How to Work in a Library in a Developing Country

Working in a developing country has many benefits: meeting new people from different cultures, gaining high-level experience, expanding your perspective and knowledge, improving your interpersonal and communication skills, being a part of an exciting time for a nation, making a difference, and other phrases about discovering yourself and becoming a better person and so on and so forth.

It’s also frustrating at times. Some days, you will be overwhelmed to the point that all you can do is be physically present at work until you go home and boil some manti (dumplings!) for dinner, put on The Bachelor, and ride it out until recharging your brain with sleep. This phase may even last for a few days at a time.

Overall, I’m glad that I made the decision to take this position. For anyone who would consider a similar career move, here are expanded thoughts on some of the challenges you can expect.

Challenges

1. Policies/Procedures

Most workplaces in a developing country are also developing. The creation of any sort of HR Guide, Employee Handbook, or Reference Manual is low priority when there is constant change in the workplace. With no baseline to refer to, it takes longer to learn the ropes.

For example, I’ve been here for almost two months and I still don’t know how someone can renew a book from their online library account.

2. Western-Based Library, Not Actually a Western Library

There are inevitably procedures unique to the needs of the region.

For example, here in Kazakhstan, post-secondary education is fully paid for, including textbooks, which the library is responsible for issuing. Because this process is unique to Kazakhstan, there is no precedent and there hasn’t been enough time to sort the kinks out. It’s a chaotic task that no one particularly enjoys.

3. The Language Barrier

This is an English-speaking university and my colleagues who work in reference and circulation all speak English very well. But staff in library departments that do not interact directly with patrons sometimes have very limited English, which of course leads to difficulties when trying to collaborate or communicate.

4. Bureaucracy

It takes so long to get things done when there are rules in place such as: official documents must only be signed in blue ink. As per #1, these rules are not written down anywhere easily accessible.

Solutions

This Skeletor Is Love entry is my workplace mantra:

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(http://skeletorislove.tumblr.com/)

So how can this be done for all of the above?

1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Of course, first think about whether this is something you can figure out on your own using the resources available to you. A lot of questions are going to come up and while it’s best to be direct when you’re uncertain, it’s also just plain courteous to think before you ask for your colleagues’ time.

  • When you ask a question, have the person actually show and not just tell you how to do the process.
  • Write down the answer as soon as someone shows you how to do it. Immediately do the process once more on your own so that if you have any questions, you can ask the person right away. If it’s an online process, take screen shots to put in your recorded answer.
  • This may sound like a lot of work but it generally only takes a few minutes and prevents the risk of annoying your colleagues by asking the same questions over and over again.
  • Don’t go to the same person for all of your questions.

By the time you’ve gotten a handle on workplace procedures, you will have inadvertently written up a procedural guide. Processes may change at any time but you have a base to refer to that you can quickly update. You can also turn this into a resource for the entire workplace by pasting the information into something simple (and free!) like a Google Drive document and giving editing privileges to all staff. Any subsequent hires will likely be very appreciative.

You won’t be able to apply this to higher-level procedures or to anything going on outside your department but it will at least give you a handle on day-to-day work.

2. You were hired not only to use but also to share your knowledge and expertise with your colleagues. But before you swoop in and attempt to wave your western savior wand to improve processes or implement changes, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have I given myself enough time to get a basic handle on how things work within this organization and area?
  • Who is involved?
  • Have there already been discussions about this?
  • How much of a priority is this?
  • Is this at an appropriate level for me to address?
  • Are there other factors I may be unaware of?

In a developing organization, there is a lot of functional dysfunction and what keeps me sane is focusing on the work that I have direct control over. If I can make a contribution to improving the textbook process while I’m here, great! But it’s a process that involves the entire university, at a very high-level, and has already undergone much discussion. I might muse on it every so often but then I move on to tasks like compiling research impact metrics of potential faculty candidates or drafting an FAQ page for our new open access repository; tasks ​that I have the means to accomplish.

3. It will serve you well to be direct. Wishywashy polite jargon thrives in the Pacific Northwest but complicates matters everywhere else and it’s best to keep the language as simple as possible. Even if I return to the workforce in my homeland, I will not return to my old ways of communication. You will no longer hear such phrases from me in the workplace:

  • I was wondering…..
  • I just wanted to know/ask….
  • Do you think you could….
  • Would it be possible…..
  • If it’s okay with/convenient for/works for you….
  • But if not, no worries!

