The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, start the year off right: build something of value in your adopted culture

Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has enlisted the help of her latest interview guest for advice on having a “constructive” 2016.
Culture Shock Toolbox January 2016
Happy new year, Displaced Nationers! It’s January, the month of new year’s resolutions, mentoring (yes, January is National Mentoring Month!), and curling up on the couch with a blanket, yummy tea and a good book.

To be honest, the idea of new year’s resolutions always felt a little random to me. Turns out, the date is actually “completely arbitrary,” making nothing more than a timekeeping convention. But according to American psychologist George Ainslie, it still matters because it provides “a clean line between our old and new selves.”

So, in the spirit of new goals and motivations, we’re kicking off 2016 with motivational speaker and personal brand strategist Shade Adu. Shade has worked in Kazakhstan, Ghana and the United States, and is particularly interested in empowering women entrepreneurs.

Originally from the United States, Shade stumbled upon an opportunity to move to Kazakhstan to teach English. She traded her comfortable life in Newark, New Jersey, for the majesty—and quirkiness—of life in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city. Keep reading to find out what happened…

* * *

Hi, Shade, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I’ve lived in the Republic of Kazakhstan for three years. I was in the capital, Astana, for one year and now I’m in the smaller southern city of Taldykorgan, which is about 150 kilometers outside of the country’s former capital city, Almaty.

In the course of your transition to a Central Asian culture, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

All the time, as I’ve tracked on my blog, Kazakh Nights. When I first arrived in Kazakhstan, I told my students to “write” an assignment in their notebooks in Russian. Instead of saying the Russian word for “write”, I said “pee” and the entire class began to laugh at me. In Russian both words sound very similar.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now?

I shook my head. But it was funny then and it’s still funny now. I suppose I could see if there is a world record for butchering the most languages. I would be a shoe-in for first place. I have a working knowledge of Russian, Kazakh, French, & Spanish. Of those, my Russian is probably the best.

Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

As an African American woman in the former Soviet Union, I naturally stand out. It makes me the target of unwanted attention daily. When I went to the market, I stood out. If I went to restaurant, parade, wedding, local museum or event I was the center of attention.

During my first year in Kazakhstan, one of my amazing colleagues invited me to her wedding in a small Kazakh city outside of the capital. This wedding lasted all day and night with three venue changes. I was the center of attention. Everyone wanted to take pictures with me. It was uncomfortable—but I didn’t want to alarm my friend or ruin her big day. One of the guests said that I may be the first and the last black person some of these people see. This sent chills down my spine. But I handled the day and multiple photos (200+) like a champ, if I say so myself.

Kazakh wedding center of attention

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Don’t go into another country and culture with preconceived notions. I gave myself permission to live each day with a clean slate from what happened the previous day. I looked for opportunities to grow as a person. Also make an attempt to learn the language of the people. This skill has been extremely valuable to me. In addition to learning the dominant language, Russian, I’ve learned a couple of words in the local language, too. I felt it was important to learn Kazakh out of respect for my students and their families. Being able to say “hello” to my Kazakh neighbors or to one of my students’ elderly grandparents has been priceless. Last but far from least: always remember to add value—build something helpful with those tools of yours—and be willing to learn. That’s how to make the most of your experience.

Thank you so much, Shade. I love the idea of approaching interactions with the intention to add value. Our tools aren’t just for ourselves but for building relationships with others as well. It’s a great concept to keep in mind when you’re outside your comfort zone—and in everyday life as well. We couldn’t do better for a new year’s resolution!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Shade’s advice? If you like what she has to say, I recommend you visit her blog and her business site for further inspiration. You are also welcome to contact her with questions about life in Kazakhstan, and can follow her on 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 recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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Photo credits for opening image: Shade Adu (supplied, by Nicholas Chen) with a man who asked to have a photo taken with her, at a mosque in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan.

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