I’ve been excited all month to write this post, but now I realize how difficult it is to summarize 30 days of excitement, confusion, friendship, and frustration.
Belarus is quickly appearing on travelers’ radars, but they have no idea what this country is about. Hopefully, I can fill this knowledge gap.
Belarus is incredible, but my life here is not all sunshine and rainbows. Any expat can relate to the cultural adjustment period. Culture shock isn’t always a glaring difference, which makes the adjustment process only more difficult.
Moving abroad feels like riding the fastest and most extreme emotional rollercoaster. I think I’ve handled it well considering I haven’t cried (yet).
This series is perfect for you if you’re:
- an expat, or considering becoming one
- moving to Belarus
- visiting Belarus
- interested in learning more about an under-reported country
- curious about the Fulbright program
On August 27th, 2019 I arrived in Belarus to live and teach in a town about two hours outside of Minsk. I was awarded a Fulbright to be an English teaching assistant (ETA) at a Belarusian university for the 2019/20 academic year.
Fulbright is one of the U.S. State Department’s educational programs. It sends college graduates around the world to spread mutual understanding of American culture and the English language and other countries’ cultures and languages. I plan to write a more in-depth post about Fulbright because it’s so much more than teaching English. If you’re interested in Fulbright, I encourage you to apply because the program and people I’ve interacted with are life-changing.
I applied to Belarus for a few reasons. First, I wanted to continue learning Russian, but didn’t want to return to Russia. Second, I wanted something new and different, but not too unfamiliar. After all, I have to live there for a year. I don’t mind feeling uncomfortable, but moving abroad is uncomfortable enough. Third, I know people who have lived in Belarus and, while there are always difficulties when adjusting to a new culture, their experiences seemed like something I wanted. Finally, I’m very interested in WWII history and Belarus faced the most devastation from the war; I wanted to explore their perspective and learn more of their story since this wasn’t taught in school.
Was Belarus A Mistake?
Some friends expressed concern for me before arriving in Belarus because Fulbright placed me in a town instead of Minsk or another larger city, such as the regional hubs Brest and Grodno. I wasn’t concerned about living in a town at first because I have a personality that makes the best of any situation. As my departure date neared, though, I became nervous.
Was I was making a mistake? Am I crazy for uprooting my life for one year to move to Belarus? Shouldn’t I find an apartment and real job in the U.S.? Why am I doing this again? Will I be miserable in a town of 150,000 people versus my fellow ETAs living in bigger cities?
These thoughts diminished when I arrived in Minsk and explored the city with Lisa–another ETA and now a close friend. I’m probably crazy for not following the “traditional” post-college plan, but spending a year abroad with Fulbright felt (and still feels) right. For better or for worse, I’m where I’m meant to be.
Thankfully I enjoy my Belarusian town, too. For some reason, living in a town without touristy activities feels more comfortable than living in a big city. I can focus on teaching, making an impact on the community, developing relationships, working on the blog, working out, and learning Russian. Trust me–I’m busy! If I lived in Minsk, or another touristy town, I would pressure myself to see and do everything. Here, in my small town, I can live my life during the week and, on the weekends, explore the country and do touristy things.
Learning the Russian Language and Belarusian Life
I studied Russian for two years in college, so I have some background with the Russian language. This helps me not feel completely lost in my new city. I can buy produce at the market, understand the difference between the bank and the post office, and mostly get around. I’m able to do simple tasks, such as read a menu or grocery shop, even if it takes me longer to do these tasks. At least I feel somewhat independent.
However, I’m far from fluent and struggle with conversation and speaking. I have several resources to continue studying Russian, but I haven’t consistently studied.
Inconsistency has been a common theme in my life this past month. I’ve been inconsistent in eating healthy, working out, studying Russian, and blogging. Inconsistency is a consequence of completely uprooting my life and dropping it in a foreign country. I keep reminding myself (with Lisa’s help) to give myself grace and patience.
It’s exhausting having to relearn simple tasks, the biggest one shopping. In the U.S., I know which stores to visit for anything I might need. Not in Belarus.
Blenders are apparently sold in the technology store, not in a home-goods store. I was recommended to buy an umbrella in the gift shop. Belarusian secondhand clothing stores are simply not as nice as in the States, so I’m struggling to find sustainable and nice clothing for the winter. I still haven’t found reusable produce bags or protein powder, and locals don’t commonly use either of these so they don’t know where to recommend me to look.
