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Crossing cultures

November 23, 2011

Lately it has seemed like I have had a whole slew of learning experiences, and it has kind of felt like even though I have lived here for 21 months, I know nothing about this culture in which I live.

Example one – a year and a half ago, when I arrived in Kirovograd, I met and became friends with someone who worked at an NGO in the city that deals with anti-corruption initiatives. I told her I was very interested in the organization and would love to meet them and possibly conduct some projects together. So I went to the organization, met them, had a chat about what they do, told them how interested I was in what they do, and that I would like to conduct a project (or more) with them. I left my business card for them and sent a follow-up e-mail, again saying how nice it was to meet them and learn about their organization, and how I was interested in working with them.

I never heard from them.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that both of the heads of the organization take English lessons from my friends. One of them asked me if I had heard of the organization, and I told her the story. She invited me to meet with one of them during their lesson time. When I got there and we talked about something with which they said they would like my help, I said I did not understand why we did not work together in the past year and a half. She said she did not either, and that (and I love this part) they were waiting for me.

(Pause). Um, what? From my point of view, all of the things I did indicated a strong interest. I also followed up through my friend, while she was still there. And THEY were waiting for ME? 

So we left it with her telling me they were very interested in my assisting them with their strategic planning, and that they would contact me to let me know when their strategic planning session would be. So…we will see…I have learned by now not to always expect people to actually contact me when they say they will. Call it lessons learned – it is just the culture here. There have been many times I have met people and they say they would like me to work with them, but I never hear from them again. 

Do I get upset about it? I did at first. At this point, I cannot do anything about it. I mean, it takes two to work together, and when I make my effort, if no one responds, what can I do, beat my head against the wall?

This approach does also not always seem to be the best one. Example two – my organization. I had brought forth a whole bunch of ideas many months ago, and they seemed amenable to them, but then I never heard anything else. Okay, I thought. I tried a couple other initiatives, which have not done very well at all and one of which I have been very upset about. The other day, my counterpart sits down and says the director wants to know what my next projects will be.

Really? I tried to explain to her that I cannot do projects alone, and that it seems like people are not terribly interested in working with me on projects. I explained the things I had tried to do, told her how I felt – how I honestly feel about things. How I feel as if I am not included, not told about anything. How I want to work as a partner, but partners communicate both ways, and how I cannot do these things alone. I said I am interested in working on things, but all of the ideas I brought forth were negated, or I did not hear anything back on them. I said I did not know what else I could do for them.

This led to a discussion on how people in the city seem to want to learn English, as our free English lessons are always crowded. My reply? Well, we have three English teachers IN the city, who volunteer at the library, and another one from a local village who comes in as well. They don’t need me to teach English, and that’s not what I am here to do. It is my belief that if a person is not interested in doing something, that person will not do it well.

So now I will go back with thoughts on the two projects that seemed to be dead in the water, as well as two new ones that have come up. I have yet more ideas, but less enthusiasm for them now. I guess my American optimism has been tempered by the frustrations I feel in daily living here. Then again, in my last six months here, maybe we can get some other things done…certainly I would like to but this expectation I keep running into, that I will always be the one initiating communication, is very frustrating. Perhaps this conversation from the other day, unpleasant as it was, will re-open the lines of communication?

I just did a guest lecture on cross-cultural communication and Ukraine is a high-context culture. To a person from a low-context culture, this can, and does, prove very frustrating. In my experience, communication is two way, so I simply do not understand why I am always expected to make all of the efforts – especially when I am the foreigner, unused to how things are done.  I know I am not the only one who feels this way, and certainly they must also have frustrations?

I also learned a few more things last week when I was in Kiev, talking to other people, one of whom has lived here for many years (he’s from Germany) and others who have not been here as long. It is always interesting, and educational, to talk to people and learn about their experiences. 

None of this means that the way I am used to is “better” and that how they do things here is “worse”. It is just that sometimes I still feel as if I am very much an outsider, not knowing what is going on and that I will never gain that knowledge, the keys to the inside. I have tried telling people that if I am not told about things, I simply won’t know, because of this cultural difference. But how to get there? How to get over this barrier? How to get people to understand what I need to understand them and how they work? Can it even be accomplished in the two years of my service? I am really starting to wonder, because it seems as if instead of moving forward with my understanding, I have gone backward. 

So what do I do for the next six months? Continue to try, though I am tired. I really wanted to do well, to accomplish as much as possible (and I am reasonable in this expectation). Do I have high expectations of myself? Certainly. I don’t want to walk away feeling as if I did not do everything I could to make my service successful, and to help people here. I just wish I knew what they wanted.


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