Feels Like Friday

Friday is not just the name of a day of the week, it is the name of a feeling. And sometimes, the whole universe feels this feeling with you (as evidenced by nothing going right and equipment often not working on a very particular day of the week).

This week, every day had been feeling like a Friday for some strange reason, and then I realized that this week really was the “Friday” of the year.

No wonder I have been running high on introspection – typical “Friday” mood. Not to mention, this “Friday” also marks the official mid-point of my PhD, which means that the time is ideally situated to look back on how far I have come and how to best manage the rest half.

So, upon the (partially) successful survival of my two years in Finland and in my PhD, I sat down to count my little successes along the way, which took me perhaps five minutes, not much there. I’m also pretty sure that I’m still navigating the unpredictable waters of culture shock and adjustment, but now I find myself on stable ground more often than not (I would probably put together my final thoughts on the subject, which are still worth about three to four blog posts). 

But there is light in the middle of this tunnel. Lately, I have finally been seeing some shape and form from my last two years of optimizations. Or that’s what I would like to believe (the human brain is really good at erasing information that causes it discomfort, so maybe I’m living in my little, custom-made, fantasy bubble).

Today, I did a little exercise. I made boxes for each week I was getting in the next two years (inspired in part by a part of this brilliant and funny TED Talk). Before this, I didn’t know how uncomfortable a task as simple as drawing and counting boxes, can be.

As of 29 December 2019, I have 105 boxes. Don’t look like all that much.

Really put things in perspective for me.

The Language Barrier

Some background information first: I am a foreigner in Finland.

It happens so, from time to time, that when people from my home country are considering a PhD abroad, particularly in Finland, and they somehow know me (directly or through mutual friends), we get into conversations about the pros and cons, the good and bad stuff, the easy and tough parts.

One of the FAQs include the language question.

In my two years here, I have not yet come up with a good short answer. Is there a language barrier in Finland? No, but yes there is. Or more like, yes, but apparently not.

I find this to be one of the weird things about my whole experience, and I never imagined that the “language barrier” would play out quite like this.

Back when I was on the other side, and I was gathering information on different aspects of adjustment, and asking people and disentangling information from the internet webs, I was told that English is fine! Almost everybody speaks English and there are no problems. They are, of course, right.

Ask me and I will tell you that of course you can survive and move about fine with just knowing English. Heck, I have myself done it for almost two years now. But I will also tell you that despite this, there is, in fact, a language barrier in Finland. And because of this, the existing language barrier is never acknowledged. I will also tell you to not take this too seriously and this is probably kind of fine-print information (not to mention, everyone has different experiences and what might feel like an ocean to me could be just a drop in the bucket for other people).

Now, I have come to realize that my methods of adjustments rely heavily on the language. In a new place, it helps to know your boundaries and how much you can dive in appropriately. And, being potentially awkward questions to ask directly, how does one get this kind of information otherwise? By observing one’s environment and noticing the interactions between already-established people in the “culture” (read: by overhearing conversations).

That ways you know if you should just keep it work-related, or if you could joke around a little bit and share light-hearted, other-workly information. And as you put together your own big picture, you see where you can and cannot fit in, in what aspects will you be limited yourself, and if you can establish a state of equilibrium with your environment.

In case there’s a “language barrier”, you are cut-off from this very important source of information. And in case of Finland, where, as the internet says, people don’t talk, or don’t like to talk, or whatever it is actually that they have with the act of talking, this effect is magnified.

So when they are talking among themselves, what is it really that they are talking about? Just work, probably? Or that’s how you start off, more or less.

Now, in my two years of observing and speculating and trying to put together the pieces of my yet-incomplete puzzle, I have reached the conclusion that the Finns do talk, at least, but they are probably not always talking about work. Though still not sure how much. Also not sure if they have a gossip culture and office politics. Also not sure how much is appropriate and how much isn’t. To some extent, I can tell which people in my environment are more friendly and which are not as friendly with each other, but I cannot say how much friendly those people are with each other.

So, yes, there’s a language barrier in Finland that nobody is ready to acknowledge because, of course, everybody speaks English, and what needs to be communicated is being communicated. Survival prospects of internationals are actually pretty nice, even if they are not up for learning the language.

Another way that this language barrier is amplified is when you are sitting in a group and the already-established people just kind of forget you are there and start conversing in their local language. The feelings of exclusion can be tremendous and these can be the main moments where you truly experience a “culture shock”. Still, I assume this is relative to what culture you are coming from and what your host culture is. I expect that in more social and inclusive host cultures, this might not hit a new person so hard (if they feel included in other aspects in their environment).

(Older posts on culture shock: here and here).

There’s only one way I have found around this, so far: Learning the language, irrespective of if you are good with communicating in English only, and even if you are not planning to speak in your new language. Having now taken two Swedish courses, I can tell at least when they are talking in Swedish vs. Finnish. Also, recently I realized that while I can still not understand what the already-established people say while talking among themselves, I can finally get the gist of what is being talked about.

Most importantly, if you are in a gathering and they forget you and start talking among themselves, it at least becomes interesting to try and understand what they are talking about, or you can just imagine it as your usual Swedish listening practice.

