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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Reporting from Russia with love

Nothing can prepare for culture-shock, and that’s okay

There are those who get nervous, and there are those who say they don’t get nervous. The latter group is lying. The idea that nerves can be bought and brokered, or charged up and down at will, is also a lie. That was never made clear to me until I boarded the British Airways flight in London, final destination St. Petersburg, Russia.

The most common question I faced before heading to a country that dominates American news — rather unfavorably, I must add — was about nerves. “Are you nervous? Or wary? What do you think about living in a hostile country?” And so on. If the sentiments weren’t exactly touching on the anxieties Americans face when dealing with Russia, they were certainly implied.

So, when I finally boarded that flight at 9 in the morning on a dreary London tarmac, the nerves caught up to me in a way that was rather startling. I found my seat and opened the safety instructions booklet for the first time in my life. I followed the MO of a Jason Bourne-type spy on the run, scanning the compartment and taking note of the passengers who were definitely Russian and those who may have been Russian but lacked the look I thought would prove this.

It turns out most of the passengers were British, but that’s beside the point. The idea of studying in a country as politically relevant as Russia splashed over me, and with it came the anxiety. What had been a distant dream for so long was now a short flight from becoming reality.

As with most such tales in real life, the climax didn’t propagate death or tragedy. Instead, the plane touched down on a snowy runway surrounded by bare trees and a smattering of industrial-looking buildings. The customs checkpoint didn’t lead to detainment, the icy highways and mud-caked cars didn’t cause a fiery accident and the blank faces of commuters didn’t show hostility, but rather a way of living that favors intimacy over external emotions in public.

Now a few weeks into my stay in St. Petersburg, I’ve discovered that no amount of preparation offers a foolproof way of managing culture shock. It’s the difference between studying for the SAT and actually taking it with the pressure dial turned to its highest setting. No amount of language study or cultural knowledge or historical analysis can replicate the real thing.

The best knowledge comes from practical experience, even if it’s uncomfortable. I quickly learned that embarrassment is secondary to the information learned using butchered grammar, for example, while trying to leave a crowded metro.

Some Americans will harp on foreigners for lacking proper English skills, but it’s likely they’ve never had to purchase a gym membership in another country while speaking another language. If so, empathy for those trying to hurdle communication barriers might be more forthcoming.

This is a city ripe with history, from museums and majestic palaces detailing the golden age of the Russian monarchy to gray, stoic buildings that provide easy (and sometimes uneasy) remembrance of 70 years under the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union.

Underneath its decor, St. Petersburg — let alone the rest of Russia — can be very intimidating. People rarely smile in public, unlike the way Americans often do. Security officers profile men with backpacks on the metro and point them to X-ray machines, reflecting heightened security concerns following a terrorist attack last year.

But beneath that is a city overflowing with life. The cold exteriors and bulky coats vanish when you walk inside or make an effort to know someone. Friendliness will be returned. Taking the risk and jumping off the deep end — facing a country that elicits stares and questions of nerves back home — is worth it.

I’m sitting in a cafe, a short walk on snow-covered streets from my apartment. Soft music fills the background murmurings, and patrons swig cups of hot tea before braving the cold outside. Whispers float by, words here and there that tend to characterize public conversations  — hushed tones that shield against eavesdroppers. I finish my coffee. The waitress walks by, feet churning in a pair of Nikes. The sun is peeking through the clouds.   


Written by: Nick Irvin — ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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