Reflections on Coming to Russia
My name is Youcef and I am a 1st year Master’s student of Foreign Languages and Intercultural Communication Program of the School of Foreign Languages. I am from Algeria, one of the countries in the North of Africa. Talking to my fellow international students, I came to the conclusion that we all at a certain point had experienced similar emotions during our first days in Russia.
Culture shock is a normal process of adapting to a new culture, this is particularly the time when a person gets acquainted with new cultures that are different from their own culture and which sometimes comes as a huge shock to them. For some people it takes a split of second to adapt and get used to it, for others it might take longer, but some never get used to a culture shock.
Here are some of the culture shocks majorly experienced by international students in Russia.
For most international students, especially those of us from Africa and Asia, it is part of our lifestyles to greet everyone in our neighborhood when going out or returning home. Strangers or acquaintances alike, we were raised to greet people. But upon getting to Russia, the wave of culture shock swept me. People seldom greet their close friends or teachers or generally acquaintances. No one greets and no one expects a greeting in return except really necessary. From my personal experience, if you greet people too much, people might look at you as a weirdo. Another aspect of greeting that is common here in Russia but not seen where I come from is the “hugging”. Friends tend to hug each other as a sign of greeting, regardless of the gender.
Not using honorifics (MR/MRS/MS)
Another common culture shock most international students experienced is the lack of use of honorifics when referring to someone older or in a high position. For example, in Algeria, if you are referring to an older person, they add “Mr/Mrs/Ms” to either the person’s first name or their last name, an example would be: Mr Ali or Mrs Linda. But here in Russia such thing doesn't exist. To show respect to a person in a higher position you have to say their complete name: Alexei Vladimirovich, instead of just saying Alexei.
Before I got to Moscow, I always heard that Russians did not smile and were very cold, but it never really hit home until I saw it firsthand. Back in my country, it's easy to know if a person's in a bad mood by looking at their face, because people always keep a happy and smiley face. The opposite is the case here and suffice it to say, when I just arrived, this discouraged me from asking for help because I felt they were always in a bad mood. But overtime, I understood that this is just a norm around here. When I asked some of my Russian classmates about this, they said they found it abnormal to be smiling on the road to random people unless they are with friends; this is due to the fact that throughout their history, they have been given uncountable reasons not to trust strangers. Well, that totally makes sense. However, one of the weirdest things for me was the fact that people would never apologize or say “excuse me” for bumping into you on the street.
Public display of affection
For people who do not put up a smiling face, Russians tend to display publicly their affection, this could be hugging, holding hands or kissing in public(in the subway, on the streets, in restaurants,etc). This is one of the culture shocks I would hardly recover from; this might be due to the fact that I come from a very Muslim and conservative family. However, I find it really cute and lovely that they are not afraid to show their love or friendship in public, this is quite interesting and new to most international students.
For most international students this is a very huge culture shock. Regardless of the season, be it winter, spring, autumn or summer, most Russians would smoke. This is a very normal occurrence but it was quite strange to me when I came to Russia, one would think everyone here smokes. Many times, on the streets, I've been approached by people who’d ask me if I either have a cigarette or a lighter. In the universities, workplaces, etc, most people actually take breaks to go out and smoke and it is very normal around here.
Staring at people
Being a person of color, I always attracted stares everywhere I went. Most times, they make it really glaring that they are staring, I could literally feel the stares creeping over my body. This was a shock to me and I'd always ask myself why they were staring at me as though there was something wrong. Overtime I've come to realize that Russians stare at people or things they find curious or interesting. They stare at me because I'm probably different due to my skin color or my hair texture and I've come to really enjoy the stare and attention. Some weeks back, I was in the subway with my Nigerian friend and there was a Russian couple sitting just in front of us and they were actively staring and scribbling something on paper. My friend felt very uncomfortable with it and asked that we alight at the next station, so I had to explain to her that they meant no harm and they were just staring because she is beautiful. However, we got off at the next station and the couple followed us and handed us the piece of paper they were scribbling on and left in a hurry. The paper read “you two are very beautiful” in Russian. This was one very beautiful experience for my friend and me.
Love for pets, especially dogs
Russians are huge fans of having pets. Ranging from big dogs to Chihuahuas to cats, etc. They have a wide range of dog species. They adore them as they would their kids; they feed them, clothe them and take them out often to get some fresh air. This was a huge culture shock to me because prior to now, I've never seen a clothed dog or cat nor have I seen a dog in the bus or subway. In my part of the world, dogs are usually bigger and they are trained to watch over the house, store, etc. But here in Russia, most of the dogs I see are very tiny and adorable. I’m always in utter shock whenever a tiny dog literally pops out of nowhere in the bus or on the streets.
This shock might be due to the fact that I've never been to any foreign country before, so I never imagined that one of the most influential countries like Russia would have local markets over the place. I thought I was the only one who found this interesting, until some other international students also said the same. There are several local markets where you can buy local things, where you can actually debate on the prices of goods too and purchase things at a very cheap price and they also had the same setting obtainable in my country (shelves set out in open space, sellers calling out to buyers, bidding for the best price, etc). This is one of the best culture shocks for me, I really wasn't expecting a home away from home setting, but luckily, I got one. Now I can easily go to the market and buy whatever I need and freely debate on the price with the seller.
Well, we know the Russian language is the official language here in Russia, but unlike their European and Asian counterparts, there are very few Russians who can speak English. Even the people who work in International offices tend to have very limited English and this really makes it hard for international students coming to Russia for the first time, to easily navigate and find their way. Most of the applications, like bank apps, metro and bus apps are majorly in Russian language and without a translator; it is quite hard for Non-Russian speakers to easily use. This still is one culture shock for me, because it's like I'm living in two worlds, when I'm in the dormitory, amongst my roommates, we speak English and the moment I step out, no English.
There are more culture shocks international students experience on a daily basis but the beauty of this is that it helps us learn more about Russian culture and helps us see the world from their perspective. There's always room for change and adaptation, hence in no time, international students tend to get used to these culture shocks.