10 Things I Never Did Until I Lived in Russia (Part 2)

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Continuing from my previous list, here are 10 more things I never did until I lived in Russia:

1) Didn’t sleep in a “real” bed. Due to the small size of many Russian flats, space is limited and furniture sometimes performs double functions.  The most common is that of the sofa bed.  I found that many people didn’t sleep in what I would call a “real” bed.  Instead they slept on a sofa, futon, or other bed-like piece of furniture.  This didn’t present any problems until I moved into a new flat, decided to buy a bed and was met with incredulity.  Some people couldn’t understand why it was important for me to have a bed.  But when given a choice between a bed and a sofa, I chose the bed.
2)  Read cheesy books. The selection of books available in English in Russia is often quite limited, even in big bookstores like Dom Knigi and Biblio-Globus.  This meant that sometimes when I was so desperate to read something in English, I ended up reading books that I can only describe as cheesy.  Books that I would never read if I was in the United States and had more variety.  But sometimes you just need to read a book in English!
3) Saw my coworkers and boss naked. See my previous post on nudity.
4) Ate at McDonald’s. I don’t if there are any significant differences between McDonald’s in the United States and the ones in Russia but, in my opinion, the food at the ones in Russia tastes better.  It seems to have more flavor and is not as greasy or sickening.  I don’t eat McDonald’s when I’m in the US but doing so didn’t seem quite so bad while living in Russia.  Maybe it wasn’t even healthier, but it definitely tasted better and also gave a level of comfort and familiarity, despite the small differences in taste.
5) Knew Russian celebrities. When I was studying Russian as a university student, I was oblivious to a lot of Russian popular culture.  My professor played several popular films and songs in class so I was aware of a few things.  But while living in Russia, I quickly absorbed knowledge of popular films, who the actors, actresses and TV personalities were and other random knowledge.  Knowing about these things was also helpful in order to feel a part of the conversation, to understand jokes and make cultural references.
6) Drank tea. Like most people, I’d always associated tea with England.  I had no idea that Russians drank so much tea.  While I rarely drank tea on my own, it was something of a social activity at work and I soon found myself mindlessly drinking cup after cup of tea throughout the work day.  At home I never drank tea but always kept some on hand in case I had Russian friends visiting.
7) Drank sparkling water. Before I came to Russia I enjoyed drinking sparkling water but it wasn’t something I did that often.  It’s not standard in the United States and can be difficult to find in shops and restaurants.  But in Russia it’s almost the norm.  When ordering water at a restaurant or from a street vendor, it’s important to verify whether you want it to be sparking (with gas: с газом) or still (without gas: без газа).  Sparkling water is also the same price as still and is relatively cheap.  Consequently I ended up drinking copious amounts of it and came to enjoy it even more than before.
8)  Took a gypsy cab. In Russia there are official taxi cabs and then there are gypsy cabs: cars that ordinary people drive but are willing to offer you a lift for a price.  I never took them alone but, when traveling with friends, sometimes found myself in some random person’s car.  It was an interesting experience that while shocking at first, soon became the norm for transportation when taxis weren’t available.
9)  Drank straight vodka shots. Many are aware of the connection between Russia and vodka.  Before living in Russia, I rarely took a shot of straight vodka.  If I did, it was at a party or club with the sole intent of becoming drunk.  But in Russia I found myself taking shots at lunch or dinner and was told not to sip but to swallow the whole shot.
10) Had people be surprised I was skinny. In the United States most people expect you to be a certain size.  Your body is only commented on when it is either too big or too small.  Americans are known to be obese and Russians are aware of this.  I’ve always been petite but no one said anything about it until I lived in Russia.  One woman was surprised to find that I was American and said, “But you’re not fat!”  She seemed genuinely shocked as if being fat were a requirement for being an American.


Cultural Nationality vs. Nationality and Citizenship

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

One of my best friends was born in Russia but came to the United States at a very young age.  She was raised in the United States, speaks English like a native speaker, attended and graduated from both American school and university and is now married to an American.  She celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas and all the other US holidays.  The only thing about her that isn’t American is her passport: her citizenship.

According to this definition, both her nationality and her citizenship are Russian.  But what about her cultural nationality?  If you were to meet her on the street, you would think she is American.  She studied Russian at university and understands quite a bit more about Russia than the average American.  But if she were to go to Russia, she would more than likely be recognized as a foreigner, no matter what her passport says.

