By: Kristine Bolt
Almost three years ago, I spent just under a year living in Indonesia. I was there for three months before I realized that I had culture shock, and the only reason I finally recognized what was happening was because I was coming out of it. This happened while I was in a taxi driving through the Yogyakarta countryside. I remember quite clearly the minute it occurred to me. My driver and I had just left Ullen Sentalu museum and were passing through a picturesque part of the countryside heading to Prambanan when the thought hit me: I liked Indonesia. In fact, I was happy that I was there and experiencing life in Southeast Asia. That made me wonder why I thought I disliked it in the first place. It was then that I realized that I had allowed myself to focus too much on the differences between what I was used to and where I actually was.
When I had left Jamaica three months before, I honestly never thought about culture shock as a possibility. I was too excited to be on my way to live in a totally new place. Also, I’ve been traveling since I was a toddler, so I didn't think of myself as unexposed. Therefore, it never occurred to me that I would have difficulty adjusting to life in a place that was totally different from anything I had ever experienced before.
To be fair, I had reason to think I disliked Indonesia up to that point. I spent my first two months in the country living in Banda Aceh, where the immigration officials were a pain from day one. On top of that, the NGO for which I was working caused several major shocks to my system – a dirty living environment (no matter how much I cleaned; I was battling years of build-up), an absolutely horrible boss (words cannot express how horrible that man was; think epic proportions, people), roaches and rats (I still can't even think about some of the encounters I had with those critters), and squat toilets (my poor knees!) – and my skin colour was an issue for some time before I got myself in hand.
Eventually, it was the kind and generous people and the natural beauty of the country that brought me out of the culture shock that I didn’t even know I was in.
After my baptism by fire in Indonesia, I knew what to look out for with respect to culture shock when I was coming to Yakutsk, Russia. Also, after my experiences in Indonesia, I knew to come with an open mind no particular expectations. I didn’t try to guess what things would be like and I made no assumptions. I only read enough about the place to know that the winter is severe and that living here would be unlike anything I had previously experienced. So my mental attitude was the first factor that played a part in me avoiding culture shock this go around. There are three more reasons why I didn't fall down that rabbit hole again.
First, I was comfortable in my living environment. My first flat here was in a well-maintained building; it was clean and spacious and free of living creatures except for me! There was no built-up grime and no rats, roaches, lizards or any other pests living with me. In fact, in the almost year and a half that I've been here, I've lived in three different flats of varying standards, from fairly basic to very well appointed, and I've been comfortable and happy in each one.
Second, my company is the bomb. The. Absolute. BOMB. They bend over backwards to ensure that new international teachers acclimate and adjust well to life here. They start that from the day they pick us up from the airport by stocking our flats with a few grocery necessities to get us started. They also have an acclimation programme that involves taking us around the city to get acquainted with local history and to start getting our bearings about what’s located where. And they introduce us to local cuisine by hosting a dinner for each new arrival at one of the city's best restaurants. It was there that I first ate stroganina (frozen raw fish), horse meat and reindeer meat.
Every single local person in the company is consistently kind, pleasant, and helpful. For example, arriving in a place with the type of extreme weather conditions that we have here means getting ready for winter. Outerwear that works perfectly fine as winter gear in most places are a joke in Yakutia and, at the very least, a trip to the local Chinese market where everything you need is available for rock bottom prices, is necessary. There is always a local team member ready and willing to host an excursion to the market, to help choose appropriate gear and haggle over prices.
Also, the company is properly run. Every department is organized and professionally managed and every team member knows what their job is and what’s expected of them. The team is kept informed of the company’s vision and strategic objectives, as well the progress that we're making towards achieving those objectives. Issues are handled quickly, professionally and maturely. And there is a warmth and lack of negativity that permeates just about every interaction. From my own observations, any toxicity that makes its way into this environment doesn't emanate from local team members; sad to say, but my two encounters with toxicity in this company have originated from foreigners.
On a side note, the thing I find most fascinating about this company is that it’s comprised of almost ninety percent women. That’s right. Of the approximately fifty people who work in this organization, only seven are men. Seven. Out of fifty. And not a hint of snarkiness to be seen. And, by the way, the seven men are teachers, a salesperson, the maintenance guy and the IT guy. They’re not the top of the heap, owning or running the company or managing departments.
I'm just gonna leave that there for you to contemplate, and I'm gonna walk away. Because this company disproves the common assertion which far too many people make, that a large group of women working together is a recipe for discord and discontentment. These wonderful women with whom I work are emotionally mature, genuinely kind, smart, educated, professional, and committed. They all rock in their own way.
I’d apologize for getting on my soapbox, but I’m not sorry. The point is, due in large part to the efforts and work of this group of women, I settled right into this amazing chapter of my life with absolutely no hint of trauma from culture shock.
The final reason why culture shock didn't find me here is that everywhere I go in Yakutia people are curious about me because I'm obviously very different, but almost without fail, everyone is welcoming, gracious, and respectful in their curiosity. They want to talk to me; they want to know why I chose to live here; they want to know how I’m handling the cold; they want to take photos with me; they want to give me gifts of handmade jewelry and homemade jam (best I've ever had, bar none), and they are concerned about my well-being. At the end of November, I went to a shop to buy new reindeer fur winter boots, and the shop lady was so concerned with the thinness of my socks while I was trying on the boots that, like a proper grandma, she gifted me a pair of wool socks to make sure that my feet stay warm even in my new fur boots.
So, let me sum up. Moving to Yakutia was not traumatic for me in any way, and I didn't have to struggle through culture shock because: I came with no set expectations of how things should be or look or how people should behave; my company provides decent living accommodations so that I can live and rest comfortably in my home; my company is anomalous in that it's full to overflowing with genuinely thoughtful and helpful people who pitch in to make the transition as easy as possible; and the people of Yakutia have welcomed me with open arms and enfolded me in their collective bosom.
My friend, I can only hope that you find your own Yakutia, wherever in the world you choose to go.
Kristine is an atypical Jamaican - unless she’s on a beach, she hates to be hot and much prefers life in cold climates, which is why she happily lives and works near the top of the world in northern Siberia. Read more about Kristine.