If I’m really having a difficult time communicating, I ask one of my Kazakh colleagues in my department for help.

Though it’s an English speaking university, students are sometimes shy about using the language. It’s a foundation of the profession to always ask open-ended questions and it’s been repeatedly reinforced for me here. Most of the time when I ask a student a yes or no question, they will say, “yes” and within a minute it becomes clear that they didn’t actually understand what I said. By asking them an open-ended question, we must communicate more (which is a good thing!).

Also remember that directness works both ways. Don’t pretend to understand someone when you don’t. Tell them!

4. Know when to pick your battles and accept that you won’t always win. For example, I don’t fight over blue v. black ink but I do politely push back on issues that affect my well-being. To save time with this process, refer to the below chart, which is applicable to #2, as well:

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Thank you to the wonderful Brenda Rose for sending this to me.

 

Traits

Aside from the obvious interpersonal skills and adaptability, the expats that seem to be happiest here:

  • Are comfortable with change and uncertainty
  • Have the ability to handle mistakes well
  • Are able to be direct
  • Are self-motivated
  • Have no expectations
  • Have a great deal of patience (the one I find the most difficult)

And we also appreciate that the most random things happen all the time, like Rafa Nadal and JW Tsonga having a press conference a few metres from my desk last week:

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How to Like Kefir

Kefir is a fermented milk drink that originated in the Caucausus Mountains and is very good for you. It’s made from sheep, cow, or goat’s milk and kefir grains, which are a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). If you are a fellow west coast hippy, think of kefir as a dairy kombucha. If you’re unfamiliar with SCOBYs, don’t look up anymore information because it’s kind of horrifying. Just know that kefir is full of a lot of nutritional goodness including:

  • Glucosamine, which helps joints
  • Enzymes that boost your immune system
  • Probiotics, which aid digestion
  • Calcium
  • Protein
  • Biotin, which is apparently a B vitamin that helps your body absorb other B vitamins. How meta!

Kefir is not to be confused with Kumis, the national Kazakh drink of fermented mare’s milk. Also referred to as “milk champagne,” kumis is similar to kefir but apparently much more difficult to swallow. Baby steps.

Some people just naturally like the taste of kefir by itself. I am not one of those people.

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The first time I bought a small carton of kefir, I poured myself a glass and hated it so much after a few sips that I threw the rest out. But I was set on forcing myself to like it because there’s no kombucha here and it feels foolish to not take advantage of something that is so easily accessible with so many health benefits. These types of items are few and far between in Astana.

I will not be drinking plain glasses of kefir anytime soon but I’m now at the point of going through 1L a week via the following methods:

  • Smoothies. Other than a bike, the best purchase I’ve made here is buying a Magic Bullet equivalent. It smells like it’s burning every time I use it but gets the job done. My go-to smoothie recipe here is: kefir + frozen mixed berries* + pomegranate juice + a banana. It reminds me of the magical summer of Dairy Queen Puckerberry Blizzards (RIP).
  • Frozen berries. Pour kefir over frozen berries, leave for ten minutes, then eat! Be warned that this is not a good breakfast if you’re in a rush and have sensitive teeth. Some people also pour it over nuts and dried fruit or cereal.
  • Scrambled eggs. Kefir instead of milk.
  • Dumplings. Kefir as sour cream substitute.

 

*Sometimes bags of frozen berries here include cherries and small plums with their pits still in and you don’t notice until you take a sip of your smoothie and end up with a mouth full of pit grounds.

Russian Problems #2

hairdresser

I went with a friend to his appointment at a salon.

Hairdresser: Coffee? (the word sounds the same in Russian as it does in English)

Me: Да (yes).

Hairdresser: Ahiahug higoeah gehiogea? (incomprehensible words)

Me: Я не понимаю (I don’t understand).

My friend: He just asked you in English if you wanted your coffee black.

Me:surprised-cat-640x420…… Yes.

The hairdresser was really handsome, which added to my embarrassment.

How to Cycle in Kazakhstan

Aside from groceries, the first thing I wanted to buy in Astana was a bike. I knew it would make me feel more like myself than anything else could. Cycling has been my main mode of transportation for the last five years and I do long-distance rides on the weekends, as well as the occasional bike tour.

Before moving, I checked with my boss that decent bikes could be purchased here and he confirmed that sports stores sell them in the summer. Packing and moving all of my possessions within two suitcases was already such an arduous process that I decided to leave my bike with a friend. The bike was a very expensive purchase, has some customizations, and I know I’ll pick it up in the next year or two, so I opted to keep rather than sell it.

