U.S. Cultural Tip: ‘Don’t Wear a Speedo. Ever.’

U.S. Cultural Tip: ‘Don’t Wear a Speedo. Ever.’

Published: July 25, 2012 (Issue # 1719)

Jonathan Earle / spt

Jimenez-Bragdon (l), in glasses, leading teens in a game during orientation.

SABUROVO, Moscow Region — The group of 35 teens linked arms and formed two parallel lines.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight!” they shouted, stamping their feet.

“Let me see your Funky Chicken!” one line of teens said.

Passersby stared. It’s not everyday that vacationers in the Moscow region stumble across a game of “Funky Chicken,” in which participants variously pretend to be the Klitschko brothers, Michael Jackson and orangutans.

“We do this so that the United States won’t be as shocking as it could be,” said Jason Jimenez-Bragdon, a program officer with the FLEX program.

By “this,” he means the PDO, program jargon for “pre-departure orientation” — the last chance to prepare this year’s crop of Russian high-school students for their year in the United States.

FLEX, which celebrates its 20th year in 2012-13, is a U.S. State Department-funded study-abroad program that sends hundreds of teens from across the former Soviet Union to the United States for one school year. The students live with American families and study at American high schools, typically in rural towns, where they will be the first Russians that many of their peers have ever met.

Program officials hope these students will come back to Russia empowered and inspired to improve their home communities.

“The idea of the program is to gain an understanding of American culture and diversity, to teach Americans about Russia and Russian culture, to create long-lasting relationships with American people, and to understand American civil society, especially concepts such as volunteerism and the idea that American citizens can and do act at the grassroots level to deal with societal problems,” Jimenez-Bragdon said in e-mailed comments. “Also, we want them to understand and respect the concept of rule of law.”

This PDO, held at a sanatorium in the Moscow region, is the final orientation program that the group of 35 students will pass through before leaving Russia during the next five weeks. A total of 244 from Russia will study in the United States this year, and The St. Petersburg Times is following them from when they first applied last November until they return in summer 2013.

For three days this month, the 35 students attended workshops, played games and listened to program alumni discuss the peculiarities of American life. The tips formed a jarring crash course on how Americans live.

“Use deodorant,” said alumna Maria Shishkina, who spent her year in Hudson, Massachusetts. “You’ll stand out if you don’t shower, wash your hair, and change your clothes every day.”

Other things to watch out for: Girls, wear high heels only on special occasions. Boys, no Speedo bathing suits. Ever.

“Is it OK to clean your shoes?” asked Maxim Kotov, 15, who wore large, Armani glasses.

Only six of the 35 finalists in this group are boys, a fact Jimenez-Bragdon attributes to nature and nurture. “Girls reach maturity earlier than boys so they’re more ready to commit to something like FLEX. More girls turn out for round one testing and more of them have high scores,” he said in the e-mail.

It’s also worth noting that boys are traditionally encouraged to pursue science and math, while the girls are pushed toward humanities, he said.

The students shifted in their seats when the conversation turned to making American friends. Even though they’re predominantly outgoing and speak English, they’re still nervous about starting from scratch.

“Don’t expect to be a star. Don’t expect everyone to hate you,” advised Maya Klisho, who studied in Snohomish, Washington. “Just be friendly. Smile.”

The students are excited. They’re among the 1 percent of applicants who made it into the program. More important, they’re ready to go.

They’ve been told many times what to expect: Winter depression, limitations on Internet use, small towns, the prominence of religion in many families.

“There are lots of rules to learn,” said Tamara Revva, 17, from Saransk. “Program rules, placement organization rules, home-stay family rules, school rules, U.S. rules.”

The group emitted a knowing snicker every time a program maxim is spoken, the most ubiquitous being, “It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different.”

“Are there fat cheerleaders?” one girl asked. Answer: Yes.

Some students are already in touch with their host families. Daria Merzlikina, 15, is headed to Nashville, Tennessee. A native of Voronezh, she acknowledged that she doesn’t know anything about country music, but she was looking forward to hearing it.

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