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.

They Call it Culture Shock

It comes most noticeably at first in the assault of your senses: in the din of new sounds flooding your ears, in the thick scent of lead paint that varnishes university walls, in the bright colors of houses that contrast with the crumbling roads and mud-splattered Ladas. It comes secondly in trying to navigate the unwritten rules, those elusive laws you clumsily grasp for when you sit squished by babushkas in a marshrutka, hoping that this time you won’t give the driver a reason to yell at you.

But finally and most deeply, it comes in the subtle strains, in the interaction with a teacher where you both spoke the same language but could not find an общий язык. Despite the fact that the syllables coming out of your mouths code for meaning, by the time the message gets through the filters of culture and intonation and dialect it is sterilized, lifeless. And despite the fact that you stand face to face with each other and her voice is crisp and clear, the meaning is as garbled as words underwater.

In this proverbial game of telephone, you become acquainted with the isolation that comes from a lack of true connection. Every other time you have come to this place, you have had the ability of precise, implicit communication with those from your culture. You took for granted the взаимопонимание, the mutual understanding, because you didn’t realize how similar you actually were. You thought you were wildly different from each other, so different that you would have never become friends had you lived alongside one another in your own country.

And now that there you are the only one, you realize that you are more American than you thought. You had always thought that you didn’t fit into your own culture, with its bustle and extroversion and entrepreneurial spirit. You thought all this when you straddled the chasm between Russia and America, holding tight to the hands of the Americans who came with you to this land while trying to grasp just as tightly the hands of these mystery people who had fascinated you for half your life. And you thought that if you kept letting yourself be pulled in both directions you would split, so you let go of the American hands.

As soon as you let go, you found yourself being dragged over hills, scraping across rocky paths, now using your free hand to wave for help, frantically looking back at the place you left. You now realize that the hands you let go of were hands like yours, and as you are pulled across new terrain, you are lonely. You note the irony, for your eyes were always on the Russians even as the Americans were holding your hand, and now you look at the horizon of nine months and sigh.

But the Russians like to say that hope dies last, and you agree, so you grasp even tighter to these foreign hands, no longer using your free hand to wave for help but to hold on to new hands tighter, knowing that you will be cut and bruised by this rocky terrain but having faith that this road will bring you somewhere breathtaking.

I Am (Not) My Writing

I am my writing. I have been told this is a lie, yet every tap on the keyboard feels like a needle invading my finger veins, draining drops of blood. I am my writing.It is not hard to understand why this statement seems so much more like truth than a lie. Since childhood, I have felt closest to God with a pen in my hand, outpouring my reflections and prayers in a cozy journal that never made me feel unsafe or misunderstood. When I pray out loud, my sloppy words waddle around in distracted circles, but when I write to God, it feels like he takes over my pen and guides my hand to record the truth that gets lost in the wind when I try to speak. For a glorious stretch of time between my first journal entry and the end of high school, I was not my writing. Writing was a joy, an escape to exotic locales and vivid characters. Writing was a gift, a bowl into which I could pour all my messy emotions and observe them to get a proper perspective. But when college began, something changed.

          As I was thrust into the world of discussion-based classes alongside students who seemed to know what they wanted to say and how to say it, I began to feel painfully incompetent. When I tried to contribute in class, my sentences seemed awkward and broken, filled with stops and starts and misused verbs. I would chastise myself for answering a question with “yeah, it’s pretty cool,” when the guy sitting across from me threw around words like “Aristotelian” with a yawn. I had thoughts, I had ideas, but when I opened my mouth, I was as articulate as a caveman, and as I compared myself to my classmates I wondered if I was somehow mentally deficient. Outside the classroom, I felt caricatured by those around me, carelessly squished into a box labeled “quiet, responsible, and a little boring.”  In this new school where I desperately wanted to find friends, I didn’t feel perceived as who I really was, the goofy girl who loved people and adventures and traveling to foreign countries.
          It was with a pen that I found the power to fight back against the one-dimensional identity that I thought was being forced upon me. When my TGC class was assigned a “This I Believe Essay,” I lit up when I realized that the assignment offered me the opportunity to share about my experiences in Russia, which were adventurous and daring and anything but quiet and responsible. I felt immense satisfaction as I passed in the finished product, knowing that whoever read it, even if it was only my professor, would see who I really was.
          But to my delight, it wasn’t only my professor who saw it; I was assigned to have a conference on the paper with my TGC fellow. It was an understatement to say that I had a crush on this senior T.A. I was convinced that he was everything I wanted in a man; with his intense gaze and depth of insights into suffering, love, and the good life*, it wasn’t just three flights of stairs that made my heart race on my way to class. But alas, I was cursed with the freshman-ness and inarticulateness that made me invisible to this intellectual demigod. I trembled in nervousness as I hiked my way up to the third floor of the chapel to meet him, and four years later, his words to me still resonate: “it was one of the most polished essays. It had an enthralling tone! And I know I shouldn’t say this…. But, it was my favorite.” I’m sure my eighteen year old face was glowing as if he had just asked for my hand in marriage.  I am my writing, I thought.
            My sophomore year, I stood before my creative writing class and read a poem that was my masterpiece: it perfectly articulated all that God had been teaching me, and the form and structure reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. I will never forget the bewildered, confused look on my professor’s face after I finished reading. His wide eyes and open mouth seemed to betray that he absolutely hated it but was trying not to let it show. An awkward silence lingered for a few seconds and I took my seat, defeated. I am my writing. This summer, a friend read the same poem and he loved it, expressing amazement and appreciation for my thoughts and the way I had worded them. He “got” my writing, therefore, he “got” me.
My experiences in college have shown me that the belief that I equal my writing is a dangerous equation, a mode of measurement as capricious as New England weather.  Sometimes the words flow effortlessly, but most of the time, I feel like I can’t string together sentences worthy of a third grader. Nonetheless, writing has become a defense weapon, a shield against my fears that I do not measure up. It has become an advertisement for myself, trying to convince others that I am worth their time. And after four years of striving to prove myself through two dimensional black and white pages, I have begun to realize that my idolization of writing has squished me into a smaller box than the one I was trying to escape.
            Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship, a word that comes from the Greek “poiema,” where we get the term “poem.” We are God’s poems, masterfully sculpted works of art whose stories cannot be constrained to something as paltry as a page. To try to wrest the pen from my Creator in a small-minded attempt to make a name for myself blinds me to the breathtaking story he wants to write my life into. So as I graduate, I want to transform this pen, to use it not as a weapon, not as a billboard promoting Hope Johnson, but as a gift, remembering that though writing is a tool God has given me to process this life, it is not life itself. Taking my eyes off myself and fixing them on the author of a much greater story than could fit on a page frees me with truth that I am not my writing. No, I am His writing. 

*love, suffering and the good life are three things Gordon College’s first year seminar really likes to talk about. Alot.