Culture Shock: Get over it

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I recently read a book on culture shock and have been thinking about it lately. Since I just moved, I am having my own mini version of culture shock, getting used to my new environment, finding my way around, meeting new people. In the book the author said you have to let go of your preconceptions and face reality in order to overcome culture shock.

I bought a new cabinet to put all my papers and miscellaneous items in and when I moved in I just dumped everything in there with the idea I would sort through it later. This morning I was looking through it to see what was in there and came across some old letters I wrote to my parents about a year after I moved to Moscow. It is interesting to see that although I had been there a while, I was still struggling with all kinds of things.

April, 1994

We had a really good time in Austria. We went to the Schoenbrunn Palace and to see the Spanish horses. We took a half day tour that drove us around the city a little and out to he Danube. And we shopped. I think I was in shock the first couple of days. We found a housewares store in Graz that entertained us for quite a while. Beautiful kitchen fittings and furniture. And bedding and pillows. It was great fun. It reaffirmed our belief in civilization. We mainly just walked around Vienna and got to know our way around the city and ate a lot of Austrian food and drank a lot of good beer and wine and found a good Italian restaurant and even a Vegetarian restaurant. I stocked up on books at an English bookstore.

Clock Tower, Graz
Clock Tower, Graz

The train trip to Graz was beautiful over a snow capped mountain pass. It was springtime there and sunny and green. Graz has a population of about 250,000 and is very old dating back to about 800. It was a Roman outpost but Napoleon pretty much demolished it when he went through there. The townspeople managed to pay a ransom to keep their clock tower that is built on top of a hill with a fortress on one side. It is very pretty with walkways all round it and a great view of the city and the valley. 

Nicholas went on to Washington and I arrived back in Moscow on my own. The driver who was supposed to pick me up didn’t show up, of course. It is like arriving in Lagos where you are descended upon by sleazy looking guys asking you if you want a taxi and following you around. They descend like vultures and start to feed on you, circling. I waiting for a while to see if the guy would show up but it got to be too much so I found the Official Transportation/Taxi desk and paid my $30 for a real taxi. The car I got into had a Republica de Child sticker on it so the guy must have been moonlighting like the rest of Moscow. It was a very nice car, though.

June, 1994

My Russian is not very good. I find I understand a lot and I know a lot of words but I really don’t have an opportunity to use it. Whenever I try to talk in front of Nicholas soon as I open my mouth he corrects me and I can’t even get a complete sentence out. When we are with his relatives if I don’t immediately understand every word they say they give up and won’t even repeat what they said. It is frustrating. So basically I have no opportunity to practice and therefore I continue to understand but not to speak. I should probably start lessons again but when?

Every thing takes so long here I have no time to get the everyday things done and when I do have a spare moment I just want to relax. We are without hot water now and so washing the dishes and taking a bath have become a major ordeal. It takes me a minimum of two hours to go to the grocery store. And I usually try to get to three of four. And even then I don’t always find a lot. Plus I have to lug everything back on foot so I can’t buy a lot at once. Poor me. Maybe it’s just an excuse. Maybe I don’t want to learn Russian. Maybe it is my own personal rebellion against this place. Things really haven’t been so bad lately but this country is a mess.

A woman who was here on a consulting job a few weeks ago really summed things up. She said when she goes to Africa she has zero expectations and she is never disappointed. But here her expectations were really quite high because this is a world power and industrialized and there is a very high literacy rate. And she was disappointed on almost every level. It is true. This place has all the negatives of a third world country but none of the positives. There is no color, or warm weather. It is grey and cold and dirty and nothing works.

The telephones don’t work a lot of the time or the connection is so bad you can’t hear anything. We went though a period where the electricity was going off several times a day. There are two elevators in our building and one of them is always broken. Every once in a while they will come out and fix it and it will work for a couple of weeks and then it will break down again and the one that usually works breaks down fairly regularly as well. There is a definite odor to the city – mildew mixed with garbage mixed with cooking cabbage. The people do not bathe or use deodorant so if it is warm, the metro can really be “close.” Most of the cars and buses look like they will fall apart at any moment.

Nothing more beautiful than St Basil's in the snow
Nothing more beautiful than St Basil’s in the snow

On the way to the metro from work there is a small part where there is a large walkway leading up to a few steps and then the entrance to the metro. This spring they have been planting grass in the whole area and putting up bricks at the edge of the walkways. The walkways themselves are all uneven and falling apart and the steps are completely worn away in areas. The grass they have planted is coming up in patchy areas and will never be lush or full. Even the parks that have a good base are ugly because nobody ever takes care of the upkeep. I look at them out there trying to beautify the place and I think – what a waste of time – couldn’t you just fix the steps instead?

The crime is getting worse all the time because there is so much Mafia around. They are always knocking each other off Chicago style. Car bombs, shootings, explosion. The police are on the take. And nobody cares – they are all just trying to survive and make a quick buck.

Anyway it is not the most wonderful place in the world but not the worst either. And you just have to laugh at a lot of it. Some of the things that go on are really quite funny. Now the Orthodox church has gone into business with an American partner to bottle and sell spring water. The Patriarch has blessed the spring and signed the contract. Only in Russia.

Although Moscow had its share of beautiful places, overall it obviously was not up to my standards of how I thought things should be. Moscow changed a lot over the years and I did get used to most things. I just came to accept how things were and stopped being frustrated by them. I got over my culture shock and moved on. As we all do eventually… I just had to let go of my preconceptions.