also seemed to enjoy the class and thanked me for teaching a subject and topic they felt was really important for the children to talk about. They mentioned that open conversations about diversity rarely happen in schools and they were excited to see how the children will grow by taking this class. Now that made me feel great! That is exactly what I came to do and makes all the challenges well worth it.
There is more I can say and write about this and other things, but I am almost falling asleep writing this now, so I should hit the sack. But in closing, during one of the classes, we were talking about good and bad stereotypes and someone mentioned the stereotype (from the Russian perspective) that all Americans hate Russians. One of my friends, Rustam, said to the class that my being here at camp and teaching this class was proof that not all Americans hate Russians. While I can’t singlehandedly completely dispel that stereotype for all Russians, I am glad that, at least at Lesnaya Skazka, I can be an exception to that rule.
Time is really moving by fast! I can’t believe that the 4th of July is only two days away. Here at camp, the 4th is one of the biggest events all year and since I am the only American student, I have to do the planning. Most of the counselors have seen at least one 4th celebration here at camp, as well as many campers, so they will definitely be a huge help with decorations and leading activities. So much to do, so little time! I wanted to write some things down before the 4th because I am sure that will take one post by itself.
By this point, I have taught 17 classes. Every day is an adventure, but the feedback has been good from both campers and counselors. The children have been engaging, asking great questions, and making connections between classes. Russian children are typically pretty honest, so I take it as a good sign that they say they enjoy the class! They have told me that many of the questions I have asked them are the first times they have ever been asked to answer those questions out loud. While it is sometimes hard to read their faces, it is interesting to see the range of responses the kids have to some activities. They keep asking if I am a teacher in America and one kid asked if I wanted to be a psychologist! I guess they see I am trying to shape their young minds. Working with my friend Anya has been a great experience and I am so proud of her work with the class. She was a camper last time I came and her dream is to become an interpreter. She is doing an awesome job and getting great practice for her future career at the same time. Fingers crossed things continue to go well with the classes!
In the spirit of being brief, I will list some events and highlights that have occurred since my last post. Please excuse the randomness of the list; that’s just how my brain works!
- 2014 has been literally the coldest year of my life! After surviving the worst winter in Chicago history, I was looking forward to sunshine here at camp. Up until the last two days, the weather has been pretty crappy. It was cold, damp, raining, and windy, making camp life a little more difficult. But thankfully, the sun has arrived again and with it some warm weather! It’s so nice to walk around in shorts again. I have a much greater appreciation for sunshine than I ever thought I would.
- I have decided to just wait till I get home to post pictures on Facebook. The internet and electricity can be unpredictable sometimes, and I don’t want to tie up the office computer trying to upload 500 pictures. Thankfully Gwynn can post pictures of me!
- Since most days are typically the same here at camp, I truly never know what day of the week it is!
- I have had the munchies since I have been at camp. It’s not like they don’t feed me: we eat 5 meals a day. I guess my metabolism has speed up more than I realized. Last time, I lost about 10 pounds and hopefully history will repeat itself! As long as I don’t gain 10 pounds, I should be ok.
- Still battling fatigue. Teaching is hard work, plus I have to try to balance my time with the groups of children who are not taking my class. Everyone wants to hang out with me, but there are only so many hours in a day. That is only disadvantage of being the only American student: it is hard to get around to all the groups and spend time with them. I do the best I can! It is a good problem to have that people want to see you. I’m proud of myself for knowing when I need to take a break and step away from the action if necessary. Self-care in action!
- One reason it is a struggle for me to learn Russian is because everyone wants to speak to me in English! Even when I talk in Russian, the response is always in English. I completely understand why people want to talk in English: they want to practice with a native speaker. But it definitely doesn’t help me learn Russian.
- Since the weather has improved, that means more time outside in the camp forest! I love being outside and with nature, especially after such nasty weather. The forest at camp is truly beautiful and peaceful. I was even able to eat wild berries, something I would never do at home because all I can think about is the poison berries in the Hunger Games.
