Stepping off the plane in Moscow I felt like I had just entered a whole other world. My American dollars were no longer valuable and my English words no longer held any meaning. Restaurant menus and street signs were suddenly very intimidating, and the language barrier made the first few days in Moscow a little lonely. But as I got out and ventured around the city I realized that there were pieces of America everywhere.
As Americans going into Moscow with very basic Russian skills I knew that we would be around Russians who also spoke English to translate for us. But I never expected so many Moscow State University students to be able to speak English as well as they did. Although some conversations were more shallow than others, I could converse in English with a lot of Russian students about fashion, their favorite Russian dishes, their hobbies, and their impressions of America. When I couldn't figure out what the lady at the school snack shop was saying a Russian student behind me in line piped up and translated. Granted, we didn't have very much time to learn their language before we went, but I actually felt kind of bad about not knowing any other Russian than how to count to 10, hello, and thank you. As an American who wants to travel abroad I have never felt bad about not knowing anything other than basic Spanish because I know that wherever I go there will be someone who speaks English. Although there were a lot of Russians who knew English I now have a different appreciation for languages and know that there won't always be someone there who can translate menus or directions. I feel like Americans have the mindset that other people should learn our language if they want to come to America, but shouldn't it be just the same if we want to go to their country? It was a little frustrating, especially when we couldn't read the menu at one street vendor and ended up paying over $50 for a lunch, but for the most part Russians were very patient and lucky for us some students had been studying English for 5 or more years so we had very good translators.
Besides the large number of students that were able to speak English, there were also a lot of American establishments that I wasn't expecting on seeing. Obviously McDonald's was not hard to come by, but I was surprised at the number of Starbucks and other American food joints around the city. It was weird being in Red Square, the central square of Moscow, and seeing historic Russian buildings and then walking a block and being at a McDonald's.
One night some American students and I decided to head out into the city to get dinner at Hard Rock Cafe Moscow. Knowing that Hard Rock Cafe is an American rock restaurant I wasn't expecting to hear any Russian music, but what did surprise me was people's reactions to the American artists playing over the restaurant's speakers. Lady GaGa's "Poker Face" attracted a huge crowd to the dance floor along with other American artists. If I ever went to a restaurant in America that was playing Russian music I would have absolutely no idea what songs were playing or how to sing along to them. Throughout the week I listened for Russian pop songs on the radio stations playing in shops and restaurants in the city, but very rarely ever heard anything other than American music. I also saw a lot of people sporting shirts of American bands and icons and even saw American NFL players and Hannah Montana matryoshka dolls.
There were points during the trip when I felt more at home than I wanted to. There were times when I wanted to eat Russian cuisine or listen to Russian music but was outnumbered by McDonald's and Pizza Hut. Being in Russia and seeing how prevalent American culture was very shocking. When asked, the Russian students could name American pop stars and actors but none of my American friends can name any Russian celebrities. But why is that? Why is it that they know way more about our culture than we do about theirs? Why is it that American influences can be seen in many parts of Moscow, but Russian influences can hardly be spotted in America? Some may point to globalization, others may point to the booming American entertainment industry, but as the song "Welcome to Miami" played while walking into the GUM shopping center on Red Square I couldn't help thinking, is America really that influential or just intrusive?