MICHAELA FENGSTAD

Writing about life as it happens, trends in career development and new inspiration

Tag: communism

New Home, New Life, New Style – How to Approach Your New Life

There are times in life when  we are left baffled by events, actions or people. To make some sense out of these, our brain tries to match them with something in the past. People are more often left confused when they first meet individuals from outside of their community  (cultural, professional, geographical, etc.) or when they take themselves out of their comfort zone. Deciding to live abroad for example, provides an endless number of opportunities to feel just like this. The first week after I arrived in Vancouver, I felt confused and unsure of what to expect and also of what was expected from me.

It is a challenging and conflicting time for a newcomer: on one hand, the wish to start your new life and become independent is getting stronger every day but the normal reluctance in front of a foreign society and its yet unknown rules and regulations forces you to stick close to your community, the people you know and trust by association to your former life.  There was a certain protocol in my community: neighbours of the same nationality, friends and acquaintances would visit and give the advice they considered necessary to help you start making sense of the new land. Imagine every evening having anywhere between two to seven people coming over with drinks and a heart full of good intentions. Once the wine started flowing, the advice would begin on where to find certain foods, on how to find a good job or where to find a nice a park to relax. The problem was always towards the end when we were forced to take sides on who had the better choice. But this is a different story!  Although contradictory and most of the times subjective, one piece of advice seemed to be consistent: as a newcomer you have to renounce your former life,  give up everything you know and start from scratch. Change had happened, now you have to manage the transition from the  former life to the new, unknown future laying ahead.

In his book Transitions, William Bridges deals exactly with this: change and transition as two different concepts. Change is sudden and situational while the transition process is psychological and happens over time. All transitions, he says, are composed of an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. The problem I had experienced and I am sure most of you will agree is that it is easier said than done. Theoretically we all know that as a newcomer we need to let go of our old life in order to move on into the neutral zone of the transition. In a time when you have lost your trusted network of friends and relatives, and when even the way you see yourself  is changing, letting go or ending the connection with “life as you knew it” is the most difficult. “[…] ending is making us fearful. They break our connection with the setting in which we have come to know ourselves [..]” says Bridges. How can one overcome this fear?

I think that the most important thing is to reach out of your community. Get out of your community and ask the help of professionals. Most of the people within your community are  extremely nice and willing to share their settlement experience. But their opinions are biased and emotional based on their subjective, unique experiences. By reaching out to a newcomer settlement service you will be able to polish your language skills, learn reliable information about Canada and the specific area you live in, and most important of all, gain confidence and start understanding the Canadian way.

Experience and have fun with something new every day. Except for few basic things, nothing will ever be the same. From the way you used to drive back home to the way the bed sheet is designed, from the way people interact on the streets to the way people address each other, everything needs to be re-wired. Such a process of replacing habits and common knowledge with new habits and concepts can be overwhelming. In the classic action-reaction model, our minds will go into that resistance mode and will fight back as hard as possible to change. Trick your mind!  Be open and instead of criticizing or comparing with what you used to know start having fun with change. Begin with small steps: what about a new way of setting the table?  Find a new park or a new place to discover at the end of the week! Try to use the very Canadian “eh” at the end of a sentence and join into the smiles that will follow, eh? It is not necessarily about what you do but about the attitude that in time will change, and you will become more accepting of the new ways.

Develop a new habit: asking for help! Well, what do you do when you are lost in the middle of a new city and have no idea how to go back to your hotel? Ask for help! When you are new to Canada, or any other country, city, place, there will be more times when you have no clue how to do things or where to find things. From not being able to find the right word when you need it the most to not knowing how to change the colour at the pedestrian crossing, life in a new country will provide a huge number of opportunities to get upset and lost. Ask for help! Instead of wasting time trying to solve something or to find certain information by yourself, develop this very healthy habit of asking for help!

Stop talking and start listening more! We all have been there. There are times when we get frustrated in the process of settling. Maybe because we are lacking the understanding of how things are done and why things are done in a certain way. Or just because we got hit with a not so rare moment of nostalgia and instead of breaking down and crying, we go on the offensive and start explaining how things are done much better in the old country. Sometimes we remember similar situations that happened back in the old life and we feel compelled to tell the story out loud! Well, not only that it makes us sound very pretentious but for most Canadians is boring as there are usually cultural references and jokes specific to our mother language that are difficult to translate. When nostalgia hits, I have learnt to bite my tongue and start asking questions! Showing interest in the way things are done, in people I meet or  places I visit, not only engages them but also provides a very good way of learning new and interesting things about the Canadian way that otherwise would take time and effort to discover.

