Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Learning to Be Me...Part 3

Peace Corps Azerbaijan does a fantastic job preparing a Volunteer for service - maybe, they do it a little too well. When you get all those country documents in the mail, you become overwhelmed. It sounds like you are moving halfway around the world to a land unknown - and you kind of are. For me, when I got here, I started to assume (again, assumptions...) that Azerbaijanis were like Americans because people dressed similar, there was a lot of mainstream media and music going around, and nobody looked like a Vulcan [Star Trek reference!].

But don't be fooled. Azerbaijani culture is not American culture.

It took me a few months and a lot of frustration to slowly realized as much as much as they are same on the surface, the underlying factors are nothing alike (our countries' uniquely different histories should have been my first clue). I became scared to assert myself because I didn't want any more miscommunications. I wore the clothing style suggested by Peace Corps and I acted like I was told during training.

In retrospect, that was the best way to handle the situation.

My community had to learn to trust me and the only way they could learn to do so is if I showed them I was willing to adapt and integrate into their society. I had to build my own credibility before I could assert my individuality. A pretty popular linear chart shows the difference between Western and Eastern societies as the difference between individual and community-oriented cultures. Azerbaijan is a community-oriented culture. If I had come in here waving my individuality flag, I would have had an uphill battle on my hands. For a country with lots of access to mainstream media, they don't have a lot of access to Western culture. How could they? It's not like t.v. has developed a technology that inputs cultural concepts, beliefs, and traditions into your living room.

Anyway, it took me two years to figure out how to be an individual in a community-oriented society. Peace Corps had asked me if I was willing to wearing hijab to volunteer, but I never took that to the next step and asked myself if I was willing to mute parts of my personality to volunteer.

I understand that to be a part of Azerbaijan, I have to adapt accordingly. The better I integrate, the safer I am and the easier it is work. Now, there are some things that I refuse to mute:
My beliefs on child safety, human rights, the iconic influence of Star Trek...
But there are other things that are no brainers to me. I don't have to wave my individuality flag to know I am still American.

Finding this balance has been hard, but I have learned how to read the situations better. I generally wear what I wore in the US (after using my sister as a personal shopper and updating my wardrobe) and use my mad language skills to explain why I act a little differently. I think I can do this now because I took the time to invest in my community and just because I have convictions does not mean I have to be adversarial. It is work - but I think that is the point.