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.

Not Much Time for Sleep!

It’s amazing how much can happen in a week here! Here’s a quick update on what has been going on in Tatarstan.

Weekend in Kazan

Last weekend, I was invited to Kazan(the largest city in Tatarstan) by the daughter of a teacher at the Institute, who works there as an English teacher and completed her master’s degree in TESOL in the states. Kamila and I hit it off right away, and Iwehad a wonderful weekend exploring the city, drinking tea, and discussing all things language related. Kamila took me to Театр Юного Зрителя, (The Theater of the Young Spectator,) where we saw a comedy called, “Здравствуйте, Я Ваша Тётя” (“Hello, I’m Your Aunt.”) This play was reminiscent of Mrs. Doubtfire: Set in late 19th or early 20th century England, two love-struck young men ask their friend to dress up like a woman so that they can invite two girls over without a chaperone. What results is a hilarious and disastrous chain of events.

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The next day, Camilla took me to the museum of Soviet Life, which showcased realia from the institution of the U.S.S.R. until its dissolution. Let’s just say the star of the show was Lenin. Here are some pictures from the museum:

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“The Truth About American Diplomats”

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From a Soviet textbook: “Our Motherland, the U.S.S.R.”

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I learned that chewing gum was a status symbol in the Soviet Union, because it was so hard to come by.

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“Soviet Woman”

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“Soviet Pioneer Uniform”

After we left the museum, it was time for me to return to Kazan, and other than the irritated GPS that yelled at you if you made a wrong turn and the driver deciding it was a good idea to race through the breakdown lane on occasion, the trip back was uneventful.

Overcoming My Fear

One of the girls I met at the local English Club, Elmira, has been kindly helping me with my Russian once or twice a week. One day, we stopped by a store to get some water, and she noticed right away how nervous I got when I approached the store workers. “Why do you get so scared?” she said. “Then you stutter and they can’t understand you! They’re just people, just like you.”

It’s true, although I’ve studied Russian for quite a few years and can carry on conversation fairly easily with people I know, there always seems to be a barrier when I approach people in stores or cafes. My heart starts beating quickly and my tongue decides to have a seizure. I asked Elmira then, if we could go out one day and just go up to as many people as possible in an attempt to overcome my fear. She agreed, and on Tuesday, we went to the market for an adventure.

First, I went to a market to try to find a hat and gloves, and I managed to talk to the woman without too much trouble. Next, she took me to a fast food place which served a Tatarstani treat.

“You have Big Mac, we have сосиска в тесте (fried dough covered hot dogs). You haven’t been to Tatarstan until you’ve tried one.” She told me what to say, and when I ordered, the woman actually smiled at me and asked me where I was from, then started to make conversation. So not everyone is scary. We went to a few more stores, and my fear started to dissipate. I still get nervous and I know it will be a process, but I am so thankful that Elmira took the time to help me fight my fear.

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Eating сосиска в тесте in front of Elabuga’s “Big Ben”

Explaining America to Russian History Students

The next day, I had another opportunity to use my Russian, as I was invited into a history class to share about my country. In true Russian style, I wasn’t told exactly what I needed to prepare until the morning of, which resulted in lots of frantic Googling and Wikipedia searches. I may be American, but I am not an encyclopedia!

After presenting on the symbolism in our flag and great seal, students asked me questions about my country. Questions ranged from the American economic system to family relationships, and I did my best to answer them as truthfully as I could with my non-native handle of Russian. Some questions, such as those about American family relationships and why I decided to come to Russia, were easy to answer in Russian because they were not sensitive issues. However, I found that when asked questions about Americans’ view of President Obama and President Putin, it was hard to answer both diplomatically and truthfully. Concerning President Obama, I brought up that his approval ratings had dropped since he became president, and that a large percentage of Americans were not satisfied with how he acted concerning Syria.

And whn they asked me about Putin, and I felt a little cornered. The history teacher asked me, “so, what do Americans think about Putin? Because, you see, we love our President.” So really, what was I supposed to say to that? I said something to the effect of that Americans respect Putin, but of course there will always be tension between the two countries because we are both powerful and want to hold the number one spot. Then to dispel the tension, I tried to bring in some humor, fumbling for words to try to explain the funny memes we have on Facebook that portray Putin as a strong, “most interesting man in the world” type. I didn’t do very well at explaining this, and when this article came out the next day reporting on my presentation, it said that “Americans consider Putin a ‘superhero.'” Ok, so not exactly what I wanted to say; sorry America! Also, in the article, they put in some things that I never said, for example, that all American homes have an American flag. So here’s the link if you’d like to put it into an online translator and read it, but don’t take everything as my definitive view 🙂

http://kpfu.ru/main_page?p_cid=61095&p_sub=6207

Overall, it was a great experience to answer students’ questions about America. People in Elabuga are very enthusiastic about meeting an American, because unlike in larger cities, for many, I am the first American they have ever met. The local news will be interviewing me on Monday as well, so I will make sure to keep you up to date on that.

