Search

Mis(s)adventures

Month

November 2013

Russia: the Best Boot Camp for People Pleasers

“And who’s going to close the door, ah!?” I cringed at the bus driver’s sharp yell as I realized it was directed at yours truly. Although logically I knew his sarcastic barb had nothing to do with me as a person, my emotional reaction outshouted any sense of logic, and tears of shame came to my eyes. Being a sensitive person has often served me well; I am the thermometer of the mood in the room, intuitively sensing how people are feeling and easily empathizing with those who are struggling. But this trait also has a negative side that is manifested in the familiar paralysis of people pleasing. Because I am so in tune with people’s moods, especially bad ones, for much of my life I have lived in fear, carefully meting out my words and actions all in a preemptive measure against “people being mad at me,” especially authority figures. This fear has been so great it has been a slave driver directing my steps; so many of the “good” things I have done have been products of this prison of fear.  I have avoided people’s anger or disdain by being the student who always does her homework, by going above and beyond at work, by not voicing my opinions or needs in order to maintain a sense of harmony.

There is a precious little cat who sits on the steps outside of my dorm, the kind I would love to sit down with and pet and speak baby talk to. But whenever he sees me coming, he recoils in fear and darts away, anticipating that I will hit or kick him. Every time he dashes away in fear, I feel sad, wishing that he knew that his fear of me had no roots in reality, but were a construction of his imagination. In the same way, although I have managed to create a semblance of safety through carefully manipulating my actions, I too am constantly bracing myself for an attack that likely only exists in the realm of my imagination.

In America, I know how to work the system; I know how to keep myself “safe.” But here, I am expected to play by a list of unwritten rules that I learn along the way. I am destined to make cultural faux pas in public and in the workplace, and there is no way I can even create the guise of pleasing everyone. At first, this knowledge was unnerving, my carefully constructed armor of “doing what is expected of me” useless in a place where expectations are high, yet fluid and vague. At first, the scolding on the street and the rudeness of store workers produced shame in me, taking their words as an attack on my character. But now I am beginning to see that perhaps Russia is the best boot camp for a people pleaser; I have to face my fear of being misunderstood and disliked, challenged to get to the root of the problem instead of throwing a Band-Aid on the wound and letting it fester.

So why has it been so important to me to please people? I am learning that one of the main reasons is because I define myself by others’ opinions of me. If a boss expresses that I’m lazy or disorganized, it means that I am. If a boss thinks I am a hard-working team member, it is gospel truth. This thinking gives an inordinate amount of power to the opinion of someone who only sees my superficial output, and in reality, probably doesn’t care as much as I think he does. Like the saying goes, “when you worry about what people think about you, relax: they are not thinking of you at all.”

My favorite short story by Anton Chekhov tells the tale of a man named Chervyakov who accidentally sneezes on one of his superiors at the opera. After apologizing to the general once, because of the gruff dismissal of his apology, Chervyakov tortures himself, convinced that the  man is angry with him, and throughout the rest of the story repeatedly apologizes. Eventually, the general, sick of the obsequious pestering, does explode in anger. At the general’s outburst, Chervyakov is promptly overcome by stomach pain, goes home, and dies. This is my go-to story whenever I realize that I am taking people’s opinions of me to seriously. While I am creating an elaborate drama in my mind, in reality, it is likely nothing more than a sneeze.

And in mother Russia, I realized something had to change in my thinking, or I would end just like Chervyakov, worrying myself to death because others were not validating my sense of worth. And the lovely process of renewing my visa would be a perfect way to fight my fear head on. Three weeks ago, I traveled to Kazan early in the morning with the head of my department to pass in documents for visa renewal. After a sleepless night and a three hour ride, in an anticlimactic flop, a thin middle-aged woman with short hair and an unsmiling face said that it was too early and that we needed to come back in two weeks. Oh, and there was something wrong written in my contract (which had taken 3 days to put together, with signature after signature!). The head of my department accepted her answer and I followed his lead, thinking that this was just a part of the process, not knowing I had the right to fight.

A few weeks later, I was nervously preparing my paperwork for Kazan attempt #2 when one of the teachers in the department noticed my furrowed brow. “You look sad today. What’s wrong?” I told her what had happened last time, and she quickly and confidently replied, “You should have stayed and told her you wouldn’t leave until she helped you.”

“Really?” I said.

