Friday, August 22, 2008

Cultural Lesson

People have often asked me what the hardest part about traveling overseas is- the long flights, the strange food, the inevitable diarrhea, etc. But easily the most frustrating aspects of international work travel are the different ideas regarding time-management. This trickles down into enormous inefficiencies that make tiny tasks two- or three- day affairs. Just trying to finalize the number of graduates, for example, is like being nibbled to death by a thousand sluggish minnows.

Me, I'd rather die quickly, decisively.

Blame it on Protestant Work Ethic or whatever, but I really hate wasting time when there's lots to be done in a short period. I am punctual, to a fault. It annoys me when people don't come to meetings on times, or worse yet - don't come prepared. (I'm also annoyed when people don't read the attachments, but that's another blog post).


I understand that my views on time and time management are not universal - I really do. It makes honest-to-God-good-hard - sense to me that getting things done in a country that doesn't have a working postal system, stable electricity grid (power went off three times today), and operates on a cash only basis will take more time than usual. In fact, it's nice to slow down.

But what drives me bonkers are local cultural sensitivities that - as the malai (foreigner, in Tetum) I will never ever understand, and yet, must carefully tip-toe around. As you would imagine, it's virtually impossible not to trip those cultural landmines and splatter stupid expat everywhere.

Yesterday, our office manager was putting together some invitations to Ministers at the Department of Agriculture. Seriously, their names and titles were listed on a sheet of paper and although I don't speak Portuguese, I am fairly certain that the word "Secretario d'Agricultura" means Secretary of Agriculture. The honorific title in this case would be (ta-DA!) Secretary.

Stupid malai, trix aren't for kids! You know it's not that simple.

Noooooo no no no no no no no. The office manager, the COP and I had a long discussion, at which time the DCOP got involved, then the native Portuguese speaker, then the communications specialist, then finally, the drivers. We settled the matter by emailing a third-party affiliate (local) who confirmed the next morning that the honorific title was not "Secretario" but "Excellency".

As I was making a joke about it this afternoon, the DCOP said, "But you don't get it. This is a big deal. If we address him wrong, we could be FINED. It's a common practice."

Life saved, but only by a hair.

I am taught, yet again, that nothing - ohhhhhhh nothing - is ever as simple as it seems. It's a good lesson to be reminded of, but boy, is it going to be a long three weeks.

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