Stories and Culture

Diversity in Moldova – More than Just Cream

I joked to my friend the other day that I wanted to write a blog post on diversity in Moldova. It would be two sentences long…

All jokes aside, diversity as I’m used to (was used to) thinking about it is not the same in this small Eastern European country. It’s not like walking through New York City or the streets of Paris, where you are confronted with the sights, smells, and sounds of individuals from radically different backgrounds.

But it’s not so simple either.

Often, we think about “diversity” as indicated by skin tone – cream, ebony, tawny, olive…

Sometimes, we remember our ancestries – okay, we can now distinguish amongst the tones, and begin including ethnic identities: in Gagauzia, it’s Russian, Moldova, Gagauz, Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian, Polish, Bulgarian….

But we may forget the many expressions of human thought and behavior. We, as the platitude goes, love to generalize.

During Peace Corps training, they emphasize cultural differences (also centered on expressions of human thought and behavior) – of course, it’s what we need to know to survive – but I could never shake that creeping feeling that, somehow, we would be descending into a non-“human” space. Somehow, we were entering an alien land (“guess I landed on Jupiter…”). ((Can you land on Jupiter?)). Or, perhaps, we were the invaders…

I’m not sure what it was, exactly. (I suppose it could be paranoia.)

Perhaps it’s just the generalization – “American” versus “Moldovan.”

Perhaps it’s the unique nature of the Peace Corps Program – we’re certainly restricted by the necessity to present a certain image of the United States: diverse, benevolent, responsible, capable. Some go so far as to claim that all Peace Corps volunteers are on a unique “political mission” – although, as far as “politics” goes, we’re not supposed to claim specific views and opinions as “Peace Corps Volunteers,” but as individuals. In some ways, it feels like we’re also two-headed aliens: we split our identities into “Peace Corps Volunteer” and “unique human presence in foreign country,” and have to navigate the two.

So here we are, coming in like Mars balls to a landscape that has been characterized, first, by all its pockmarks and quirks as a necessary training precaution.

We’re cautioned to hold back our opinions to honor cultural sensitivities (and for our safety), and only to open up when we begin to trust – to build relationships with the “locals.”

But there it is – the “locals.” Just that word has me recoil, reassess and see this potential person, this potential relationship, as something distant. We are “volunteers,” they are “locals.” We both play roles – the helper and the helped. The helper, presumably, comes from a more developed country and a more economically secure background. The helped…. Not so much.

Here we are, different, distanced. Here we are, as some have pointed out, “above” another (I do appreciate those critics of the “savior complex”).

But we’re supposed to relate to these people? We’re supposed to build friendship?

And they don’t “tell” us how – perhaps this is not their job. We learn these skills in the course of things – we have to. If we don’t, we go home. But why, why is the emphasis always difference?

We are set up from the start to distance ourselves.

I believe the Peace Corps trains us in all the ways necessary for safety, and they give us concepts useful to adaptation, and they provide excellent language classes; but at the same time, I don’t think we – especially the younger and more inexperienced among us – are prepared with the necessary “tools” to relate.

The necessary ideas.

And, as they iterated in our Pre-Service Training… how we think is how we end up behaving.

What I’m getting at is that we’re missing out on the concepts and skills that will help us recognize and appreciate the “expressions of human thought and behavior” that I mentioned earlier.

We are set up from the start to distance ourselves, and we forget our basic human similarities – we all shit, eat and sleep. Even the President of North Korea.

But really – what we’re forgetting is that most of us have the same needs (basic, social and emotional) and general desires (to live happily and without undue struggle, for instance). And we forget that we can all communicate, in so many beautiful ways.

So when talking about diversity in Moldova (yes, getting back to the original premise now), I’d like to first talk about diversity in communication – linguistic, or creative; physical, sensual, visual. We wave our hands and point at each other; we speak words from two languages and still manage to understand; we move ourselves and faces in exaggerated and subtle ways; we draw, or sign, or write, or touch. We emote. And we listen – oh, do we listen.

We can all develop these same skills – we are born to communicate.

Now, I won’t say the “locals” don’t look at us from the same distance – of course they do. I complained to my Romanian friend that sometimes, I feel like I’m the one (even as the observer in this foreign space) sitting behind the bars in the zoo, picking the toe jam out of my wigglies. And of course, sometimes, I want to retaliate – “Look at that one: he’s a zebra. And that guy over there, an otter.”

But again, it originates in a lack of understanding and expectation of big (insurmountable?) difference. When – how – are people taught that we’re not so different? When ­– HOW – do we learn? (Apparently, most of us haven’t caught on.)

So okay, dear reader, here’s my proposal:

Instead of perpetuating this other aspect of human “behavior” – setting ourselves up to distance, suspicious-survivor-like – let’s start from this basic spectrum of diversity and work up to the bigger things. Let’s invite curiosity. I’d rather not come in to new crowds looking for (or feeling like) a three-headed two-eared kitten creature from Mars.

And yes: though most of us in Moldova are cream, we do have some ebony, tawny, and olive people too.

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