Grocery shopping is challenging, too. Firstly, I recently graduated college and am not used to preparing every single meal because American college students eat their meals at school cafeterias. I know how to cook, but I don’t have delicious recipes in the back of my pocket that I can quickly and easily create. So far in Belarus, I’ve relied a lot on eggs and pasta. Secondly, food availability and prices are different in Belarus than in the U.S. This is to be expected, but something hard to prepare in advance for. The recipes I can easily create in the U.S. (mostly anything with salmon or avocado) aren’t replicable in Belarus because a filet of Salmon in Belarus costs about $8 and avocados in Belarus aren’t very fresh or ripe. It often feels like I’m relearning how to cook. Thirdly, Belarusians (or at least those in my city) buy their produce at the local farmer’s market instead of the supermarket. I love supporting local small farmers by buying their organic produce! However, cooking seasonally is a whole new ball game. Plus, I have to learn what is seasonal and grown in Belarus.
All the changes I mentioned above are normal for an expat, so it helps to know I’m not alone and certainly not the first person to take on these challenges. At times, it’s frustrating how difficult previously simple tasks are. For now, I’m taking everything one step at a time…even if it takes a long time to take that step.
Staying Mentally Sane in a New Culture
Whenever I feel frustrated with or indifferent to my new Belarusian life, it’s because I’m tired. Thankfully I know how important a consistent sleep schedule is from my previous two experiences living abroad in Germany and Russia. These other expat experiences also helped me realize how much journaling and exercise help me adjust abroad.
Journaling helps me process my thoughts–positive, negative, and indifferent. Often, writing down my emotions helps me release them. Journaling also helps me find patterns in my life. If something or someone consistently makes me feel negative, journaling helps me identify this and resolve it. The same is true for positive things and people.
Generally, I’ve kept a consistent bedtime routine of journaling my day at 9:30pm and going to sleep at 10 or 10:30pm. One week I had a lot of morning classes and woke up at 6:30am and I struggled emotionally that week. I was always exhausted. That was a normal wake-up time for me in the U.S., but, while adjusting to a new culture, and all the physical and emotional stress that comes with it, I’ve needed about 10 hours of sleep at night. Crazy, right? I now adamantly honor my body’s need for more sleep…but I also hope it goes back to a normal 8 hours soon because I can do a lot with that extra two hours.
Exercise scientifically helps a person’s mood, which is so important for me with the range of emotions I experience in a day while adjusting to a new culture. Exercise is also an excuse to get out of the house, be amongst people, and avoid feeling lonely. I found a beautiful gym and purchased a membership pass for September, but quickly felt uncomfortable exercising there. The trainers constantly stared at me and, after four sessions there, I felt too uncomfortable to return. I was told the trainers stared either because a) the male trainers aren’t used to a woman training (especially strength training) without a male trainer or boyfriend or b) they’re not used to a “bigger girl” training (lol). Either way, I mostly exercised in my dorm in September. (Check out my workout recommendations, perfect for female travelers, here) Working out at home turned out to be more convenient and sustainable for my new lifestyle, anyway. My neighbor (Yang, a teacher from China) and I visited a new gym yesterday, though, and the trainer there was much friendlier and actually interacted with us. Perhaps in November I’ll try the new gym again, but for now I’m content working out at home.
The Belarusian People
Many Belarusians ask me what stereotypes I had about Belarus and Belarusians before arriving, and if they are true or not. Sadly, Americans don’t know a lot about Belarus. On the bright side, this helped me avoid setting expectations or stereotypes. Belarus has been a pleasant surprise.
One stereotype I had heard was that Belarusians were incredibly friendly…and the stereotype is correct.
Belarusians have accepted me with such open arms. They truly care about me and are always wanting to help me. In fact, the amount of concern Belarusians have expressed towards me was overwhelming at first! For my first week in Belarus, I received several messages a day asking if I was okay or needed anything. I hadn’t experienced anything like it. I know my friends and family in the U.S. are available for me if I need help, but I think culturally Americans expect each other to ask for help instead of reaching out for help. I feel loved from their concern and am trying to adopt this practice of offering to help instead of waiting to help in my own life and relationships.
Belarusians have made it feel easier for me to be dependent on other people, a feeling I typically despise. My coworkers and students are the main reason I’ve had a positive experience and smooth transition in Belarus so far. I’m grateful for the support system and community they’ve given me here.
For example, I decided to move out of the teacher’s dormitory and asked the director of my university’s English department for direction because I had no idea how to look for an apartment in Belarus. Seconds later, several coworkers were searching for apartments online and calling friends for recommendations. The director even spent her Saturday morning calling several apartment owners, took me to tour an apartment, and helped me buy some things I needed. Another coworker spent her Sunday morning touring another apartment with me and then treated me to coffee, quiche, and cake at a cafe.
I can’t imagine this level of attention anywhere else in the world. Belarusians want foreigners to love their country. They make it easy.
As I mentioned, I decided to move.
I currently live in a teacher’s dormitory. It’s cheap (I paid $22 in September) and I lucked out with a more-spacious corner unit. The building is centrally-located and my neighbor and I are good friends. The staff check on me regularly and instantly spring to action if I need something. For example, Belarus has centralized heating. This means the government controls when heat is accessible to citizens, typically in October for my town. It’s been very cold for this Southern girl the last couple of weeks. So cold, in fact, that it was kind of hard to sleep for a few nights. I mentioned this to the cleaning lady and she brought me two extra duvets!
