Culture Crisis: Can You Lose Your Culture While Trying to Fit in with a Foreign One?

Picture of By Polina Osipchuk

By Polina Osipchuk

A few days ago I was texting my friend back in Moscow, and I suddenly realized I had to translate some words from English to Russian. To be honest, I had to translate almost a third of them. They weren’t only words, I had to look up grammar rules as well. I couldn’t believe it – how could it be possible that expressing my thoughts in English became easier than in my native language?

Why Did I Neglect My Native Language?

I moved to the Netherlands from Russia when I was only eighteen years old and have been living here ever since, for four years. I still get to go back to Moscow when I get a chance – usually twice a year, but due to the pandemic I haven’t been there for almost two years. When I was about to move to Amsterdam to study, my worst fear was that my level of English would not be enough to succeed, neither in my education nor at making friends. Little did I know that I would end up feeling more confident speaking and writing in English than in Russian.

I used to take my native language skills for granted and focused all my attention on improving my English, because it seemed a lot more important at the time. I switched to reading, writing, and watching Netflix purely in English. These measures indeed worked and I became a lot more fluent. But now I’m not so sure if neglecting Russain completely was a good idea.

Apart from intensively surrounding myself with English on purpose, I obviously had to immerse myself into an almost entirely English-spoken environment. Amsterdam is a highly international city, and even though I made some Russian-speaking friends, the bigger part of my social circle consists of people from all over the world. I speak English at home as well, as my boyfriend is from Argentina, and we don’t speak each other’s languages yet. Even my dog only understands English (no judgement upon me talking to my dog will be accepted).

So, the only moments when I get to speak in my own language happen when I call my family. And that is definitely not enough practice.

I Don’t Know How Things Work in Russia Anymore

Moving to an absolutely different country at such a young age has its consequences. Recently, I was trying to find out how to get a certain document that I needed for my residence permit. I could only get it in Russia. It took me a couple of weeks and a few mental breakdowns to finally find any valuable information. I didn’t know where to look, how administrative and governmental organizations work, who to call, and what to ask. Even reading the information on the official websites was surprisingly challenging, as I could not understand a word of the administrative jargon used there. I never learned to deal with these kinds of things in my country. Before I moved, I was a kid and my parents had to do them for me, and after I moved I directly learned to deal with them in the Netherlands.

The same applies to my education, my profession, and many other things that I only learned in Amsterdam. It always takes a lot of effort for me to explain to my parents or friends from Russia what it is that I study and what my job will look like after I graduate. Because I only knew the right words in English. The only right way I can think of to explain my side is in English and so it becomes harder every time.

Can You Lose Your Native Cultural Identity?

There’s only so much space in our brain, so sometimes to make space for the future, we have to let go of the past.

… I asked Google. Google told me you probably can’t if you move abroad when you are older than nine. That was quite a relief. However, I do still think moving abroad makes you a completely different person than you would be if you stayed in your home country. You learn new things and often you forget old ones. There’s only so much space in our brain, so sometimes to make space for the future, we have to let go of the past.

My Russian might have gotten rusty, but I’m sure that as soon as I travel back, I will immediately remember it. Looking at the more positive turn of things, I got a unique chance to speak another language fluently. However, I acknowledge that it is possible to lose connection with your culture. When you are not exposed to it on a daily basis, you automatically take on the culture of the place you live in. So, if you want to stay connected, you need to work on it sometimes. Read in your native language, stay updated on the current events, and never stop learning. It might feel strange to have to work so as to not forget your own language or culture, but it is worth it. Because part of you will always consider your roots to be your home and, wherever your physical home is, sometimes you might want to come back to that home. The exact one that you carry within yourself.


Cover: Unsplash

Edited By: Pritha Ray

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