- Campers and counselors alike are fascinated when they see me writing in my journal around camp. I think it is a combination that I am left-handed, I am writing in English, and I am always writing something down somewhere.
- I had the chance to visit a friend’s dacha (google search that for more info!) and pick fresh berries!
- Apparently I have been blowing up the Mari El Instagram network. People keep saying they saw pictures of me on the internet and I’m like, what picture are you talking about?! Lord knows I probably look crazy in most of them.
- Had my first “holiday” or vacation yesterday. It wasn’t very restful, but I had a chance to go to the city again. This time I went to my friend’s English class and spoke with the students. They were lots of fun and asked tons of questions about life in America, comparing Russia and America, my interests, and even what is the American secret to having white teeth!
- If there is one rite of passage for American students at Lesnaya Skazka, it is surviving picture day. Taking pictures with every group (including the individual pictures within each group) in the heat is no walk in the park. Last time, we took pictures for 8 hours. I missed 5 groups this morning because of class, but I spent 5 hours with the rest of the groups! Man, it is exhausting, but it really means to the world to the kids. Their smiles and happiness are worth it in the end!
So that really wasn’t brief at all, but in conclusion, one of the things people tell me the most at camp is how much they enjoy me smiling all the time. In fact if I am not smiling, they think something is wrong or I am upset! Most people respond back to my smile with another smile, but some just stare back, in awe, wonder, confusion, or all three haha. I consider it a personal challenge to get these smile-resistant individuals to smile back eventually. For some it takes a day, others a week, and a few it takes almost the entire session, but in the end, I have yet to fail! And the sense of satisfaction and happiness to see those smiles from the most serious faces is truly priceless. So keep smiling friends, even when it is hard; you might just bring some sunshine to someone’s day. If it works in the middle of Russia, I’m sure it will work for you wherever you are!
I have always enjoyed celebrating the 4th of July. It is normally a day for my family to relax, spend time with each other and friends, eat good food, and watch a firework show. My first Independence Day abroad in 2011 was definitely one of the most memorable days of my trip and without a doubt the most unique 4th that I have ever celebrated. The administrators at Lesnaya Skazka consider the 4th one of the most important days at camp: it is an all hands on deck type of day. Although many of the campers and counselors have been a part of the celebration at camp before, for quite a few it was their first time ever celebrating Independence Day.
In planning the schedule for the day, I relied mostly on what had worked in 2011. American games, baseball game, dance contest, and disco at the end of the night. At the counselor meeting the night before, we went over the plan and everyone was ready to go. The counselors here at Lesnaya Skazka are awesome! They are hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and highly creative people who are always willing to help. With their help, we were able to decorate the camp grounds in about 20 minutes. If I had been doing it myself, it would have taken at least 2 hours. We couldn’t wait for the children to get up in the morning to see how camp had been transformed into a land of red, white, and blue.
The morning of the 4th was pure madness for me. The nice weather we had been hoping for was nowhere to be seen: it was cold and rainy. Between leading morning exercises, reading the history of Independence Day skit I had wrote the day before, raising the American Flag with the National Anthem in the background, and passing out American flags to the children so they could march in a “parade” to the dining room, I had no time to eat! In fact, my first meal of the day was at the end of the lunch period. Because of the rain, many of the morning activities had to be re-located and the long-anticipated baseball game was cancelled. I was sad that the morning was looking so gloomy, especially for the people who were celebrating for the first time.
Thankfully, after the camp rest period and snack time, the sun decided to make an appearance, bringing with it some warmth. You could literally feel the mood and energy of the camp lift. I was so happy! The rest of the day went as smoothly as anyone could ask for. The American Dance Contest was hands down the best concert of the summer: I have rarely seen the children have so much energy throughout all the performances. I had created a list of American songs each group had to choose from and create a 2 minute dance. I was blown away by what the groups were able to do in an hour. An American-themed disco ended the day’s festivities and like the concert before it, was one of the best so far. The energy was high the entire party and the kids were truly having a great time. Between passing out American-themed stickers, signing autographs in the children’s notebooks, and taking pictures, I hardly noticed that the day’s events were over. The only negative thing they kids talked about was their disappointment about the baseball game being cancelled. To say I was tired would be a huge understatement, but my heart was so happy that I didn’t ever care!
