When Alyosha came to stay with my family as an exchange student from the Ukraine shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was a skinny 14-year old California kid, still dreaming about a career in the NBA. Earlier in the school year, I had reluctantly cut out a newspaper article for a current event assignment about glasnost and perestroika, then buzz words in the press, but terms for which I showed little interest.
It was obvious that he was from somewhere else. He wore plain blackish jeans, tennis shoes of a sort I had never seen before and a plain white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes tucked into one of his sleeves. His dark brown hair was close-cropped, showing off his strong skull and deeply set eyes, which were surprisingly friendly. Though he was only a couple years older than me, he had a man’s body and spoke with a stereotypically deep Slavic voice. While he could have easily been intimidating, he was quick to flash a shy boyish grin, one that, to this day, I don’t need a photograph to recall.
On the second or third day of his two-week stay, my mom related a funny thing he had done while I was at school. Mom having explained to him that, as our guest, he was free to eat anything he wanted in the refrigerator, Alyosha removed a jar of Smucker’s jam and a Costco-sized tub of sour cream. Not sure what he was going to do with them, or if he wanted some bread with that, my mom handed him a spoon and plate. He then proceeded to scoop out large portions of both, mixing them lightly on his plate, and enjoyed his dessert concoction with a big smile on his face.
After hearing this story, I became fixed on the idea of taking him to our local Safeway to see the look on his face. If an open refrigerator policy brought such a smile to Alyosha, how would he react to an open supermarket?
Our local Safeway, a symbol of American plenty, was abundantly filled with everything one might want – a new bakery with several varieties of fresh breads, bagels and pastries; a meat section with fresh cuts of beef, chicken and pork; fresh and packaged sausages; a produce section with perfect stacks of fresh fruit and neat rows of greens and vegetables; never-ending varieties of ice cream and perfectly homogenized one-gallon cartons of milk.
My heart sunk when I learned that the exchange program gave specific instructions not to take Alyosha to any kind of grocery store, explaining that the shock would be too overwhelming for him to bear. I was confused about why he was permitted to see our house, drive in our car, and go to a Radio Shack, but couldn’t see where we bought our food.
My confusion soon turned to deep inner conflict. The pictures I had seen of empty food shelves and breadlines, which Alyosha had experienced, suddenly became very real. I felt guilty for having so much, for the uncomfortable disparity of wealth, and shameful inequality. Unintentionally, the exchange program’s policy to protect their foreign visitors from shock ended up shocking me in a deep and unexpected way.
Slowly, my current event article’s mention of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding) started to take on meaning and interest. I considered for the first time the consequences of closed and repressive regimes. My heart went out to the people who had recently emerged from behind the iron curtain, who wanted peace as badly as we did and whose faces, rather than indifferent or callous as they were often portrayed, could be brightened by such simple things as sour cream and jam.
By the time Alyosha left, my dreams of the NBA had started to fade. Having been very moved by what I had seen and felt, I made up my mind that, if I could, my life would be dedicated to helping people meet fundamental human needs. At first I thought I wanted to be a farmer, then considered being a doctor for the very old or young. Diplomacy captured my imagination for a while and I still plan on teaching sometime down the road, but I finally gravitated toward the design of physical infrastructure. Throughout the course of my intellectual wanderings, I have always returned to the problems of food, water and shelter. And despite the abundance that we have, for which I will always be grateful, I am still convinced that there are better ways to help more people meet these basic needs.