Hi-Tech Culture Shock by
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Prompted By Refugees

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One could argue, rightly, that the Russian Jewish “refusenik” refugees I knew and helped had rare privilege. Despite the discrimination and hardships they faced in Russia, they were well educated and healthy, so assumed to be prepared to find work once they arrived in the US. Still, the adjustment to American life and work was painful and difficult for most.

It wasn't clear how getting a job happened in Russia, but I soon figured out it was nothing like in the United States.

When these Jews started to arrive in the 1980s, the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto stepped up to help them. I and many others contributed furniture so that people could set up apartments. Also, at this time, I attended meetings of the Jewish Hi-Tech group (why not such a group in the Silicon Valley?). Through this group, I found myself volunteering to guide people in preparing resumes for their job searches in their new homeland.

It wasn’t clear how getting a job happened in Russia, but I soon figured out it was nothing like in the United States. I got the impression that people were assigned to a position based on their educational field and level of achievement. To a person, the Russians didn’t understand that here they had to take the initiative, make the effort, prepare resumes and CVs, and generally market themselves. Theyhad no idea where and how to begin.

I began by interviewing each person I was assigned to help, trying to summarize their background, experience, and unique qualities. This turned out to be way harder than anticipated. Many people didn’t have any models to figure out where they might want to work or what qualities would appeal to an employer. One woman grumpily asked me, “Why do I have to go through this? Can’t they just give me something?”

After much time and patience, most of the people did end up with adequate resumes and CVs, and eventually landed good jobs and adjusted to our competitive American culture.

There were a few born entrepreneurs from Russia who I encountered a few years later. Lev and Galina, a husband and wife pair of engineers, founded a biomedical company, and it was fun and inspiring consulting with them. They thrived in the Silicon Valley, and just like many native born tech professionals, worried about what their daughter would do with an English major. When I told Galina that my major was English, she relaxed and said, “Well, I guess she’ll be OK.” I smiled to myself at the thought that theirs was now an American story.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    This was an interesting take on the question of how displaced people have to adapt to a new culture, and how different it can be. And tech is its own culture, beyond that of the country itself. It sounds as if you played an important role helping to bridge the gaps, and learned a lot about where they were coming from too. The story about the English major made me smile.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, I learned a lot about cultural assumptions from helping these Russians. And you are right about tech culture, which probably has similarities across nations. The American techies were aghast that I had majored in English.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I enjoyed your story,Marian. I met many Russian Jews who came to America during that time. Most ended up being pretty successful here.

  3. Suzy says:

    Great story, Mare! I love that there was (is?) a Jewish Hi-Tech Group in the Silicon Valley, and that through that group you helped Russian refugees settle here and get jobs. How interesting that in Russia they didn’t have to apply or compete for jobs, they were just given something. Also love that Lev and Galina decided it was okay for their daughter to major in English since you had done so. An American story indeed.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I never quite got the Russian system, but it didn’t involve marketing themselves. I don’t believe there is a Jewish Hi-Tech group anymore, but it was fun while it lasted.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    The chaplain at Brandeis was very involved with the Russian “refuseniks”, but until I read your story, I never thought about how they went about getting jobs once they got to the US. This is a very revealing story, Mare. Good for you for helping them get their CVs together and looking for work. I’m sure that the US is very different than the old Soviet way.

    • Marian says:

      Helping with your expertise is a great way to contribute, especially if you don’t have goods or a lot of money. I’ve already volunteered to help any Ukrainian refugees who come to Silicon Valley, although it might be months before they get here.

  5. Thanx as always Marian for your well-written story, and fascinating insight into another culture, an aspect of Russian culture I wouldn’t have thought of.

    Years ago working in an inner-city high school I remember a teaching colleague reprimanding a young student for looking down rather than at the teacher who was speaking to her.

    The student was a young girl newly-arrived from the Caribbean. What my colleague didn’t know was in that student’s culture one shows respect to elders by averting one’s eyes.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    I had forgotten about the “refuseniks!”

    I worked in an environmental analysis lab in Boston in the early 90s. One of our chemists was a Russian immigrant. Given the timing, he might well have been a refusenik.

    One way of knowing you are doing an analysis well is to shoot a quality control standard into your sample before extraction and analysis. You can gauge the efficiency of your procedure by the percent recovery of the standard. We noticed that “Yuri” was an AMAZINGLY good analyst; his recoveries were always better than anyone else’s. Until one day we noticed that he added his standard AFTER the extraction. When we went a bit crazy over this, he was truly puzzled. Back in Russia you were penalized if your standard recovery was low, so he’d been taught to add it at the end. It was their SOP. He said that in all labs, everyone worked that way. To his shock, he wasn’t jailed, fined or even fired, just re-educated. Luckily it was not my job to decide how to handle all the fraudulent data he had generated!

    To this day, I an extremely dubious about any Russian science.

    • Marian says:

      That’s a fascinating, and scary take on Russian science and education, Dave. Your Russian colleague’s behavior demonstrated was the corrosive effect of a corrupt system. I am afraid here in the US, that some “sponsored” pharmaceutical studies are not that much different from the backwards QC SOP.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    What a fascinating story, Marian. I, too, had forgotten about these “refusnicks” of the 80’s, focused as I was about the early Russian Jewish immigrants of over 100 years ago, like my father. And kudos to you for working with them on their huge adjustments.

    And, while I realize that what Russians have called “Communism” has always been a far cry from what Karl Marx envisioned, I did think that these refugees’ expectation that The Powers That Be (whoever they may be) would be the ones to take the initiative in terms of their job placements does fit in well with our assumptions as to how Communist systems operate. And, conversely, our own self-initiative in such matters is what one expects in Capitalist societies. And yet, it is still heartening to see that there were obviously at least a few born entrepreneurs — though, hopefully, with a bit more empathy than the likes of our Bezos, Zuckerberg and Gates.

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