Never did I think I’d Google ‘Is smiling at strangers an American thing?’

Yet, here I was, perplexed why Liya Akoury, Clinician at our Amherst, MA eating disorder clinic, said that a stranger smiling at her was the biggest culture shock she experienced upon arriving to the United States from Russia in the early 90s.

“Russians don’t smile – especially at people they don’t know,” Liya laughed. “So, when my classmates kept smiling at me, I just assumed they were making fun of me.”

Apparently, while Americans see smiling at strangers in public as a gesture of goodwill – – those in other countries have not hopped aboard the smiling train.

Nuances like this one are what got Liya interested in the research she has dedicated many years of her life to. Liya focused her thesis and dissertation asking questions like, how does the culture we grew up in impact our relationship to ourselves and to each other? How does culture change the way we interact with the world? Does our ethnic background have any impact on how we feel about our bodies?

So where does her interest in this topic stem from? Liya grew up in what was then the USSR (and now is St. Petersburg, Russia). As the Iron Curtain fell and her hometown became a gateway to Europe, the influences of Western culture began to saturate Liya’s world. Instead of spending time with friends going fishing or ice skating, social interactions changed to discussions around calories, waxing and makeup application.

“I really tried to fight against these new norms but it was really challenging. There were no body positive movements like there are here now.”

In stark contrast to the thin ideals that were being impressed on her socially, Liya also grew up with grandparents who had barely survived the Siege of Leningrad (a 900-day overtaking by the axis powers which left more than 1.5 million people dead from starvation). For them, the idea of food security was foreign; they spent their lives fretting that their grandchildren ate ‘enough’ and had ‘a little extra just in case.’

“My grandparents had a pantry that my brother and I lovingly called ‘The WWII Closet’ which was filled to the brim with enough canned goods to last through the apocalypse,” Liya joked. “It’s like they couldn’t be prepared enough.”

Perhaps this mentality is what has gotten her so into games of strategy. Nowadays, on rainy days – or any day, really – Liya is an avid board gamer. She loves any and all games that require the collaboration of multiple people to achieve a goal. She recently took part in MIT’s Mystery Hunt which is a puzzlehunt competition that has taken place every Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend since 1981. It’s a weekend-long commitment packed full with over 75 brain-teasing puzzles and dozens of teams with anywhere from 12-100 people!

“No, we didn’t win,” Liya conceded when I asked her. “We are just amateurs, but I think for a rookie team, we did pretty well!”

So what else besides a positive attitude keeps this fascinating individual grounded and motivated?

“Whenever I’m having a difficult time, I think of a story my grandmother used to tell me,” Liya said. “It was winter in Russia so she had to trade food with someone for a wooden streetlight to burn for kindling. She (all 4’11” of her), dragged the pole back through the frigid streets, up the stairs, into her walk-up flat and chopped it up for firewood while my grandfather laid watching her, too emaciated to move. I think about the legacy that she left me a lot and find strength in knowing that we are brave and resourceful women who survive.”