“I think you need to be pushy anywhere if you want to get things done. No one else is going to care about it unless you care about it. You should have explained that you had driven for three hours and you can’t constantly be making these trips. I read your blog and I felt bad because I thought, ‘this poor girl doesn’t know how to stand up for herself.’”

In our conversation, something clicked; I realized that standing up for myself and ruffling others’ feathers was not synonymous with being a terrible person. Being impolite is not a crime, and here, directness is synonymous with strength.  I knew it would not come naturally to me to be pushy or to stand up to this woman, after years of conditioning my speech and actions to elicit the best response from others. What if she yelled at me? What if she scolded me? What if? And then the truth started to poke its way through the prison bars I had lived in for years. Simple, true words. If she thinks I am a stupid American, it doesn’t mean I am stupid. If she acts like I am imposing on her, I don’t need to leave. It’s her job. This time, I went to the office in Kazan by myself. Early Monday morning I marched up steep steps and entered the office of the same disgruntled woman. She looked at me as if I were a fly she wanted to swat away, but I continued as best as I could, introducing myself and saying I was here to renew my visa.

“Documents,” she said languidly. I gave them to her, she scanned them, then said in a suffering, condescending tone, “Of course you did it wrong.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Sit down please,” she growl-sighed, the “please” not fitting her tone. By her demeanor, you would think I had just given her ten hours of work.

“I have a flash drive with me. We can change it right here.” I insisted.

I heard a spark of something closer to humanity when she replied, “Alright, we’ll do that.” She changed the paperwork; I signed it again, and in ten minutes, I was done. As I had expected, she had indeed treated me like a “stupid American” who had stolen hours of her day. But this was a victory for me, because I advocated for myself despite her rudeness, not letting her reaction shape the way I felt about myself. I was a confident young American ready to do what she needed to do to stay in this country. I did not yell, I did not make a scene, but was quietly insistent and did not apologize for my being there.

I have had some hard days here, but experiences like these push me to grow in a way I don’t think I would if I were in America. Here, I am forced out of my comfort zone, forced to examine my fears at their roots and battle them instead of avoiding them. This Russian boot camp is exhausting and stretching and perplexing, but I am convinced that in the end, it will all be worth it.

Advertisements

On Loneliness

I had a catastrophe in my dorm room today. No, nothing caught on fire, I didn’t find bedbugs (don’t worry Mom ), and no drunk Russian man broke in and stole that cursed 5,000 ruble bill that I can’t spend.* No, the catastrophe was, drumroll please…my internet went out. Two weeks ago, after a month of living in cafes where people stared at me like a zoo animal while I spoke English, I was finally able to get internet installed in my room. Of course, this was wonderful for lesson planning, but the main reason I was so elated was that internet +Skype=connection to family and friends. Now, I have been told by many well-meaning people throughout the years that while studying or working abroad, it is best to keep communication with those from your “other life” to a minimum. The general underpinning of this view is “be here now” philosophy, the assumption that spending too much time interacting with those back home will inhibit you from inhabiting your new space to the deepest and fullest. This may be true for some people, but throughout my many times studying in Russia, I have found that it is actually communication with those back home that enables me to experience life abroad to the fullest: while I am clumsily stumbling through the stages of adjustment to a foreign culture, encouraging words from those who know me best have a stabilizing effect. And as a person who battles depression and anxiety, these connections to home are truly lifelines.

At first I accepted my internet modem’s caprice gracefully. I cooked some pasta and made my own mushroom, garlic, and tomato sauce (I’ve been inspired to actually cook since I visited the wonderful Hanna in Naberezhniye Chelny), and opened my Bible to Philippians, which I had been encouraged to read after watching, yes, a sermon on loneliness on YouTube yesterday. After eating and praying a little, I began to languidly review Russian proverbs and a Marina Tsvetaeva poem for my lesson tomorrow, the familiar gnawing of knowing I was alone starting to get to me. I decided to try the internet again, but desperately clicking the icon over and over just made me more and more frustrated.

The now familiar frantic tears started to sting my eyes, and my next action showed how great my desperation was: I found the number for customer service and I actually called it. Now, those of you who know me well know that I absolutely hate making phone calls…in English. Unless it is a close friend or family member, I get very nervous, even writing down notes of what I want to say beforehand. So calling a customer service line in Russian was a true mark of desperation. It was actually in the midst of all this emotional grabbing for connection that I had a linguistic victory. I explained my situation to the woman on the other line, and she actually understood me. And what’s more, as she explained the steps of what I needed to do, I actually understood most of what she was saying! I got off the phone with the issue still unresolved, but my mood had been lightened by the whole experience.

