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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Baku, Azerbaijan

Jan 10, 2017

Baku, Azerbaijan

An expat living in Baku, Azerbaijan offers her perspective on living there and the culture shock she experienced. It offers insight into the realities of settling into Baku and how to manage it.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?


Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

Yes, before the move, but it wasn't really geared towards living in Baku, just working in Baku. Since I'm the non-working spouse, it was pretty useless.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

They speak Azerbaijani, part of the Turkish language family. I did not learn the language, but I started taking lessons once I arrived.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

I was a little concerned, but I've traveled a lot and I wasn't expecting too many problems.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Honestly, it wasn't that bad. There are some things that happen here that seem crazy (construction workers with no protection, open manhole covers, the driving), but it's not something you can't get used to. The worst thing has been the people wanting pictures with us. There aren't a lot of people of African descent here and people always want selfies or try to take not-so-discreet photos. The food is great, but learning to cook more familiar foods has been a lot of work. I'm often so tired from cooking that I don't want to eat. Also, it's hard to find things... there are no big box stores like Home Depot or Walmart; you have to hunt and find things. We rely on our driver and a network of expats to find services and goods.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I totally skipped the honeymoon phase, but I didn't want to move here. I went straight to irritation and anger about being here, about being alone, about not working and about being bored. I never rejected the culture, but I was (and still am) shocked by some of the things that happen here.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

I went through a period of feeling lost and lonely. There weren't many Americans and I couldn't find the foods I liked. I lost weight because I wasn't eating and I was frustrated with the men's only teahouses and the way some men laughed at me when I tried to speak Azeri. I started drinking more because there was nothing else to do. I really missed working (still do).

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The people are friendly and really excited when you try to learn their language. The food is delicious and if you eat like a local, it's crazy cheap to live here. There is a lot to see if you leave Baku and go to the regions, but you have to be adventurous.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

The language is difficult and not many people outside of the tourist places on the Bulvar speak much English. Finding American food and specialty items is difficult. They also don't run clothes in large sizes, so I have to shop online.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

No, I've been pretty good! I do forget to serve bread at meals sometimes (Azeris can't eat a meal without bread), but nothing major.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Relax. You'll get used to most of what happens and you can take the time to enjoy the country and experience all it has to offer. Stop expecting your new culture to adjust to you and become your old culture. For example, Azerbaijan is a tea culture, just stop being mad when they don't have your precious caramel latte or they are confused by iced coffee. Learn to make your own or get it when you go home.

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