Now my friend has a younger sister who is about to finish university.  She’s in almost the exact same situation.  She holds a Russian passport but that’s where her ties to Russia ends.  She doesn’t speak Russian and, to my knowledge, has never studied anything Russian culture and considers herself an American.  Her cultural nationality is American.

While visiting my friend we began discussing her sister’s situation.  While she’s a student, she is allowed to remain in the United States.  But unless she continues to graduate school, finds a job and gets a work visa, or marries, she may have to return to Russia.

I’m not aware of all the details of her situation but I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like.  For her, her cultural nationality is American.  She has no ties to another country.  What would it be like for her if she had to return “home” to a place that she may not even have a memory of?  What would you do if your entire experience was of another country and then had to return to a place where you didn’t speak the language or understand the culture?

So I started thinking of cultural nationality.  No matter what your passport says or where your citizenship lies, cultural nationality is a strong force.  It’s also possible for the opposite situation to be true.  For example, someone immigrates to the United States, becomes a US citizen, but their cultural nationality still belongs to their home country.  No matter where they live, they haven’t adapted to the new culture and don’t feel like this is their home.

Is cultural nationality valid?  Can one indeed belong to one nationality but have a different cultural nationality, no matter what their citizenship?  Should cultural nationality be taken into account when deciding upon cases like my friend’s sister?  Should she be granted citizenship because she is practically an American citizen?

The Appeal of the Expatriate Lifestyle

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

People become expats for a wide variety of reasons.  Some do it for financial reasons, others have a thirst for adventure and some have no choice when their jobs call for them to move around the globe.

While living in Russia, I met a lot of expats who didn’t move abroad for work or to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Many had originally planned to stay for a year just to have a bit of adventure, and ended up staying a lot longer.  I also noticed that many of them were not very integrated into Russian culture, didn’t have a lot Russian friends and spoke hardly any Russian at all.  They preferred the company of other expats.  So why did they stay?  What was the appeal of living abroad?  As I contemplated these questions, I generated a list of possible perks:

1) Living abroad gives you a sense of uniqueness. Many of the people I met were the only person in their family who had ever been or lived abroad.  Those who came from small towns seemed to look upon living abroad as a badge of honor.  There were a bit sophisticated and interesting because of their international experience.  There’s also an element of uniqueness to your nationality.  In small towns you may be the first and only American some people have ever met.  Many Russians, for example, enjoyed meeting Americans and Brits and so you became instantly interesting based not on your own personality, but on your nationality.

2) No one knows where you’re from. While many people might know which country you are from, few will know which state (if you’re from the United States) or city you were born in.  Of course, other people from your home country will know, but others around you will probably have different ideas.  Many of the Russians I met had no idea where I was from.  Even if I pointed out my city on a map, they didn’t have any frame of reference for the place I indicated.  Other Americans, however, would tease me from time to time about where I was born.  I had no idea of where the British people were from and couldn’t make judgments based on their accents or education like other Brits could.

3) You don’t have to follow all the rules. If you live abroad and don’t know the cultural rules, more often than not you’re given a cultural pass because you’re a foreigner.  Of course there are limits to this.  But I noticed that many people would notice a cultural faux pas made by a foreigner and brush it off, saying to themselves, “Well, he/she is American.”

What other factors make being an expat appealing?  Have you or someone you know experienced any of these?

The Blog That Started It All

Monday, 20 December 2010

The first blog I came across dealing with intercultural issues is called Cross-Cultural Moments and is written by Elizabeth Abbot, an American expat based in Rome.  Ms. Abbot now blogs at her new website (there are still archives of her old posts at her previous blog that are worth checking out) and has an impressive list of credentials.

When I first came across her blog I couldn’t believe my luck and quickly began reading all her previous posts, starting at the beginning and working my way forward.  Her writings on intercultural issues raised a lot of interesting points, stimulated thought and raised a lot of new ideas.  The way she writes about her experiences living in Italy and her observations about Italian culture are so detailed you feel like you’re living through it with her.  The nuances of the culture allow the rules of Italian culture to seep into the reader, almost by osmosis, as one reads.

