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.
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.
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.
This Skeletor Is Love entry is my workplace mantra:
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:
Thank you to the wonderful Brenda Rose for sending this to me.
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: