Stories and Culture

Juggling Perspectives

I’m making a list and checking it twice for those times when I (feel like I) ’m up shit creek. (If you want to skip strait to the list, go ahead, scroll down quick).

The most difficult aspect of service, at the moment, is juggling perspectives.

“They” tell us it’s a transformative experience – at least, “they” say, if you let it be. And I swear I’m trying, though some days I feel more entrenched in my former belief system, and others I’m squatting in the bell jar of those different perspectives and ideas. Some days, I appreciate the uniqueness of this country and what I’m learning. Others, I want nothing more than my freedom.

I wrote in an earlier post Diversity in Moldova – More than Just Cream (very) briefly on the idea of how we volunteers come in adjusting our identities.

It’s an issue that has always plagued me and, I suppose, a direct result of growing up in Individualist America as a Narcissistic Millenial. I have this obsession with authenticity, you see – this ideal that we can move in this world expressing confidently (for the betterment of humanity. No sarcasm here).

And this identity struggle is related to juggling perspectives.

I live strangely, often splitting with the perspectives of my house-mates, my host mother and myself. Today, I’m living with two Europeans (a French girl and a Spanish girl) as well as my 77-year-old host mother. My host mother’s family comes in and out – a sister is here at the moment. I am the only volunteer who speaks Russian (somewhat) capably, so when things need to be communicated, I am often the middle-woman (and that communication isn’t always “could you please pass the salt?”). I still might not understand what’s going on, and all of us have very different ideas of how we should be living here.

I’m embracing conflict.

And I try to ask questions about these other cultures to expand my understanding; I try parse the roots of ideas and behavior.

I try to see my host mother (can you get third eyes on AliExpress?), a woman I respect for her life experience, her spirit, her generosity and her wisdom. I want to understand.

So there was the bread.

I love to cook (I dreamed of chef-dom), and I take that where I go. I love to cook for large groups of people even more, and was thrilled to find myself in a community of people who like a pre-prepared meal. So we began holding dinners at my host-home for housemates and friends. And at first, my host mother Anna couldn’t comprehend. “Don’t bake chocolate! Don’t put pineapple in dessert! Why are you cooking so much? The receipt is so long!”

I explained my love of cooking. The list is long and the ingredients unusual, but my friends pay me back, I said. I do strange things to experiment. She told me of her childhood: she grew up during a famine. They didn’t feed the animals because they barely had enough for themselves. “If there’s bread on the table, all is well.” Now, she tries most of the strange food I make – including Japanese omelet with sushi rice.

Later, my Romanian friend spoke of his grandmother (he was reading an excerpt from his book), and how she would carry bread crumbs in her pocket. She experienced the famine, too. And I thought of Anna. She always, always saves the bread we don’t use. She’ll keep it in the bread box under our counter until it becomes stale – and uses the pieced like “сухарики,” or what we might call crackers. She mainly dips them in her tea. But now, when I cook like I do, I think more about whether what I have is necessary.

I try to understand the perspectives of my roommates.

I spoke to my Spanish roommate once about prejudice. In America, we populate the idea that we are all inherently biased, and so much of it centers on the history of race and religion (and really, anything surrounding sex) in our country. But this woman sits across from me and tells me that no, they’re not racist or prejudiced in Spain – race doesn’t matter. They’re open to diversity, accepting. She balked at the idea I presented – that “we’re all inherently biased.” But could her statement be true? Is it our history versus theirs? Are there bastions of acceptance? Or is this just another pipe-dream?

Sometimes, all of this “understanding” makes me feel like I will go insane. Sometimes, I feel like I lose myself in the “others.” Sometimes, I act like a fool and offend people. Sometimes, the offended people offend me, and then I am offended that I’m offended.

I try to empathize (when I’m in a good place myself, of course. There are times when empathizing is like trying to breathe tar).

I can’t seem to strike a balance lately.

