Friday, April 22, 2011

Lost in Tra[i]nslation

About a year ago, Beth had to return to the states to renew her visa. She was gone about three weeks, and during that time I was pretty busy. But for one of those weeks I was able to make a trip to our friends the Friersons and Wilhelms in Izhevsk.

You probably remember posts previously about trips to visit them-- it's a lengthy 18-hour train ride from Moscow. And this particular time I was a little nervous. Not only would I be riding alone, but I purchased the cheapest tickets available, the плацкарт (platskart) -- in which the rooms are open and beds are everywhere.

Here's an image as an example:

I'm not so nervous because of the space issue-- Russia helped me get over my personal bubble a long time ago. I was simply nervous about the language aspect of it and not really having anyone else with me to chat with that I knew.

At the same time I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to really put my language to the test-- we had been living in Moscow for right at a year. Although my skills were far from where I wanted them to be, I figured this would help give me a better picture as to how I was doing.

I'm sure I've mentioned on previous blogs before, but I have this desire-- maybe it's normal, maybe odd-- whenever I'm in another country (in this case of course, living in Moscow), I want to blend in as much as possible. I don't want to appear foreign or American. I don't want anybody to notice me. I am still not sure why I have this strange aspiration.

Finally the day comes. I arrive at the train station and find my bunk. I find myself in a little compartment with a kind elderly couple and a larger man in his 30s. We all greet each other, prepare our beds and change as needed, and the train takes off. It's the moment of no return.

The first 2 hours seemed to go perfect. I was getting pretty impressed with myself. Like most conversations between complete strangers, everything began small. My strong suit. We talked about where we were going, the train, the weather, and so on. Everything appeared completely normal. I could not believe how well things were going.

Finally the elderly lady asked if she lay down on the bed she and I were sitting on. I graciously moved over and crammed on the other side with the man and younger guy. He begins to talk to me, one on one. We were close, and everything was very deliberate. Slowly but surely I was unable to understand a word here, a phrase there. Finally he asked me something, and I have no idea what he said. At all.

I had finally hit that point. I wasn't looking forward to it, but I knew I had to admit to him my true identity. I told him in Russian "I'm sorry, I didn't understand you. I don't speak Russian very well [and then I always say this even though it's completely and utterly unnecessary except to make me seem better] but I am studying the language in Moscow."

The man looked at me as if something had finally clicked in his brain.

He said to me, in Russian and laughing, "It all makes sense now! This whole time I thought you were just stupid!"

And those thoughts of self-satisfaction and success were all gone. This entire time I thought I was mastering the Russian language, I just sounded mentally ill to those that actually spoke it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

kcohS erutluC

Reverse Culture Shock is something you hear about (and almost prepare for) while living overseas. It's the basic idea that the difficulty you had adjusting to a new culture (in our case, Moscow) will be somewhat similar when returning and re-acclimating to your native culture.

Surprisingly, we didn't have as much difficulty as we were worried about. It took less than a day to get used to driving again (we didn't have or drive a car the entire duration of our time in Moscow). In fact, things didn't seem that foreign at all. Most of our reverse culture shock experiences could be summed into one-sentence shouts of exclamation:

"This washing machine is HUGE!"

"Wait, you can get another drink with the same cup -- FOR FREE??"

"There's a whole shelf for cereal at the grocery store?!"

"Wait, I can wash my clothes and wear them again in the same day??"

I could go on.

But there is definitely another side to reverse culture shock. It's this feeling of displacement. Not only have we left this incredible group of friends and colleagues back in Moscow, but we are entering back into life in America as if it were two years ago. People have moved on. It's that tightrope feeling that probably feels the strangest. Not belonging to either world.

I know that sounds pretty pathetic, but I don't mean it that way at all. It's life. It happens. The tension will go away eventually.