In this blog I am sharing an interview with intercultural specialist Christina Röttgers about her first experience of living in a foreign country.
Christina, a native German, is an associate partner with Itim International, a company that solves intercultural and organizational challenges for businesses. She is a specialist for the development of cultural competence in organizations, teams, and on individual level. She’s been a professional facilitator and consultant in Europe and Asia since 1997. She speaks German, English, French, and Russian.
P: How old were you when you first went abroad and what were you doing at that time?
C: I was 23 years old at the time and studying philosophy, Slavic languages, and east European law. I initially went to Volgograd, Russia to learn to speak Russian fluently. I stayed there for six months and then a few weeks in Moscow.
P: What was your cultural shock?
C: I cannot say that I had a big cultural shock but I didn’t expect it to be very different from Germany yet it was in many ways. I expected the economic difference such as difficulties in buying food and scarcity of products, but I was surprised at the small things that were funny or uncomfortable and very different from home.
P: Can you give an example?
C: The administration was very challenging. I applied for a visa extension and I had no way for getting any information on the status. I didn’t know if I could stay or not. I was told only at the last minute that it got approved.
At a certain point of time, one needed special stamps for simple business procedures such as exchanging money and if the person was not there to issue the stamp or the office was closed, you were out of luck.
At a formal level they didn’t seem to care: they were indifferent.
Also, the ideas about feminism at the time where not progressing at the same level as in Europe. Some of the female students were already married and taking on the role of the housewife. They seemed to have no time or energy to fight for women’s rights.
P: What else surprised you?
C: The public transportation system was not as well organized as in Germany. There were no timetables for the bus. The busses came and went without an official schedule, which made it difficult to make connections.
P: How did these small but significant differences effect you?
C: In a way it made me more relaxed because there was no pressure to hurry. The Russians were good at taking things as they came. They’d say, “Vse budet chorosho” which means everything is going to be okay. It made me wonder how it would all work out but somehow it did.
P: What did you like about the culture?
C: The warmth of the people. Once I was on a bus and I was trying to zip up my bag when an elderly woman warned me to be careful of robbers and bend down helped me with my bag. They are caring and kind people.
Also, the Russians learn many common songs by heart that they can sing anytime, anywhere as a group when joining other friends or at a joint occasion. It’s heart warming. We as Germans don’t have such songs we can sing as a group together.
P: What did you learn about yourself?
C: It taught me about my own values and foreign perspectives and it helped me to understand myself better. The better you know yourself, the better you are at making decisions. This experience added a piece to my identity.
P: It did change your perspective on your own country?
C: It made me appreciate Western society and life more. We have rule of law that we can depend on. I am grateful not to have to struggle for everyday items.
P: What would you change if you had to do it over?
C: Nothing. It was a valuable experience. Based on what I know today, I would be trying to connect even more to many different people.
P: What advice would you give to someone going to live in a foreign country today?
C: It’s important some intercultural training to prepare in a way for managing cultural expectations. Expats often feel alone so I advise to take measures to develop new relationships with friends and colleagues. And I would get a coach.
P: Thank you for your time, Christina. It’s been great talking to you.
If you’d like to contact Christina directly to learn more about Itim contact her at Christina@itim.org.
Over To You
What was your first cultural experience like? I'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions.