Thursday, 16 January 2020

Is this culture shock? Facing a new challenge as a EUAV in Nepal

When I heard for the first time about the so-called “culture shock syndrome”, I would have never imagined that it could happen to me as well. Shocked by a culture? Why? I have always been curious and passionate about cultural diversity. Since my internship in Tanzania, I have often traveled experiencing local life, food, and accommodation, and I have been used staying in unfamiliar cultural and linguistic settings as well as making friends with local people. I have been trained in anthropology, I have worked with immigrants in Italy, and many of my friends have an immigrant background too. I definitely love engaging in cultural diversity. When culture shock happened to me, I had to realize that I completely misconceived what “culture shock” is and I realized that cultural adaptation has various stages, some of which might be tough.

Discovering the truth of culture shock

                 The neighborhood of Naya Bazaar at sunset time *
Culture shock has little to do with “culture” in the academic sense. Most of all, it has to do with the stressors coming from living in an unfamiliar environment. It is not caused by obvious cultural differences such as food, language, beliefs, rituals, social practices, communication, and interaction patterns. Culture shock, particularly in migrants and expats, is the result of a combination of stressful life conditions and unmet expectations. Of course, social practices and lifestyle might affect the way the environment is impacting on us: noises, hazards, annoying little things, can be an important source of stress. Before leaving, I knew that my lifestyle in Kathmandu will have been significantly different from my lifestyle in Milan, but I felt self-confident and ready to cope with this change. In the first two months, I didn’t realize how subtly some stressors were affecting my emotional balance: I felt fully motivated and prepared to face all the challenges and difficulties found in the new environment. Excitement and energy were very high, and I couldn’t see how tired and stressed I was slowly becoming.

When in Kathmandu, I was able to feel well included in the work setting and I also had some social life and recreational activities in my spare time. I was used to attending Nepalese dance classes and enjoying some food and coffee in my favorite places. I practiced stretching and some meditation every morning. I was amazed by going to Buddhist temples and very excited to explore new places. I definitely loved Nepalese food and I have been able to learn how to cook some basic recipe. I found myself very at ease chilling in the only gay-friendly bar in town and to get connected with local people.

           Ranibari Community Forest: a rare green spot in Kathmandu
Nevertheless, I wasn’t aware of how stressful it was to adapt to the new environment. I missed very much green spots here in Kathmandu. I really enjoyed having long walks when in Milan, both to unwind my mind and to keep my body active. When I was walking here in Kathmandu, I realized that it was not definitely a relaxing activity. Besides, the neighborhood where I lived, Naya Bazaar, was very crowded and noisy, though very interesting from an anthropological point of view. Sleeping was (and still continue to be) often interrupted by various disturbances, most of all caused by stray dogs barking loudly outside my window. During the daytime, they are definitely lovely and friendly, but during the night (despite the best earplugs) they become my nightmare.

At the same time, I wasn’t aware of how much unmet expectations have caused me stress. Some of the plans that I made before transferring to Nepal, needed to be changed or completely abandoned because of excessive costs or unfavorable conditions. For instance, traveling around Nepal, having instruments to play music or some weekend in a quiet and comfortable place. In the workplace, though two months and a half had already passed, I started realizing how hard it was having any sort of impact around. As a volunteer project manager, I didn’t have direct responsibilities and power on staff and projects and this made me felt disempowered and ineffective.

                  Stray dog's daytime activity: sunbath 
The first emerging feelings related to culture shock were homesickness and demotivation. I suddenly started missing my friends and my regular lifestyle, my flat, the places I used to go when in Milan, and feeling less self-confident in the workplace, unable to see the sense and direction of what I was doing. When the excitement and the energy of the beginning faded away, I felt a sort of emotional collapse. Sadness, sense of disempowerment, impatience, and irritability came to complete all the typical symptoms of the syndrome. I ended up seeing only the negative side of being in Nepal, and I felt trapped. I was really tempted to give up and to leave the country. On the other side, I found this temptation unreasonable. I was emotionally challenged by the stressors, but I didn’t want to lose the chance of learning how to cope with them and to see what was next.

Since the beginning, I thought it was a good idea to inform my sending organization about my emotional state. I talked to my line manager in Estonia about my feelings and I finally figured out what I was going through. Then I talked to close friends, some of whom had similar volunteering experiences abroad. Finally, I also informed my mentor in my hosting organization about it. Everybody was very understanding and supportive. I started feeling a little bit relieved by knowing what my problem was. I was not doing bad: I was only stressed. I just needed to become aware of my state and to apply some coping strategies to adjust my balance.