The past few weeks, I have felt like my Russian has actually been getting worse, but from experience, I know that this is a natural dip in the process. Two summers ago when I participated in CLS, it was right about this far into the program that I felt that my linguistic performance was decreasing. It was encouraging to have an objective, real-life situation confirm that I haven’t reverted to po-toddler-ski. So with my mood a bit lifted, I finished my Russian homework, wrote a lesson plan, and decided to try the internet just one more time. And this time, it worked…and this, my friends, is how life works in a country called Russia.

It is true, losing the internet for half a day can hardly be considered a catastrophe, and if I’m honest with myself, I am probably far too dependent on it, but experiences like this highlight just how scared I am to be alone. Living in Russia has forced me to grapple daily with this fear, and although I have struggled with loneliness at other times in my life, it cuts sharper here in Russia, because as humans, we tend to define ourselves in relation to others. When there is a natural, deep connection between humans, whether through family or friendship or nationality, it is easier to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, your perception of the world reinforced by those around you, your hopes that you are a kind or giving or witty person reflected by those who affirm those qualities in you. But in a foreign country, communication which in your homeland is as easy as breathing becomes full of schisms and misunderstandings and awkward clashes of perception. You are the other, and you feel that if there was at least one other, you would be okay. This is why it was so refreshing to see Hanna(see my previous post), who, although I hadn’t known for a very long time, understood me on a level that I hadn’t felt understood for quite a while.

George Bernard Shaw said that “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I believe that this illusion of communication often occurs not only in the cross-cultural realm, but within one’s own culture. Although it is manifested much more subtly in one’s native culture, I believe that there is always something lost in translation, and this inability to be understood is one of the reasons that humans struggle with loneliness. One of our greatest desires is to be understood to the core, yet this is virtually impossible, since we interpret others’ words and trials through the filter of our own frameworks.

I know that my struggle with loneliness is not unique here and that going home will not cure it; it is something I have struggled with even when surrounded by those who love me. I am starting to think that perhaps facing loneliness in such in intense way right now is actually a blessing in disguise. I have been forced to come face to face with my fear and to find that it has not destroyed me. I have run to God and found comfort in His word and encouragement to be strong and courageous, confident that He loves me and will be with me in all circumstances. I have begun to realize that so often, I expect too much from human connection, expecting conversation and empathy to fulfill a deep spiritual need that no person should be expected to fill. I have come face to face with one of my greatest fears, and as I continue to fight with the Lord at my side, the terror of being unknown by another human is starting to slowly lessen. Human connection is a beautiful thing, a facet of humanity that reflects the image of God, but I realize that I cannot turn human connection into an idol that pushes Him to the side. So no, I am not happy that I feel lonely, but I am beginning to be thankful for the loneliness, because I am confident that, as the Apostle Paul said in Romans 8, God uses these trials for good in my life, to bring growth and freedom and to make me more like Christ.

*Russian cashiers HATE breaking 5,000 ruble bills (or they actually don’t have the change). Most of the time they’ll just glare at you and tell you they won’t do it.

A Few Things Off My Bucket List

Before I left for Russia in September, I created a short Fulbright Bucket List, in which I brainstormed things I wanted to do before I left Russia. These past two weeks, I have been able to check quite a few items off my list. Here’s a short chronicle of items on my bucket list I’ve conquered so far:

Item #4: Ice-skating without landing myself in a hospital, or worse, finding myself at the hands of a dramatic Russian dentist named Konstantine. Those of you who have followed my blog for more than a year know that last summer while studying in Vladimir, Russia, I was introduced to the Russian medical system after splitting my chin while ice skating. Ever since my fall, I have been nervous about skating again, so I determined to face my fear and make it through at least one round of skating unharmed.  When my friend Elmira and I first set foot on the ice, I was wobbly and stiff, memories of my chin slamming into the ice closer than they had been in over a year. But after about 10 minutes of holding onto the bar, I gingerly started to make my way around the circle, and after about 10 minutes of this, I felt confident enough to have a conversation while skating. Unfortunately, the site won’t let me upload the video Elmira took of me skating, but here is a picture of us after the fact:

IMG_0463[1]