Culture Shock (Again)

Wait, haven’t I written about this before?

Seems like I have… But l appear to have the phrase stuck in my head.

Never mind, I’m a changed person now, so anything I write today (on the same topic) cannot be the same as what I might have written four (and something) moons ago.

So I shall write on this again.

And today, now eight (and something) moons into my PhD, I expect myself to have grown somewhat in my scientific capabilities. So we shall talk about culture shock the scientific way, the “graph” way (excuse my English, but I am a foreigner, so I can apparently do whatever I feel like without feeling as bad about it).

And well, the graph-way is the right way, or it becomes so once you start falling in love with this kind of data representation, which is inevitable if you science (again, I am a foreigner, and “science” feels more like a verb to me these days).

But anyway, back to the graph:


Of course this is a very generalized curve, and just one “dip” in the experience is untrue for quite some people – this graph should be a lot more “noisy” if you’d plot a real one. Although this would differ from person to person, and how different of a culture you are moving into.

Also, the graph doesn’t really show your “mastery” level at your home country (or town).  But from the text available on the internet, it is apparent that you almost never reach the same level of mastery in your new culture that you had in your old culture (which makes sense if you think about it).

This always makes me wonder… Does this mean that, even after you have adjusted and adapted, you are technically still in a state of culture shock, and will probably remain there throughout your stay?

That I find scary. And a little unrealistic to mention if a discussion about culture shock comes up in, say, two years from today. What do I do then? Do I say I am still in culture shock, if this particular question comes up? (Although I would estimate that to be a highly unlikely scenario, but everything has a first time, doesn’t it?)

But having grown comfortable with the idea of culture shock, and the (somewhat embarrassing) fact that I am still in there somewhere (although now probably in an overall better part of the curve), and being there for perhaps as long as I am in Finland, I have also realized the good this will do to my self-esteem…

So if I am not as good as I am hoping to become… heck, I am just in the wrong country!

Culture Shock

So, I am back from my weekend and my latest episode of culture shock.

When I was coming to Finland, I hadn’t taken the culture shock phenomenon very seriously (unfortunately, it wasn’t so the other way around). I mean, I already was aware that there’d be cultural differences, and that (duh) I’d had to adapt. Nobody said it is going to be easy but how hard can it get, still? I had been reading up on life in Finland, so I was mentally prepared and pretty excited to move here and experience it.

And that, dear reader, is what you call the gap between theory and practice.

I vividly remember when I first discovered I was in a state of culture shock: It was a moment of disbelief and enlightenment (if you can call it that). In fact, for this first time, I covered the distance between being-miserable to being-awestruck within 5 minutes (once I realized I was actually going through culture shock – I’d never really thought it was real).

I have found that with things like culture shock, it is very important to know what you are going through. This fact arms you with a very useful piece of information, and if you’d like to think of yourself as an experimental subject – a guinea pig in a lab, a hamster in a cage – it can turn your experience extremely entertaining (in retrospect, of course. It is quite stupid how the smallest of things can sometimes send you off into one).

They say there are four stages of culture shock:

The first one is your very excited, super-smooth, what-culture-shock-excuse-me stage. Everything is so… normal. After all, we are all people, and people, more or less, work the same way, right? You have unlocked the secret of adapting anywhere, this is just so simple.

The next one is the actual culture shock, I-don’t-know-what-I-was-thinking-(with-an-exclamation-mark) phase. This is when you suddenly realize that the place and the culture you live in now has a new normal, which is not at all what you have been thinking of “normal” all your life. Which makes you revisit all the other definitions that you had so far assumed about life. Which makes you realize that you weren’t on the same page when they said culture differences on the internet. Which is now the beginning of your culture shock, congratulations for making it this far.

After this, there should be two more stages to go, but I wouldn’t know about those – haven’t reached there yet. They should come when after repeated iterations, you have successfully reset your data to accommodate all alternative protocols that you will now need to survive in this new culture.

If you ever come across this state of mind, and are able to see it for what it truly is, your first instinct might be to close up and draw back. That is the easiest and the instinctive thing to do about it: to let it blow over.

Only, it won’t – this is a recipe for more-culture-shock. Because eventually, you will need to make contact, whether in two months or two years. So you have two options: close up or get it over with. Though this can become a problem when you don’t know how to make contact (culture shock might take away some of your social abilities and/or creative powers to deal with culture shock).

The situation will likely yo-yo for some time. So when you are in the shock phase, it helps to take into account why you had overestimated your cultural understanding and overall sensitivity to your new environment: in simple words, you had probably been expecting something that didn’t turn out quite the way you thought it would.

But then, one day, you’ll wake up and find out, heyy! no culture shock anymore! Beware, this is a lie. Never assume it is over, the sneaky little thing is probably just hiding behind your curtain. But this peek-a-boo phase is perfect for pushing yourself a little more into the culture, forming a support network, and finding out activities that you can do around.

And then there are a lot of other tiny things that can help, like blogging about it, talking to a trusted friend, taking up sports or hobbies.

They say there’s this thing then called reverse culture shock. I thought it was a figment of someone’s imagination but now I think I am changing my mind about it.