My way to cope with culture shock

           Little Buddhas carved on stone in Swayambunath stupa's area
After I accepted to fully embrace this challenge, culture shock’s symptoms seemed to fade away. Anyway, it was just a temporary effect. Though aware of my situation, in the following weeks, I experienced ups and downs. During that time, I alternatively considered opposite options such as shortening my deployment versus staying until the end. Of course, discomforts haven’t changed: stressors were still there as before. Nevertheless, I slowly started perceiving them differently and feeling as an active agent of change, not as a victim.

Dreams came to help me as well. One of them was particularly intense and enlightening. It made me realize that I couldn’t escape the challenge of adaptation wherever I have moved to, even my favorite place. Adaptation difficulties were just a consequence of a precise choice: engaging in the development and humanitarian work. Thus, they were unavoidable. I started seeing all the pieces of the puzzle and refocusing on my motivation: why I am here? On the other side, I started mitigating the stressors, taking care of my feelings, and engaging in relieving activities.

With Michaela and colleagues at Christmas Eve dinner (P.c. M. Edmonds)
Christmas time was approaching: a period typically marked by extreme joy or sadness for many people who have a Christian background. My flatmate and colleague, Michaela, was writing greetings cards, and, inspired by her, I decided to do the same to mitigate my homesickness. I enjoyed it very much, from choosing the cards to writing and posting them. They haven’t arrived yet after more than one month, but this is another issue. Besides, I decided to take my meditation practice more seriously. Training the mind to focus on the present time helps to avoid negative thoughts and wanders. I didn’t forget that Kathmandu gives a unique chance to connect with Tibetan Buddhism: I started appreciating the opportunity to visit Swayambunath and Boudhanath temples on a regular basis. Both of them have always had a positive impact on my wellbeing and nurtured my spiritual life.

                 Coffee time with a friend in a nice place in Thamel
Friends and colleagues to whom I disclosed my situation, were definitely supportive during that time. I appreciated having an Italian colleague living with me: I realized how important was speaking my mother tongue as well as having a good rapport with her. I found particularly important sharing ideas, feelings, and ritual moments like Christmas and New Year’s Eve with other European volunteers. The fact of sharing a similar background, made me feel closer to the Christmas atmosphere that I used to know back in Italy. At the same time, little daily activities such as cooking and doing laundry, became an important source of relief, exactly as looking for a quiet and comfortable place in town where meeting a friend, having a conversation, or drinking a coffee. Being ironical and using humor with myself and with what I considered funny around me, helped me to cope with the daily stress too. At the end of the day, laughing is definitely an important source of dopamine and a counterstrategy to reduce stress. 

What is exactly culture shock?

Two months have already passed by the time I started feeling the first symptoms. Around one month ago, thanks to my sending organization Mondo, I had the chance of having a Skype session with a therapist. It was definitely a useful chance to get feedback from a specialist: I finally knew that I was on the right track with my coping strategies. Regarding the role of culture in the culture shock, as I mentioned above, I can say that is not what is supposed to be. I haven’t been “culture shocked” because Nepalese people venerate a female child as a living goddess (the so-called “kumari”), they sacrifice animals during Hindu rituals or they let dogs and cows going around freely. Neither because people eat with hands and get rice three times a day as it was mentioned in the list of things giving culture shock in Nepal on a blog.
                The moon behind Boudhanath stupa at sunset time

Of course, there are some recurrent behaviors that annoy me here, like spitting mucus out loudly and continuously or cars and motorbikes driving crazily with no rules, but I can’t definitely relate them to “culture”: they are mostly related to poor health and administration. And they definitely don’t “shock” me: they just give me some annoyance. At the end of the day, people here complain about road conditions and traffic management exactly as I do. So, what is exactly culture shock? It is the result of a combination of diverse stressors coming from an unfamiliar setting that is affecting temporarily the emotional and cognitive balance. It is a natural part of the adaptation process and each person is affected to a different extent.

If you experience such feelings, I might suggest neither to be scared or to feel inadequate to the role you are appointed for. Talk to your line manager and ask for support as soon as the main symptoms appeared. And, in case you decide to read something about it, rely only on scientific articles or accurately sourced posts.

