When I get a new class of children or a group of adults to teach, I check the roster, and take a minute to study the last names. Russian, Ukranian, Belorussian, Jewish, Tartar - most former Soviet republics are usually represented.

In our region, there are also a lot of ethnic Germans, Koreans, plus a number of Yakut and Buryat from the North, and some people from the nearby Altai mountains. In recent decades, a few more exotic mixed families appeared: Russo-American, Chinese, French, Polish. I can see the differences in the faces. All the children speak Russian fluently or perfectly; parents may speak it with an accent or have almost none. Nationality is not an issue. It is generally known that lots of students come from mixed backgrounds. One set of grandparents may be Russian and Ukrainian, the other set may be Jewish and Korean. What does it make the new generation? I honestly don’t know. Both my husband and I are a mix of four different nationalities each; my husband shares just one of them with me. What are our children? Their friends also come from mixed heritage. What we all share is our educational and cultural background: a family with both parents either Ph.D.’s or teachers, or one Ph.D., one teacher, is not a rarity. The local saying is, there are more Ph.D.’s per square meter in our town than probably anywhere else in the country.

Names may present some difficulties. I take care to learn how to pronounce any unusual name correctly, and watch it that pupils show the same courtesy to each other. If it so happens that in any one class or group there is a large number of students who share the same ethnicity and show an interest in learning more about it, I would suggest that the whole class conduct a web research and present the results at a class event in any form they like. With younger children, we may prepare a colorful little play or show where children dress up in national costumes, sing and dance. With older children, since the subject is English, we may do some linguistic research. I had a student who did a solid comparative analysis of Sonnet 66 by William Shakespeare and its translations into Russian, and then presented her own version in her native Azerbaijani. Easter is observed, though it is not a public holiday; Russian orthodox Easter was on April 12 this year. Afterwards, students compared the celebrations and the services in their respective churches, including the local Russian Orthodox and the city Polish church Many families do not follow any religion.

Teenagers are often interested in their origins. They start asking their grandparents about their roots, learn why and when their families came to Siberia. In this Academic town with the population of 100,000, most people are researchers, students, and teachers. In this respect, the cultural background is rather uniform. Practically everybody comes from an educated family. However, the national background may differ vastly. It is a good subject for discussions and research. Several times, we collected and published locally little booklets with students’ essays written about their own families.

About one hundred per cent of those who finish school continue their education at a university or college. The one cultural subject we regularly discuss even with the senior students is the future. They are always astonished when they learn that throughout the country, not everybody goes on to get a university certificate and/or a degree. “But what do they do?!” is a routine question. I would ask in return, “Do you ever go shopping? Visit a post-office, a restaurant or café? Is their a janitor in your yard? Are there cooks in our school cafeteria? Do you use any transport, are there bus drivers?” It is usually an eye opener. Teenagers tend to think that “everybody” is like them. Every year, we get new students who may come from a new social background, like business, trade, agriculture. It takes a little while for them to feel fine in the new surroundings, and for the class to get used to them. A good teacher can help the process along simply by acting normal, making no distinctions between various students. For example, when they speak about their families, one student may confidently talk about his parents’ laboratory work or lecturing at the university; another may mention that his father is a bus-driver and his mother is a nurse. Children may not have enough experience to ask questions and to build a dialogue; a teacher can and should help with a few simple remarks. “What are your father’s hours? What route does he drive?”, or “Does your mother have to give injections to patients?” usually helps break the ice.

There are about a hundred different nationalities peacefully co-existing in Siberia. Contrary to popular beliefs and misconceptions, we do not live in caves; we are neither exiles nor criminals condemned to survive in camps. The city of Novosibirsk has the population of about 1,500,000; it is situated on the Great Siberian Plain, in the south-west of Siberia. Academgorodok, literally “Academic Town”, is a scientific research community located about 30 kilometers (25 miles) away from the city center. The climate here is called sharply continental, with the temperatures dropping to -40C in January, and rising to +40C in July. Winter lasts about half a year; once snow starts to fall in October it just keeps falling till April. Practically the whole academic year presents a challenge, that of getting around under extreme weather conditions, like strong long frosts, blizzards and constant air pressure swings. Obesity is not known here. There is exactly one circumstance which can make someone rush at you and start rubbing snow into your face: it means that you may be getting frost-bite, your cheeks may be turning dangerously white. The simplest remedy is really quickly applying a handful of snow to the spot. Any Siberian child knows that, but imagine how perplexed and even alarmed an unsuspecting visitor may feel!

I would say that cultural, educational, national, religious differences and issues require careful handling.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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