When do you go too far with your “understanding?” When do you put your crooked feet too deep into someone else’s broken-in shoes? (I used to do this in the United States. I bought most of my shoes from thrift stores – thank you, cheap leather – but almost only ever found shoes too small. “I’ll get them wet and they’ll break in,” I thought. And I did, and they did. But now I have premature bunions and a pinched nerve from forcing it.)

Authenticity may be a little heinous. And in Peace Corps, an even more ridiculous proposal – we can’t just “be ourselves.” It really can be a risk – at the very least, a risk to the Reputation of the United States of America. (Did I mention that my European roommates give me shit when I refer to our country as “America”? It’s not even North America, they say – we don’t own Canada. Who are we to call ourselves “Americans” ?)

But I suppose that’s the point about transformation. So here: my insights about identity conflict, coping and how to go about your understanding of a new culture (oh joy, oh blessing, a little listicle!).

  1. To steal a great one from Maya Angelou: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” –Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (Okay I admit it – I found this quotation on a “Goodreads” page, and it could be complete fraud. But I saw the line a few years before and loved it, and use it when I can.)
  2. You won’t lose yourself, but try on some new hats (or shoes).
  3. Embrace (some) restrictions as room for growth. For example, I despise bureaucracy and the Pandora’s Box of policies that Peace Corps hands us like cheap take-out. But I can reframe (did I mention I love this? I thought I mentioned how much I love this) and see it as taking on more responsibility. And then when I’m bored or sad or awake after midnight, I can revel in the idea of throwing shit to the wind when I’m done with service. Fantasy is healthy.
  4. Screw (some) restrictions in favor of growth. Obviously, use your best judgment – but push some boundaries, see where conversations can go with your Host Country Native friends. Some of the best conversations involve conflict (just remember, your opinion is not the Opinion of the United States Government).
  5. FIND HUMOR. Sometimes, I lose it. When I lose it, I try to do something stupid. My friend inspired me recently and I am currently taking a week-long series of hideous selfies. Perhaps you can try, too, and share these with your HCN friends. You will be able to prove to them why appearances really do matter.
  6. When your host mother (or whoever) says:
  • “Don’t sit on the ground. It’s bad for your ovaries.”
  • “No smoking.”
  • “Don’t fry vegetables in a pot, only in a frying pan.”
  • “Don’t cook vegetables first, then lentils – only water and lentils.”
  • “Don’t walk outside barefoot.”
  • “Don’t whistle in the house.”
  • “Don’t keep paper in your wallet – it’s only for money. And always make sure the money is organized.”
  • “Don’t cut your hair at night – it will affect your energy.”
  • “Don’t pay people money at night.”
  • “Don’t stand in the door frame.”
  • Etc….

Pick your battles wisely, brave Knight. It may be an opportunity for conversation. But those things you let slide? When you go home, you will (hopefully…) be able to discard these habits. Don’t you think an American who catches you sticking money under your pillow will think you’re a little odd? (I’m not talking about the Tooth Fairy, here.) Which leads to my next point….