The only negative thing I could say about the blog was that there wasn’t enough content.  I was always wanting to read more about her experiences and observations and learn as much as possible.  So I’m dedicating this blog post to her amazing blog, the one that provided so much inspiration to me when I first began searching for like-minded people and information about the field of intercultural communication.  Her blog also inspired me to begin writing my blog as hers was the best blog I’d found on the subject and was the closest to what I wanted to write about.

If you haven’t read her blog, I strongly encourage you to visit both sites.  If you can recommend similar blogs that have great content, please do so!  What blogs or sites have inspired you to blog?  Which other blogs capture the essence of intercultural experiences the way hers does?

Nudity and Cultural Adaptability Quotients

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

After reading this thought-provoking article on “Buff culture” by Sherry Vacik on Expat Harem, I began thinking about nudity in other cultures as well as cultural adaptability.  When traveling or living abroad, it’s a given that you’re going to have to adapt to a different way of life.  The ease or difficulty of cultural adaptation often depends upon the amount of similarities between two cultures.

When moving from your culture to a culture with similar values, adaptation will be relatively easy.  The relationship between cultures can be determined based on cultural dimensions, cultural values, language, etc.  For example, going from the United States to Canada (two individualistic cultures) would be relatively easy while a move to Asia would be difficult because it is a collectivistic culture.

The ability to easily adjust to different cultures is something I call a “cultural adaptability quotient.” However, because you can adapt to a similar culture does not mean your quotient is high.  In order to have strong cultural adaptability skills, you must be able to adapt to very different cultures.

Such adaptability, however, becomes even more challenging when we are faced with differences that shake our core beliefs and question our cultural identity.  I referenced the article on nudity because this seemed to be such a touchy subject for many people, especially women, and can be a huge obstacle to cultural adaptation.

Then I began thinking about my own experiences with nudity and why I didn’t have any difficulties overcoming this cultural difference.  Although my experiences are limited and I haven’t experienced nearly as much as what some of the people who commented on the article wrote about, I do can say that all my experiences so far have been positive.

So far the biggest obstacle I overcame while in Russia in regard to nudity was accompanying some of my colleagues to the banya or Russian sauna.  While I’d visited a sauna with colleagues before, we’d only worn bathing suits or towels and were never naked.  This time, however, they brought along birch twigs which are used to slap the skin and promote circulation.  The slapping must be done on bare skin.

I’d never experienced the birth twigs before and this time I wanted to get the full banya experience.  So I entered the sauna and found my boss and her sister in there, in the nude, slapping each other with birch twigs.  The invited me to join so I stripped and allowed them to do the same.  After that we all jumped in the pool, swam for a bit, then dressed and went to the common area to relax, eat and drink.

Some time later, I was invited to put honey on my skin.  I declined because I didn’t want to deal with the mess of it, although they swore it wouldn’t be sticky if I put it on in the heated sauna.  But I sat in the sauna and got a good steam while several of my colleagues again stripped down and rubbed honey all over their bodies.  Then it was off to the pool again to wash off.

I can honestly say that during this entire time I was aware how different this experience was for me, how shocked and uncomfortable I probably would have felt if it happened in the United States, yet how comfortable I was throughout it all.  But why was I so comfortable?  Was it because I knew and trusted my colleagues and some of them were also very good friends?  That might have been part of it, but I think a bigger part was my understanding of what we were doing meant in a cultural context.

One of the main purposes of going to the banya or sauna is to relax and promote physical health.  I understood this as well as the Russian relationship toward the human body and nudity.  Nudity does not always equal sex.  When going to a doctor and being exposed, one of the reasons this is tolerable is because we know the doctor is a professional, has no interest in our body in an inappropriate way, and that our exposure is necessary for our health.

If we adapt this perspective to other healthful activities outside of a doctor’s office or hospital, we can feel relaxed while doing them.  Why?  Because there is no cultural significance!  In other cultures and in other activities that may not be health related, nudity is acceptable because it does not have a strong significance.  Nude beaches, for example, are there for relaxation and enjoyment.

So in analyzing my experience, I concluded that I was comfortable in the situation because I understood what it meant.  I knew that I wasn’t engaging in anything taboo even though it might have been taboo in another place (country, culture, etc.).  This understanding allowed me to relax, embrace the cultural difference, and relish the experience of trying something new and different.  If you can reach an understanding of a cultural on a deeper level, I believe it will make it significantly easier to adapt despite some seemingly shocking differences, thus raising your cultural adaptability quotient.

