Ten Things I Learned in Peace Corps Moldova
1) Failing is not necessarily failing
When we first arrive here, we have these very specific, big picture ideas for how we’re going to solve all the world’s problems . This is because Oprah is always building schools and giving people cars all over the TV and Americans begin to think that this is how you help people in developing countries improve their lives. But once you are here, it becomes glaringly obvious very quickly that, in the realm of behavior change, it’s not that simple. Most host country nationals think your ideas are stupid most of the time and the few that they are willing to try often don’t work out because people lose interest or don’t use good practices. If we volunteers cannot deal with failing in this sense, we would have to quit after just a few months. Instead, we begin to think of failing in a different light. If someone can’t organize an after school club with you, but they are willing to put together a pamphlet about tuberculosis, that’s the best they can do right now and that is a success, not a failure. The fact that someone did the most they could do with the limited resources and time they had is the greatest success, and who cares if it’s just a piece of paper instead of a new building – they just pushed themselves to their limits. Baby steps.
2) You’re yourself no matter where you go
I have always had a big mouth. I’ve also always envied girls who are patient and kind all the time and who seem so much calmer than I feel most of the time. This was not my main motivation to do Peace Corps, but I do admit, I thought that living quietly in a village and speaking another language for two years would help me to become more patient, serene, and quiet. Turns out, you can’t run away from the person you are. At first I couldn’t say anything in Romanian, but as soon as I got a grip on the language I found myself doing the same thing I’d always done, but in Romanian. Talking too much, saying things I wished I hadn’t, and generally being a loud mouth. I’ve had to accept that this is apparently part of who I am. Peace Corps is not an opportunity to become a different person. It’s just an opportunity to discover how the person you really are translates into another culture and another language.
3) Figure it out
You can figure anything out. And you can probably do it without Facebook, Google, or electricity if you want to. As long as you’re unwilling to accept that there is not a solution.
4) Patience, Patience, Patience
While I am not any quieter than I was before, I am more patient. This doesn’t mean that I LOOK patient all the time, (I fidget a lot), but that I recognize that some people need more time to get going and they are going to like working with you more if you can recognize that and give them the extra time they need before you start riding them about it.
5) Don’t take it personally
Sometimes people get pissy. It’s usually because they are stressed out, scared, or sad. It is rarely ever because they actually don’t like you as a person, and if it were, they would probably not be a very interesting person. Most people just need someone to talk to them about how they are feeling. So when someone snaps or gets angry and says something mean, the proper reaction is to switch the subject to how they are feeling. Working with me was just as stressful, if not more so, for my Moldovan partners than it ever was for me to work with them, and in a country where direct communication is not utilized that often, you have to pick up on the other signs that someone needs some comfort from you.
6) Don’t worry so much about what other people think
I have always cared way too much what people think of me. I spent the first several months in Moldova tip-toeing around Moldovan culture, trying not to do anything too weird or anything that might upset anyone. Then I found out that I’d still been offending everyone anyway. You don’t know what the details of this culture are when you first get here and there is no way you can prepare and know all of it. And it’s always something you’d never expect that pissed someone off. So I learned over time that if you offend people, tough cookies. I didn’t know any better, I apologized when I could, and nothing bad ever came of it. People get over things, and if you didn’t intentionally offend them, then all you need to do is wait until they are over it and move on with your life.
7) People will love you more for being you, rather than trying to be like them
Along similar lines, I thought that what would make the Moldovans like me would be if I showed them I could assimilate to their culture. Guess what? They have a surplus of Moldovans around here, so that is nothing new. And ultimately I can’t do things as well as they can anyway. I was much more successful when I just did what I wanted to do. Then I was interesting to the Moldovans because I was different, and I was really good at it because I happen to be an expert on being myself.
8) People are people – personality types are the same throughout the world
At the end of the day, everyone likes drinking and eating, doesn’t like having to work when it’s too hot or cold, loves their children, doesn’t have enough money, and worries about the future. People are people. In addition to that, there are a limited number of personality types, regardless of how much they try to disguise it within their unique culture. There’s the gossip, the uptight, the worrier, the hedon, the sweetheart, and many others. All you have to do is figure out who you’re dealing with and act accordingly.
9) There is a big difference between intelligence and education
Some people with an unbelievable amount of very expensive higher education are idiots when it comes to certain subjects, like communicating clearly or thinking creatively. And some people who dropped out in 7th grade can solve all the world’s problems if you give them the chance.
10) At the end of the day, everyone just wants to feel needed
This is the root of the human condition. We are part of a community, a culture, a family, all of us, and at the end of the day, we just need to feel like we have a place in the world where we belong and where people want us to be with them. If you can find a way to give people that, they’ll be happy.