Friday, December 23, 2011

Adapting to a New Country: Part 1

I am currently residing in Tbilisi, Georgia, setting up a second "base" with a new circle of friends and activities. This is a creative response to Ukraine's visa and registration regulations, which make it difficult to stay in the country for more than 90 days out of a 180-day period. I have chosen not to fight the system for the time being and will not attempt to do any complex paperwork to try to stay in Ukraine longer than 90 days at one stretch. In the spring I plan to return to Kiev and Crimea for another 3 months before coming back here or traveling somewhere else. If I choose, I can stay in Georgia for up to a year visa-free, but I can only stay in Ukraine for 90 days at a time.

No one likes having established activities, plans, and relationships in a place and yet not knowing whether they will even be allowed to stay there. This sense of insecurity and unsettledness is a fact of life not only for countless foreign citizens residing in Ukraine, but also for many Ukrainians who live in a system with constantly changing rules that often threaten their livelihoods. Of course, insecurity is not unique to Ukraine or to the former Soviet Union.

Moving to Georgia has given me a new perspective on the process of adapting to a new country and language. I had almost forgotten what it was like to not understand Russian or Ukrainian, to not be able to read signs on the street, to feel awkward addressing people in a foreign language (e.g. Russian or English) not knowing if they'll understand you, to feel slightly tense and disoriented because of your unfamiliarity with my surroundings and with the cultural norms of a place.

For me, the formula for overcoming these initial challenges is to 1) learn as much of the language as possible, 2) make friends with whom I can relax and talk about what's on my mind, based on common interests, and 3) familiarize myself with the place by walking around a lot and seeing what's going on, by studying maps and by reading about the place.

I have tackled all three of these areas at once by 1) arranging in advance for private Georgian lessons 5 days a week starting 3 days after my arrival, 2) staying with couchsurfers (see for the first few days until I found an apartment (through them, by the way), getting involved with Spanish club activities, and taking guitar lessons with a Russian-speaking teacher I found through street advertisements, and 3) picking up maps at the tourist information office and walking around the city center and outlying hills a lot to get to know the place. It has not been painless, but it's been immensely better than starting out with none of the above. Admittedly, my fluency in Russian has given me a big advantage because about half of Georgians are fairly fluent in Russian.

Georgia is like Ukraine in that it has a strange alphabet that creates significant obstacles to learning the language and understanding your surroundings. It takes quite a while to be able to read signs with a speed even remotely approaching your familiarity with your own alphabet.

Based on my experience so far adapting to Georgia, I would like to give some specific recommendations for foreigners who visit Ukraine under similar circumstances (for several months, knowing nobody or almost nobody before arrival). My insight comes from having gone through this multiple times in different countries where different languages are spoken. Georgian will be the ninth language I have studied (counting English) and the fifth country I've lived in for an extended period of time.

Watch for the next post!

1 comment:

  1. Adapting to this country has been extremely difficult. I broke my foot after having been in Ukraine for less than a month. The doctors were horrible and I knew more about orthapedic medicine that they did. Of course, that came from countless injuries playing sports in America. I was compelled to move here because I wanted to find a Ukrainian bride. However, after three and a half years, I was inspired to write a book to help other western men just like me. Good luck to you all. Ukrainian girls really are the most beautiful.