What challenges have you had adapting to a vastly different culture?  What techniques have you used to help you adapt, understand and accept the differences around you?   How is your own cultural adaptability quotient?

How Names Influence Intercultural Interactions

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Whether positive or negative, a person’s name is a big source of their identity.  They might be named after a loved one or have a famous surname they’re proud of.  Or they may have an unusual or hard to pronounce name which leads to teasing or bullying.

When you live abroad or engage with people from another culture, the issue of names can cause uneasiness, cultural gaffes or communication problems.  Depending on a person’s native language and culture, their name may be difficult to pronounce.  Many immigrants to the United States were known to Anglicize their surnames in an attempt to assimilate.  While living in Russia, I met several Asians who went by Russian names simply because theirs were too difficult for Russians to say correctly.

I also had slight problems pronouncing my friend Natasha’s name.  Likewise she couldn’t say my name 100% correctly.  I got used to hearing my name pronounced a myriad of ways.  I also found that no one called me by the nicknames that were used with my family and close friends in the United States.

In Russia the use of different names is used to show respect.  For older people one should address them using their first name and patronymic.  For close friends, it’s appropriate to use nicknames to show affection.  In other cultures, surnames are more important than first names.

Some names aren’t easily translated because certain sounds don’t exist in another language.  Or perhaps a name is similar to a word in another language, lending itself to humor.  For example, an Australian friend and colleague in Russia named Scott was ridiculed because in Russian “skot” (скот) means “cattle” and can be used pejoratively.

Hearing your name or nickname pronounced correctly can lend a sense of comfort, a feeling that you are at home, among friends.  Therefore it’s easy to see how names can raise some interesting intercultural issues.

What other issues can arise from misunderstandings or differences in names?  Have you ever had any mishaps that stemmed from one’s name?  How are names used in your country?

10 Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

Thursday, 2 December 2010

After reading this article I realized that many people agree, learning a language is a good thing and it does indeed “open doors” but what are some of the specific advantages?

1)  It makes you stand out. Whether you’re applying for a job, entrance to a school, a study abroad program, a fellowship, etc. listing foreign language knowledge on your resume grabs the reader’s attention and sets you apart.  Getting noticed can open the door enough for you to slip in and expand on your other skills.
2) It makes it easier to learn a second or third language. After you’ve mastered another language, learning the next one is simpler.  If you speak a language that your employer, for example, doesn’t need, chances are you could easily learn the one they want.
3) It says something positive about you. Learning a language can be difficult and time-consuming.  Many people start to learn but give up when it becomes challenging.  The fact that you’ve mastered a language shows you have determination, are committed to accomplishing goals you set yourself, and are reliable and hard-working.
4) It allows communication with more people. Not everyone in the world speaks your native language.  By speaking another language, you can automatically connect with people you never could have interacted with before.  The means friends and relationships you never would have experienced otherwise.
5) It increases advancement opportunities. If the company you work for plans to expand into another country, needs someone to travel abroad for business or deal with a client who doesn’t speak English, you may be the one picked because of your language skills.  You’ll have more opportunities to show your employer just how useful you are and become a priceless commodity.
6) It increases your job opportunities. If you’re looking for a job, the places you can work expands with each language you speak.  Certain languages like French and Spanish are widely spoken all over the world.  If you can’t find a job in your own country, start looking abroad.
7) It makes traveling easier. Speaking the language of a country means the people respond to you more positively, you know how to ask for what you want and what to do in an emergency.
8) It can extend your life. The physiological benefits of learning a language have been documented for some time.  Many agree that it keeps your brain sharp, improves your memory and even helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
9) It demonstrates you have a wide range of skills. In addition to your core skill as an engineer, attorney or doctor, for example, you bring a little extra.  You’re not just a “one trick pony.”
10) It promotes understanding of another culture. When you learn a language you also learn a little bit about the people who speak it, how they think and live their lives.  Exposure to diversity and acceptance of differences are vital skills that can benefit anyone, no matter what their line of work.

What other benefits are there?  Have you experienced these or any other benefits?  What examples can you give?  Is there ever a downside to speaking another language?