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Why We Shouldn’t Always Get Along

I can’t stand the idea of all people getting along every minute, every hour, every second. I can’t stand the idea of living in a country, city, community, circle of friends or family in which we all are echo-chambers for each other’s ideas, feelings or beliefs. I don’t believe in the commercial-like partnerships: all smiling, holding hands and hugging all day long. I believe in conflict and opposite ideas, I believe in challenging ourselves and each other. I believe in the power of Why? when we are asked to do or to feel something.

1979_congresul-al-xii-lea-al-pcr-aspect-din-salaIn communism, we were taught to follow and never challenge or question. If the direction came from above it was to be followed, no questions asked. It did not come naturally to a very vibrant and intelligent people but after jail time and years of hard work  in salt mines for the more outspoken, resentfully, we all obeyed. I remember my father coming home from two or three days of meetings exhausted physically and mentally. They never had a voice. All they had to do was to sit for hours in huge halls, listen to the most idiotic speeches and from time to time, at the signal of the security services people strategically seated among the participants, jump on their feet, applaud vigorously and chant the name of the leader. The less you yelled and applauded, the  less chances you and your family would survive in the respective jobs for another month, and the more chances you’d  meet with the “friendly” security service personnel assigned to watch over you. And this is how an entire nation was apparently fascinated by the speeches filled with grammatical errors and demented ideas of a shoe maker with little school.

While every communist institution and mass media outlet was teaching us to follow and not to question, my father was doing quite the opposite within the walls of our house.  I have never been a follower. I always had my own way of doing things and dealing with things and a stubbornness that the educator in my father had to mould somehow. As we could not discuss the regime inside because of the listening devices planted here and there in the house, we were talking about anything else: life,dating, school, people and characters, relationships, you name it. To me, the best part was not  the subject discussed but the fact that my father, a very strict person whose word we all, including my mom, were supposed to obey, was allowing me to challenge his ideas. You can imagine that I embraced this opportunity with open arms! I would stay up as long as was necessary to wait for him coming back from work and while he was having his late dinners and the usual glass of wine, start the most animated debates on the most random issues. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty, sometimes I would end up in tears, unable to argue my point of view. In the end, I learnt so much about life, trust, people, characters, family, relations, and so much more. The most important things I learnt were :

  1. The way we handle the smallest conflict says a lot more about the person than a long time of happy times
  2. We all should have people in our lives to challenge us as only through challenges we evolve and progress

The story of Alice Stewart  should be told in schools. A scientist in the 50’s who made a connection between the S_-_portrait.Alice_Stewart_2higher number of cancers among children of affluent women as opposed to lower numbers for those of not so wealthy women. The culprit: the easier access to X-rays while pregnant for the women in the first category. To prove her point she enlisted an epidemiologist whose only job was to find ways to challenge and dismantle any of her findings. Although he miserably failed to proving her wrong, it would take 20 more years until X-rays were forbidden on pregnant women. The part that really impressed me was the possibility of making a successful team with somebody who never accepted her truth. It is also true that it would have probably taken humanity way longer to ban X-rays if Alice, would have broken down in tears, crying “you hurt my feelings” at the first sign of disagreement or challenge.

A poignant similarity between my two worlds, is basically the same way conflict is handled: by avoidance. Back while I was growing up, conflict was not permitted. Questions were out of question because they generated ideas. The communism did not like people with ideas. In the first world countries, conflict is avoided because it makes us uncomfortable and brings feelings of unhappiness.  For  a short period of time, it also creates an environment that cannot be controlled and in a world that has learnt to behave and do things only through guidelines and best practices, uncontrolled is not the way to go. But what to do when human nature takes its tall on us and we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict?

