I left my home in Bridgeport, West Virginia almost two months ago to begin my latest adventure – to live for nearly one year in a foreign country teaching English and cultivating mutual cultural understanding between the United States and my host country. I am a Fulbright Scholar in Moldova. I co-teach in the modern languages department of the Faculty of History and Philology at Cahul State University “B.P. Hasdeu” in Cahul, Moldova. And that makes me sound really cool. My friends at home think I’m spending my weekdays changing lives and my weekends gallivanting across Eastern Europe.
In fact, I’ve hardly left my host-city since I began teaching on September 5th, and I hardly feel as if my work here so far has impacted anyone. But, maybe I’ve intentionally reinforced the glamorous façade of working abroad. I know my Instagram depicts Saturday picnics with wine and mid-week cocktail parties with my coworkers, and my Facebook is full of event flyers that make me look really productive. All these would seem to be signs of successful integration.
Here’s the truth: This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.
Moldova so far has been an emotional rollercoaster. Those that know me best know that there is no greater joy for me than to travel and to interact with new cultures. So it may come as a surprise that I’ve had an extremely difficult time adjusting to my new life. However, I guarantee that I am more surprised by my own difficulty than anyone else.
Before I arrived in Moldova, I was told multiple times that I would experience culture shock. I don’t think I believed it, because I’d been to Romania so many times and was familiar with the cultural norms in Eastern Europe. Boy, was I wrong. Visiting a place on vacation and living there are two completely different stories, and I was very naïve to think I wouldn’t be affected.
Eastern European institutions operate much more spontaneously than American ones. I knew that before I arrived, but I completely underestimated how difficult it is to have a Type-A personality in a culture that requires flexibility. My ability to “go with the flow” has been severely tested many times. And I’ve not always had the best reactions to situations that took me by surprise.
For example, when I first arrived in Moldova, the other Fulbright grantees and I had to go to the Bureau of Migration in the capital city of Chisinau to submit documents for a temporary residency permit that allows us to remain in the country legally for the duration of our grants. There was some confusion with my documentation because the agents at the border crossing where I entered Moldova had stamped my Romanian passport instead of my American one. Processing me took 3 hours longer than anyone else, required an extra trip to the U.S. embassy and back to the migration office to fix my documentation error, and left me sobbing in front of an embassy official. Embarrassing. Since I’ve arrived in Moldova, I’ve become painfully aware that I don’t handle the unexpected well.
I may have even scared my own co-teachers with my obsessive need for preparation. Nearly three months before I even arrived in Moldova, I begged my supervisor to send me information about the course schedule and curriculum requirements for the upcoming fall semester so I could begin getting prepared. I must have seemed completely crazy, because the education system in Moldova operates entirely differently. I had no idea that oftentimes a course schedule at a Moldovan university is not set in stone until several weeks after the beginning of the semester. It wasn’t until three weeks into the semester that I had established my weekly co-teaching schedule. The first few weeks were spent visiting classes, getting to know students, and figuring out where and how I would be most useful.
Moreover, the fact that this is my first significant experience with teaching students means that I often spend way too much time stressing over lesson planning and trying to design the perfect classroom experience. Furthermore, sometimes I will not know the topic of a lesson until 1 or 2 days before. When this happens, my tendency toward extreme attention to detail is a huge disadvantage. I’ve had to begin to learn how to work fast and be content with the products of my work being less than “perfect.”
But being content with anything less than perfection is not easy for me. For example, recently I agreed to assist another Fulbright scholar with some qualitative interviews for her Fulbright research project. I had no experience with qualitative interviews, but “how hard could it be?”, I thought. I was wrong. Qualitative interviewing is HARD. It isn’t just having a leisurely conversation with someone. It takes strategic probing and the ability to help interviewees develop complex ideas.
My first interview, which I had to do in Romanian, was kind of a disaster. The topic of my colleague’s research project is adolescent mental health in Moldova. Mental health is something I don’t have much experience talking about in English, let alone in Romanian, and as I began the interview, I quickly realized I didn’t have a good enough grasp on the complex vocabulary required to discuss this issue in my second language. I was embarrassed to tell my interviewee this was the case and that I was having trouble understanding many of the things she was saying. Even when I did understand, I was unsure how to ask effective follow-up questions. I was unsure which points to latch onto and ask my interviewee to develop further. I was frustrated with myself, and I felt that my interviewee was getting frustrated with me. I felt stupid, deflated, and inadequate.
