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Jul 19, 2013

Reverse Culture Schock

Many years ago, when I was completing my stint at Notre Dame, we were warned of reverse cultural shock. It is a real phenomenon: people returning to their home country from extended stays abroad experience alienation, maladjustment, and feeling not quite home. I have never experienced it; perhaps because I have been back to Russia almost every year after about 1996. Maybe because I am thick, or perhaps because we lived in five different states in the US, and in three different places in Russia before that. I doubt military families experience much of it either when they return to their home towns.

Any move – domestic or international – brings about a little catastrophe in everyday life. One no longer knows where things are. I also noticed that little glitches can bring about large anxiety, because we tend to worry about bigger things, and project our anxiety on silly things. I remember in 1999 I was shocked Ohio did not have any banks with internet interface, which was fairly common in Seattle. But, of course, within a year they caught on, and it was not a big deal either – you just had to go to the bank, which in a small town was never a problem.

So yesterday I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out the cell phone system in Russia. It is completely different than in the US – no monthly plans, and phones can be used to transfer money, and for many other things. Of course when I left Russia in 1991, cell phones did not exist. And now Russia boasts one of the most innovative cell phone industries. OK, so the darn things don’t work for me, because I don’t know anything about them. The machine ate my 5000 rubles, which I thought was a 100 rubles note (similar colors). OK, it did not like any of my credit cards, so I have to go and feed the machine with cash. But hey, this is really a small thing. At least I did not have to learn a whole new language.

Little annoyances like that happen. Sometime they are cultural. Check out an ad; keep in mind Russian pronouns have gender-specific endings: “Looking for a he-waiter, he-barmen, he-cook, and she-dishwasher.” Talk about the sexist language. Or this one: “A Slavic family will rent an apartment.” Slavic is euphemism for White, non-Asian Russians. However, to my delight, I find the educational discourse here very similar to that in the US. The university life and organizational structure is very similar. So it is really one’s choice what to focus on – the small annoying things that really stand for a larger anxiety about the move? Or focus on big, important things that work well?

Not denying the reverse culture shock theory, I am just saying to all repatriates – get a grip; it's up to you, really. 

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