Most of us probably knew we were in for inevitable culture shock when we arrived in Russia, no matter how much we had convinced ourselves we were prepared. Sometimes it comes on quick, but other times culture shock reveals itself incredibly slowly.
It took longer for this to sink in, but one of the ways I experienced it – and still do, even four months later – comes from something I hadn’t at all anticipated or even thought about before arriving. Culture shock isn’t just a product of living in Russia with Russians. It can also come with living in a dormitory and taking classes with students from all over the world.
I suppose I had it easy at first. After my middle-of-the-night arrival in Petersburg and after getting registered with my dormitory, I had expected to open the door to my new room and meet two other girls. While I was eager to make friends, I have to admit I wasn’t eager to share a dormitory room with anyone, so I can’t say I was all that amped to find out who my new roommates were. Imagine my surprise when I opened the door to a completely empty room with not another soul in sight — just three empty, perfectly made beds. After settling in, my room remained like that for almost a month. Empty, except for me and my one suitcase. I thought I had really lucked out.
Other students expressed their envy. “You get to live by yourself?!”, they’d say in disbelief, and then proceed to tell me about all the things they didn’t like about having roommates. The most common complaint? The roommates didn’t speak Russian or English, therefore making communication – even just polite social interaction with the person you’re sharing a very small space with – nearly impossible. How can one communicate an issue, annoyance, or even just ask a question if there are significant language barriers?
Finally, after the first month, I was joined by a student from France. While we were able to talk a little bit, her Russian was limited and her English was non-existent, as was my French. I gleaned that she was a post-graduate student studying archaeology, and had traveled all over the world in doing so. I wanted to learn more about her interesting life and even just get to know her as my roommate but could not due to the language barrier. After a while, sadly, we just kind of stopped trying to communicate. A privyet, a paka here and there, but our inability to socialize made it seem like I was living with a complete stranger. And when you think about it, I was! The seeming coldness that can be a product of such situations might make one feel a bit lonely or isolated.
You might feel this, too, when hearing a lot of different languages that aren’t Russian or your native language spoken widely throughout the dormitory or the common areas. In just my short time here, I’ve heard Danish, Italian, Finnish, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Polish, German, Turkish, Greek, and Hungarian. Hearing these languages spoken by seemingly tight-knit groups sometimes made for awkward experiences. Take, for example, when you’re making a meal in the kitchen and find yourself in a crowd – and you are the only one who can’t speak Chinese. The obvious answer would be to try and speak the shared target language (Russian). Just as many Americans, Canadians, and other English speakers, often find that speaking English is sometimes just as effective – if not more so. However, at times, you’ll have to accept that the people around you just want to speak in their native tongue, and that can exclude you from engaging if you don’t know it.
One interesting perspective on this topic, however, was brought to my attention by my Italian roommate. She often reiterates to me that English-speakers are sometimes at a distinct advantage in Russia and even in a multi-national dormitory. A great number of foreign students from non-English speaking countries have at some point studied English while in school, and therefore are often able to switch to English if you don’t know what they’re saying to you in Russian. I’ve experienced this countless times firsthand. In Russian language conversation with some of my fellow dormitory residents, if I don’t know a word they’ve said in Russian, they are often able to clarify it for me by repeating it in English – even if they have to struggle a bit at first. Those same students, however, often don’t share the same privilege of having things clarified for them if they don’t understand.
Even outside the dorm, in the city and in the classroom, English privilege is pronounced. Many Russian language instructors will sometimes translate difficult Russian vocabulary or concepts into English if they notice students struggling – but this doesn’t help someone who doesn’t speak English. Only once have I had a substitute teacher – a true polyglot – who was able to clarify concepts for students in French, German, English, Polish, and Japanese. While he was speaking directly to the students who spoke those languages, I felt something I had up until then not experienced – I felt really excluded and lost, just sitting there until the lesson continued after the tangential explanation that I didn’t understand a word of. Though brief and so far only for one day, I understood what many non-English speaking students must feel like when the only clarification to a difficult concept comes in a language you don’t understand.
But the grass always seems greener on the other side. I in a way envy my Japanese roommate. She arrived not long ago and will spend an entire academic year here. The catch is, she’s a brand new student of Russian and knows no English. While I often see her getting frustrated — sometimes almost to the point of tears when trying to communicate with dormitory administrators, other students, or even me – I have observed her Russian go from zero to 60 in just a few short months. Now, she has to clarify new vocabulary for me, even though I’ve studied Russian for a much longer time than she has. One of the reasons, she says, is because she has no other choice but to learn Russian and learn it fast. She doesn’t have the comfort of knowing that if she gets in a bind, chances are someone will be able to translate for her into her native language. And without knowing Russian, her year here will be incredibly lonely and isolating.
While I wasn’t prepared for this form of culture shock, and while sometimes it remains incredibly frustrating, I am grateful for the experience. I’ve learned words and phrases in Italian, Danish, Polish, and Japanese, and have enjoyed sharing my own native language with fellow dorm residents (and new friends!). While living with a whole dormitory full of people with different native languages and nationalities can many times be challenging and bewildering, it completely complements the experience of being abroad, giving it new layers of depth.