It truly gave me chills to see how much spirit the camp had all day. I have rarely seen Americans have so much national pride about the 4th. All day, the kids were waving their flags, wearing their stickers, wearing red/white/blue clothes, and telling me “congratulations on your independence.” One of the surprises I had planned for the camp was red and blue rubber bracelets (like the yellow Livestrong bracelets) that had “We All Smile Summer 2014” (the name of my project) printed on them. Before lunch, I had placed them around the dining room at each kid’s spot at the table. The looks on the kids’ faces when they got to lunch was priceless and magical. With looks ranging from shock to happiness, gratitude to pure glee, it was hard for me to walk across the room because of kids running up to me and giving me hugs of appreciation. Ever since then, the bracelets have been a camp trend!
I could write for many more pages about all of the memorable things that happened on the 4th, but the creative director for camp said, in my opinion, one of the best ways to sum up the tradition of celebrating Independence Day at Lesnaya Skazka. He talked about how each country can learn from one another and how special it is that, despite the politics and history between America and Russia, we all could celebrate an American holiday in a Russian camp. It isn’t traditional for Russians to celebrate their country in the same way that Americans tend to do. In fact, many of the counselors were surprised I was able to get so many things with American flags on them! An interesting point to make is that the Russian and American flags share the same colors, something I noticed right away when I was doing research before coming in 2011. For whatever reasons there may be for the flags being the same colors, here at camp, it makes perfect sense. People in both countries may see celebrating the 4th in Russia as a bad things, but at Lesnaya Skazka, it is a truly beautiful picture of cross-cultural friendship and unity. I feel blessed and honored to have been a part of two memorable 4ths here at camp.
I really can’t believe that at the time I am writing this, there are only 3 more days left in this session. This is my first time seeing a camp session from beginning to end (last time I left with one week before the session ended), so I have been amazed at how quickly the days go by. Even though most of the days are similar in structure, there are always special things that happened throughout the day that make each day memorable. I enjoy seeing how the groups have progressed and grown over the course of the session. Children who were barely talking to each other are now good friends, shy kids have come out of their shells, and the mood around camp is nice and peaceful.
By the end of the session, I will have taught about 50 classes, including the classes for my project and the time I spent with the younger groups teaching American games. I have found that I really enjoy teaching! It helps that it seems the kids are really getting it for the most part. Some of the things we have talked about have shocked and challenged them in new ways and I can see the growth in their thinking patterns about diversity, stereotypes, and discrimination. Several children have come to me to personally thank me for teaching the class and others always ask if I will be teaching more classes. I feel so blessed and am honestly kind of shocked that my lessons and the structure for my curriculum are actually working out the way I had hoped, and sometimes even better! God is good and it just gives me further confirmation that I am right where I am supposed to be. I have two more classes left with each group and I look forward to wrapping things up and passing out the surveys again to see if there has been any significant changes in the way they answer the questions. Regardless, I can honestly see the difference in the children myself, and to me that’s the most important thing!
As usual here are some random thoughts and events that have occurred recently…
• It is truly hard to hide from the kids when I am trying not to draw attention to myself: it is like hiding from the paparazzi! Hahaha. Sometimes I try to sneak to one building without being noticed, but once one kid shouts “Hello Shauna!,” there is no escape. The one place I have found on camp grounds where I know the kids can’t find me is the café in the small hotel located on campus. I didn’t even know it existed until some friends took me there. Now, I am a regular customer! The coffee isn’t that great, but it’s quiet, peaceful, and super cheap: one cup costs less than a quarter.
• Since most of the time I am clueless as to what is going on at any given time at camp, I can always count on one of the kids to grab me by the hand to lead me in the right direction, a group of them shouting my name to get my attention, or using a combination of Russian and hand motions to communicate. Someway, somehow I eventually figure out what is going on.
• Because I don’t have a cellphone, I have to rely on old fashion communication: hand-written letters. If I need to let Gwynn or the creative director know something, I just leave them a note. I find it a very effective form of communication.
