The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

Archive for February, 2008

On Leisure and Work in America

Posted by thearrow on February 28, 2008

I’m continuing a conversation started with Oblia on her “Conclave” of the (ex-)expats post. People noted that, in Australia, U.S., and Canada, leisure is sin. I agree. I can’t relax for anything in the world. I have completely, at least for now, lost my notion of taking it easy. Granted, there’s another big reason why this is happening, too, but all in all, I kissed relaxation good-bye six years ago.

So Oblia asks me, “but when you bike isn’t that leisure?” Well, no. When I bike or I go to the gym I’m in the same competitive type of mode. And that means competing with myself. Granted, I don’t go to Pilates, which is too slow for my temperament. No. I go to body sculpt and cycling classes because I like pushing myself. So when I bike I try to conquer the next hill and when I go to the gym I like doing the extra push-up; not always, but most of the time. But even if part of this is my temperament, the other part is the performance-oriented environment and the fact that I don’t know where to draw the line or I cannot draw it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being a paragon of productivity or what have you. I’m only describing a state of mind.

I remember walking in a beautiful park with a group of friends six or seven months after I got here. As always in a group, some people lingered and we didn’t all keep the same pace. One Romanian guy who had been in the States for two-three years nudged the lingerers, “come on guys, we’re not making any progress here.” At the time I was shocked but now I understand why he did that.

When I told an American friend of mine once on a Friday at 4:00 p.m. that I felt like the day just started, he said, “welcome to fucking America” 🙂 I’m certainly glad he said it and I didn’t have to :). So at least for now, it’s impossible for me to think that I’ll ever be able to enjoy leisure again.

I should have titled this post “on work and work in America.”

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Posted in American culture, cultural differences | 6 Comments »

Briefly

Posted by thearrow on February 23, 2008

That’s how most Americans* I know talk. No unnecessary details are included in the conversation, which moves swiftly to the next topic and many times is over before I know it :). This was another big adjustment I had to make, coming from the gregarious Romanian culture, where many times people talk just for the sake of talking. We like to dissect stuff in minute details; I think for us this chattiness is a form of bonding. What I said earlier about complaining — that we like to hash things out until we exorcise them — is actually true about everything we discuss.

Well, not here. There have been countless times when I still had things to say but it was very clear that the other person had moved on to doing something else and I was kind of left in midair. That’s guaranteed to make you feel stupid. You can imagine the kind of analysis that ensued in my mind when I saw that every time (for a long time) I felt I barely said a few words and it was over before I could make a point. Heck, before I even knew what my point was :). Several hundred such incidents later, I came to the conclusion that we like to dwell on things and that’s just not the case with Americans. And yes, I know there are exceptions and that all this sounds like a sweeping generalization. I’m just talking about something that has happened to me over and over again, so there must be some truth to it, even if it doesn’t apply to everyone.

I came to think that this parsimony in using words is closely connected to the restraint in expressing emotions. I had to change the way I talked or risked feeling out-of-place all the time. But it sure wasn’t easy and that’s because using fewer words made me feel like an emotional amputee. I HAD to use more words and I HAD to say the same thing in a million different ways. Every nuance would shed some light on it, right? 🙂

But in time I did change. It was actually a two-fold revolution for me since I was way too wordy in writing, too, and that’s not good writing in English. Speaking of which, when I learned what good writing was all about, I started to wonder what that is in Romanian. While there’s a ton of books on writing in English for any purpose you can imagine, I can’t think of one in Romanian. From my observations, we like to be very elliptical; a lot is left unsaid, for the clever reader to infer. In English, the fewer words you use, the better, but you can’t half-bake ideas. You have to be very clear.

So I discovered that learning how to write improved my thinking process. It forced me to think things through and not start with a long preamble whenever I opened my mouth. In other words, I had to do my homework, distill my ideas, and then make the main point or ask the damn question 🙂

And now I feel like a hybrid. I like my new and improved thinking, but I still feel I use too many words for my American friends sometimes and I wonder if maybe I’m not wordy enough for my Romanian friends.

