“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.