• Speaking of cellphones, I honestly don’t miss using mine at all! I never had time to watch much TV, so I’m cool without that too. A break from technology (with the exception of typing these blogs and emailing my family) is quite nice I must say.
• I have mentioned how my hair has been a big hit before, but it really does seem to be a magnet, especially for the younger children. Boys and girls alike are reaching constantly trying to touch it. I learned very quickly to keep my hair up because Lord knows I don’t need a kid ripping a braid out hahaha.
• Some things are universal: selfies, iphones, and MacDonald’s
• One thing the kids expect me to be (but I’m not at all) is an expert on American pop culture. They always ask me questions about songs, movies, and other things that I have no clue about. I tell them they know more than I do haha.
• Here at camp, and I think in general in Russia, many of the people have the same names. There might be about 10 or 12 names that it seems most people have, but the way they keep everyone straight is by using their surnames. It is hard for me to keep the surnames straight, which can lead to confusion when talking about someone hahaha. If I was Russian, I would be called Shauna Kevinovna, because my dad’s name is Kevin. But since I am the only Shauna in these parts, there is no confusion at all when someone is talking about me haha.
• Sometimes it is difficult to explain to campers and counselors alike how foreign Russian culture is to most Americans. Many are shocked and honestly sad that American students don’t learn Russian in schools, we don’t listen or watch Russian music and movies, and many Americans have no immediate plans of visiting Russia (especially given the political issues occurring recently). For them, English and American culture are everywhere, so it is surprising to them that the cultural exchange between our two countries is very uneven.
• Getting help with my class from my friends Zhanna (the person who translated my curriculum into Russian), Anya, and Nikita (another former camper who is now a helper at camp).
• Surprise visits from old friends!
• Being interviewed by the local TV station to talk about my project and my class. Much better than the interview I did in 2011 when I had only been at camp two days and still recovering from jet lag hahaha.
• More trips to the city, making new friends, and disproving some stereotypes about Americans these new friends had before meeting and talking with me.
• Kid’s reaction when I come to play or dance with them at disco.
• Trip to the forest!
• The nice, warm, and sunny weather!
• Raising the Russian flag during the morning gathering. Don’t worry, I am not pledging allegiance to Russia, but it is considered one of the biggest honors at camp to be asked to raise the flag in the morning. This was my first time doing it solo, so it was a big deal!
• Making friends with the kitchen, cleaning, and security staff at camp.
• Receiving the last package of supplies for my class!!!
That’s all for now folks! Time to wrap up this session and look forward to the next. My time in Russia has dwindled down to less than a month and I plan on making the most of it!
How 21 days at camp went by so fast is a mystery to me. The Russian- American session at Lesnaya Skazka has come and gone and camp is like a ghost town. Two nights before, the camp was alive with the final disco of the session and many of the children were running around taking pictures and exchanging numbers with their newfound friends. The night ended with the closing video of the session which typically features the different groups and highlights from the session. Gwynn and I both made appearances and it was funny to see how the kids cheered when they saw us on the screen. Most were reluctant to go to bed since they knew the morning meant heading on buses back to the city and away from Skazka. Tears, hugs, and goodbyes were present that night and in the morning as the children left one by one until there were no people left besides the counselors. It is definitely a bitter-sweet atmosphere around the camp now.