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* I actually think the American behaviors I’m describing are rather Anglo-Saxon, just like gregariousness is a Latin trait. Fellow bloggers in Canada and the U.K. say things are similar there, to a certain extent. It would be interesting to hear about Germany (Gloria?), the Netherlands (Mihaela?), the Scandinavian countries, and Australia (Oblia?).

Posted in American culture, cultural differences, immigration | 25 Comments »

I Consume, Therefore I Exist

Posted by thearrow on February 20, 2008

Some food for thought: http://www.storyofstuff.com/.

And what to do about it: http://www.storyofstuff.com/anotherway.html.

Posted in environment | 17 Comments »

Positive Spin

Posted by thearrow on February 17, 2008

This one’s gonna be a delicate subject so I hope I won’t step on too many toes :). I said I was going to write about how in the U.S. only positive emotions are expressed. K_T has commented extensively on this (in Romanian), I commented extensively on her blog, so I feel like I have a duty to write about how I see this.

Whenever I complain to my American friends about my difficult situation, they always find something encouraging and positive to say. And, while I appreciate that, it also makes me feel that in some way they are dismissing my problems, or not take them seriously, or don’t bother to understand. That just drives me nuts. Everything is NOT and CANNOT be great all the time. The flip side of this cheerfulness, at least for me, is that you can lose perspective and a realistic sense of where things are, and that’s dangerous.

When people ask me how something was and I respond “it was ok” and they ask “just ok?” and look a little bewildered, I insist on saying, “yes, JUST ok.” Folks, don’t mess with me on that. I am not going to be positive just for the sake of it. For a long time I pretended everything was fine, only to feel even worse because I didn’t say it as it was. Call it the Eastern European/Slavic gloom or whatever you like; I don’t think it’s healthy to pretend things are good when they’re not. It’s true that we, Romanians, like to dwell on our unhappiness. I have friends who don’t do that, but they’re a minority and I am part of the majority 🙂. I feel like I have to hash it out every way I can, as if I were exorcising it.

On the other hand, I do know Americans who are in difficult situations themselves (mostly for health reasons, which can be a bigger problem in the U.S. than people outside the U.S. realize), and I never hear a peep of complaint from them. The ultimate example for me in this sense was a scholar I had the honor to meet, who, as he was battling leukemia and knew he had very few months left to live, continued to make any contribution he could. My admiration for that is endless. It’s probably in the American DNA to be positive, leave your problems aside, and look for the silver lining in everything. I do like that and I agree that you can build only on something positive, while the negative makes you feel like you’re never going to get there.

I did learn how to count my blessings, which I didn’t do much before coming to the U.S. I am grateful every single day that I am in good health, have gotten where I am, and I generally enjoy my life, even though I still don’t have a lot of things that others take for granted (and that I used to have before coming here). But I do worry and waste every weekend wringing my hands that all this is going to end soon and I feel powerless to lift the barriers I’m struggling with. If you love me, don’t deny me the right to bitch about it.

Posted in cultural differences | 12 Comments »

My Technology Wish

Posted by thearrow on February 15, 2008

One main challenge at work for me is finding something in the myriad of documents we generate. At my previous workplace, everyone was great about saving things in the right place, giving everyone else access to it, and letting everyone know where it is. Boy, how I miss that. My current workplace? Total chaos. For one thing, no one seems interested in organizing stuff, and even less so in giving access to it. That’s something I probably can’t do much about. But even if we were to put our stuff in some order, saving documents in folders relevant to a lot of people that don’t have time to communicate about where is what is an exercise in futility.

So if anyone asked me how I’d organize documents, I’d love to be able to tag them. If you’re reading blogs you know what I mean: you label something in different ways, just like I tagged/labeled this post “technology,” “tagging,” “collaborative software.” If you click on a tag in the cloud on the left-hand side of my blog, you’ll get all the posts on that topic. That’s what I’d love to be able to do at work. Dump all docs in one place and sort them by tags.

