Studying Outside the Box: A brief guide to culture shock and the meaning of learning and “fluency.”
I use my thumbnail to scratch a viewing patch out of the ice that has accumulated on the window to my left, the edges jagged due to the jostling of the train as it rumbles along the track. Helsinki lies an hour behind me to the west and Saint Petersburg is still another six hours away in my future. It’s January and all of the seasonal characteristics of the Northern Hemisphere are displaying themselves clearly: the beginning of sunset in early afternoon, the frigid air temperature, the vast pearly landscape spreading out before me as far as I can see.
Flash forward now. It’s September and I’m once again surrounded by people who all speak my native tongue of English. I shop at supermarkets now instead of bartering with vendors on a daily basis to secure the best price on fresh vegetables and meat. Now that I’ve re-acclimated and settled into my former role of American student at UMass Amherst, I am ready to take on the task of analyzing my study abroad experience and putting it into perspective.
By reflecting on the person I’ve become as a result of the time I spent abroad, I can understand the process I underwent in order to assimilate myself into Russian culture. I can clearly identify three phases I went through, keeping in mind that despite the fact that they are arranged in numerical order, there were many times when I randomly drifted between phases. Phase one happens when you first arrive. Everything and everyone is wonderful and unique. The world is at your fingertips. The city is beautiful, the people are great, the food is delicious, the beer is cheap… you get the idea. Phase two comes after you’ve lived in your host country for a little while. The honeymoon is over and now you’re frustrated. Nothing works. People are rude and constantly pushing and shoving you as you navigate the city that is now becoming more familiar to you. You can’t drink the water. It takes hours to do the simplest of errands. The sidewalks are icy and slippery; you’re sore and bruised all over from falling. Phase three is the final phase. You’ve gone through the other two phases already and have learned from them. By now, you’ve got some experience in your new culture and are starting to feel comfortable there. You understand how most things work. You can get done what you need to do without getting stressed out about it. You realize that a lot of things don’t work, but you’ve devised successful strategies for coping with them. You no longer focus solely on either the positive or negative aspects of the culture, but have rather attained a balance.
Achievement of this last phase allows me to construct a thoughtful response to the question I’m most commonly asked, “So, are you fluent now?” Spending six months in Russia has taught me that fluency is not just about language, but also contains a cultural aspect. I’ve identified three benchmarks by which one can judge his or her fluency. First, are you able to make and understand jokes in the foreign language? Humor differs from culture to culture, so it’s not enough to just understand the vocabulary, you also need to recognize the underlying subtleties. Second, are you able to answer people’s questions when stopped on the street or just when you’re out in public? For example, if someone asks you for directions, do you now have the familiarity with the language as well as the city to be able to get them to their destination? Lastly, has the language become yours in that you can formulate a response instantly? This means that you don’t have to translate first in your mind. For instance, if someone steps in front of you in line, you can tell them in a polite but self-assured manner that you were there first.
So what I’ve learned from my six months in Saint Petersburg is to celebrate the differences and recognize the common characteristics that we all share. Many times shopkeepers were abrupt or train conductors were impatient with me, but through it all, there were many more people who took me into their homes and shared their hospitality. From these people, I learned that despite cultural differences, we do truly have a lot in common. It was these people who really opened their culture to me and gave me deeper insights that have had a profound impact on the person I am today.
This piece was originally published on SRAS.org under the title “Studying Outside the Box.”