While I was sad to see the children leave, I had a sense of satisfaction with the session ending, mainly because I was happy to have finished my classes. For the last class, I had each student go around the room and say any thoughts they had about the class. I did this because it is tradition for each group at the end of the night to have “candle” where a burning candle is passed around to the group and each person gives their opinion about the day, good or bad. Since they were accustomed to this activity, I thought it would be a cool way to finish my classes. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of amazing feedback and comments about the class the kids gave. Like I have mentioned before, Russian kids are honest so I felt they would tell me the truth regardless. I was almost moved to tears from the things the kids were saying about me, the class, and the things they thought they could take away from the lessons. For those of you who don’t know me, I rarely cry, but I was close to losing it a few times, especially when the kids who I thought weren’t paying attention said the most powerful things. Some feedback included seeing the world from a whole new perspective, me being a hero for coming to the middle of Russia to teach them despite the challenges, they would never forget the things I taught them, they wanted more lessons and looked forward to my lessons every day, the lessons weren’t boring and were interesting, and they appreciated my smile and positive energy. I was honestly speechless and was glad I had time to recover before I gave my final remarks. I’m still shocked that things turned out as well as they did and my predictions about the activities the kids would enjoy were accurate. Even though I heard what the kids said aloud in class, I wanted to give them the chance to leave anonymous feedback in a small box I had so they wouldn’t feel pressure to say something they thought I wanted to hear. I still haven’t gotten the feedback translated, but when the director of Lesnaya Skazka read the feedback (just in case there was something negative she needed to be aware of in case a parent called the camp), she was moved to tears from what the children had to say about the class. I feel blessed to see my hard work pay off and mostly to see the change in the kids and the small role I had in helping them see the world in a different way. That’s exactly what I came to do! Definitely worth the struggles and challenges along the way.
I am happy to have a small, one day break from the action and have the chance to sleep a little bit more than usual. I’m pretty sure I will be teaching next session, but I won’t know for sure how many children I will be teaching until camp actually starts again. I’m excited to do a second run at the class to see what further adjustments I can make along the way to make the classes better. So thankful for all the support I have had along the way!
To wrap-up, here are some highlights from the last week or so:
- Being compared to Tyra Banks…again! The same thing happened last time I was at camp. I don’t think we look anything alike, but I’ll take it being compared to a model haha
- The Day of Traditions at camp is one of my favorite days because the counselors play “secret angel” (which is just like Secret Santa) and leave/make gifts for the counselor whose name they picked. It is fun and exciting to try to hide and make gifts without someone seeing you do it. Also, each child is given half of a paper heart and they must try to find the other half of their heart with another child at camp. Camp is covered with “ads” with drawings of the shape of the heart and the name of the child who owns that half. The night ends with the entire camp singing songs and making wishes while standing around a tall structure in the shape of a heart that counselors light while the camp sings. Such a cool and great way to end a special day!
- Giving what I considered small gifts to friends (pictures I had printed out and a water proof watch for one of the kitchen staff who loves swimming) and it meaning the world to them. It’s the small things that matter and I truly believe it is more blessed to give than to receive!
- Finally seeing the camp video of the 4th of July from when I was here in 2011. I had been waiting to see it played on one of the camp TVs and I finally saw it! Such great memories from that day.
- More trips to the city and visiting not one, but two restaurants called “Chicago”(one is little Chicago and the other is big Chicago haha)! No one knows why there are two restaurants called Chicago in the middle of Russia, but I enjoyed some pizza and milkshakes with my friends haha. Plus, we got a super discount on the bill, maybe because my friends explained that I was from Chicago haha.
- The kids for the second session arrive tomorrow so I have to help finish with decorations and figuring out the logistics for the first day. I’m glad that I have a chance to help out and I feel like a true counselor because I am able to contribute and kind of know what is going on haha.
I have been in Russia officially for one month and now have 21 days left at camp and 23 days left before I head home. Let the adventure continue!
Today is the 4th day of the new session and everything is going well so far. There are lots of new faces: counselors and campers alike. In some ways, I was dreading “starting over” with camp for the 3rd time in a little over a month; the first few days are very busy and tiring, and in my case, the children have to get used to seeing me around camp haha. But I was surprised at how I felt rejuvenated when I started interacting with the kids in my group and others around camp. I’m still battling fatigue at times, but their energy is refreshing!
Two of my close friends are the leaders for this session and I am so proud of the work they have been doing. The three of us were counselors together for a group in 2011 and now they are doing bigger and better things here at Skazka. This session’s theme is dance so that means lots of performances and practices. I’m sure it was quite a sight to see me trying to figure out the dance moves for the counselor’s opening dance routine haha. The dance turned out surprisingly well and I only messed up about 3 times haha. More importantly, the kids enjoyed seeing me dance onstage and told me afterwards that I’m a great dancer. I’ll take it, even if it isn’t exactly true.
