Studying in Russia: Part II Culture Shock

This is the second part of the article about international students who chose to study in Russia. 

In the first part, my respondents talked about the language barrier and shared their thoughts about learning Russian in Russia. Language is just one aspect of being a stranger in a strange land. Language is a part of culture, and with the new language environment comes the new culture. That can be enlightening and enriching, but it can also be shocking. In this article, I’m sharing what the twelve international students told me about culture shock and their experience with Russian people. 

Host Families Make Big Difference

International students who stayed with host families tended to have better memories about their experience of living in Russia than those who lived or have been living in dormitories. The Russian hosts not only provided better, more comfortable living conditions, but also explained cultural differences.

“It wasn’t as hard to acclimatise to the Russian way of life. I thought the culture shock would be huge but it wasn’t. People were very friendly and if you live with a host that will help so much,” a student from the UK said, “Living with a host was the most helpful experience. Just speaking to her every morning, getting to try authentic dishes, seeing how people really live and practising my Russian non-step was such a help.” A student from the US added, “My host mother was fantastic. She was a great source of support and comfort while being so far away from home.” 

Host families also complemented the language courses and helped international students to acquire real, everyday language. “I lived with a woman whose daughter had a small dog, and they would visit sometimes. I loved hearing how Russian speakers talk to their pets. I speak Russian to my cat now, using some of the vocabulary I learned from them!”, a student from the US said. 

Russian dorms didn’t leave international students with many good memories. Cockroaches in the bedroom, horrible food at the dorm’s cafeteria, noisy roommates and neighbours are on the list of what international students disliked most about their experience in Russia. “Dorms are awful for the ones who are studying with a scholarship like me, at least that you wanna pay more,” a student from Colombia said. 

Those of my respondents who lived in dorms also complained about feeling homesick, lonely, and lost. Even more so if they happened to witness something really terrible and had to deal with that on their own. The student from Colombia remembered, “Someone from my building committed suicide jumping from the 11th floor. The body was in front of the building, and the blood everywhere, and people were just passing by like nothing happened, that shit shocked me”. 

Uncomfortable Straightforwardness

What people can and cannot say to each other varies from culture to culture. My respondents noticed that Russians often speak bluntly and like giving unsolicited advice. A student from the US said, “I was surprised once when I was sitting on some granite steps and a woman approached me to say that if I didn’t get up, I might never be able to have children (due to the cold). I had heard about this belief before going to Russia, but I was surprised to hear it directed at me from a stranger! In my experience, Russian people were often not afraid to speak up and say what they thought/ felt. This was actually a behavior I tried to learn, since before living there I tended to be more meek and keep to myself.” Another added, “people were more approachable than I thought they would be, sometimes even too much so like once a woman scolded me for not wearing a hat but in the US no one else would care about that.”

Many of the students admitted that they found the way Russian men talk to women confusing and outrageous. One said, “Russian men are very forward, so be careful. It’s more socially acceptable to compliment women in Russia than in the US. My taxi driver called me beautiful, which I didn’t mind but it would never happen in the US.” Another agreed, “I had a few very negative experiences with men. Following me home, cat calling, things like that. Generally it wasn’t an issue, but it was more than I was used to experiencing in my small university town back in the US”

Openness and readiness to discuss controversial topics surprised many of my respondents. A student from the US recalls, “What was unexpected to me was the frankness of one of my Russian professors who taught us Russian culture when describing different ethnic groups in Russia. There was not much politically correct in what he told us. But it was very interesting. He would tell us very frankly that he did not like Putin, but then also that there was no resistance when Russia went into Ukraine. Some of the things he taught us would have been very shocking to hear in the United States, but I liked that very much as it was so different!”

Some people, however, found that feature of the Russian culture rather disturbing. One said, “I dislike the Russian humor, that energy makes me feel uncomfortable. Some people tell at you rather than speak with you.” 

Despite all the differences, the majority of students agreed that the culture shock they experienced was milder than they expected. They attributed that to their very considerate and loyal new friends and supporting host families. A US student said, “It took a long time for me to adjust/get over culture shock, but once I did there was not much I disliked! I miss it a lot and hope to go back.”

In Your Own Words

“in America, we still have such a rigid view of Russia that isn’t really true.”

“I have many rough moments that have changed me a lot.”

“Russia wasn’t too shocking.”

“Although I was accustomed to Slavic culture, I still struggled with a lot of anxiety for my first few months in Moscow. It’s not necessarily a culturally triggered thing, but I would just like others to be aware that even if it isn’t “culture shock” per say, it can be a rough adjustment.”

“During our first week in Russia, my friend stopped at a Dunkin Donuts by our school, and ended up befriending the young man working the register. Later on he invited us to his home, where we got to meet his mom and sister, and then just hang out and watch movies! In the whirlwind of new experiences we had, it was nice to do something so normal and easy.”

“I wish someone had told me you’re not supposed to pick up coins off the ground. People scolded me, told me that the coins were dirty, said that it was bad luck and that if I picked them up, it meant I would lose all my money.”

“We smile a lot on my city, but in Russia smiling and eye contact with a stranger can be considered flirting.”

“I enjoyed most people’s curiosity and hospitality. Especially in Siberia there are so few Americans that people are really shocked and curious when they meet one. It was nice to exchange our cultures as we talked and see how many perspectives there are.”

To be continued

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