Small Wins

As those who know me well would attest, I’ve never been much for competition. I used to work for someone whose top strength, according to StrengthsFinder 2.0, was Competition, with a capital C.

I wasn’t surprised to discover this fact during a staff retreat/training because it described her perfectly. Her competitive nature was an incredibly useful attribute for her, especially in leadership and in motivating teams. But I was surprised to read in the book’s description that such a person isn’t happy just to win, but must absolutely outperform (crush!) all competitors in order to be satisfied.

I sat stunned and fascinated reading this, as such a need had literally never occurred to me. It sounded painful and exhausting, but I suppose, to each his or her own. (My top strength, as it turned out, was Discipline, followed by Focus and Learning. No shocks there.)

When I was a kid watching other kids compete to see who was faster, who could shoot the most baskets, who could French braid hair the most tightly, or who had the best shoes, the comparisons seemed to me pointless. They made me feel uncomfortable, with an undertone of bored disdain. I was always more interested in how I would do – only against myself.

I have always competed ferociously with myself, a kind of internal, ongoing challenge where I push myself to the breaking point, unbeknownst to on-lookers. In such an exercise, other people and their accomplishments and acquisitions are all but irrelevant, other than something to cheer on by way of encouragement, but with no direct bearing on my outcomes. I frequently wonder why so many people approach success as a zero-sum game.

Can’t I only measure my own triumph by criteria specific to me? Otherwise there are too many unknown variables to make sense of the value of the “win”. I begin the race from my own starting point, face my own obstacles, and cross a finish line that only I can see. The validation is all intrinsically motivated and very private.

And so it has been lately that I keep a small scoreboard in my mind as I begin to adapt to two years in Uzbekistan. I’m the only player, and each move in my game can only be improved with enough focus, input, imagination, and perhaps discomfort.

I respect and appreciate my colleagues, and have learned (and will learn) so much from them. But I can’t envy their considerable talents, gained through their own hard-fought journeys. I can only hone and focus on building my own, aspiring to become a better version of myself and as professionally talented as the high standard they’ve set.

This week (June 21) marked one month since my arrival in Uzbekistan and over the last two weeks, I’ve been too mentally and physically drained to post here. I have composed at least a half dozen posts in my mind as I walk to and from work, across burnt grass, broken pavement and uneven dirt, through small piles of trash and debris, butterflies, grazing goats and cows, and the endless dust. I listen to podcasts and rehearse visa refusal speeches in Russian, and yet my actual written draft blog posts have been vague and unshaped, filled with small shards of daily life that don’t seem thematic.

And through all of this every day feels vaguely like Groundhog Day, where I have a chance to do everything better, faster than the day before: adjudications, language, systems, navigating Tashkent.

About a week and a half ago, I decided it was time to make a nail appointment. As frivolous as it probably sounds, my nails from weeks before in Virginia were way too long and desperately needed refreshing. For a person far from home, without her husband, dealing with the public, and getting her only exercise trudging through dirt, a little beauty appointment was just what the doctor ordered. Besides, I paid my dues as a Peace Corps Volunteer washing my clothes in the bathtub and dying my poor hair with counterfeit Schwartzkopf from the bazaar!

I left the consular section and went outside to a sunny spot on the embassy grounds to call a salon I’ve been following on Facebook for several months. I didn’t want to make the call from my desk in case my plan of what to say would go completely awry, and that would be the 101st time that day I would feel dumb. I even wrote out words like “appointment” and “acrylic” with the help of my bemused Russian tutor.

I’m also not a fan of talking on the phone in other than my first language. So because I dreaded making the call, I made the call, and fortunately the friendly, patient woman at the other end of the line understood perfectly what I had going on and what I wanted. I made an appointment for later the same evening.

Since my car is not scheduled to be here until at least the end of July, my mobility has been a little bit limited. One of my colleagues let me know about a taxi app for Uzbekistan that works in English and Russian. Ordering a taxi with a meter without talking on the phone? Hello, fabulous! Winning. Multiple points.

I arranged for a taxi to pick me up from the embassy, and pre-populated my destination details in the app’s request form. I received a confirmation text back in Russian with a description of the pickup car, the license plate number and my driver’s first name. It made perfect sense. One point for me.

A few minutes later my iPhone rings with a local mobile number, and a man on the other end is asking me questions I don’t understand in Russian. He hands the phone to someone else (who speaks Uzbek?), and I don’t understand/can’t hear him either. I apologize and say in Russian, “I will be in front of the American Embassy at 17:15.” The conversation ends and I hopefully assume that all is well. My colleagues confirm that this service has recently started calling to confirm reservations. Possible one point subtraction.

I went outside at the appointed time and stood where I’d dropped the pin on the app’s map. Official and informal taxis passed by continually, slowing down and beeping at me to gauge my potential as a passenger. I strained to see their license plates, hesitating to flag one down; the “white Chevy” of my driver is a terrible description that pertains to at least 75% of cars on the road here.

Eventually I see the taxi (which does a heroic U-turn across four “lanes” to get me when I can’t find an acceptable opening to dart across on foot). I manage to communicate with the driver, who kindly compliments my Russian, and I notice that – like in the Balkans – the backseat seatbelts are ensconced underneath a seat cover. Good to know that original seat upholstery will be protected in the (likely?) event of an accident.

We dart and zoom through rush hour traffic in which lanes and red lights are taken as mere suggestions by the motoring populace. I arrive at my destination, a shopping mall a few miles from the embassy. The price on the meter is 9,400 soms, or about $3.70, which seems more than fair. I pay and leave a good tip, which seems to surprise my driver. (Minus half a point for me?)