This time around I will be teaching the first four groups of kids at camp. Overall, the camp is younger than last time, which is why I am teaching fewer groups: I don’t think the younger kids will understand some of the lessons. Surveys have been passed out again and I have pretty much figured out the logistics. I am happy to work with Nikita, a former camper who is now
a helper here at camp. He is a huge help to me and a super sweet guy. Together, we have done the first two lessons for the groups and using some revisions I made to some of the lessons based on classes last session. The kids have lots of energy, are engaged, and I think enjoying the lessons so far. I’m excited to work with these groups and see how things go in future classes!
Here are some recent thoughts I had about Russian culture based on what I have seen around camp:
- Russians, like I have mentioned before, are warm and affectionate people. This time around, I have noticed more how often they hug, hold hands, and kiss (on the cheek) their friends. Since I come from an affectionate family, I’m cool with the hugs and all the love; my friends know I’m a big hugger haha.
- I have noticed that Russians are typically always willing to share, help, and work as a team on different activities.
- Fairy tales are a big part of Russian culture and every day I hear at least one reference to a Russian fairy tale. In fact, Lesnaya Skazka means “forest fairy tale”. It crossed my mind the other day that, in some ways, I could easily be a character from a fairy tale for the children here at camp. With my dark skin, long braids, big eyes, and the fact that I speak a foreign language, I might have jumped straight from one of the pages of their stories haha.
Finally, to close, some highlights of this session so far:
- I have three new roommates, one of which is a 2 and a half year old girl. She is cute as a button and super sweet. We were instant friends and she always asks her mom to tell me to come with them wherever they go. Plus, she gives great hugs whenever she sees me!
- Receiving a flood of messages and friend requests on the Russian version of Facebook from people from the 2nd session. A few of the messages have been from kids and counselors who say they miss my classes and appreciate what I taught them.
- Seeing people wearing the bracelets and necklaces I gave them with the name of my class (We All Smile) around camp. I must say they look really good!
- Having, yet again, children run up to me to rub my skin to see if the color rubs off haha
- Doing word search puzzles with the kids. Every time I pull out the puzzles to work on when I have free time, I am instantly surrounded by a group of kids who want to help me find the words. It’s a lot of fun to do it together and they can practice their English at the same time.
- Celebrating a close friend’s birthday and being here for his mini birthday party with other counselors.
- Receiving super creative and cool “just because” gifts from friends.
- Seeing the 7 year old daughter of a camp craft teacher proudly displaying her new black Barbie doll around camp because she said it was me haha. Her mom explained that she had the choice between 3 Barbie dolls, but she instantly chose the black Barbie and started saying “Look mama, it’s Shauna!” The doll has long, dark hair and big earrings so I understand why she thought it looked like me haha. Who knew they had black dolls in Russia?
That’s all for now! Time to go find my group and get ready for disco tonight!
Today is the last full day at camp and it truly is one of the most bitter-sweet days of my life. In some ways, I feel I can stay here forever, but I know that I have to go home. The weather this morning was rainy and the creative director said it was the sky crying because Gwynn and I are leaving tomorrow. It is a strange mood around camp on the last day, with everyone trying to enjoy every last second left in the session. And what a crazy, busy, and interesting session this has been!
Like I mentioned in the last post, this session is dance themed, but what I learned later was that it is also about fairy tales. Since my friends are the leaders of this session, they have included me in different skits, dances, and even leader planning meetings. This session, I have been a star watcher, cat, queen, African medicine woman, and a little girl-all complete with creative costumes. Every day brings a new adventure and honestly I like it! Camp is the only place I can act and play different characters without being seen as completely crazy haha. This session has been unique in many ways and the whole camp waited in anticipation every day to see what the day would bring. Everyone by this point is super tired, but I have again been impressed with the creativity, hard work, energy, and spirit I have seen from both counselors and campers.