However, the dorm isn’t the most comfortable set-up emotionally. The building is older and not recently renovated, so no matter how much I scrub, it doesn’t feel clean (according to my American standards, I should add). There’s a shared kitchen and, although it’s really not a lot of effort to carry my food and dishes a few doors down, it feels like a major burden. The dorm doesn’t include kitchenware and I don’t want to buy a ton of cooking supplies that I can’t bring back with me to the States for financial and environmental reasons. Plus, even if I bought the kitchenware I need, I’d have to carry it all down the hall. I only have a single-bed. There’s no space for friends to visit, whether for tea or to spend the night. At night, and sometimes randomly during the day, the buildings’ main doors are locked for extra security. That’s fine, except I’ve waited outside in the cold four times now for about 20 minutes because the person at the front desk was taking a tea break and didn’t hear the doorbell.
These are all little complaints. I know this. With all the other changes I’m experiencing, though, I want my own space on my own terms where I can escape from the constant mental simulation of a new culture if needed. I don’t get that in the teacher’s dorm.
Why AirBnB Sucks
It was difficult to find an apartment in my town, though, due to short-term rentals, such as AirBnB.
Some Belarusians (several of them not even local to my city) bought apartments in the city center and rent them for one night or more, similar to a hotel. The owners make a lot more money this way. However, this drives up the rental rates. This has happened in many parts of the world, such as Reykjavik and Barcelona, and now rent is so high locals can no longer afford to live in their city. Sustainable tourism means sustainable for the local environment, local economy, and local population. If locals can’t afford to live in their own city due to tourists renting short-term rentals (because apartment owners wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t a market demand), then this is an unsustainable tourism practice.
A coworker told me about a dream apartment another American had rented three years ago around the $150 average for a one-room apartment in the city center, but now the owner is asking $350/month because she rents it as a short-term rental. This happened several times.
I’ve never stayed in an AirBnB for this reason and now I can personally attest to the negative effects of AirBnB. I encourage you to evaluate your accommodation choices while traveling. I hope to write more about how to find sustainable accommodations in the future.
House Hunters International: Belarus Edition
Does anyone else binge-watch House Hunters on HGTV when they’re sick? I totally do.
I felt like a client on House Hunters during my apartment hunt.
I wanted a furnished apartment in the city center with a stocked kitchen, a double bed, a sofa for guests for around $150/month. With these requirements, I had three apartment options (literally, 3 options. I’m telling you–it’s like House Hunters).
The first one was $130/month. It’s located a block from where I currently live, and I love my current location. The apartment is small, but the furniture is nice and the apartment well up-kept. However, it only had a sofa bed (it’s normal in Belarus and other soviet countries for the main bed to be a sofa bed) and no additional sleeping space for guests. Another renter snatched this apartment quickly.
The second option was $150/month. It’s located on the opposite side of the city center, so still convenient but not in the middle of everything like my current space. The apartment is brightly lit, well up-kept, and includes nice furniture. There’s a double bed and sofa, plus all kitchenware is included. There isn’t a lot of closet space, but the landlady was kind and patient (important since I don’t speak a lot of Russian). However, I could only move in on November 1st.
The third option was $190/month. The apartment is centrally-located and huge. There was a walk-in closet, heated floors, and a balcony! (Practically unheard of in Belarus) The place felt dark and not cozy, though. The bed seemed uncomfortable. The space wasn’t updated. The owner said he’d bring kitchenware for me since there wasn’t any when I toured, but I questioned if it would be the bare minimum or everything I would need. I could move in right away, though.
I went with the second apartment! It’s honestly perfect for me, but I’m happy I saw all my options. The biggest drawback is waiting until November 1st to move in, but there’s a lot to keep me busy and distracted in October.
I’m excited to move in, cook more, have a space for myself, and invite friends over for tea or to spend the night!
September in Belarus In Numbers
Where I Went: 10 days in Minsk and 1 day in a nearby village visiting an estate with animals. I was always packing or unpacking from a trip in Minsk!
Workouts: 11. This isn’t as high as I’d like, but I’m happy with the number overall considering everything else that was happening.
Special Events: 1 conference (I spoke!), 1 tea with the U.S. Chargé to Belarus (probably one of the coolest events ever), 2 cocktail receptions with English teachers across Belarus, a 5K in Minsk, and mushroom picking! Expect a separate post about mushroom picking in Belarus in the future.
# Hours Russian Studied: uhhhh, maybe 10? My goal for October is an hour daily.
Memories: Too many to count! It was an unforgettable month, and I’m happy there are eight more waiting for me.
What questions do you have about Belarus? Tell me in the comments below!