Sakhalin – Settling In

I arrived in Sakhalin on a grey Sunday evening. It was just a three hour flight from Seoul. I had impressed myself by being able to order a drink from the flight attendant with my incredibly limited Russian (water [вода]) and thought smugly to myself that he might not know that I am not a Russian. But then they came back around again with the meal options and I had to confess that I didn’t speak any Russian. He spoke English though, but my spirits were slightly deflated.

Flying into the small airport, I got a great glimpse of the treasures offered here: several mountains looming above the city, lots of beautiful green trees, and of course the nearby ocean. The Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport was a tiny thing. They pulled up stairs to the plane so we could walk off and get onto a shuttle bus which drove us about 300 feet to the entrance of the airport. There we had to stand in line for the border agents, of which there were three. They seemed to be pretty thorough at immigration, taking several minutes for each person. It took over an hour for me to get through from my position near the end.

As I neared the front of the queue, I suddenly realised that everyone else had an immigration card except for me and there was nowhere to pick up one. I guess I had missed the flight attendant’s passing them out. I wondered if they would take pity on me if I fainted, like the officials in the UK, worrying about how badly Dad would mangle this story for the newsletter. At my turn, I decided to play the ignorant American card (always a classic). When the official asked for my card, I looked stunned and asked “What card?” He handed me an extra that I quickly filled out. Crisis averted.

After getting my bags and going through customs without incident, I was greeted by a woman holding my name on a piece of paper. She was one of my fellow teachers at the school and had come with her boyfriend to pick me up. As she led me to a tiny tan car in the parking lot, I nervously looked at the amount of bags I had. They managed to stuff my large duffel in the tiny trunk and they put both of my large suitcases in the backseat. My new colleague directed me to the front left seat, which I was shocked to find was the passenger seat. It turns out that though Sakhalin drives on the right side of the road like the rest of Russia, their cars come from Japan so the wheels are almost always on the right. I took the front seat and felt bad as her very large boyfriend squeezed into the half a seat that was left next to my suitcases.

They dropped me at my new flat just as my flatmate Olga was arriving. She led me in to the first floor area where we had to unlock three successive doors to get inside. Somehow this had the opposite effect of making me feel safe. Olga told me that I would have to leave the middle door unlocked if someone was still inside the apartment or else they wouldn’t be able to get out. That seemed like a fire hazard to me, but whatever. The apartment was built by the Soviets in the 1960s and it didn’t look like much work had been done to it since. It’s actually fairly spacious but there was no internet when I arrived and the kitchen only has a two burner hotplate to cook on. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s all part of the adventure.

Olga then took me to shop at the supermarket so that I could know where it was. I hadn’t made a shopping list, so she helped me pick out a few items such as eggs, frozen vegetables, and buckwheat (which she told me was a Russian classic). As we prepared to leave, she asked if there was anything else I needed right now. I decided I wanted some bread, but Olga showed me the empty shelves and said that there was no bread left.

Olga and I talked as she showed me around some, and I found out that she was actually leaving soon. I asked her how long she had been here and she told me she had only been here for a week. It turns out she was hired on as a new teacher but because of a disagreement with our boss, she had already quit before school even began. I was getting a little bit nervous about what I had gotten myself into but I tried to hold my chin high.

The next day I went to the school for the first time. I was completely unsure of what would happen when I arrived. Would they put me in front of a class and tell me to teach? I had no idea. But when I arrived, I was ushered into a room with my fellow teachers. I was briefly introduced to a few of them and then simply sat there as they chatted in Russian. I didn’t realize how much the language barrier would get to me until that moment but it is so very isolating to be the only person in a room who doesn’t speak a particular language.

Just then I heard one of the most beautiful sounds, an American accent saying to me, “You must be the new guy!” That’s how I met Justin, the school’s other native English speaking teacher. He’d been at this school for three years now. He and I chatted for a bit. “You’re from Texas right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him.

“And you don’t speak any Russian?”

“Not a word.”

“Then why on earth did you come here to Sakhalin of all places?” he asked. Truth be told, I was asking myself the same question right about then.

The teachers had just completed a training course the week before, so they all received certificates and then we all took a group photo. I smiled wide for the camera before looking around and realising that no one else was smiling with their teeth. I quickly closed my lips for the next few photos.

After that we all went to a ceremony where students were given the results of an exam they had taken last year. Justin translated the ceremony for me as he is fluent in Russian. Looking around, I realised that apart from us teachers, everyone, all of the students and their accompanying parents, were wearing blue plastic slip covers over their shoes. I asked Justin about it and he told me that Russians hate dirt so they will put these covers on their shoes in some buildings. It makes more sense in the winter, to prevent tracking snow melt everywhere, but it’s so ingrained in Russians that they do it all the time. He told me that if I ever saw a pile of the shoe covers I should just put them on so that no one would get after me.

As the students received their certificates and then posed for photos, I noticed that many didn’t even closed-lip smile. I mentioned this to Justin and he said, “Yeah Russians aren’t big on smiling in general. If you smile at people on the street, like an American, they take it as a sign of… idiocy. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but there a lot of ways that Russians think differently from Americans. You’ll be yelled at a lot, but you’ll figure it out eventually.” All part of the adventure I suppose.

When I got home that evening, Olga was out, so I could not ask her how to cook the buckwheat I had bought. I ended up cooking it like rice, since I wasn’t sure what to do with it, and throwing in some frozen vegetables. It was… okay. I don’t know if I made it right or not, but I think I prefer rice to this.

Over the next few days at school we had various workshops on what the different levels look like and how the students differ as well as rules of the school. I was very impressed with how well the school is organized and how much support is given to the teacher. Going into all of this blind, I had been preparing myself for the worst, of simply being given a classroom full of kids and told to teach them English, but the school has very well developed unit structures, curricula, and materials. Instead of having my own groups, I “team teach” with a Russian teacher. So I get each of their classes once a week to give a lesson. This means that I will teach many different groups throughout the week at all the different levels, but that I don’t have to put as much work into planning lessons because my Russian teacher will tell me what they want me to teach.

Although the living situation does leave much to be desired, the school itself with its organisation and friendly workers had allayed my concerns for the moment and I think that I will be able to really enjoy myself here. I’m still waiting on the internet to be installed as of the time I’m writing this (September 1st) but I suppose that by the time I post this to my blog, it must have come on J The next step of this adventure occurs tomorrow when I have my first classes!


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