The Education of Tamara

Like all of us Tamara is a product of her family upbringing, education, and culture. In her case this means she was raised in a highly patriarchal society which was also patrilineal, schooled in the Soviet education system, isolated from most of the outside world for the first 60 plus years of her life, and taught to be very careful about what you say and do least you stand out from the group. She arrived in Hawaii with all the assumptions, stereotypes and cultural biases that come with such a background. It was to be an educational experience.

Tamara is a highly educated woman with a doctorate in construction engineering. Before starting her trip, she had read about Hawaii and had a list of places she wanted to visit. My task was to take her around Oahu to see the sights. It was not a surprise to see her excited about the buildings in Honolulu. Construction and civil engineering was her career. She was so excited that we called Alla so she could share her excitement at the unexpected surprise. I missed it at the time but this was my first clue that she had expected a more primitive Hawaii.

I did not miss the clues when I took her to what she called “the Queen’s Palace.” The ʻIolani Palace was the royal residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Hawaii beginning with Kamehameha III and ending with Queen Liliʻuokalani (1893).  She was amazed that it was a modern palace. It was not the Hermitage or Peterhof but it was a premier example of Hawaiian Renaissance architecture. The photos of Hawaiian royals in western dress hosting large parties were even more amazing to her. She had expected a more primitive building structure and Hawaiians in native costumes. What she found created some cognitive dissonance.

Her cognitive dissonance was on full display when we visited the Honolulu Museum of Art. After visiting the European art section, we went to see the Hawaiian art. She was surprised that the art was created by Hawaiians. In her Eurocentric view of the world, only Europeans could produce such art. She asked again to confirm my understanding of the question and to allow me to modify my answer if needed. After that she simply enjoyed exploring this new world of art that she had discovered.

It was my turn to be surprised when we visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific or as it is called locally, the Punchbowl. I knew that the Soviet education system had focused primarily on the role of the USSR in European theater of World War II but I did not know that it had largely excluded the Pacific theater. The large wall murals allowed me to show her the war in the Pacific. For the first time, she understood the price the Allies, without the USSR, had paid to defeat Japan.

It would probably be easy for Tamara to rest comfortably as a miseducated, narrowed minded product of a now extinct Soviet educational system. Instead, she has opened her mind to the world around her, reading, listening, watching and asking about the present and the past. She will be 80 in a few months but in many ways the education of Tamara is still in its infancy as she explores the world that was closed to her for some six decades.

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