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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Tartu, Estonia

May 26, 2021


Tartu, Estonia

An expat in Estonia offers an in-depth look at life and culture shock she experienced in Estonia. Now, she has a long list of things she appreciates about living in Estonia that includes their love of nature, healthy living, family oriented culture, the work life balance and more.

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

Tartu

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

No

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Expats in Estonia may get a free expat health insurance quote from our partner Allianz Care, a leader in international insurance for expatriates. Allianz's plans ensure that you have access to quality healthcare whenever you need it. Their flexible solutions allow you to tailor your cover to meet your needs and budget..

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?

I speak a little Estonian. I started to learn before I came here. I knew a couple of words when I first got here and I am currently studying for the B1 certification. I would like to be fluent in Estonian some day.

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

I was worried.

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

I experienced significant culture shock.

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 went through all of these. I am currently in the adjustment stage.

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 experienced anger, depression, anxiety, frustration, loss of appetite, hopelessness, helplessness, trouble sleeping, feelings of isolation, homesickness, I stopped wanting to leave the house, I felt unwelcomed, and intense feelings of loneliness and being displaced. For awhile I was drinking a lot. During the worst parts, my mental health took a sharp decline and it got worrisome.

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

The education of people here. Bonfires. Jaanipäev. Birthdays. Jõul. The healthy food and healthy lifestyle. Healthy food is more affordable than unhealthy food and at gatherings I don't have to worry about unhealthy things being served. It's almost always high quality and healthy. It's also easy to walk or ride your bike everywhere.

The appreciation for nature - both being in nature and also how green the cities are and how green the lifestyle is here. I'm still thankful over how easy it is to recycle and that I don't have to drive a car. I also don't produce as much waste here. The air quality is great too. There's free buses in some cities. The train is clean and a joy to take.

The sincerity and honesty.

People mind their own business out of respect. There's no small talk with strangers. I don't have a lot acquaintances or any fair weather friends. Even friends and family here respect my privacy and I do the same. I like what "respect" is here and what's considered manners.

There's not as much classism. People don't ask where I work unless it's for a reason. My value isn't on how much money I make. In fact, it's not a flashy culture. That might actually be a little taboo. What is considered success is not the same as in the states and I like that. People don't flash being happy either and when it is there, it is genuine. It's not a competition. I see happiness now as a reserved sacred thing. It's a valuable treasure that I share with loved ones not strangers. I'm somewhat joking but somewhat not.

Kohuke and kohupiim

The humour. Lots of sarcasm and dry. It can be dark at times or just plain ridiculous. The movie Vanamehe Film is funny. I joke around with a straight face now sometimes.

Family oriented and friends for life. It's one of the cliches here. I don't know how much of this is true but for me it is. The friends I have here mean the world to me and it is for life.

The work and leisure balance. I know I am saying a lot of cliches here but these things are what I appreciate.

I like living within the EU. I can travel easily and traveling is more a part of the culture here. I also like all the perks that most hear about in the states like vacation time and affordable medical.

SPRING!!!

Electric scouters

Cafe culture

The quiet break during the first part of winter, after an exciting summer. After this short break, it's time for saunas and the national winter sport of complaining.

Complaining about how cold it is in the winter but really it isn't that cold, I'm just complaining because it's dark. Everything is miserable and all hope is lost..... or at least everyone acts like it during winter. It's a fun national winter sport that I like to take part in.

It's not a religious nation and if others are it's kept private and seen as a personal thing. It's other's business not mine.

I feel a type of contentedness and security that I never did in the states. I don't know what exactly it is about the culture here but I feel a type of safeness and comfy feeling that I don't really have a word for. It solidifies more and more as time goes on. I now experience culture shock when I go to the states which I hardly ever go anymore.

How adaptable everyone is. Humble and adaptable. Also how quickly things progress here. Things change quick. There's always a new building being erected or fresh paint being put on somewhere. Even more rural places have made so much progress since I've been here yet people are still humble. Estonia is developing so rapidly that there is something new every year. The people are just as adaptable and they are the reason why things have progressed so wonderfully. Go Estonia!!!!

It's peaceful and quiet.

I can keep going on because I appreciate all but three things about Estonia. Estonia really is my home. I am in it for the long haul.

One more thing and it's too hard to break down why this is but..... The very high quality of life I have here in comparison to how it was in the states. You won't see me smiling in public but my life is good. I'm thinking it's this way with a lot of people here. You just have to know where to look or more like....how to live in Estonia. The things that matter really do matter. So you get those things and live that way and then you're good. It's as simple as that.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

1. There was tension surrounding the language and I was harrassed a couple of times because I didn't speak Estonian. The worst part about this is that they were medical professionals. The situation with the language has changed and I haven't had a bad experience for awhile but it was the most challenging part.

2. There's tension between Estonians of Russian decent and Estonians that are not of Russian decent. This could also play into the language being made out to be something to hold over others who don't speak the language. It's not everyone though. It's just loud by a small few and it has gotten better. Estonia is a place of improvement and progression at a rapid speed. So this and the above challenge might not even exist anymore.

3. The quality of medical care is below westernized standards. It's not just with equipment but also with the professionalism and the education of some of the medical staff. I'm also going to include customer service in general with this one. The customer service has gotten better and in the bigger cities it's great but the more rural areas could still use some changing. I heard it was so much worse in the soviet times. I am looking forward to this aspect to continue getting better and just as rapidly as everything else.

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

I thought I knew someone well enough to ask how they were doing. I also used to smile a lot in public and at strangers. I have messed up when speaking the language and said something different from what I wanted to say and the situation was weird and uncomfortable. My first year here was an embarrassing cultural blunder.

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

It can be horrible until you adjust. Learning the language and making good friends helps a lot. A strong support system that is in the country with you helps but only if you use that support system. Don't isolate. Don't hold grudges and try to have a good attitude. Brush off any negative experiences as soon as they happen. Those experiences could just be rare and not a fare representation of how the culture is. You also run the risk of becoming bitter. At first, there is a good chance that what you see is not the true culture. Your "eyes" have to adjust. What you see is not what you get. You could be looking out of your own culture's eyes at limited interactions with others. Be patient with yourself and others. Be forgiving and understanding with others and yourself.

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Get a quote for health insurance from our partner, Allianz Care.
Get a Quote

Tartu, EstoniaGuide to Living in Tartu, Estonia

Tartu, Estonia: Cost of Living, Healthcare and What to Know About Living in Tartu

Estonia Forum Estonia Forum
Join our Estonia forum to meet other people living in Tartu, Estonia.

ContributeContribute
Help other expats and newcomers by answering questions about the challenges and adventures of living in Tartu.

Healthcare in EstoniaHealthcare in Estonia

Medical care in Estonia is not up to Western standards, but is best in Tallinn, Tartu and Parnu. Our Estonia Healthcare Guide covers health insurance, finding an English-speaking doctor, best hospitals and more.

Expat Report: Culture Shock in Tartu

An expat in Estonia offers an in-depth look at life and culture shock she experienced in Estonia. Now, she has a long list of things she appreciates about living in Estonia that includes their love of nature, healthy living, family oriented culture, the work life balance and more.

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