Student back from Siberia |

Student back from Siberia

Scott N. Miller
Special to the Daily Chelsea Craig, second from right, spent a lot of time talking about the United States in Russian classrooms.

GYPSUM – Chelsea Craig is a changed girl.The 16-year-old Eagle Valley High School senior just returned from a several-month stay in the Russian city of Ussuriisk, an outpost in far eastern Siberia near the port city of Vladivostok. Craig went to Russia as part of Rotary International’s student exchange program.She came home early – she’ll say only she had to return – but said the trip gave her a direction for her academic and professional future.”I want to major in Russian now, along with foreign affairs,” Craig said. “I’m interested in intelligence or, maybe, diplomacy.”The trip to Russia also showed Craig what it’s like to be an American in another country these days.”They accepted me really well after a while, but they’re wary toward Americans,” Craig said. “They don’t like President Bush at all, but they liked me. I was the first American most of them had met.”Culture shock

Both going and coming home were a jolt for Craig. Going over, she was the epitome of a stranger in a strange land. She’d put her hopes on a trip to India through the exchange program, so when she ended up going to Russia, she hadn’t prepared. She knew few words beyond “yes” and “no” when she arrived in Ussuriisk.Landing in a corner of Russia closer to North Korea than any part of Europe, few people spoke English, although most people learn to write at least a little.”The first few weeks at school I couldn’t even make out different words,” she said. But Craig’s host mom helped with the transition, going through preschool books of letters and sounds. Craig made a set of flash cards to help her learn.Over the course of several weeks, the garble at school became words. With a little more time, a lot of those words began to make sense.But those first weeks were tough.”She was on the phone and e-mailing a lot,” said Craig’s mom, Raemona Howard. “After she’d been there a while, I didn’t hear from her a lot.”Although she learned enough Russian to get by, the differences between Ussuriisk and Gypsum are stark.

Most people live in apartments, and hot water in the winter is a luxury. People don’t have a lot of money, and even a working-class American teen is viewed as a wealthy foreigner when she arrives with a laptop computer, cell phone, camera and suitcase full of clothes. With TV channels and video games in short supply, people take walks for fun.Volunteering at a local orphanage was another shock.”They were mean to the kids,” Craig said. “They’d hit the kids.”And while Russia is no longer communist, people don’t have near the freedoms that Americans take for granted. There are a lot of military and government buildings in Ussuriisk, and local authorities take a dim view of foreigners taking pictures of those buildings.”I’d get film developed and there’d be pictures of buildings missing,” Craig said. But over the course of a few months, Craig fell in love with the people and the city, so, she said, she was in for another shock coming home.Culture shock, again

“Everything I looked at was different after I came back,” Craig said. “From the food to school to people, it was almost like this wasn’t home any more.”And Craig now finds herself missing some of the things she thought she couldn’t stand.”They have tea time there every day, and I hated it,” she said. “Now I have to have tea just about every day.”While Craig’s trip ended abruptly, she said she’d go again in an instant if she had the chance.”I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said.Craig’s mom would ask for a few changes, especially in the information provided to students before they leave. But she added, “It’s extraordinarily valuable to travel. We’re so isolated from the rest of the world, it’s good to get that perspective.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or

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