This afternoon I will officially wrap up my last classes with two groups. It’s truly hard to believe that two full camp sessions have come and gone by so quickly. After today, I would have taught almost 90 classes (including the activities I did with the younger kids and teaching baseball). It is interesting for me to notice the similarities and differences between the groups of kids in both sessions. Praise the Lord the feedback has still been positive and it seems the children are understanding the material! Another interesting thing I noticed is that the children and some of the counselors classify me as a psychologist and the activities we do in class as psychology games (this might be due to translation). Even though I studied psychology, I never called myself a psychologist because social work is what I have studied the most and the profession I have chosen. Also, here in America, the activities I do in class would be filed under “diversity” or “team building” games, which in many ways are psych games, but it is interesting that that is the way the kids think about me and the lessons.
Well, here are a number of highlights from this session for me!
• The golf set I had ordered for the camp to help teach the children patience, cooperation, and teamwork, FINALLY arrived at camp! The younger kids had a blast with it and we even got help from two security guards with setting it up and showing the kids how to play. The camp director is happy that they can use the set in the snow, which is a legitimate concern since the camp is open year round.
• I mentioned before about my 2 year old roommate and how we were instant friends. Now she calls me “Aunt Shauna” and sometimes crawls next to me on my bed while I am writing or eating a quick snack. At first, I was concerned that I and my other roommate (besides her mom) would keep her up at night since we came in the room hours after she went to sleep, but she is hands down the loudest roommate in the room! Haha. She always gets up first and wants the rest of us to get up too and play with her. In any other circumstance I would be mad at someone talking loud early in the morning, but I couldn’t do anything but laugh everyday at her cute voice and laugh serving as my alarm clock haha.
• Having tea after the counselor meeting most nights with some of the counselors is always a nice way to end the day. We talk about camp stuff, our hobbies, American culture, and of course politics. The table where we have tea is a safe space where we all feel comfortable to talk about our views and opinions about the world. In light of the crazy politics and havoc going on around the world (and especially between our two countries), it is truly special that we all can talk honestly about our thoughts. Although my eyes were heavy most nights when we were talking, I never regretted staying up to talk with my friends.
• This session I have been eating all my meals with one table of girls from my group and they are so much fun! Most of the time we are all eating quietly because we are all hungry, but when we finish, they normally ask me random questions. One day, we had been waiting to leave the table for awhile and they were getting restless, so I started making funny faces at them and they could not stop laughing! I was laughing with them when they tried to mimic what I was doing. For some reason they really like when I did a “duck face” pose haha. Maybe because I have big lips.
• Talking with the executive director’s driver about different types of African American music genres. He is in a band and he loves talking about music, and his favorite genres are funk, jazz, and gospel.
• The reaction of the kids and counselors when I passed out bracelets again. I felt like Santa walking around laying out the bracelets for the camp to find at breakfast. Everyone was so grateful and have been wearing them with pride ever since.
• Other adventures in the city that involved eating lots of food, trip to a sacred Russian Orthodox place in the forest, a Baptist church that happened to be the same church where a missionary couple I met 3 years ago attend, and having tea at the dance studio of one of the leaders for this session.
• Receiving my first “teacher’s apple!”
• Seeing girls around camp with long braids like mine.
• While dressed in my costume as the star watcher, I was asked to do a short zumba routine while my friend recorded it (other counselors who were characters did the same, but with different types of dance). My mind drew a blank and I just made something up and was laughing the entire time. That night at the performance when my clip was shown, the whole camp erupted with cheers and laughter, mostly because they were watching my reaction and I was dying from both embarrassment and how hysterical the video was haha.
• Playing a soccer game in a skirt (it was a female counselor vs. female camper game and all the counselors wore skirts haha), scoring my team’s first goal, and our team winning! It’s an experience playing on a sport’s team where no one spoke good English and I barely know the rules for soccer haha.
• Last night during my group’s discussion about the day, when it was my turn to talk, I surprised everyone and spoke a phrase in Russian. I had known the phrase for a long time, but I just decided to use it with my group and their reaction was priceless! They all stared in shock and then started clapping haha.
That’s all for now! Time to go teach my last classes and enjoy the rest of the day!