* All pictures are mine unless stated otherwise

Friday, 29 November 2019

Sawadee Kha from Thailand

Two months are already gone since my arrival in Thailand. What I can say so far is that I found a welcoming environment, the people are very kind and helpful. 
I live in La-ngu, in the province of Satun, in the south of the country near the border with Malaysia. 
Here I cooperate with a local NGO, the Satun Research Centre, in particular I am involved in activities for youth empowerment, community development and capacity building.
I found a very dynamic reality right away and the youth, despite the adolescent age usually doesn’t help, are very participatory. The team I work with is fairly organized, they have developed a system of youth empowerment through key people for each youth group, generally one youth leader and one or more mentor per group. At the moment we work with 14 groups of youth, on a project-based learning approach. Practically it means that, together with their mentors, we support the youth to carry out projects for the development of the communities where they live. 
We also provide training to the mentors to clarify the role that they should cover for the youth and to give them practical tools in the research-based learning approach.

Satun Youth Active Citizens Leaders

So far so good, and I could tell you that it would be like that if it is not for huge barrier: the language
In fact, in the team I work with only one person speaks English and even the youth cannot express themselves in any other way than Thai. 
I knew about this language barrier before leaving, but as I usually do, I create expectations in my minds that were mathematically disregarded. This time I had promised myself to leave free from any prejudice, but evidently my brain unconsciously developed ideas and after two months I have to admit that I didn't expect such a complicated situation.

You realize how our world is linked to verbal communication only when you have no longer the chance to use it. Adding fuel to the fire, there is the fact that I am the first international volunteer that they host and I am alone.

Meeting one of the 14 youth group
In these two months I have mainly observed their way of working, which I find very innovative and interesting. 
However, despite all the difficulties something starts to move also for me. This month they gave me the opportunity to organize, together with two EUAVs deployed in another local association in the area, a training for the youth mentors entitled "Mentor mindset: practical tools for mentoring on research and beyond." Feeling active in organizing this training after almost two months of observation was inspiring. 

That should be a starting point, in the last weeks we tried to define better my role and starting from now I have to prepare a communication strategy for the Satun Youth Active Citizen and plan some trainings for the youth according to their needs.

Meeting with Terje from Adice and local team to define my role

At the moment I still feel a little bit confused and the biggest problem is that I don’t feel really helpful, I would like to do more, I would like to interact with more people but the language blocks me. I must say that they involve me in every activity they do, but unfortunately again due to the language I can have a direct and proper exchange only with one person and this does not give me a full view of the context.

Nevertheless, I try to stay positive and I hope to soon find my place here in order to give a concrete contribution. Meanwhile, I’m trying to learn a little bit of Thai, but one year I don't think it's enough to reach a good level .

Let’s see how things will develop in the next months, most important is to start, try and see if it works!

Taphe Youth group and Satun NGOs Forum

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Being an EUAV Project Manager in Kathmandu: who really benefits from my work?

At first glance, being a project manager in the capital city of Nepal seems impossible. When you come here and experience how some of the most obvious things work and are managed – like road traffic and maintenance, or construction works - you really have the impression that planning and coordination aren’t definitely a Nepalese motto. Indeed, many things can’t be completely accomplished because of a long list of complications and obstacles. Nepal has been suffering from almost 20 years of political instability, civil conflict included, and the terrible earthquake that hit Kathmandu Valley in 2015, has left visible wounds everywhere. In 2015 the country voted a new Constitution and, since 2017, has got a stable government and it is slowly recovering from both natural disasters and political troubles.

Eastside of Kathmandu viewed from Swayambunath Stupa
Shocked and disturbed by all the chaos, dust and pollution that invaded me as soon as I came here, I felt a little bit relieved when I found myself in V.I.N. Head Quarter in Naya Bazar, the North East area of the town between Swayambunath and the tourist neighborhood of Thamel. Volunteers Initiative Nepal is the Nepalese NGO where I am “deployed” (yes, I feel like a soldier when hearing this word) as a Senior EU Aid Volunteer and where I will be working until next May. It was founded in 2005 with the purpose of “empowering marginalized communities” (this is its motto) living in rural areas, as to say people disadvantaged and excluded by many opportunities because of their low caste or poor living conditions. Yes, though officially caste-based discrimination is considered illegal by law since 2011, unfortunately, Nepal is still dominated by this system that affects people’s destiny and career. V.I.N. – in cooperation with the local authorities – is working to bring some basic services to marginalized populations in order to equalize and balance opportunities. Its approach is “holistic” which means that it is working in specific areas on different basic needs: education, health, infrastructure (toilets, earthquake-proof house reconstruction, community centers), entrepreneurship (especially for women and the youth), and environmental conservation.

