From Mental Health to Borshch, the Complexities of Understanding Slavic Culture through American Eyes

“Suicide isn’t a national problem. If someone is so weak that they kill themselves to avoid facing life, it’s not my issue.” The statement wasn’t terribly shocking to me (although I did ask Galya to repeat it, to make sure that I  hadn’t translated incorrectly), as the woman I was interviewing regarding mental health was a fifty-six year old Russian, but when I relayed it to my friends a few nights later, they looked as though they had all been slapped in the face. I grinned slightly. Before living in Russia and UkrainThe Nevae for a year, such a statement would have simply angered me. However, when you’re living in another country, it is not your job to pass judgement on their cultural attitudes, unless it directly affects your safety. Your primary job is to observe.

Any student planning to study abroad will be excited, eager, and energetic to experience a new culture and learn how to see the world in a different light. We all, for the most part, accept this as a wonderful thing. What is more difficult to accept is that seeing the world in a different light doesn’t always mean seeing the world in a positive light. Sure, there are aspects of Slavic culture that I wish we would incorporate into American cultural behaviors. Russians have such a loving respect for elders, and a diehard passion to remember, mourn, and memorialize those who suffered through unimaginable evils so their descendants could live better lives. I feel that is a quality that is too often lost on young Americans. When it came to mental health though, encountering such a stark contrast in fundamental understanding of a topic was challenging. It was arduous on both an academic level, as I accumulated research for my cultural project, but also on a personal level. Trying to talk about medical help for people suffering from depression is difficult when the person with whom you are speaking doesn’t agree that depression is a real illness. This doesn’t mean that either person is somehow less intelligent, but it does highlight how almost unbelievably varied cultures can be. It is simple to pick apart why different cultures have different languages, foods, clothing, and so forth. It is trickier when you try to explain why not everyone has the same moral standards, or how something like depression can be seen as a serious, life threatening illness in one culture, and a mildly irritating symptom of adulthood in another. Going to Ukraine and Russia didn’t change my opinion in any way. I still think that depression is a serious clinical illness, which requires medical treatment. Yet I don’t doubt that my Russian friends and acquaintances have incredibly valid reasons for thinking that depression isn’t as serious of an issue. 

 

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Culture is impossible to measure or categorize, yet we attempt to set boundaries in order to try and process it. For example, borshch is typically associated with Russia, and seen as a national cultural cuisine. Most Russians feel strongly that borshch belongs to Russia. Ask a Ukrainian, and they will tell you that Russia took borshch from them, and that it is their dish. Some Russians would counter that with we are all one Russian people, Ukrainians included. A Ukrainian might respond with physical violence, depending on which part of Ukraine we are in. Culture is complicated. It is a messy, living organism that evolves as humans do. I’ve learned lots while abroad, but it would be impossible to shortly and robustly summarize all of the wonderful, boring, terrifying, asinine experiences that I lived through while in Eastern Europe. If I had to pick a takeaway that has stuck with me the most, it’s that it is okay to disagree with another cultural practice. This sounds a bit stupid and obvious, but prior to my trip, I was conditioned to treat studying abroad as something that would be absolutely magical at every turn. I was told I would love everything about it, and that I would learn so many positive things about different cultures that I never could in the states. I did learn many positive things about Slavic culture while away. I also learned some horrific things that put my own upbringing into perspective. I came away with a newfound love for my own country, and a strong desire to want to change the imperfections I see here. G.L.I. is all about global problems. However, I didn’t understand how messy any cross cultural problem was until I lived in a nation vastly different from my own. If there is one lesson I learned from all this, it’s that a perfect culture does not exist. 

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