Girls Night Out

Finally, my week ended with some girls from my advanced class inviting me out to a café. Most of them are only a year younger than me, so it feels a little strange to be their teacher. It was great to be able to hang out with them outside of the classroom in a more relaxed environment. They were determined to speak English the whole time, which didn’t seem difficult, since their English is already excellent. After pizza, coffee, and desert, we strolled around the city, at which one point, two college guys started to follow us in their car. While walking down the sidewalk, they put their car in reverse and went backwards, trying to talk to us, for at least 10 minutes. They were persistent and would not give up, but we felt safe, since there were about 10 of us. Russian guys seem to be much more forward than American guys. But can you blame them? Look how beautiful all the girls in my class are:

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The Country Where the G.P.S. Scolds You: A Little Post on Cultural Differences

After about a month of being here, I am still finding it hard to adjust in certain ways. I am not yet used to what, through my cultural lens, appears to be unnecessary harshness and scolding. Although on the logical level, I understand that American and Russian communication styles differ greatly, I have still taken the seeming abrasiveness very seriously, avoiding or dreading situations that will involve being scolded. My knee-jerk reaction is to take it all very personally; for example, I still felt upset hours after a marshrutka driver yelled at me when I forgot to close the door to the bus. This was all until I experienced G.P.S a la Russe.

After a restful weekend in the city of Kazan (more about that in a later post), I ordered a charter taxi-van to bring me the 3 hours back to Elabuga. I was the first passenger, so the driver (who used so much slang I had no idea what he was saying) plugged other passengers’ addresses into his G.P.S., and off into the city we went.
So you know how in America, when we make a wrong turn, a robotic but decidedly female voice says, “recalculating”? Well, when the taxi driver decided he knew better than the G.P.S., a slightly less robotic male voice blurted out in an irritated tone, «Зачем отклонились от маршрута!?», “Why did you go off the route!? You must turn at the next left!”

I thought I had misheard; after all, in my mind, there was no possible reason for actually programming scolding into a G.P.S. system. As the driver wove through the city traffic, I listened closely, and heard it again and again. “Why did you go off the route!? Why did you go off the route!?” Just to make completely sure, I typed it into Google on my phone, and sure enough, it yielded lots of results for Russian G.P.S. systems. As the taxi gained more and more passengers, not one Russian seemed to think that the constant scolding was anything but normal. As for me though, I was trying my best not to burst into laughter, both at the absurdity of programming scolding into a GPS system and at the Russians’ non-reaction.

I am sure it will still take me quite a bit more time to get used to the Russian communication style, but at least I am starting to understand it more. My experience with the G.P.S. showed me that Americans and Russians perceive scolding in very different ways. I have yet to understand exactly why scolding plays such a prominent role in Russian communication or how exactly Russians perceive it differently than Americans, but I realize now that I shouldn’t take it personally. So the next time I am scolded and am tempted to hang my head in shame, I’ll remember the irritated voice of Mr. Russian G.P.S. and do my best to crack a wide American smile.

Destination: Elabuga

After seven months of waiting to hear whether I had been accepted to the program and another month of waiting to hear about my destination, I have finally received word that I am being placed as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Elabuga, Tatarstan!

My dad commented that every time I head back to the Motherland I seem to be going east, and indeed, Elabuga is yet another step eastward from the more well-known cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Elabuga is a small city of about 70,000 located in Tatarstan, a republic within Russia whose primary religion is Islam. This will not be my first time in Tatarstan, as my study-abroad group in 2010 traveled to its capital, Kazan, on a weekend excursion.

Upon doing a little research on the city I’m going to be working in, my first reactions were be-yu-tee-full! With lush, wild countryside coupled with the charming architecture of a city not tainted with the monotony of modernization, I have a feeling this Maine girl is going to feel right at home. The description that hooked me, though, in one of the many online articles that I read was that it, “feels like one has walked into one of Chekhov’s short stories.” Tantalizing. Absolutely tantalizing.