Leave it on TV to teach us how to deal with everything. Do you want conflict? Turn on any of the Real Housewives franchises and you’ll find conflict galore! There is no episode that goes by without at least one fight. Unfortunately, this is the worst example ever of handling conflict, and as it is the only one accessible to everybody, it is the only one that is learnt and propagated. But about them, in another post…

I like to believe that I taught my son to ask the question “Why?” as frequently as possible, as it is the only way we can create better ways of living and become better people. As dr. Linda Brodsky was saying in her article Conflict Creates Progress–Don’t Let the Unpleasant Get in the Way of “Better” : “We have been lured into believing that behavior that “goes along” is better than behaviour that challenges. I do not agree. If we don’t challenge ourselves and others to question what we do, why we do it and how we do it, then we are stuck in the mistakes of today without the hope of a better tomorrow.”

First World Problems…

A few years after the 1989 fall of the communist regime, I was contacted by an American College and asked if I would be interested in teaching Romanian culture and language to groups of college students. Groups of 10 to 15 late teens and young adults were to spend three months in the area. It was a unique opportunity for a young  teacher that had read a lot about the world outside of the communist walls but had never come into direct contact with anybody from the western world. To be fair, I had tasted a couple of the western beverages – Teacher’s whiskey and Bacardi rum were my favourites and managed to acquire a few clothing items that I was quite proud of but that was all. It was a new perspective that  I was so eager to explore. What I thought would be a short 3 months, turned out to be a collaboration that would extend over the years up to the very last week of my leaving the country for good. It was a fun time but also a tremendous learning experience for me.

Part of their assignment in Romania was to help with orphanages and the newly created Street Kids program. The orphanage experience was horrendous. In their attempt to maintain a facade of a healthy, happy nation, the directions from the party leaders were clear: all newborns with any kind of disability or HIV were taken from their parents at birth and locked into this orphanages where they were barely kept alive in sub human conditions. Psychologically, emotionally, and physically abused, they were never taught anything and never knew human touch or caress. To say that I was shocked by what I saw  is underestimated. Enough to mention that those images still visit me in the odd nightmares. There were small children in straight jackets or tied to beds and chairs, and toddlers sitting in their own feces, banging their heads on the steel gates of their cribs. Scared, starving and sick. My students were heartbroken. Crying and trying to give hugs to terrified kids that thought we were there for more punishment was hard to watch.

The Street Kids program, provided some heart break as well, but on a different level. Orphans that eluded the system and found refuge in the underground sewage system or kids that ran away from abusive poor families and were living on the streets were a different kind of challenge. Trust was never in their vocabulary and all they knew was how to steal and rob to survive. The mission of the program was to teach them basic skills, hygiene and how to read and write. It was titanic work with a very low rate of success. We were all amateurs in dealing with these high risk kids but tried our best. The excitement and satisfaction I felt when these kids were accomplishing the simplest tasks have yet to be matched. And when the first kid asked if he could help us teach others, we all teared up with joy for a change!

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Conditions have slightly improved since then or this is what I read. I am posting the link to a story that I have been following since 2000. It is the story of Izidor Ruckel, one of the orphans that was adopted by an American family when he was 8. His challenges growing up, his inability to understand love and also why he was abandoned and his continuous struggle to have more and more orphans adopted as early as possible.

Tears? Compassion? Sadness? Yes, for people like him and issues like these I have time, I have lots of tears and tons of compassion. The rest to me is first world problems and I rarely have time, compassion or tears for them.

Photo: Andrei Pandele

If you want to get involved, check out similar programs: Projects Abroad or Global  Volunteers .

The Art of Being a Brother … or Sister

trabant-601-04If you are asking me, a novice motorbike rider that has not yet caught a taste for twists and wind in your face, the best part of a ride is greeting other fellow bikers, or giving the (in)famous Riders’ Wave. Now seriously, how many other owners of vehicles do you know that will take the time to salute a fellow Saturn owner, for example? None! We, the bikers, don’t discriminate: whatever make or kind, whatever colour or art, we will always wave at each other. With a few exceptions: if you ride a Harley Davidson, we say Hello, you most often give us the nod! Or this is what we think as nobody likes to be ignored! Just to be clear, scooters and mopeds are NOT motorbikes, therefore acknowledging their presence on the road will definitely bring an uproar of dissatisfaction with possible grave repercussions from the bikers community! On the Can-Am’s and other 3 wheeled motorcycles, the jury is still out there! I wave anyway… just because I am friendly!