Item #10: Write a poem in Russian

I love poetry, and I have found it fun to play around with it in Russian, even though I probably don’t have a strong enough grasp on word nuances and connotations to be confident that I am saying what I want to say. The first time I attempted poetry in Russian was at the age of 14 in my beginner’s Russian class, where I wrote a sad poem about not getting noticed by the boy I liked (Увидеть меня ещё нельзя). Since then, I haven’t really worked at anything serious, and the last one I wrote was a parody of an Anna Akhmatova poem for one of my friends, which chronicles our memories in Vladimir. Right now, I am teaching a creative writing course at the university, and I had my students write a poem in English. Since writing poetry is especially intimidating in another language, I promised them that if they did the assignment, then I would write a poem in Russian. I decided to write a few lighthearted verses on the torture that is Russian pronunciation, since I needed some catharsis for the frustration that comes with each Russian lesson. As the Russians would say, the poem is “ещё сырое,” or still a draft, but if you read Russian, feel free to read my work in progress:

Русское Произношение

Вы знаете, мои друзья

Какой у вас язык богат

Но знайте, также, ваш язык

Причиняет мне страдать

Русское произношение-

Жестокое мучение

Мягкий ль язык не любит,

Мягкий ть он ненавидеть.

Особенно по магазинам

Когда продавцам я обращаюсь

Язык тормозит, чувствую страх

И, вот, опять, я заикаюсь.

Поэтому, я каждый день,

Когда по улице хожу

Скороговорки глупые

Я повторяю, повторяю.

Однажды я надеюсь говорить без трудностей

без проблем произносить и ни, и ти, и ли,

Но сегодня надо ждать вопрос:

“Девушка, откуда вы!?”

Item #13: Travel to a city I’ve never been to before.

This past weekend, I was so excited to be able to visit my fellow Fulbrighter Hanna, who lives in the neighboring city of Naberezhniye Chelny (try to say that five times fast). Although geographically Elabuga and N. Chelny are close (45 minutes on the bus 🙂 ), each city has a very different culture, due to the fact that whereas Elabuga is pretty much ancient, N. Chelny was built around 60 years ago when the Kamaz car plant was built. N. Chelny has less aesthetic charm than Elabuga due to both its short history and the reasons for which it was built, but despite the lack of apparent beauty, it felt great to be in a larger city again.

The best part about the weekend though, of course had nothing to do with the city, and everything to do with who I spent it with. Can I just say that it was a breath of fresh air to be able to interact with another American, to have deep conversations about anything and everything without having to modify our speech, to share stories and find commonalities in our experiences, and perhaps most importantly of all, to be able to share the moment when we saw this Halloween costume of one of Hanna’s students:

IMG_0489[1]

I definitely decided to come on a good weekend, since Hanna was hosting a Halloween party for her students. They spoke excellent English, and we had a wonderful evening eating, toasting each other, playing mafia, and watching a “horror” movie that was hard not to laugh through.

Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn't have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil's horns.
Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn’t have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil’s horns.

Here is a picture of the spread of cakes, pies, and salads that the students treated us to:

IMG_0488[1]

…which brings me to the next thing on my list.

Item# 6: try one of the foods I have avoided thus far while in Russia

IMG_0491[1]

This, my friends, is known as “Herring Under Fur Coat.” This dish is a mouth-boggling layered salad of herring and onion, potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise and beets. I have nothing against beets, or eggs, or potatoes, but I feel that just about anything is ruined if you add salty fish with crunchy onions. I also don’t hate mayonnaise, but everything in moderation, right? And by the pink glow of the salad, you can tell that moderation was the last thing from this salad maker’s mind. I came, I ate, and I will do my best to never do such a thing again.

I also forced myself to try one of these, but I couldn’t finish it:

Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.
Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.

Note: my goal is not to bash Russian food, since as a whole, I actually prefer Russian food to American. I love the dairy products here, the breads, the cakes and most of the salads, but I still have yet to understand the Russian obsession with both fish and mayonnaise. And of course, one of my favorite aspects of Russian meals is the absolute necessity of tea. Here is a picture of a beautiful pot of tea Hanna and I ordered while we snagged internet at a local cafe.

"Огородны чай," tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.
“Огородны чай,” tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.

Now that I’m back in Elabuga, I already miss Hanna, but there will be certainly more visits to come, since the bus only takes 45 minutes from her stop to my stop! Let the adventures continue.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: