Tuesday, September 6, 2016

As the World Turns: A stranger in my own land, Part 1

What becoming an expat can be like

By Wally Tucker

[Editor’s Note: Wally’s account accompanies Ed Rogers’s piece yesterday in his As the World Turns column, “Going native.”]

I repatriated back to the USA in September 2000, leaving our apartment exactly six years to the day after my wife and our two young sons had arrived in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Six years and weeks earlier, we had packed 27 boxes and eight rolling duffels with everything we thought we needed and wanted for our new adventure abroad. Naively, we left behind a fully furnished home for rent. Don’t ever do that!
    Explaining why we moved is a novel in itself, but suffice to say I was convinced, and my wife concurred, that God had called us to that Russian city to work alongside Russian nationals to train and disciple them in how to share Christian values from a Biblical perspective. Before you tune out and begin thinking that I’m going to preach to you about proselytizing the poor commies who had been deprived of their belief in God and prevented for decades from going to church, hang on, please.
    Our primary mission was to go there and support the ongoing activity of a young church that had been planted there in the summer of 1993. Our local church in North Carolina and a consortium of like-minded churches across the US (of an un-named international denomination) had set in motion this exploit by going to Nizhny Novgorod, a city of more than two million inhabitants, and with the help of interpreters, met with local Russian pastors to explain how the consortium’s objectives might be achieved. Content to know that this Western activity was not going to threaten the local Russian Christian fellowships that had sprung up since the wall had come down, the consortium proceeded to plan for an evangelistic outreach in Nizhny Novgorod.

The city was originally named Gorky, after the poet
How did my family and I actually get to Nizhny Novgorod, and how did we prepare ourselves for this new experience? We lived then and still do in coastal North Carolina. We don’t experience much cold weather here so in April, May, and June of 1994, when Cabela’s, L.L. Bean, and other retailers offered their winter merchandise at deep discounts, we began our purchasing of cold, cold-weather attire. Our sons were eight and ten at that time, so we loaded up on current sizing and the next size up, anticipating those growth spurts. The winter clothing alone for all of us accounted for probably 25% of our baggage. Our prized possessions like fine china, family photo albums, small hand tools, most summer clothing, and other items were boxed, left behind, and stored in the attic of a relative. Confident that we were leaving earth as we knew it, we set out on this assignment full of excitement and naivety. Unsuspicious of what lay ahead, I herded us through airports and rail terminals to our destination at Moskovsky Vaghzal in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. We traveled with an American couple and some others who were there to help us along the way and assist us in finding housing once we arrived.
    But housing was a problem, we soon found out. Our introduction to Nizhny was through a series of small flats, one-night hotel rooms, and even a dormitory in a school to which students had not yet returned for classes. This was a big room with lots of steel-framed single-size beds and was definitely not ideal for a couple with two young boys. A toilet was available down the hall but the building had no showers. At least we were told it had none; they may have been considered a bit too primitive to offer this Americansky family. Nevertheless, we showered elsewhere. Locating and moving into what became our more permanent flat took about three months. So imagine living out of boxes and bags for months and moving every few weeks in a small bus.
Our red-headed son trekking
through the mud at a local village
    Becoming an expat in Russia was definitely not without its challenges, the main one being the language barrier. When we arrived, we could not read Cyrillic, nor could we say more than a few words in Russian. Stupidity on our part, one might say, but I chalk it up to extreme naivety, which would manifest in many other areas during our first year there. However, after about six months we had two pretty efficient “in-house” interpreters, as our sons quickly picked up the language from young Russians during our Sunday meetings and the weekly training sessions that we held in our flat. They would prove to be invaluable in this role during our transition to the new culture.

What were some other major challenges? Well, not being able to read signage was a major obstacle. Not understanding the currency resulted in our being overcharged on more than one occasion. Having to rely 100% on public transport made for some intriguing “we got lost” tales also. I had suddenly become a stay-at-home dad and would be the primary hunter/gatherer on a daily basis, sometimes not finding eggs or sugar after walking to several brick and mortar stores as well as to some outdoor markets. Oh well, there was always zaftra, mañana, or tomorrow in your favorite language.
Professor Kalmycof & me circa 1995
    With no English speaking friends in the beginning months except our paid interpreters, we were pretty isolated and insulated until we heard about and met other Americans also living and working in Nizhny. We found Peace Corps workers and an international small-business venture named Opportunity International, which had American volunteers. Eventually we met other Americans serving in the Nizhny area as missionaries. These were uplifting relationships, and mutual feelings were shared over meals and tea together. We enjoyed some snow days with these friends also.
Locals on a winter day
    Adapting to the sudden arrival of winter and daily freezing temperatures was a given, so we thought, Okay, bring it on! We would be less enthusiastic while standing at a bus stop for 20 minutes in minus 20 and 30 Celsius [-4 and -22 Fahrenheit] temperatures only to get on whatever mode of transport came by and once aboard to find the windows frosted over to the point of our not being able to see out. As we were totally dependent on visible landmarks to identity the right place to get off the transport, winter time thus became a challenge on many days. However, we reveled in the sunny days of winter when we would go walking about the city or sliding down its many hillsides on cardboard or other materials.

For those who have never traveled to Russia and entered Sheremetrovo airport in Moscow, let me just say that the unique smell stays with you. The dim lighting and stark, colorless walls of the entry terminal were always somewhat of a shock as we journeyed through there for years. The overhead steel grating concealed yellowing fluorescent bulbs of which only about half seemed to work. First impressions are lasting. We kind of felt like we were stepping back in time with each entry at Sheremetrovo. Hopefully the atmosphere there has improved since we last visited, more than a decade ago.
Friends posing outside their datcha home
    My desire is for readers to get a glimpse of what becoming an expat can be like. But as we all know, each person has one’s own experience, and cross-cultural adaptation will vary depending upon how one approaches these changes of environment, which become the sights, smells, and sounds of daily life in a new place. Do you want to engage with others or isolate yourself? I suppose that becomes the primary question to ask regarding your approach to living in a new location. Do you want to assimilate and eat and live like locals, or maintain that American lifestyle you may have been so comfortable with? We made that choice months before leaving America, so we sort of expected many of the struggles of our cultural adaptation. However, expecting and experiencing turn out to be two entirely different things.

In Part 2, “A repat’s reverse culture shock,” not yet scheduled, I will describe some uncomfortable and embarrassing experiences back in the US after returning from Russia. Some of it won’t be pretty reading.

Copyright © 2016 by Wally Tucker


  1. I enjoyed reading it as much this time as I did the first time. Like I said before, you're a very good writer.

  2. Wally, I agree with Ed, and I very much look forward to your descriptions of "some uncomfortable and embarrassing experiences back in the US after returning from Russia," even if "some of it won’t be pretty reading."

  3. A very interesting read. Thanks, Wally.