  1. People in Moldova think the shit you do is odd too! Review the list of imperative “Don’t”-s above. Remember, respect your host culture. Did you never stop to think that the fact that you don’t eat bread might be an abomination?
  2. Engage in salacious gossip with your Host Country Native friends (but don’t forget the moral high ground, dears!). You will learn a lot about the culture, social stigmas, expectations and your neighbor’s drinking problem.
  3. Suck up to people occasionally. Gifts go a long way.
  4. Try not to act like an idiot. As much as I slam Reputation… abroad, it’s important. (Also probably if you ever want a respectable career). You don’t want people to think you’re a sea cucumber, and you especially don’t want people to associate your sea cucumber flubber with all the other Americans. (Because sometimes, you’re the only American they’ve ever met. And there’s this unfortunate phenomenon that can happen when people are from a small place, have little contact with diversity, and watch nothing but Russian news… they think all Americans are just like you. Oops.)
  5. Focus on building positive relationships.
  6. Try not to take it personally when you hear salacious rumors about yourself (related to #9). People have preconceived ideas about what an “American” looks and acts like, and they will watch you (they watch you always), and they will interpret your behavior based on these ideas. It’s the culture, and culture is partially how you understand the world around you. You may be a prostitute if you are a woman who spends time alone with men (multiple men). Otherwise (if it’s one man), you are probably getting married to that man. (Gentlemen, the latter goes for you, too). People also make strange connections based on cultural ideas, including superstitions. If you are good with the local stray dogs (even if spotted feeding them and lavishing them with pets), you *might* be practicing animal magic.
  7. Be curious. Don’t be afraid to ask “strange” questions – most of what comes out of your mouth will be strange to Host Country Natives anyway.
  8. You’re going to look, act and even be stupid sometimes. It’s fine. Just don’t beat yourself up. In fact, use #4 and try not to think *too* much about #9.
  9. This is a really cool experience – don’t forget to tell yourself that when you’re frustrated or fed up with the culture (because you will be). Remember, your partners and host families will have to understand you, too. And when both of you want to scream, to tear down the wallpaper in your office, or to beat each other with the sponges that they use instead of chalkboard erasers: leave the room. It’s totally, completely acceptable. In fact, you can even pass it off as an “American Cultural Practice.”
  10. Everyone in Moldova does not have the same culture or practice the same practices. Remember #12. Some regions only celebrate Russian, and not “Moldovan,” holidays. (Some) people are atheist. The capital really is a lot more liberal than the villages. Some people love Europe, some love Russia. Like they say, there are as many opinions (and ideas) as there are assholes. And some smell like roses.
  11. Love what you can, leave what you can’t (or at least, run away when you have some privacy).

Categories: Stories and Culture

3 replies »

  1. She always, always saves the bread we don’t use. She’ll keep it in the bread box under our counter until it becomes stale – and uses them like “сухарики,” or what we might call crackers. She mainly dips them in her tea. A WISE PRACTICE…

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  2. Hello, Haley. I’m Tanya, Mark’s wife. I was raised by my Russian grandmother and lived in the Netherlands until age 11; attended an English school. Then 4 years in Alexandria, VA. Another 4 in the NL, then off to university in France, married a Frenchie and have taught Russian until I retired 3 years ago. I took my French high school students to the USSR and then Russia, so I’ve watched the changes since 1970, but only in cities. The quirkiest aspect for me has always been russian superstition (don’t shake hands over the threshold, never sit at the corner of a table….) I just wonder if your generation in Moldova and Russia is still influenced by that aspect of their grandparents’ way of thinking. Most of the people I know in Russia are 50+, but I read blogs etc to try & keep up with what’s going on there.
    I’ve probably heard most of the stereotypical comments about Americans in France and Russia, about the French and/or Russians in the US. I’ve tried to debunk the most unfair ones, but this can only happen if the listener is open-minded. And sometimes misunderstandings happen simply because not everyone is speaking his/her mother tongue. Take the word “liberal”. Same word in French and English, but they are NOT equivalent or interchangeable. Anyway, I enjoyed reading this blog, and it reminded me of many of my thoughts & reactions when I moved to France and visited Russia on a regular basis. Enjoy what ever you can!

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    • Hello Tanya! Thank you for reading – I’m glad my post could be informative for you. It sounds like you understand intimately how tough communication can be – it’s a constant struggle when you’re not a native speaker of a language (and sometimes now, I forget that when I do communicate with other native English speakers, we still don’t always understand each other!)

      As far as superstitions go, it depends on the person. I have one friend, 28 years old, who believes a good number of these superstitions – and yes, her grandmother passes them on. Two other friends, in their 20s and 30s, believe also but not as strongly; but my English language student, 18, thinks it’s all ridiculous. He’s more scientific-minded, though, and not really representative of the local mentality.

      I’ve done several interviews on the subject, actually, and hope to write a few articles on superstitions before my Peace Corps service ends. Hopefully they’ll show up here soon!

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