CULTURE SHOCK IN ESTONIA – IS IT POSSIBLE? SHOTA (GEORGIA)

No matter where or how far you travel, even if it is inside the same country, you can still see how people do some things differently from the way you are used to. As the distance increases, number of “strange” habits increase, and eventually you might be exposed to, what can be called, a culture shock.

First, let me define a culture shock and what do I mean by that. And guess where do I go for an explanation – Wikipedia, of course. Something that we must not forget to mention in our graduation speech and thank to for always being there for us. 🙂

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Anyways, according to Wikipedia, culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life. It has at least one of the four phases, which are: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery. I will try to stick with definitions of these terms, as it is provided by Wikipedia and based on my personal experience illustrate how it works for a foreign student in Estonia.

Let’s start with the honeymoon – sounds attractive, doesn’t it? 🙂 And actually, it is as exciting as the first weeks after the wedding (even though I have not experienced it yet). This can usually last for about three months, but when you are discovering Tartu and Estonia – literary every day. I should also mention that this country still keeps fascinating me, even after living here for almost a year, there is always something new to discover and love about this place. Let’s get back to the newcomers agains.

If you don’t study Estonian, there are few basic words you should pick up immediately. Tere means “hi” in Estonian, and this is the first word you hear everywhere you go. I got used to be greeted with “tere” so much that this winter, while being in Georgia, I was about to say “tere” to the salesperson every time I went shopping. The second Estonian word all the foreigners learn as one of the first ones is “Terviseks!”. But it’s not what you think – it means cheers 🙂 Well, I guess I don’t need to explain why is it one of the first words you learn as a student here. But the international environment in Tartu enables you to hear toasts in many other different languages as well, like Egészségedre in Hungarian. I know it seems impossible to pronounce, but Hungarians taught me a little trick – just say “I can shake a tree” really fast 🙂

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Once the honeymoon is over, the negotiation phase comes. According to the same authors, it is mostly characterized by problems with communication and the language barrier, which eventually leads to feeling lonely and homesick. Is it really the case of Estonia? I don’t think so! The language barrier is not something you would consider a problem. Just look at the statistics – Estonia is 4th among 60 countries by the English Language Proficiency Index for 2013! But even without referring to these numbers, but sticking with my experience only, I can assure you that even if you are in the middle of nowhere in Estonia, you can get around with only English language pretty well.

But besides language barrier, Tartu is so small and since it’s packed with students, it’s literally impossible to feel lonely. You just have to go to the city center, and you will bump into your friends, flat-mates or friendly strangers, you will be best friends with, after couple of drinks. Contrary to stereotypes, Estonians are actually one of the most friendly and warmhearted people I have ever met. Is it gloomy and dark winter weather outside? No reason to be depressed, there is always something going on, students in Tartu never rest.

Exchange students don’t really have the chance to experience the other two phases, and only the strongest ones from those staying here for more than a year, have to handle them. 🙂

The Adjustment phase – when you are more or less accustomed to new a culture. You are developing more “normal,” daily-routine, life-style. You are not crazy anymore, to go on every single party or event, you just have your circle of friends, can hang out with and feel comfortable and relaxed.

And the final stage is mastery phase, when individual is able to fully participate in the host culture and society.

But once again, Tartu is so international, small and full of students like you, it’s hard to feel like a stranger here, who has difficulty of integrating into the local community. There is special students’ spirit in this town, which accepts you from the very first day and you become part of it.

But in the end, every foreign student has to go back home, at least for holidays. And that’s when most difficult part of the culture shock starts. A reverse culture shock. After couple of days, when excitement from seeing family, old friends, people you have not seen for a long time, is calmed down, you start missing Tartu and start “hating” everyone from your friends on Facebook, who goes to Estonia and it pops up in your newsfeed. It’s inevitable! So, prepare yourself, a reverse culture shock is coming!

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And in the end, I would like to share with you one example from my personal experience. In Estonia, you should take your shoes off when entering an apartment. In Georgia, no such thing has to be done, no matter how much of an effort it has been for the host to clean the floor (you are not the one who has to clean it, so who cares?). 🙂 It took me several weeks to finally get used to this rule, as I kept forgetting to take them off all the time.

When I was visiting my home for the winter holiday, my reaction was the same as every Estonian’s would have been:

When I was visiting my home for the winter holiday, my reaction was the same as every Estonian's would have been

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