I haven’t stepped foot in an English speaking country (except for Germany) in the last 397 days. Of that, 370 of those days have been in either Russia or Ukraine. This has given me a chance to fully embrace a second culture. I’ve subtly become accustomed to the post-Soviet lifestyle. Ostentatious displays of wealth, appearing against a backdrop of harsh poverty.
You could say that the experience has lifted the hood from my eyes. If you’ve spent your whole life in one country, then you don’t realize how much that effects your thinking, attitudes and beliefs. I don’t necessarily believe this is bad, but I do think it’s something people should be aware of. If you’ve never fully immersed yourself in a foreign culture, I think you might be interested to hear what the process is like. Here’s what I’ve found out.
At first it’s wicked difficult to adapt to a new culture and society. Everything feels different and annoying. You may feel out of place, and you might even get scolded by citizens. It can feel like your personality is being suppressed. This can be especially difficult if you don’t have other people from your native country to speak with.
The funny thing is that after a while, say ten or twelve months, the thought of going back to your own country seems hard! By this time you’ve become used to the customs in the new culture. You’ve adapted to their way of life and you feel comfortable. If you went home you could discover yourself having minor difficulties relating to everyone around you. This was driven home to me last weekend.
I was hanging out at a bar in Kiev with another American. He’s been in Ukraine for a month or two, but he’s light years from understanding the culture. I watched him, and I could pick out most of his behaviors that labeled him as a foreigner. His style of talking, style of relating to people, even the way he stood. It was only then that I really realized how much I’ve internalized this new culture.
When I came to Russia I felt like a fish out of water. Thirteen months later and I can label the out-of-place behaviors of an off-the-plane American.
Learning the Language
Without a question, learning the language is going to help you to understand and embrace a second culture. In fact, I don’t think you can gain a full understanding of any country’s deeper culture without being able to speak the language. Why’s that? It might not be what you think.
Being able to speak the language allows you to communicate with the older generation. These are the grandfathers and grandmothers with stories to tell. They’ve experienced an entirely different life than most people our age, and what they have to say reflects that. Unfortunately, if you don’t speak their language, you’ll almost never be able to hear from these preservers of oral history.
Of course the language is helpful in all situations. Not everyone speaks English. If you’re at the bar with a group of friends, and one or two people don’t speak English, then the conversation tends to default to the native language.
Things you May Miss
As much as I enjoy being in Ukraine, I’m really starting to miss home. Rationally I think America is pretty fucked (obesity, mass shootings, fucked healthcare, ineffective political system). However, I still miss feeling like I’m home. I miss driving a car, going to the pharmacy and knowing what to buy, and the feeling of understanding what’s happening around me.
When I think about this, it helps me to put into perspective the ethnic communities that you find in large cities. People (me included) like feeling like they’re at home. These communities are safe havens where people can speak their own language, order their favorite dishes, and discuss the weird fucking culture of the country their living in.
What about you, have you ever spent time in another country? Have you thought about what it would be like to go home?