It wouldn’t be just one big blob of documents. You can bundle tags to make some sense of them. This is what you do on del.icio.us, which allows you to bookmark your links in an online account. If you move between a home computer and an office computer (my case), not to mention if you travel for work (not my case), bookmarking links in a browser is useless. Just save everything in a delicious account, tag it any way you fancy, bundle your tags, and access it when you log on to the Internet.

So I hope someone from Microsoft stumbles across this. Now, rumor has it that the future of office applications is online, making all this much easier than designing tagging options for the programs millions of people still use. Yes, I know about Google Docs and I use it, but I’m thinking of applications that an entire office uses and we’re not there yet. Since this otherwise very simple idea has been around for some time, I’m surprised no one (seems to have) thought about it for your bread-and-butter word and excel documents. Not to mention those tons of digital pictures we take.

There’s a very slim chance that what I’ve written here will fall in the right hands and I’m no coding whiz to do this myself. For now, I’ll just go to the office on Saturdays to organize the stuff and I dream of the day this won’t be necessary any longer…

Posted in technology | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Happy Valentine’s, everyone!

Posted by thearrow on February 13, 2008

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And now aiming for you 🙂

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Posted in color, fun, heart | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Freeze Frame

Posted by thearrow on February 10, 2008

One of the biggest challenges that the American culture poses to an outsider is the fact that people express themselves in an understated way. They will never ever tell you exactly what they think, but rather cushion it in the most tentative words. For a Romanian, like me, used to hearing swears on the street at every step back home, that can be a bit of a challenge. All of a sudden, everything was quiet around me, no emotion was expressed (other than positive ones, but more on that in another post), and for God’s sake, no one said anything directly. My favorite generic example is that, when a situation is clearly in a certain way, an American would say “it seems that…” That used to drive me nuts 🙂. Dude, it’s IS that way. Why say “it seems”?

I understand (or maybe I like to think) that the reason for all this is the desire not to hurt the other people’s feelings, to be considerate, which for me is a breath of fresh air. Of course, the other way to look at it is to call this hypocrisy, which in many cases it is. It’s very possible that people don’t want to reveal much of what they think in order to protect themselves, not you. Regardless, the downside is that a lot gets lost in translation. The subtlest of words, gestures, or changes in facial expression can mean they’re angry and, as an outsider, you don’t see that. Man, that’s frustrating. Not that they’re angry people, far from it, but even when emotions are high, it can be hard to see them. It took me years to read between the lines and figure out what people really meant or felt like.

When I was still struggling to make sense of it, I so wished I could’ve recorded my life with a digital video recorder and, as I went along and needed to understand an interaction, I’d put my life on pause, freeze-frame the situation, have a native explain me what happened, and then go on. When I started working for a big organization and was overwhelmed by the content I had to accumulate anyway, understanding the human interactions doubled my workload. For the first nine or ten months, I used to go to bed at 9 p.m., sometimes even 8:30, that’s how exhausting the whole exercise was.

And, to complicate things, not only Americans were too subtle for me, but all of a sudden I was way too direct. To the point that many times I felt I was rude. So not only I had to understand what they meant, I also had to change the way I behaved. When I was in my own culture, I thought I was rather polite. Here I know for sure that I’m not as restrained and indirect as they are. I can see them freeze for a second when I just say what I think and it always cracks me up. I really cannot be much different than I am, although I’m sure I got better at cushioning things and wearing gloves. But I decided to stick to saying what I think (when it’s not offending, of course) rather than feel completely schizophrenic 🙂 .

I do admire the fact that Americans (or at least those I know) always think about what they’re going to say before saying it. They choose their words carefully, as they speak; they don’t just blurt stuff out as Romanians tend to do. Of course there are exceptions among Romanians, but that’s the problem: only the exceptions act this way. And I do know Americans who are more direct than the majority and will say that something sucks if it does. But someone better invent that life video recorder; it would be the ultimate social GPS.

Posted in American culture, cultural differences, immigration | 15 Comments »