But how do you wave? Actually, I am quite confused why it is called a wave when all you do is extend your arm out. My kind of a wave is extending your arm out upwards and shaking it violently from the elbow, right to left or left to right . But I will not debate now the anatomy of a wave. Let’s discuss the multiple ways the riders wave! It turns out that the number of fingers one extends will tell the other rider how many cylinders his bike has: 2 fingers out – 2 cylinders, 4 fingers out – 4 cylinders. Now, to make things even more complicated, watch for which fingers you are extending. No, the middle finger is never a good choice when meeting a biker – you never know which one you just offended: the nice guy, that will laugh it off or the bad guy that will make sure you will not be able to move any fingers for an undetermined period of time! So, if you want to really tell the others that you are riding on top of 2 cylinders, extend your thumb and your index.  What if your bike is a 6 cylinder beast? I could not find a perfect answer on all the forums I researched but I would go with either one of my 2 favourites: the peace sign with the fingers pointing to the road or the low Hi five.

Unclear to me is who has the time to check out your wave and count the number of cylinders. Just imagine: let’s say I meet you on the road, riding at a comfortable (probably for you only at this moment) 70 km/hour. We wave at each other but I just could not be sure – did you wave 2 fingers or 4 fingers at me? 2 or 4 cylinders?  Exactly: I really don’t care! The fact that you waved is the important part! Remember Shakespeare? Remember Juliet’s famous quote: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” Allow me to trivialize a bit the lines: what’s in a wave? That which we call a wave/By any other name would mean as much! Two fingers or 4 fingers, Hi fives or Peace wave, they all used to mean the same: if you ever are in need, we will be there to help you out! I don’t know and I hope I will never find out if the meaning behind the wave is still there. What I know is that the group of friends we are riding with will do just that: always stop and make sure you and/or your bike are ok.

There is another personal reason why I wave:it brings back memories from back home where I used to be the proud owner of a Trabant. Some of you might have heard about this corky East German car. I call it corky but most of the conoisseurs call it junk. Although the name is related to the Russian word Sputnik (satellite)  the little Trabi had nothing to do with speed, safety, scientific or technological development. Designed first as a 3 wheeled motorcycle, somehow it ended as an air-cooled two cylinder 500 cc, (later 600cc) two-stroke engine encased in a steel cage, draped in a plastic shell made out of recycled cotton or paper.

Small, light, grossly inefficient and extremely pollutant, owning a Trabant was good mainly for the ego: in a communist country where cars were scarce, to own a car meant that you somehow made it. The selection was quite limited: you could buy only a Dacia or an Oltcit, both Trabi and usRomanian made cars, a Wartburg or a Trabant, both East German cars. But there was something special about the Trabant and its owners besides the fact that the pre-owned cars were cheaper than the other makes and quit well taken care of: once you bought one, it was like going under a spell. The car came with an imaginary membership to a unique community: supportive, helpful and proud.

On a highway, country road or side road, wherever the car broke, you would always see more than one person working to fix the car. It did not really matter how busy or rushed you were, if a fellow Trabant owner was having mechanical issues, you stopped. If drivers like me, with little to no mechanical understanding or inclination, would happen to drive by, they would still stop and offer a coffee, a sandwich or just moral support. And as there were not that many cars in the country we were a very tight community; failing to stop (even if your wife was almost delivering your baby on the passenger seat) was considered the biggest snub ever and we all lived with the fear that next time when it happens our Trabi to let us down in the middle of the street nobody will stop!

In a country where the Secret Police’s job was to make sure nobody trusted anybody, it was the camaraderie that we all treasured. It had a subtle subversive note to it. The meetings were random and unplanned but between a couple pieces of advice on how to fix the engine, we would always slip something against the government, the communist leader and against the poor life we all were living. And it felt good. The blink of the headlights every time we would meet in traffic was more than just hello, I have your back! It was one of the few things that the government had no control over, could not censor or strangle.

So, wave on fellow riders! And smile, and nod and stop by for a coffee and a story! There is no better feeling than knowing I am now part of a great family.

