Ignorance is not bliss

If I have learned one thing in my first month living in Japan then that ignorance certainly is not bliss, especially when we are looking at culture. Cultures not only establish certain customs and social behaviors for the members of a particular group, but they also contain certain mechanisms on how people get accustomed to them. The latter part was what surprised and challenged me the most in my first month living in Japan.

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About discarded stereotypes and new friendships

Due to the current situation related to the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Swiss government recommended its citizens to temporarily leave Russia. I left Moscow on March 23 and therefore also my international as well as Russian fellow students in uncertain circumstances, feeling sorry for them.

At first, I traveled to Uzbekistan and stayed there for three weeks. In the following three weeks I also traveled through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I was able to benefit from my trip through Central Asia in an exceptional manner. Not only was I able to recover from the psychological, moral and governmental pressure that was on me in Russia, but was also able to explore Central Asia at the same time. I had been interested in this region for a long time, and the history courses at the HSE Moscow further aroused my interest in Central Asia. Hence, I wrote my first exam on Central Asia for the HSE Moscow from a restaurant in Buxoro, Uzbekistan. During my journey, I learned a lot about people, cultures, languages, and traditions in this region.

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Australia – a left-sided world

I barely did any research about what will expect me culturally in Australia before leaving Switzerland. I decided to just go there without any expectations, with an open mind and the willingness to just fully immerse myself in what I will experience there. One of the few things I knew about Australia before I arrived was that they drive on the left side of the road. This is something that stood out immediately upon arrival. However, I thought this would be the only “left-sided” thing, but I quickly realized that there are things and practices that are only visible after interacting and living with Australians.

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Friendly Frenzy

The first words you hear arriving in Australia are the following: “Hi! How are you?”. As somebody coming from a rather small town in Uri, being greeted by a stranger does not throw me off. But being asked about how I am doing right at the start of a random conversation is new even to me. Since it is not my first time in Australia, I should have known how they greet people but to be honest I still am kind of overwhelmed when I hear that somebody I have never seen before is asking about how I am doing. And the even bigger shock at my first encounter was that my counterpart actually seemed to care about what my answer will be. Having said that and not to draw a false picture, Sydney is a vibrant metropole and for sure, people don’t walk around, greeting every single human they pass. But they certainly ask for your current condition if you interact with them for whatever reason might be. 

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Even if you feel anxious, Swiss people always support you. 

“Hear one, understand ten” is an idiom which shows the Japanese approach to relationships. Japanese people prefer to communicate in indirect way. This idiom means that if the speakers say something, the listeners have to understand the other “nine” without wordy explanations. Listeners have to guess from non-verbal ways like tones or faces. Researchers have claimed that Japan is one of the most high-context cultures with indirect, subtle and nuanced languages. Why do we prefer this?

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Differences in awareness of personal appearance between Japan and Switzerland

I usually get up two hours before the schedule. Do I get up early to eat breakfast? No, I do not. I stand in front of the closet and stare at a lot of clothes. After I decide on clothes, makeup, and hair set are waiting. This goes without saying in Japan. But why? I have never thought about the reason because it was too much of a habit. When I came to Switzerland, I began to think about whether this “common practice” was commonplace.

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Australian Friendliness

I landed on the 6th of July in the early morning in Sydney at the Kingsford Smith International Airport. While still sitting in the plane, I was already experiencing some tenseness due to the declaration file that all passengers had to fill out before leaving the plane. Australia is known for its strict border control and therefore prohibits the import of a lot of items to protect its native flora and fauna. However, after I had filled in the declaration, I left the plane and went straight to the biosecurity control. After my passport and e-visa were checked, I took the chance to ask the border officer about my student visa, which I hadn’t received at that time. I was so scared that she would get angry at me as my parents had advised me to not ask them straight away about my visa. However, my fears were quickly put to rest. The lady took me to her office and first asked me about my travels and if I was ok because she had the impression that I was not doing that well, which definitely was the case. However, after our little chat she checked my student visa and informed me that it was still being processed but I that shouldn’t be worried about not receiving it. Then she wished me all the best and I was able to collect my suitcase and left the airport to get to my short-term accommodation. This was my first lucky encounter with an Australian, however, it was not to be the last one … 

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Politics on campus during the election season

Since I have been raised in two cultures (Swiss and Québécois) and had already visited friends and family abroad many times, I haven’t experienced any real culture shock upon my arrival in Québec City. Until now, it has rather been a real pleasure to be immersed in the local culture for a longer period and to refresh my Québec French, which had gotten rather rusty during the last couple of years.

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Should I stay or should I leave?

My exchange semester in Moscow has not been going like planned at all. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West have changed people’s daily lives once and for all. Even though the community of international students in Moscow is not affected by the war itself, the events do have an impact on their living situation. Therefore I, too, had to ask myself the following question: Am I staying or leaving? In the end I have decided to stay.

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Part of learning about a new culture…

…is going to unfamiliar places, handling uncomfortable situations, and embracing even the smallest details. Rather than researching ahead of time, I wanted to prepare myself for the unexpected. Learning things first-hand helps me better understand where ideas come from and how they fit in modern society. Exposing yourself to unfamiliar cultures can be overwhelming at times, but I believed more in the progress of adjusting and ultimately becoming familiar with cultural practices.

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