I am 25 minutes early so I stroll around, find a store, buy bottled water and a pack of gum, one point. Minus half a point, though, for not noticing that although the water was like 50 cents, the gum was imported and cost almost four dollars! (Nearly more than my entire taxi ride.)

I even find a relatively clean public bathroom before locating the salon, which ends up being a long bar in the middle of the upper floor. The irony of the nail shop’s TV playing a Victoria’s Secret fashion show on a loop less than twenty yards away from a busy, fake VS “Pink” clothing store didn’t escape me.

I got my nails done and was satisfied, but not bowled over by the work. I paid 90,000 soms, or about $35 USD, which was the advertised price on the salon’s Facebook page.

Although in all fairness, the girl worked on my nails for a good 90 minutes and put in a lot of effort to make sure I liked the work, and I didn’t have vocabulary more specific to describe what I wanted. I gave the final result a strong 7 out of 10. One point for each of us.

I used my new favorite taxi app to arrange a taxi home and went and stood in the place I had designated on the map for pickup. I saw on the map that my reserved taxi was less than two minutes away, so I turned my tired mind to what I would eat when I got home.

When I received the call from the driver, it was to ask me where I was. “I am here. At the stairs, in the front.”

He replied, “What?”

“In the front, in the front, top of the stairs.”

“What? I don’t understand you.”

We did some more of this and then he hung up, frustrated. I received a cancellation text, and sadly I watched his car on the app’s map get further away from me. My reservation had been unceremoniously cancelled! Due to a total lack on my part of being able to communicate like an adult!

Dammit! I realized too late that I had probably been speaking in my Slavic mix I like to call Russidonian. My brain whirled looking for the right Russian vocabulary – for stairs, for mall, for front – and came up murky. For this, I probably lost every point I’d earned that day. In what American context would I ever be this inept? None.

I said a silent apology to the driver for wasting his time, and, too ashamed to try again, I abandoned the app for the evening. Ruefully, and trying not to look lost while pretending to wait coolly for somebody, I was biding my time for a few minutes. Eventually I flagged down a taxi as soon as it pulled up in front of the mall and thus caused a ruckus amongst drivers parked randomly at the mall. All those cars had been empty, though, and somehow drivers materialized out of nowhere! My bad! I was perplexed but pretended not to notice.

“Are you free?” I asked him in surprisingly correct Russidonian. The driver still looked at me as oddly as if I had suddenly donned a cape and begun to tap dance. (Later I learned that all of those taxis operate by dispatcher only, so what I was doing probably appeared pretty weird indeed. Minus three points, add one back for primitive resourcefulness to get home.)

Suspecting I had violated some code of taxi passenger etiquette of which I was unaware, and just really wanting to go home, I gave the driver my address. He responded, “What region is that in?” Uh-oh.

Tashkent has six regions, if I’m not mistaken, and I didn’t know one from the other. I told him, “Near the American Embassy.” He said, “I haven’t seen it since it was just built.” (Note: It was built a decade ago!) We started heading in the generally correct direction.

My driver was animated. When he found out (pretty much five seconds into the ride) that I was an American, he announced in Russian: “America is a beautiful country!”

He pointed out landmarks as we drove: a TV tower, a neighborhood, a bridge, full of commentary about everything. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years old.

And he got lost. We drove for nearly twice as long as it had taken for me to get to the mall. I saw the MegaPlanet grocery store for the first time and realized we had gone way too far, so I busted out my iPhone and helped him out with navigation from Google Maps. (During which time I re-learned that “Go straight” in Macedonian is nearly identical to “Go right” in Russian. Awesome.)

When we pulled up in my driveway, he seemed chagrined and refused to charge me. I gave him 15,000 soms and a thank you – for overlooking my poor Russian case endings, for not being able to articulate my region and neighborhood better, for overlooking my faux pas in accosting him for a ride.

When I closed my door behind me, I was safe again at home. I admired my nails and was all grins. I had gone on a little adventure by myself with no real problems. End game, for one day.

After all, I don’t get points for jumping in my SUV and driving to Pentagon City Mall to get my nails done. I’ve done that a hundred times. And my nail appointment wasn’t even really the point. I could have just as easily talked about how I didn’t let all the ladies push me out of the way in the grocery store when I really wanted the deli clerk to bring me a rotisserie chicken.

Or when I didn’t let a visa applicant talk over me in an interview last week by learning how to hold up one finger and say in Russian, “Listen to me,” with authority.

Or when I finally saw the elusive garbage truck one morning, and put my garbage out the next week on the same night only to have it sitting there still. There were just less funny logistics in those mini-tales.

I am watching. I am adapting. I am trying to be better each day with very little ego and a huge sense of humor.

Everyone knows how to operate in their own context. It’s only when you put yourself in new situations and try to adapt on the fly when your plans don’t work that you really start to win. And the more you challenge yourself, with whatever is, the more expansive your comfort zone becomes. And maybe, the better competitor you are, to whatever end. Who cares if someone was faster than you? Someone somewhere will always be faster. Try to just be faster than you used to be. I somehow both dread and relish the feeling of being about to walk onto a stage and give a speech for which I am not prepared.

Tonight walking home from work there was a tremendous downpour that seemed sudden, but that the sky had foreshadowed slowly over the course of the afternoon. Fortunately I recently resumed carrying my umbrella daily in my work tote after a similar incident a couple of weeks ago.

Minus a point today for me getting pants and flats soaked with mud and God knows what else given the amount of lifestock manure on my patchily-paved road. Add a bonus point for the grass in my front yard getting a good soaking, and the fact that I strolled along looking happy while other people ducked into doorways looking annoyed.

I’ll reflect on other happenings over the past couple of weeks soon in another post.

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Sarah W Gaer

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