In 1990, I visited the Soviet Union (Russia, specifically). Instead of taking any tours or just seeing popular sites, I strayed from the beaten path and went into the neighborhoods. I wanted to see how people were really living.
Important context: I grew up during the tail end of the cold war. The Soviet Union was “the evil empire,” and communism was oppressive and deadly. I had never been out of the United States, and I had no idea what to expect. But I wanted to see it for myself.
No surprise, I learned a great deal from my experience. As I walked the unbeaten path, most everyone I encountered was friendly to me. Most recognized me as not from around here and were anxious to meet, and talk, and show me around. They were happy to see me.
During my week there, several people joined me for lunch or dinner, recommending places with the best food or most interesting interior.
And it wasn’t just short interactions. Many of the people I met spent a lot of time with me and engaged in some pretty deep conversations about life in the United States.
We spent a lot of time exchanging stories about our culture, our politics, our entertainment, and general ways of life.
When I was first given the option to visit Russia, my college-aged self was fairly nervous, considering all the horrible things I had heard about the country.
But after visiting, I left with some very different views.
People aren’t their countries – especially in communist countries. I left feeling more educated about communism, and consequently, even more afraid of it.
But more importantly, I think people, no matter their country or culture, are largely the same. They seek happiness and freedom from fear. People want to enjoy their lives. They want to eat good food. Listen to great music. See some good movies. Engage in some friendly competition – usually in the context of sports or games.
If given the choice between being friendly or mean, people seem to be pretty interested in being friendly.
My impression of the Soviet Union wasn’t much different when I left. But my understanding of people and cultures was greatly expanded. And it taught me the importance of experience and perspective. The more you can seize opportunities to get outside your comfort zone and try new things, the more you will get out of life, the more you will understand what’s happening around you, and the more you will enjoy it all.