The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: How to pry open your mind to new cultures—and keep them all sorted

Yelena Parker for CST Displaced Nation Columnist H.E. Rybol never saw a culture clash she didn’t want to fix. A “transitions enthusiast,” she credits her Third Culture Kid upbringing with giving her a head start in this department. That said, H.E. is always on the lookout for shiny new tools, and toward that end has been interviewing other displaced creatives about their culture shock memories and coping strategies. Today she speaks to Yelena Parker, a Ukrainian expat, executive coach, and writer who, through her many international moves, claims to have mastered the art of “moving without shaking.”

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I’d like you to meet today’s guest, businesswoman and author Yelena Parker. Yelena is Ukrainian but has lived in the United States, Switzerland, Tanzania and now the United Kingdom, and has conducted business in many more countries. Last year she published a book titled Moving without Shaking, which made the Displaced Nation’s “Best of 2014 in Expat Books” list. Described as a “guidebook-meets-memoir,” it aims to help women “who are interested in building their new global life styles whether through working, studying, volunteering or simply living abroad.”

One of Yelena’s contentions is:

Once you are on a serial expat path, new relocations get easier.

Can we take this to mean it’s possible to get better at handling culture shock?

Let’s find out by asking Yelena to describe a few of her own culture shock experiences. She may advocate for moving without shaking; but how does that line up with her own adventures? Has she never shaken like a leaf at some point during her various international moves?

* * *

Hi, Yelena! First can you please tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I came to California from Ukraine in my 20s to get an MBA and ended up living there for more than nine years. I didn’t make it till the very end of year 10 as an opportunity came along to relocate to Switzerland for work. After two years in Geneva I moved to London to continue working in tech. I’ve now lived in the UK for four years, only interrupted by a four-month volunteering stint in Tanzania, with a Kilimanjaro climbing break in between.

You’ve certainly made your fair share of cultural transitions. Did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

I travel to Moscow frequently for work. During the last trip the taxi driver asked me where I was from. This question is always complicated since, like many here at the Displaced Nation, I now feel as though I’m from everywhere and nowhere in particular. I tend to focus on the most recent location when giving an answer. To be polite, I share where I am coming from literally (versus where I am from). On this occasion, the last port of call was St. Petersburg, which in Soviet times was known as Leningrad. Some wires in my brain must have crossed as I blurted out: “From Leningrad.” The driver said “Really???” We ended up engaging in a much longer conversation, about my Soviet childhood in Ukraine and so on. I think I had a reverse culture shock reaction after being away from where I grew up for so long.

What lessons can you offer to the rest of us from this story?

It’s a bit of a strange example, but what I am trying to get across is that keeping your life truly connected to multiple worlds is very difficult. You are bound to lose some of your identity, forget the basics, replace them with new realities and then, perhaps, come full circle as you find yourself back in your good old comfort zone. You and your memories have many layers now. It can be challenging to keep them sorted. That toolbox of yours needs to have quite a few compartments!

Looking back on your many cultural transitions, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

Moving to Tanzania, I was surprised at how quickly I embraced the pole pole (slowly-slowly) way of life. Until I went on this amazing adventure, I had always been a workaholic. But then I found myself living enjoying the most beautiful sunsets and spending a lot of time talking to people in front of me instead of using various digital ways to connect with people remotely. I didn’t complain about the lack of speedy or efficient services anywhere as I no longer expected that kind of thing. I was not rushed or overwhelmed so wasn’t concerned about being late or other people being late or not showing up to meetings. I just enjoyed every moment of this new experience: no deadlines, no crazy work hours, only things I truly wanted to do. You could say I felt burnt out after working non-stop (or being in school) for 23 years. I do believe, however, that something in that culture was appealing to my natural preferences, which had been suppressed by years of working in the corporate world. I also realized that I wanted to teach again. My first career was in teaching English at a university level in Ukraine—work I’d chosen to abandon when I took a degree in business. That said, I am back on the corporate path again.

If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first
and why?

I guess it would be some kind of crowbar to pry open your mind to new experiences, no matter how many times you relocate. Learn everything you can about your new home country. Explore it thoroughly. If you end up moving back home, you will regret that you didn’t do enough. If you stay, the more you learn, the easier your assimilation into your new life is going to be.

Thank you so much, Yelena, for taking the time to share your experiences and reminding us that keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn about other cultures can be effective tools, sometimes in unexpected ways! I love your example of becoming immersed in an East African culture and learning more about your own (suppressed) natural preferences as a result. And I of course love the idea of moving without shaking! That’s what this toolbox is for…

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Yelena’s advice? Have you ever found yourself having a Rip-Van-Winkle moment like hers? How about discovering your “true self” in a vastly different culture? Do tell!

If you like what you heard from Yelena, be sure to check out her author site and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She is currently working on her new Web site and her second book.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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One response to “CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: How to pry open your mind to new cultures—and keep them all sorted

  1. ML Awanohara May 18, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks, HE and Yelena, for such an enlightening discussion. Yelena, your story of telling the taxi driver you were from Leningrad reminds me of one of my visits back to the U.S. when I’d been living in the UK for a long time, long enough so that my accent had changed. Actually, the story is kind of the mirror opposite of yours. I was in a shop in my hometown and the young woman serving me said she found my accent totally charming. I tried telling her that I was from the U.S. and this very town, not from England, but she was having none of it and said she would do anything to get an accent like mine. By the time our conversation ended, I felt as though I should have invented a new biography to go with my new way of speaking!

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