The first couple days here were filled with just hanging out which turned out to be kinda hard on me, and I think a bit on Paige as well. Paige doesn't like dead-air, so to speak, and neither of us have any idea how to "hang out" here in the former Soviet Union. That sounds weird, but we really had no idea (and still don't really, actually) what to do. Our only experience in this part of the world was as outsiders who wanted to be as much a part of the culture as possible but only within the confines of being missionaries, but now that we don't have to wear a tag and a uniform, and go out at a certain time or be in by a certain time the freedom has been literally overwhelming. It's not that we're scared, we know the language just fine and we can get around the Metro like champs, and we can ask people on the street where stuff is and all that, but I really don't know what kids do for fun around here, especially on limited budgets. It's bizarre that the one aspect about this trip that I thought I would find most intriguing (that of being here not as a missionary and having that freedom) has been the most limiting in the beginning. Even more, this weird situation has produced an even weirder reaction which I have alluded to before: mood swings.
As much as I understand and to some degree resent it, I've had a little big of homesickness. "I know," I tell myself, "it's SO SAD that you're not in Utah anymore and not in that terrible apartment and don't have to go to work or walk up that stupid hill in order to get to class!" but the culture shock is still there despite the fact I know the culture. Our routines have been shattered and the things that were familiar to us all disappeared to be replaced with this other stuff that we kind of remember, but had filed away as "done". I think we've been able to deal with it much more easily than others in our group, and I'm incredibly grateful that I'm here with my wife so I have a built-in friend, but the main thing that helped treat the homesickness on my mission was the routine of being forced to explore, forced to work, and then allowed to relax. There was always a routine already laid out everyday except for that one wonderful day when everything relaxed and I could explore by my own will or choose not to. Here, however, we're free to do whatever we want, and any time we're not in class or at an activity, we can spend taking pictures of stray dogs, or shopping for jewelery, or jumping from rooftop to rooftop, or base jumping off the TV Tower, or sitting in our apartments eating logs of Kolbasa: we're students! And that's been pretty scary at times because I don't know what that means here!
And so this lack of structure and excess of freedom has interesting side effects: in a foreign environment, without a forced structure, one is inclined to internalize and set up a network for self-defense. This reinforces their shock-induced resentment of the strange, new environment and so they stay inside, bored but "safe", and when they are forced to go outside, they react emotionally to things that would otherwise have no meaning, like when someone you happen to be with suddenly says they want to go this way instead of that way, for example. Events that otherwise have no real emotional significance (who cares which way you go in a city you don't know?), but because your mind is overloaded with new stimulus, you react in strange ways.
These are all typical symptoms of culture shock. Culture shock, as many travelers and missionaries know, has many stages that will affect anyone and almost everyone when suddenly placed into a new environment. They manifest themselves in any order or amount, and are more potent the longer you are planning to stay in a foreign place; vacationers can always see home a week or so away, for example, where new missionaries only see the 2 years they have ahead. There is usually an initial optimism and excitement that things are new. "Check it out! There are stray dogs everywhere!" "Hey! Take a picture of me sitting in this pile of trash!" "Holy crap, this bus is so full of people if it were to tip over, we'd all congeal into one meta-human, this is AWESOME!" "They have FANTA here?! I LOVE Fanta!" This is usually quickly replaced with frustration as what were menial routine tasks at home (the kind you do so often you never think about them) adhere to different systems and norms and they begin to get in the way of regular life. "Why can't I just drink the stupid water?" "The people are so rude here, they all just need to chill out!" "Why are all the stupid soft drinks WARM?" "I actually HATE Fanta and I just want a freaking Dr Pepper!" "Why does this cat only have one eye and no tail?!" That kinda stuff. Generally, this leads to a defensive reaction where the new environment begins to turn antagonistic and harsh and you feel the need to internalize and cling to what you know. Your native language, food from home, music you listened to at home, all that stuff become shields to hide behind and further encourage you to bottle up and protect yourself from experiencing the new environment. This leads to another stage of culture shock, and one that a lot of people stay in for a long time (if not forever): judgment and resentment. "French people are all so smelly!" "Russians are so stupid. They're all a bunch of jerks, especially the teenagers." "There's nothing fun to do here at all." "I HATE the transport here. Why can't it just WORK?!" You pass a sweeping judgment on an entire country and people based on your limited, anecdotal experiences as an excuse to close up entirely. The ultimate defensive maneuver: There's something wrong with this place, but not with me so I'm going to hole up here until I can get out. This kills all potential for exploration and curiosity, and can be allowed to gestate until these thoughts become beliefs instead of excuses. Many new missionaries arrive in their countries and end up hating their trainers for a lot of reasons, but one of them is because their trainer (if he cares, anyway) is constantly trying to push the new missionary into foreign situations in foreign environments in order to function in a foreign language, and these are all foreign things that the new missionary is at best wary of or at worst antagonistic towards. After his initial amusement wears off, he becomes disenfranchised, and the last thing he wants is to be confronted with what he fears constantly, everyday, and what's more at the behest of some dude who appears to function within the foreign environment flawlessly.
Anyway, so I have had mood swings from happy and excited to extremely annoyed, to somewhat depressed and bored, to real, actual homesickness for Utah, which I never thought I'd ever have. These will pass, though, as more things become clear like what school is going to be like here and what kind of routines will develop. Not that routines are vital, but in a situation where everything is new, a routine can help anchor your head and your emotions and allow you to enjoy the unexpected within that routine. "This crazy thing happened when I was on my way from home to school!" "I was on the way to this one store we always go to when a car slammed into it and EXPLODED!" That kinda stuff. The result of the culture shock process (and it is a process that usually must be played out and actively addressed) is eventual adaptation and acceptance. "I really like this Russian dish, I'm going to get it all the time!" "I rode the bus today and understood what the crap was going on for the first time!" "I guess cold showers aren't so bad after all. It's like one of those extreme health clubs!" You begin to adapt to the systems and see the culture for what it really is: a collection of good and bad social norms, some of which are annoying even to natives, but others that, while different from your own, have evolved from certain circumstances for a reason and are simply the way things are. The main point you arrive at most times is "The systems in place here are different, but they are interesting and they work within their own spheres." It's just interesting to me the way I react to new situations and new circumstances and why, even if I know that they're coming. Nothing is anywhere near as potent as when I first arrived in Ukraine, but it's still all the same to smaller degrees. Culture shock and mood swings and the like are another part of studying abroad: it's part of an experience.
Sorry for the dissertation, I got carried away. I plan on posting more pictures to flickr soon. Keep an eye out.