 

One More Time: Target and Customize Your Job Search

Looking for a job is hard work and writing or updating the resume for most of us is a daunting task that overwhelms and frustrates even the best writers at times.

I believe in targeted resumes, and although you can find more comprehensive and complicated explanations of this term on the net, I always tell my clients that a resume is nothing else than a reply, an answer to a question or even better an offer to a demand. Let’s see the following example: it is winter time and it is not too late to go for your flu shot. You assume the pharmacy or the doctor’s office would have a stock of flu vaccines around this time of the year for obvious reasons. To your surprise, they don’t have the flu shots but they offer you a quite impressive assortment of vaccines for tropical diseases. Hmmm… You are impressed, all right, but they did not address or solve your issue in any way. This is when you go to the next pharmacy that will hopefully answer your demand. Now, replace your person with the business in need of a particular qualification and the pharmacies with the job seekers. The ones that will address the requirements in the particular job posting will get the recruiter’s attention while the others will definitely land into the “NO” pile.

It is easier to preach “targeting” than to put it in practice, especially when using popular sites like LinkedIn. I use LinkedIn and I think it adds value to other aspects of our professional life and even to some parts of a job search. Unfortunately it works against the concept of “targeted” anything. Let me explain. As you all know, on LinkedIn there is only one profile that you can show the world and attract potential employers with. The problem here is that even when you target one specific job with one specific job title, the job descriptions coming from different companies are extremely diverse. Each company has their unique needs, their own organization chart and their own interpretation of a position.
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Naked Manners

Back in my early 20’s I used to spend every summer at the Black Sea. I loved the sun, the fun and the somehow care-free way of living. As anywhere else, there was the family sun-bathing areas where the bikinis were mandatory, and then the less formal areas, where naked was the norm. These were the places where you could always find all the black market goods – an industry that during the communism was flourishing. This is where we would always buy the Marlborough, Kent or Viceroy cigarettes, the contraceptive pills, different brands of luxurious soaps and shampoos, and other import goods prohibited during the communist years. You can easily imagine that the naked beaches were quite crowded with people from all walks of life, looking for a bargain.

One summer, I was enjoying a beautiful vacation with my friend and her brother and sister in law. He was a doctor at one of the best hospitals in the area while his wife was a high school teacher. One day we decide to go shopping for some cigarettes. There was a particular naked beach where we could get Salem, a menthol light brand of cigarettes, meant for ladies. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I come from a very formal culture. We take pride in our manners, and make a point in showing them off. Smoking the white slim cigarettes as opposed to the stinky local brand was another way of showing our class.

You can only imagine the scene that followed shortly after getting to the place. First, as you can easily guess we were all naked, walking around the beach when my friend’s brother hears somebody calling out his name: Dr B! Surprise! And what a surprise this was! He ran into one of his former patients. Obviously, as the formal code of manners dictated, our (naked) Dr B introduced his (naked) wife to his former (naked) patient who had to respectfully bend and kiss her hand. Fortunately enough, my friend and I were a few steps behind so we watched from the distance the awkwardness of the meeting and had enough time to wipe our smiles from our faces before joining them again.

I guess, what I am trying to get out of this story is that what seems to be perfectly normal and appropriate in one instance, will be awkward and embarrassing in a different one. Learning and adapting constantly to the changes in our lives should always include our manners and the approach to a new culture, a new environment and new people.

But what do you do when you run into a client, or an acquaintance at Wreck Beach for example? Do you look the other way? Do you  nod and move on? Do you stop, shake hands and have a quick conversation? Do you introduce your naked partner?

Whatever you decide, this is what you will not do:

  • Check the other one out! Yes, I know, you are both naked, but this is not an invitation to check the other person; for men, the same rules as in the washroom apply when meeting another man.
  • Introduce your family or friends; why subject them  to some embarrassing moments? It is very easy to feel comfortable when you are among strangers, people that you do not know; as soon as we start knowing names and details about each other things change.
  • I would not recommend a hand shake either; but this is my personal preference. Not to mention hugging or kissing a lady’s hand (europeans!)

These days I am not spending any time in places like these but what would I do? I would simply wear my very dark sun glasses and pretend I haven’t seen you. Nothing personal but some things are better to be ignored than dealt with and this would make it in the top of my list!

 

 

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