27 February to 5 March 2016: Field Study in Moscow, Russia
People tend to imagine Russia as a cold and scary country due to the biased information they receive from the news and social media around the world. If is bleed it leads—newspapers prefer to report negative news rather than that which is really inspiring. This results in the formation of a biased conception within foreigners toward Russia. Before coming to Russia, the Japanese students that came along with me and I claimed that we were afraid of entering this hard-core country because of our preconceptions—gun fighting, rapes, discrimination against foreigners, the prevalence of alcohol and drugs —that had been instilled in our minds. In fact, the first night of my stay in Moscow turned out to be not pleasurable, which evoked all the negative images in my mind and pushed me to make the assumption that “Russia is the worst country” before closing my eyes in bed.
What exactly happened on the first night? Due to our late arriving, we decided to have a quick dinner in the hotel. Among all the restaurants, Subway seemed to be the cheapest and quickest place to solve our hunger so my friends and I walked into the shop and tried to order a sandwich. A young female worker, in her early twenties, deliberately chose not to speak English to us and all the time she looked at us as if we should return to our own countries. She had the worst attitude that we have ever experienced. One of my friends got scared and even thought of not getting her meal.
I wonder what we had done that provided her with a reason to be so mean and impolite to us. I did not find out the answer until the next day after listening to the lecture given by Mikhalev Maxim, a researcher from the Anthropology Institute at the Russia Academy of Sciences. What is interesting about Maxism’s lecture is that he compares the differences between Moscow and Beijing in terms of cultural, political, social and economic aspects. After living in Beijing for 10 years, Maxim is capable of looking into his own country from the eyes of a foreigner. According to Maxim, both locals and foreigners are indispensable in creating a culture that embraces diversity. When foreigners step into a different country, they are capable of seeing the special and unique parts of the local culture.
However, they are incapable of understanding the background information and reasons that lie behind it. On the contrary, locals understand their own culture but without comparison they barely realize that their own culture is valuable and special to the other. Through the interaction between foreigners and locals, cross-cultural understanding can occur and eventually a society that embraces diversity can be formed.
Acknowledging this enables me to understand the reason why the Subway worker was so mean to me last night. To her, I am nothing but a foreigner/the Other. When one refers to someone or something as “the Other”, one instantly tends to oppose the Other in order to retain his/her own psychical stability or a sense of security. That is to say, the Subway worker’s bad attitude toward us can be seen as her fear of Otherness. This fear is formed by the lack of connection and interaction with foreigners, thus she sees us as if we were alien. According to Professor Geert Hofstede, in terms of the dimension called “Uncertainty Avoidance”, Greece has the highest score (112), followed by Portugal (104), Guatemala (101), Uruguay (100), Russia (95), Belgium (94), Poland (93) and Japan (92) while countries such as Malaysia (23) and Singapore (8) have the lowest score among all the countries in the world (“Hoftede’s Intercultural Dimensions” 2016). Hofstede claims that “a country with a high Uncertainty Avoidance score will have a low tolerance towards uncertainty and ambiguity” (“Hoftede’s Intercultural Dimensions” 2016). This finding makes sense to us because Russia is a rule-oriented society and follows well established laws and regulations. Japan’s high Uncertainty Avoidance can be traced back to its geographical condition as this country constantly suffers from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons and volcano eruptions. The nation always prepares itself by having a maximum prediction for every situation. This attitude is also implanted into workplaces and schools, that “school teachers and public servants are reluctant to do things without precedence. In corporate Japan, a lot of time and effort is put into feasibility studies and all the risk factors must be worked out before any project can start” (The Hofsede Centre). From here, we can understand why changes are difficult to make in Russia and Japan (due to its high Uncertainty Avoidance).
After understanding the cultural dimension of Russia, I am no longer angry with the Subway worker because I understand that her offensive behavior is derived from her defense mechanism and I forgive her ignorance. During the trip I met up with seven locals and some foreigners (Cuba, French, America) who currently live in Moscow through a travel website called Couch Surfing. Through interacting with them, I found out that Russian’s attitude towards work is so different compared to Japan. Like when Maxim claims that “jobs search for you and you escape as possible as you can”, one’s value is not judged by one’s work position. On the contrary, Japanese people drive for excellence and perfection in their work, they are motived when they are competing against their competitors. This difference between Russians and Japanese is marked in Hortede’s finding. One of the cultural dimensions that Hortede claims is “Masculinity”. In this dimension, Russia scores 36 while Japan scores 95 (“Hoftede’s Intercultural Dimensions” 2016). A high score on this dimension shows that “the society is driven by competition, achievement and success, with success defined by the winner/best in field—a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organizational life” (The Hofsede Centre). Indeed, the phenomenon of workaholicism in Japan remains remarkable and because of this it is difficult for women to improve their work position in Japan due to the Masculine norm of hard and long working hours that has been implanted.
Despite the difficulty in making changes in Japan and Russia compared to some other countries, there are ways to solve this problem. Cross-cultural interaction is supposed to be important in this section. One might ask how we can start cross-cultural interaction? One of the ways to start this is through sports. During my stay in Russia, my team and I visited the Russian LGBT Sport Community Centre and interviewed five different associations there. The aim of this organization is to improve gender awareness and gender equality through playing sports. People who are straight tend to see homosexuals as the Other and thus oppose and reject them in order to maintain their own sense of security. Apparently, there is nothing wrong with how they think of the others (minority groups). However, if their offensive behaviors turn out to be hurtful and destructive, it is necessary to make adjustments. Koustantin Iablotckii, the founder of Russian LGBT Sport Federation, declares that “when playing games, everyone is equal”. No one has to care about the issue of sexual orientation, gender differences and stereotype while they are doing sports. Sport is like a blender that resolves all the boundaries people have built inside themselves. He sees sport as the key to achieve gender-blending and I see sport can also be a key to achieve culture-blending.
Once one stops seeing the other person as the Other, one starts seeing oneself as equal to others. Only by accomplishing this first stage can the next stage, Cross-boundary Innovation, be achieved. Koustantin attempts to strike for equality in gender and sexuality by introducing sports, what can we to improve the state of equality in Japan through participating in the Cross-boundary Innovation Program? It is time to think deeply about this subject and take action in order to build a better future for the world we live in.
“Hoftede’s Intercultural Dimensions.” Kwintessential. 2016. Web. 24 March 2016.
“What about Japan?” The Hofstede Centre: Strategy, Culture, Change. Itim International. Web. 25 March 2016.