I began to severely lose confidence in my Romanian ability. I began to feel as if I couldn’t fully call myself fluent. I felt like a phony. I felt ashamed to be Romanian and have such trouble speaking Romanian. I began to experience stage fright every time an opportunity arose for me to speak Romanian. A couple weeks ago, at a professional mixer for NGOs I attended at the mayor’s office in Cahul, each participant was asked to stand and tell the group about themselves and their work in Moldova. I don’t even remember what many of the participants said, because I was so intimidated by the prospect of standing up and introducing myself and my work in Romanian that while everyone else was speaking, I was frantically writing myself a Romanian script to read. I felt that if I had to speak spontaneously, I might embarrass myself. Again.
The saga of my Romanian stage fright continued this past Monday, October 10th, when I assisted another Fulbright volunteer with a workshop designed to teach Moldovans how to write a winning CV and letter of motivation when they apply for jobs. My role was to present portions of the workshop in Romanian. Again, when it was my turn to speak that day, I magically was no longer bilingual. I must have sounded like a complete idiot as I searched for the right words to say. My only proud moment of the experience was successfully holding back my tears until everyone had left the room.
I’ve heard it said that “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” The Internet attributes this quote to many different people, so I won’t even try to guess where it originated. What I will say is that before I arrived in Moldova, this quote would have meant absolutely nothing to me. This may be the first time in my life I can say honestly that I’ve felt failure, that I’ve felt myself fall repeatedly. Maybe it’s about time I learned that perfection is unsustainable. Maybe it’s about time that I learned not only how to fall, but how to rise when I do.
On Tuesday, October 11th, I had agreed to help deliver a workshop on effective grant writing. I didn’t know what to do to gain back a bit of the confidence I’d lost the previous day. My Fulbright colleague told me to channel Donald Trump. She was only half-joking. Apparently, even when you have no idea what you’re talking about, if you act like you do many people will find you convincing. I decided instead to take a different approach. I tried to get to know my audience a bit before the presentation began. I instigated a couple of short conversations in Romanian with participants as they arrived. I told them a bit about myself and asked them about themselves. Warming myself up in this way made a huge difference. It reminded me that no one was there to judge me. Everyone simply was interested in learning how to do something new and useful, myself included. I spoke much better that day.
I also had the chance to redeem myself from my first disaster of a qualitative research interview. I conducted another interview with a different interviewee. My interviewee spoke pretty good English, so the interview ended up being a mixture of English and Romanian. This time, I had a better understanding of how to prompt the discussion and a better grasp on Romanian vocabulary related to mental health. I knew I couldn’t do any worse than I had in the last interview, so I chose to use that as a source of confidence.
This past Thursday, I had yet another opportunity to develop my public speaking skills in my second language. Since I arrived in Moldova, I’ve regularly attended Cahul’s local chapter of Toastmaster’s International, a club for developing oratory skills. This week was the first time I was not only a bystander, but assumed a role in the club’s activities. For readers unfamiliar with Toastmasters, during every meeting there are 2-3 speakers, evaluations of each speaker, and improvisation exercises.
This week, I assumed the role of an evaluator, and had to judge the quality of the first speaker. I had to stand in front of the club and give my feedback to the first speaker, telling her what she did well and giving suggestions for improvement. I was nervous, but I tried by best to smile and speak with as much confidence as I could muster. At the end of the meeting, the club members vote for the best speaker, the best evaluator, and the best improvisation. I was pleasantly surprised when I was awarded “Best Evaluator” of the night. It was the most encouraging moment of my time here in Moldova thus far, and it did wonders to lift my spirits after a trying six weeks.
Before I arrived in Moldova, I’d never spoken in front of audiences in my second language. Before I arrived in Moldova, I’d never formally taught anything to anyone. And besides my teaching schedule, I juggle many other things. I facilitate two English conversation clubs per week. I’ve also spoken to high school students about U.S. culture. I’ve assisted university faculty members with translating complex academic documents from Romanian to English. As I mentioned above, I’ve assisted another Fulbright scholar with qualitative interviews for her research project and participated in academic and professional development presentations for students in Cahul. Despite my most trying moments, I know I’ve accomplished quite a bit during my first six weeks in Moldova. Yet, I’ve been incredibly hard on myself.
The thing is, I’ve always set the highest standards for myself. I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself to meet those standards. And before I arrived in Moldova, I’d always excelled. I found my glory in my successes because I had only successes. These first six weeks in Moldova, I’ve had to learn a new way to find glory in myself. I’ve had to learn to rise.