Last week, Nick’s company arranged an in depth orientation on Russia for all of the expats who are moving to Novo. This is the second orientation like this that has been held, so only some of the families attended, but it was so nice to meet more of the people who will be moving with us to Novo!
I have to admit that I went into the orientation not really expecting a whole lot, but after experiencing it, I am so thankful that Nick’s company went to such great lengths to prepare us for our move to Russia. Some of it I had heard before, but to have it applied directly to the area that we will be moving was so helpful.
We learned about different "cultural dimensions” and ways of categorizing cultures. The dimensions each have a continuum, for example, on one continuum, you have independent on side, with group oriented on the other. On another continuum, you have egalitarian versus hierarchical. You can read more about it here, using the Netherlands as an example. Here is a bar graph showing how Russia and America compare.
Its funny to see that Russians are the exact opposite (to varying degrees) of Americans in every single dimension! They literally think as different from Americans as any culture can. The project that Nick will be working on is not very challenging technically; the real challenge will be executing the project… in Russia! If we go into Russia expecting them to think and act like Americans, then we will just be setting ourselves up for failure. Of course we like to think of ourselves as open-minded and “tolerant” of other cultures, but that in and of itself is just not enough. This course really helped us to not only tolerate or be prepared for Russian behavior, but also to develop some understanding of what motivates them. This iceberg model helps illustrate what I am talking about. All we see is behavior, and if you judge people on that, then you are only seeing a teeny, tiny bit of who they are.
I knew some of this, and I have lived overseas before; roughly 9 out of 18 years growing up were spent outside the United States, and living and traveling outside of the US made me so appreciative of my country! I think its is simply the best, and in so many (not all, obviously) ways our culture is built upon values taken directly from the Word of God. BUT that doesn’t mean that I expect every place to be like the US or that I dislike places for not being like the US. They are what they are, and they are fascinating the way that they are. My only hope for Russia is that I serve Jesus Christ in some way, and I have no intention of changing them. I am also trying to not into Russia all starry eyed, thinking that I know what to expect just because I have visited for five days and sat through one orientation.
There were some things that I learned that just floored me… in fact I even sputtered, “But that’s crazy!” before I clamped my hand over my mouth in horror because we had just spent an entire morning learning that there was no “Right” or “Wrong”, and not to judge and that is not helpful. As a side note, I do know that there is such a thing as a fixed and absolute “Right” or “Wrong”, but sputtering “But that’s crazy!” is not helpful or productive.
Here are some things that completely floored me:
- The story of Pavlik Morozov. It makes me ache for an entire nation that has grown up singing hymns of praise to this boy, instead of being taught to “honor your father and mother.”
- In Russia, the customer is not king, the supplier is king! I don’t know why this one surprised me so much, but it did. All of the US is one big scramble for customers and thinking of new ways to attract customers; in Russia, no one wants or cares about you or you giving them your business. If you want something, you do not have the upper hand, the person who has what you want has the upper hand. It doesn’t matter how much money you have.
- All of the stories about the dysfunction of the Russia government. I know that I don’t love the US government and its different levels, but at least I don’t have to be afraid to call the police because they will probably try to extort money out of me! I don’t have to worry about the mayor’s wife taking a shine to my restaurant and forcing me to sell it to her for 1/10th of what I paid for it.
- One story about an old man in an apartment building who was taken away by the secret police never to be heard from again. And people felt terrible, not because this poor little old man was taken away and probably tortured and murdered, but because there was a traitor in their midst and they had no idea!
Here were some very positive things:
- Russians are very relational. In business meetings, it is only polite to ask about someone’s weekend or their family before you get down to business! I used to do that all the time when I worked, and the men especially, always seemed surprised that I would ask. It was good hear that we had that in common. I love people and their stories. Russians love stories too.
- Russians are loyal friends, even though they are hard to get to know.
- Russians love to have big, long dinners and long talks that go on until the wee hours of the morning!
Some things I hope I am able to do in Russia (one day):
- I hope that I will one day be able to greet a Russian, in Russian, with a proper Russian greeting, using the proper patronymic name, and sincerely complement them and inquire after their family in my prosiest prose!
- I would like to have a life-long Russian friend. I hate to think that I will live there for several years and never really get out of my comfort zone. This involves being fearless… that’s tough for me! Russians think of Americans as superficial, and in many ways we are. I understand and agree with their criticism, and I see this as an area where I will be praying for sincere guidance from the Holy Spirit. I need more growth in that area.
We had a real Russian banquet one night, featuring toast after toast and tons of Vodka! Russians are big drinkers, and Nick and I need prayer around how to act in situations where vodka is present. We only drink wine and beer occasionally at nice meals, and there is no way we can handle the amount of alcohol that Russians consume. Nick was the youngest male there so he had to refill everyone’s glass after each toast. It was a wonderful ice breaker for him! He made is own toast and was so funny. Nick gives a very good toast. “I am learning so much in this orientation, for instance, when I read my job description, I didn’t realize that Civil Engineer actually translates to ‘Vodka Pourer’ in Russia.”
One speaker that we had was an Indian woman, and she was very good! Hers was just a general orientation on cultural sensitivity, and not specifically on Russia; she kept using the fact that Americans value self-reliance as a core value over interdependence, which is why the elderly tend to enter nursing homes here, rather than live with family. In other countries, like India, that would be unheard of, and if they were to look at Americans behavior they would assume that we don’t love our parents. That’s not true at all, we just value self-reliance, and our parents also value self-reliance and would like to stay independent for as long as possible.
Well I left the talk and went to lunch thinking “Oh wow! I learned so much today!” While I was waiting in line, one of the contractors came up to me and said “I heard that your Mother was coming with you Russia.” “No,” I stammered, flustered and a little bit offended “She is not coming to live with me, although she is going to come for long visits.” I paused and for good measure added “She has her own life.” We talked a little bit longer and I explained that the confusion was probably just because my mom was staying with us at the hotel to watch our daughter. He responded by saying that he actually thought that it was pretty cool when he heard that she would be moving with us to Russia (he is Vietnamese and I gather that they are high on the interdependent index).
After we left, I had time to reflect on the whole exchange, and why I had such a knee-jerk reaction. I mean, I wasn’t rude, but I was flustered and mildly offended. I realized that it was like he was saying 1) that I was needy and weak and that I couldn’t manage my daughter or my home on my own and 2) that my mother didn’t have a life of her own. Of course that wasn’t what he was saying at all, but it was a perfect example of the American self-reliance and how deeply rooted it is in me. I mean, even one of my parenting goals for Isla is to make her self-reliant!
It was just God’s perfect way of humbling me after I left feeling so smart and open-minded… I have so much growing to do and I need to be more “interdependent” with the Holy Spirit (har har). There is no way that I am going to be any use to Him if I don’t get rid of things in my personality that don’t really matter and that might cause me to throw up walls in my relationship. He humbled me several times over those two days.
I am so thankful to Nick’s company for the care that they have given us in this move. I have very few complaints, and I do feel like we have been set up for success. We leave in less than a week! Crazy. I am getting so excited, but also so sad to be leaving everyone.