IMG_1842Old Bike

I had read in expat blogs and heard from faculty here that Limpopo is the best store for anything bicycle-related in Astana so I headed there within the first week and purchased the biggest cyclocross bike available. It’s still smaller than I would prefer but it’s okay.

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New Bike

I was really surprised at how difficult it is to find a road bike and then someone informed me that it’s best to have a mountain or cyclocross for cycling the steppe. Also, the constant construction and road/sidewalk structure in general (or lack thereof) makes for some rough riding that’s better handled by a sturdier bike.

The biggest difficulty in riding within the city are the inconsistently sized, and sometimes gigantic (up to 2 feet high!) curbs. Even cyclists who are skilled at hopping curbs can’t manage some of them. One such cyclist I ride with recently hopped a high curb with a sharp corner and his tire popped with an explosion steppe dust. It was unfortunate but magnificent to see. My technique is to stop at the edge of curbs and waddle onto the road, then waddle back up over the curb on the other side.

There are also random obstacles like missing bricks, fallen trees, and open manholes.

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 Astana: City of Obstacles

You don’t see a lot of cyclists here but they’re around. I think many people are hesitant to buy bikes since they’re expensive and only usable for 5-6 months of the year. I paid $365 for mine, which was a sale price, since it’s the end of cycling season. The city just implemented an inexpensive bike sharing program last month, which may boost cyclist numbers.

Astana also has a very famous cycling team and on my way back from the grocery store, I occasionally see some of them leaving the training centre. They like to be a little flirty, which is fun, since those opportunities are few and far between here (as I expected).

There are a group of us from the university who cycle every weekend around the city and steppe. I’d never done any off-road cycling before and I really enjoy it. The steppe is flat in altitude but very bumpy, rocky, and full of sandy patches that always make my heart race while my back tire slips. Sometimes you see really cool things on the steppe such as dead falcons, a guy training eagles to hunt, and locals herding sheep. The plains of grasses look like an ocean and remind me of home in the nicest way.

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Team Awesome

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In Vancouver, I always did my bike rides solo. Road cycling generally needs to be done in single file and is more chaotic because of traffic and different cyclists having different approaches about which rules they choose to follow. It’s not only necessary to cycle with others on the steppe (for obvious health and safety reasons) but it’s also easier to be more relaxed and social on treks.

Despite liking my new bike, I’m going to ask one of the professors here from Vancouver if he’d be willing to bring mine back with him at Christmas time. When I decide to leave KZ, I plan on cycling from Almaty to Istanbul (or some similar route) and I’d like the bike I’m most comfortable on for those long distances.

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The Costs of Kazakhstan

money

Here are a couple of pieces that I wrote for The Billfold. I’m a big fan of any site that breaks down complex/scary topics into digestible information.

The Costs of Moving to Kazakhstan

The Costs of Living in Kazakhstan

Feeling muchly flattered by the kind comments. Thank you!

An addendum of some things I learned since sending in the last piece: the coffee at the hairdresser actually isn’t good, wine is more like $4/bottle, and drugstore brand face/hair stuff is comparable to the cost back home, which is good news for static-control.

Hair

How to Make Friends

This is something I frequently thought about back home and before moving away. I think it’s on a lot of people’s minds once school is finished but most of us in our late 20s feel too self-conscious to admit it. I was so happy when one of my favourite writers, Heather Havrilesky, recently broached the topic, saying that eventually, you realize it’s no big deal to want to make new friends.

Here in Astana, and more specifically, at the university, it’s especially no big deal to make pals, to the point where you’d have to be purposely isolating yourself to not have any. I think there are three reasons for this:

  1. It’s far easier to move to extremely unknown territory than somewhere foreign to you but known to many. With few exceptions, generally foreigners who move here have never been here before, didn’t know much about the area prior to arrival, and know little to no Russian. Everyone is in the same boat, or was so recently, that they are happy to help out the newcomers.
  2. Academia. You’re still in school, just in a different department. Hello new school friends!
  3. You’re among like-minded people. There are plenty of people here who are adventurous, social, and a little crazy in their own way (everyone has to be to come here). In other words, cool folks to hang out with.

Though it’s easy to make friends among this funny pool of people, these are some things that I noticed helped smooth the transition:

Say yes to every invite initially. You meet new people, get to know who you share similar interests with, and do things you would never normally do. If it turns out to be something you weren’t that interested in after all, what did you lose? What would you have done instead? I would probably not go over to someone’s house to watch an American football game back home, but here I am actually looking forward to it.