Since the beginning, I definitely felt very welcomed at V.I.N.’s office: the staff is very friendly and nice, and I have never found myself out of place though I can’t understand when they speak Nepali among themselves. Though in some cases I wished I could have arranged spaces and materials differently, I found V.I.N.’s office area and the staff’s work much more organized and planned than anything else outside and around. Working and management styles were quite different from what I had in my mind, but I definitely saw the footprint of careful planning and coordination.

So, what am I doing here in Volunteers Initiative Nepal?

One of the schools where V.I.N. is working
When I arrived in Kathmandu, I was really eager to immerse in social life to learn about the
people, the local cultures and V.I.N.’s work: to talk to my new colleagues about what they were doing, to interact with the volunteers and hear their stories, and to go to the villages to meet the people who have benefitted from the projects. As a person with an anthropological background, I rely more on and get more satisfaction by directly knowing people and their activities than reading formal documents that often miss reporting interesting and precious information. Nepal has a wonderful diversity in terms of ethnic groups and languages, and V.I.N. is working in different areas of Kathmandu province, such as Tarakeshwor. I was really happy and curious to go on the field and to know more about it, but this hasn’t happened until the middle of October. I was expecting at least to get data from the employees and the volunteers since verbal interaction with beneficiaries living in the rural areas wouldn’t have been possible without an interpreter. I was asked to wait and slow down, and to start getting my first information from official sources.
I was asked to read documents and reports: definitely useful and important since one of my tasks is to improve the quality of documentation, but I was expecting a much more diverse kind of duty and I felt this quite boring. I could not imagine staying in the office all day on my desk in front of my laptop. While all this boredom was happening, after only ten days from my arrival, my life was suddenly livened up by an infection, I was hospitalized for five days, and I had a sick leave for twelve. Yes, unfortunately, it was dengue, the most fast-spreading new mosquito-borne infection of all Asia. I kept it as another kind of test about my resilience, another way to know local life, people and services. Indeed, the hospital – actually the best one in town – was excellent.

What are my tasks here as a project manager? Who really benefits from my work?

Religious ceremony (puja) for the new Women's Business Center in Tinpiple
One of the challenges to be faced when you have not a daily and direct relationship with the beneficiaries – as it is my case – is to explain to people what is your job, what you are concretely doing on a daily basis and what is the real impact of your work. When I said to people here that I was working for an NGO, I received two extremely curious reactions from them. On the one hand, a reaction of exaggerated admiration: “You are hero, you really do a good job, thank you for helping the Nepalese people”. Actually, I see many heroes around – like those who work in rural areas and deal with health issues, poverty, violence, malnourished infancy, or those who really struggle to survive and earn their livelihood – and I definitely don’t see myself as one of them. I am not definitely a hero. On the other hand, people tried to grab the chance to get a job, since the international NGOs’ sector has definitely been one of the most profitable and stable in Nepal in the last decades: “Can you help me to get a job? I need to work”. I am still interested in deeply exploring and understanding the NGOs' imagery among the Nepalese people since it indirectly might affect my work. It seems that, for many people, working in an NGO means to be a privileged person. Indeed, I met on the flight to Kathmandu a young Nepalese woman who has lived in Europe for the last years, telling me: “When I was a kid, I remember development workers coming to the village with big four-wheeled jeeps. You can really get a good job in NGOs”. People’s reactions apart, it is really difficult to persuade people that my work is useful: I am not a nurse, nor a teacher, and I definitely don’t really directly manage projects and staff as I was used doing when I was in Milan.

So, what my job really is?

First training session to VIN's staff (P.c.: Michaela Rossmann)
It is called “capacity building”. My job is to support the NGO in developing and/or improving processes and procedures that can help them to achieve better quality results and to attract more funds. My tasks go from helping V.I.N. organizing good quality documentation and reports to establishing a monitoring and evaluation system, from conducting a risk assessment and baseline survey to directly writing (hopefully) successful project proposals addressed to donors. Anything else that can be performed according to my skills and to V.I.N.’s needs.

Personally speaking, one of the most challenging parts of being a project manager supporting the overall NGO is that I need to know at least something about everything, but I can’t really get an in-depth knowledge about a specific area. Having the chance to develop and implement a small campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual harassment among women and students living in rural areas, has been a good chance to engage in the communities benefitting from V.I.N.’s work and to “see with my eyes” how things work: the communication and organizational style, how the resources are managed and coordinated, how data from the field are collected to review the activities and how is a report organized. Finally, my wishes were fulfilled and I could really start working on office-based activities with a new vision on V.I.N.’s work.

* All pictures are mine unless stated otherwise.