SRAS students exploring the hills of Vladivostok

SRAS students exploring the hills of Vladivostok

“Culture Fatigue” in Vladivostok

Published: October 15, 2012

Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine contain cultures and languages very different from those most Americans are used to.

SRAS believes that this makes these countries especially good locations for study abroad – it forces one to search for reasons why others might hold beliefs and practice behaviors different from those that one has long taken for granted.  This forces students to think outside the box, to become more creative, more open-minded, better problem solvers, and better suited for a range of professions from diplomat to international businessman to college professor.

This also means that culture shock is very real for our students. Culture shock must be overcome to gain the maximum benefit from an academic program and experience abroad. For programs with substantial writing requirements, like The Russian Far East, we begin by asking for a brief written description of first impressions.

This helps the student to collect their thoughts about what they see around them and helps SRAS to gauge if there are specific problem areas or issues that SRAS can help resolve for the student.

The essay below was written by Joshua Solomon, a political science major at Stetson University in Florida. Mr. Solomon offers a description of the ups and downs that culture shock can entail – from basic frustrations to shock at living conditions to making new friends. Most importantly, Mr. Solomon takes things in stride, analyses his new surroundings and his own reactions to it, and considers issues in context. In this way, he gives a clear view of what can be expected from culture shock but also ways to effectively deal with it and incorporate it into an academic program.

Vladivostok's shore line. Picture by Joshua Solomon.
Vladivostok’s shore line. Picture by Joshua Solomon.

Welcome Abroad
By Josh Solomon

I’m not sure why they call it culture “shock.” A shock is a sudden, unexpected surprise. The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, who inadvertently fell 1000 years into the past, was culture shocked. But I think a better term for the distress travelers, especially study-abroaders, feel while settling into a foreign country is culture exhaustion. It’s not that the foreigner is surprised that there’s a difference in the new society’s inner workings. That’s usually why he’s there in the first place. Rather, after a couple of weeks abroad, he is weary of the inescapable difficulties of being a foreigner, when even the most mundane tasks – ordering food, doing laundry, or finding the right bus stop – provoke doubt and anxiety.

That’s the strain of culture shock. It’s not a single jolt of stress, but a constant fatigue from operating in a foreign language and living in “survivor mode.” The scariest part of this condition is that it’s difficult to process everything that is happening around you – there’s just too much. As a person who usually processes his external world analytically, I sometimes feel I am losing my mind. Thankfully, with the aid of some comfort foods like orange juice (I am Floridian) and Skittles, along with a bit of rest, this weariness is wearing off. My wits are returning to me, and with them the realization of how different my preconception of Vladivostok was to the real thing. Both the people and the city itself vary radically from the way they are discussed and represented in the United States.

First, the people are quite different. If I’ve learned anything from the last two weeks, it is that the Russian people are warm, hospitable, and gracious. On the first day, my roommate Паша helped assisted me in the move-in process, cooked me dinner, and later even set me up on a date! (Sadly Наташа has yet to call me back.) My suitemates and other Russian students display great enthusiasm in meeting Americans and are eager to help us. Even in the city, Russian passers-by have given me gifts and bought me drinks. While some say this because they really want our money, I think the Russians genuinely want to come off as friendly and able hosts. While they have little affinity for the region of the Russian Far East, and even less for their hometowns, they love their country and want to represent it well. So my first surprise was this Russian inclusiveness. I thought that Russians were like cactuses – prickly on the outside and only sweet when you break through to them. But instead of scowls, I have received smiles.

Another interesting phenomenon, particular to the university scene, is ambivalence toward smoking and drinking. The American stereotype, of course, is that all Russians are enthusiastic drinkers and smokers. The stereotype helps explain the fact that male life expectancy is about fifty-eight. And certainly many Russians partake. But a significant portion does not, and they have strong feelings about those that do. As it turns out, many Russians are deeply worried about their country’s national health problems. They partially blame drugs and vodka for their economic woes. There is a bit of a social schism here at VSUES between the drinkers/smokers and the rest. Oh, and if you’re ever with a girl in Vladivostok, just tell her you quit drinking years ago. Trust me.

A view of Vladivostok. Picture by Joshua Solomon.
A view of Vladivostok. Picture by Joshua Solomon.

I’m much more ambivalent about Vladivostok the city. Geographically, the area is gorgeous. The sun brightly shines though blue skies onto green mountains that peer over the sea. Of course, these mountains are dotted with that avant-garde architectural triumph of the proletariat – the gray Soviet apartment block. But as my friend Дима often says, “Hey – it’s Russia!”

The most surprising and significant observation I have drawn about the city is how underdeveloped it really is. I knew the RFE as a region was in a pretty bad shape, but I thought Moscow had kept Vladivostok in good condition for strategic purposes. With an extra $20 billion and an APEC conference thrown in, I thought the city itself would generally resemble any other modern city. However, that is true of very few places, even in the city center. There, one might see a lovely, finished building from the front, but walk around to the back and see a pile of rubble sitting in a pool of open sewage spilling into a gravel road. Outside the city center, one need not even walk to the back. Shacks line the old Soviet apartment blocks. Only the main roads into the city are paved. We often see pictures of the third world, but I never really understood what the second world looked like till I walked around neighbourhoods comprised of old shipping containers in North Vladivostok.

Still, I love this city. It is eager to charm and that makes it more endearing to me than those old confident European cities. When it tries, it can pull it off remarkably well. I walked around one evening and saw that there was film festival at the кино, while meters away a dancing troupe gave a recital. Down the street, children zoomed down the boardwalk on Segways while the elderly waited in line to see an aquarium exhibit in the center square. Vladivostok frustrates me. The people here are so capable, talented, and intelligent, but they haven’t managed to put it all together in a system that works. I suppose in that way Vladivostok is a microcosm of greater Russia. I’d like to think the city has potential to develop and economize, but I don’t know. The locals certainly don’t think so – they all want to leave. But perhaps I, with my young, naïve, optimistic, Western eyes, will see something they do not.

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Joshua Solomon

Joshua Solomon is a political science major at Stetson University in Florida.

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