Put yourself out there. Kind of. I had to meet with a professor my first Friday in Astana, and when I emailed him later in the day I ended with, “Have a great weekend!”  hoping that my underlying subtext would clearly show: “Have a good weekend! *WINK WINK*. Like, want to hang out, maybe?” It worked and now we’re friends.

Sports. I used to hate playing all sports (except badminton). A few years back I decided I wanted to get over my fear and I joined a recreational soccer league, which I eventually came to enjoy and now I play soccer with faculty here once or twice a week. Of course it’s nice to be good at a sport but it doesn’t actually matter. I’m still mostly terrible.

Pro tip: this isn’t possible in KZ, but in other places, if you’re a lady, join a gay men’s soccer league and enjoy the accompanying (non-sports related) self-esteem boost.

Be yourself. Terrifically cheesy but true! My default when I’m feeling shy or nervous is to be overly deferential and polite. You might think you’re coming off as easygoing but it’s actually like hanging out with a sack of potatoes on two legs.

I’m glad I had a few years’ experience before coming here because I used to especially be like this in professional situations. It took me a while to realize that it’s better to have a personality at work and workplaces generally pay you in part to make decisions and have informed opinions.

Do your own thing still. One of the first things I bought here was a bike and I went out bike riding on my own until I found out that a few people get together to bike on the steppe every weekend. It’s now one of my favourite things to do here.

You may have noticed I’ve only referenced socializing with expats. Locals are all very friendly here and I really like my Kazakh co-workers. But the average salary, age of marriage, and age of having children are lower in KZ, so the opportunity to hang out doesn’t come up as often.

So there you have it!

 

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My soccer team from back home: Pink Ladies, HAYYYYYY!

Russian Problems #1

People often confuse my name with “Rachel” back home, which I don’t understand because it shares no similarities to “Rebecca” other than beginning with “R.”

In Astana, this happens instead:

Taxi Driver: как вас зовут? (What is your name?)
Me: Rebecca
Taxi Driver: Barbara!
Me: Rebecca
Taxi Driver: Barbara!
Friend in the back of the taxi: Rebecca!
Taxi Driver: Barbara Barbara Barbara!

How to Learn Russian

People mostly speak Russian in Kazakhstan. Kazakh is also an official language but doesn’t seem to be spoken as commonly since the country’s independence is still so recent.

Here is my approach to learning Russian. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it but it works okay so far:

  • Take Ancient Greek for three years in university.
  • Take Latin too and inadvertently develop a system to getting an A+ in any 100-level European language course.
  • Take too many upper level credits during your undergraduate degree, forcing you to take a bunch of 100-level classes in your last year
  • Choose Russian because the Cyrillic alphabet is based on the Greek alphabet and you’ve always been entranced by Russian culture. Also take German, just because.
  • Travel to Russia for two weeks after graduating. Say the phrase, “I don’t understand” so many times that you will remember it forever. It proves very useful over the two weeks.
  • Keep your Russian 100 textbook.
  • Move to Kazakhstan six years later, where you are forced to use the few words you remember every day!
  • Make a point of saying “hello” in Russian to all of the locals, which sounds like “ZDRAHS-tvooy-tyeh.” If you are shy, you can just say the “zdrahs” part and mumble the “tvooy-tyeh.” But make sure you say hi to everyone, lest your shyness be mistaken for being a jerk.
  • Also say “thank you” constantly, because it’s easy to say (spaseeba) and you’re Canadian and need a substitute for apologizing all the time.
  • Don’t worry about learning new words for the first few weeks. It’s easy to get by with basic phrases. Say, “I don’t understand,” a lot. Mostly when cashiers ask you for exact change because people are fiercely possessive of change and small bills here.
  • Realize you should really relearn your numbers. You remember how to say “1” “2” and “4” but not “3”, which is weird, because “3” is the easiest one to say (tree).
  • Hit your low point when you order at a restaurant, and the waiter asks what kind of shashlik you would like, and you don’t know how to communicate any meat words. You try a few times, using a translation app but it doesn’t work. Finally, the waiter goes, “Baaaa, baaaa!” and you excitedly nod.
  • This humbling experience motivates you to crack open your textbook and plan on hiring a teacher for lessons once a week by the end of the month.

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Now I will always know how to order lamb.