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At the last minute

October 5, 2011

One thing most all of the Peace Corps Volunteers I know in Ukraine notice is how often things happen here at the last minute. For some Americans, it is fine, we roll with the punches (some people must learn to do so). For others, it is enough to drive them crazy – these are the planners, or those with a strong “J” score on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Assessment. If you cannot go with it, and realize that you can only plan on a day-to-day basis here, you will often be frustrated.

I have to admit, sometimes it bothers me. This is usually when I already have plans of some sort, and am told, five minutes before it is to begin, that (for example) there will be a concert in the Arts department of our library. Every time. I always think “wait, you had to plan this at least a few days in advance – you could not have told me about it with more than five minutes’ notice?” Apparently not…

Part of the problem is the high-context culture – THEY all know about it because they have talked about it, but I do not know things by osmosis – I must be informed of things. I have told them this a number of times, but the message somehow takes a while to sink in. I have missed out on excursions, concerts, and other events because I do not know that they are going on. Some people would say that it is my fault, because I don’t ask. However, it is difficult to ask when you don’t know WHAT to ask! I have asked to be kept informed though, and have said if no one tells me about things, I will not know about them.

At this point, I have basically learned to live with planning things, to a point, and realizing that advance planning is, for the most part, not done here. Most days I just see what the day brings.

For example – I sat down last week and put together a schedule for my guest lectures for the fall. My first guest lecture was to be yesterday, on Public Speaking. Now, I always want to do a good job on my guest lectures, so when I get up there, it may sound somewhat improvised, but I have usually put a good number of hours into preparing it. So I found myself prepared on Monday afternoon, only to receive a phone call at 5:00, telling me that I would not be needed to conduct my guest lecture the next day. This is not the first time this has happened, so I was not surprised. Some people would say good for me, because now I already have next week’s work prepared. But when I was already prepared to do it, it felt like a bit of  a letdown to be told not to come. So okay, I thought – I have to get back to studying Russian, I can do that on Tuesday. Then I met Yaroslava for dinner…

Example number two – Last week, I recorded some fairy tales for Yaroslava (she wanted a native speaker to read them, so her students can listen to intonation, pace, and other vocal qualities). A little bit of background information – her mother runs a high school and had invited me to come there, but we had not yet put it together. Well, guess where I ended up at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday? This time the last-minute thing worked in my, and their, favor. I visited the school and got a tour, had tea and chocolate with them, then visited her English classes, where the students asked me questions about myself and about the U.S. (MAN, there are a lot of stereotypes to bust about the U.S.). They proposed that I come back on a regular basis, to which I agreed. (They also asked what my fee is. Fee? What fee? I said no fee, I am a volunteer. Yaroslava said she is “not comfortable” if I come and work but am not paid, so I said they can buy me lunch or dinner on occasion. They seemed happy with that prospect.)

So sometimes the last-minute thing works out.

Today it happened again. I went to the college to talk about Peace Corps and introduce myself to the new first-year students, and found out that, basically, I had been bumped, nearly off the program. Most of the time was taken up by people talking about bicycling, and I had the last five minutes to talk about myself. This is again not unusual – it has happened to me before…then after we left the college I was told about a concert, and invited to go. The concert is tonight.

Sigh.

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are told from day one to remain patient and flexible. These two qualities – patience and flexibility – come in handy during our application and nomination process, and more so during our service. It would be easy for me to get mad every time this happens to me, but if I did, I would be mad a lot.

At the same time, I wonder about the ability to get anything done when little advance planning is done. How do people market and publicize events? Often it is the old bell-ringing – last week I literally saw a clown wearing a sandwich board to advertise the circus that was in town. They also put posters up in the marshrutkas. But when it comes to something like a seminar (I planned one in June and asked for assistance in getting the word out. It was poorly attended), how do they get people to come? What are the methods of communicating it – by telephone? Face to face? It seems limiting as far as who will attend, but I guess it is an example of catering to a small target audience? Is there marketing and publicity going on and I just don’t see it because I am not a native, or do they rely heavily on community knowledge and high context communication?

I may never know. What I do know is that training in Journalism came in handy – I am able to write things on the fly, so to speak, with little notice. Unless I have other plans, I can attend events with little notice. This goes against my later experience in process improvement, project management, and strategic planning, but I am glad I have both sets of skills, so I can respond to most situations.

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