a big beautiful mess

Culture Shock

This week, I’ve been pondering a lot the wise words of Thomas Santos, who gave us advice on dealing with “stage two” of culture shock– the stage where the world seems to be against you and you can’t remember why you ever wanted to come to Russia in the first place, and all you want to do is crawl under the covers and emerge only in spring. “Culture shock” is always a term I’ve struggled with. I’ve never had the experience of arriving in a new country and being shocked about anything. Surprised, delighted, confused, curious, maybe, but never shocked.

I think what I have is culture fatigue. I can understand all the things I’ve come up against; I can imagine a world in which it makes sense. The making up a document on the spot and putting a stamp on it to get around a bureaucratic rule. The people who tell you to “put your hood up, you must be cold,” even when they are bare-headed themselves. The dill. The classes held in the department office, where the students struggle to make English sentences with other teachers chatting quietly in Russian two feet away. All of it has a reason, all of it fits into the puzzle that is Russia. But at some point, you get tired of being curious and puzzled, and you just want the mess to make sense.

At the American Club last night, I showed the movie Juno. At one point, the pregnant Juno and her dad are going to meet the adoptive parents for the first time in their swanky neighborhood, and their beat up old van drives past row after row of pristine, unnecessarily large houses with three-car garages and manicured lawns. In America, I would be in the van, and driving through a neighborhood like that would make me frustrated and angry and self-righteously annoyed. In Russia, it made me bittersweetly nostalgic. Because at least in America I would know why I was annoyed and frustrated, I would understand it.

One of the things that surprised me about Arkhangelsk is that there are a lot more SUVs than I’ve ever seen anywhere else in Eastern Europe. Passing by a Nissan whose front fender came up to my shoulder on my way to school this morning, it occurred to me that the reason it bothers me so much is that in America, I know what a giant Nissan means. I don’t have any idea what it means here.

1 Comment

  1. 24 November 2011    

    I like that term, culture fatigue. Keep noticing, both your surroundings and your reactions. And keep writing. If confused or uncomfortable, you can always ask yourself, “How will I write about this?”

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