On Whose Terms?
As Peace Corps Volunteers, our roles in the communities that we live in are a bit different from the roles you might normally associate with a development worker or a consultant. Certainly, I go to AccessBank each week and provide everything I can in my limited role, planting different ideas and seeing what minuscule shifts I can affect at the branch. This is what I would expect as an advisor (though, if I truly came in with the backing of an organization that said I was an expert, I would probably expect to see more change, more quickly). But as a PCV, I am not just someone who comes with international perspective, work experience, and high education. Instead, I am additionally, and probably more importantly, a community member.
Yet, how one becomes a true community member is something that is seemingly continually eluding us. From the perspective of how I lived in America, I have changed a few things I’ve taken for granted (wearing shorts in public, for one). I’m not going to pretend that I will ever really be accepted as a part of the fabric of my Azerbaijani community – I will always be a foreigner. However, one of the most important ways I’ve found to create relationships and develop understanding is in communication. It becomes immediately apparent upon meeting someone new here that my foreignness is something that can be uncomfortable for a lot of folks (which is dealt with by silently staring at the foreign object). One of the best ways to overcome this initial shock has been to communicate in ways that seem to fit on the terms of the Azerbaijanis I’m interacting with.
Communicating on their terms has a lot to do with what it means to be polite in Azeri. What this whole idea means to me is making my foreignness a little less foreign by communicating in ways that are comfortable. The two big examples are in greetings and in discussing reasons why you do X or Y this way or that way.
In the first example, paying attention to the way Azeris greet each other is key: a “Salaam” for everyone, a “How are you?”, and then any number of different ways to ask how things are going. Those could be asking about family, job, your ‘spirit’, your situation, etc. Starting a conversation this way, or just saying these phrases to people who are obviously taken aback by my presence produces a relaxing that is tangible. All of a sudden, my presence is no longer as foreign, no longer a obstacle to overcome, but instead I am now a person to communicate with.
The second example is much more helpful when trying to explain why I do something to people, something that is different from what they are used to seeing. The obvious situation here is when I go running. I can hear people talking about me as I run and I know that my running is not something that people ignore, at least for the few minutes after I’ve run by. After my run, when I’m walking to the store or to work, I’ll get questions from people about why I’m running and where and all sorts of inquiries that are pretty hostile to my running at all. But this is where having a decent understanding of the values of people is helpful. Telling my Azeri inquisitors that I am doing my exercises to stay healthy is one of the most effective ways to get a positive, accepting response. We know already that Azerbaijanis put a high value on health. In my hometown, American culture, these sorts of questions probably wouldn’t even come up. But in the way that I can put my strangeness on terms that fit on an Azeri level, I’m putting my strangeness into a context that makes my exercising in public at least somewhat acceptable, and makes my fellow community members a bit more at ease.
As we PCVs go about learning about the culture we are immersing ourselves in, I think this way of communicating through the values of the culture and on the terms that fit with local understanding is one of the best ways to help our communities deal with our foreign presence.
I should probably also clarify that I’m not just talking about my local Azerbaijanis. I’d figure that this is also the case in many countries, in regions where foreigners are not so plentiful. Even in Thailand, where foreigners are plentiful, I remember that there were certain questions that were standard in greeting someone. It was much more common to hear, “Hey, where are you going?” than “Hi, how are you?” And being polite had its own set of rules, as well. If anyone has some ideas to add here, I’d love to hear them. Disagreements with what I’ve posited above are also welcome.
(Pictured: An old Soviet sign on a disused hospital building across the street from my apartment. It’s written in Azerbaijani Cyrillic: “Zarafat ən yaxşı dərmandır.” or “Jokes are the best medicine.“)