Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Looking At Life In The United States Through Russian Eyes

June 24, 1996

What is life like in the United States as seen through the eyes of foreign exchange students from the former Soviet Union? To understand their backgrounds, consider the following:

  • The daily life of students is focused on school, homework and preparing for college exams. These exams have everything to do with their future and life choices in their own culture. They take school seriously.
  • They do not date as early and have fewer opportunities to socialize with other teens.
  • They do not drive or own cars. They are more dependent on their parents.
  • They do not have jobs and have little opportunity to earn, save or budget money.
  • They have much less material goods and share living space with extended family - especially grandparents. They do not travel or take family vacations.
  • They are living in a time of much economic and social instability in the transition from communism to a free market economy. Here are their comments:

Teen life. "It is surprising that a lot of teenagers have jobs." There is less emphasis on school work here and many American teens don't participate in the extracurricular activities the exchange students see as delightful additions to student life. However, teens here learn to be responsible, gain meaningful work experience that prepares them for life, and learn to budget and manage money.

Foreign students like the idea of not being so dependent on parents for their resources and the additional independence money and jobs would bring. "They (American teens) can go where they want to." On the other hand, they see many teens "always broke," trying to support their cars and gas. Driving is unheard of for teens in their countries. They go everywhere by public transportation. At most, each family would only have one car and men do most of the driving.

Girls like the freedom of dress in this country. In their country skirts and dresses are standard dress. Casual dress is much more accepted here.

Religion. Religion plays a much bigger role in people's lives here in the United States. In their countries, people go to church strictly to pray and worship. Here religion plays a social role, helps organize activities - including sports like basketball - helps create friendships and a social life. Life here seems to revolve around churches.

On the other hand, here it is truly difficult to see who is truly religious and spiritual in their approach to religion. Many people attend church on Sundays but don't live the precepts the rest of the week. In Russia, only a

small minority of the people attend church - mostly the elderly - and those who do are deeply religious.

Family life. In Russia, families share their personal living quarters with grandparents or other extended family members. "You get tired of them." Grandparents help a lot with babysitting, meal preparation, etc. Having relatives live in the home can interfere with marriages and cause friction between spouses.

The students liked "private homes" here with all of the space to find privacy. They liked the lawns and back yards. It is more crowded in their homes. There is a lot of moving and traveling here. "Americans can afford to move."

In Russia, there are no assigned chores. "The whole family does everything." when a teenager does something wrong, they are not grounded, they &e given a household task to do - wash the floor - or mandated to do homework.

The students feel Americans are fanatics about personal cleanliness.

Food and shopping. Foreign students feel Americans have a tremendous variety of food to eat. In their countries they don't have convenience foods. Students like fast food, but are skeptical of its nutritional value. Americans eat out a lot - an experience that is rare or nonexistent for typical families in their countries. Much family time is spent and used in the purchase and preparation of food.

Grocery stores here have everything in one store. In their country, shopping means going to several specialty stores - a store for breads, a store for milk products, a store for meats, etc. Food is becoming more plentiflil in their countries but it costs a sizable percentage of their income.

Foreign students think Americans are fanatics about nutrition and nutritional information. "It makes you worry." They feel Americans eat too much and that there are a lot more overweight people here. They see big inconsistencies with people buying and eating dietary products while overeating at the same meal.

Environment. In this country, people are safety conscious and are warned about hazards and dangers. In their own country, they are not warned. Citizens do not have a tradition of not littering or caring for the public environment. Here, public places and streets are kept much cleaner.

Foreign students find an interesting paradox - Americans live in a society that has much personal freedom yet life is well organized, regulated and supervised. There are rides, conventions and laws to govern minute aspects of life. In their country it is easy to be negligent or commit a crime because no one would know. There is more lawlessness in their society because of a lack of laws or enforcement.

When asked what one impression about Americans they would correct upon returning home, the students replied that they found the people here to be friendly, open, giving, kind and warm to strangers. This is in contrast to an image portrayed at home that Americans are self-serving, materialistic, manipulative and ruthless in their desires to get ahead. That is a good message to take back.