A special feature of Colby in St. Petersburg is the opportunity to live with Russian host families, carefully selected by the Gimnazium staff and visited often by Colby Russian staff. Host families take very seriously their responsibilities for the well being and security of their guests. Students will take their meals with their families and are encouraged to enter into the life of their families totally and actively. Students should ask to go shopping or strolling with the family and should ask to be introduced to relatives, friends, and neighbors. Family residence is the single best way to get beneath the surface of Russian life, to be a resident of the city and not merely a tourist or visiting student. The sizes and ages of the families differ widely, so students must be prepared to fit in to a family with young children or a family whose children are already grown and away from home.
As in any family, students should come to an agreement with host parents about responsibilities in the family and should be prepared for compromise. Most American college students are accustomed to leading quite independent adult lives in their families, and the Russian habit of over-protecting children, even grown children, can be a problem when students wish to go out in the evening and arrive home very late or do not eat as much as host parents think is healthy. Each student must work out these problems in the families and direct explanation is usually the best policy. Typically, Russians have a high fat diet and have few fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. It is perfectly acceptable to explain this difference in diet to the family and do some cooking of your own. If there are foods that you do not like, just say so politely and perhaps prepare some food that you do like and share it with the family. Similarly, if the family curfew is a problem, talk about it directly and politely and work out a compromise with parents. If a problem cannot be worked out in the family, talk to the Academic Coordinator and the staff at the Gimnazium and seek advice from them.
Although all the families are economically solid by Russian standards, Americans must be flexible and prepared to adjust to a new culture and a struggling economy. There may be things in Russia that you find frustrating, ways you think things could be done more efficiently, or some things that seem “backward.” Please do not speak about these things in a critical tone with your Russian hosts. Sensitivity, understanding, and politeness will contribute to learning.
If you have to “get it off your chest,” go out for a walk with another American and sound off to your heart’s content or write a letter to a friend at home. Do not let yourself become a whining, demanding, petulant American. And then get over it and start anew. Do not allow one event or one issue to cloud your perceptions and your appreciation for all the wonders of your semester.
Of course, students should feel free to ask questions about anything that interests or perplexes them; this is the only way to learn about a new culture. And most often the result of such questions is an interesting discussion of cultural differences between Russia and the US. Americans are sometimes put off by what they consider to be impolite questions from Russians — how much did your house cost? how much does your mother earn? But for Russians these are perfectly normal questions, and they will be quite ready to give you similar information about themselves and their families.
Russians are very interested in Americans and American life and would love to see lots of pictures from the students’ family albums, schools, hometowns, etc.