Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Macedonia
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Macedonia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Macedonia.
Outside of Macedonia’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Macedonia are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Macedonia, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
The Peace Corps staff in Macedonia recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture. You will also quickly learn that Macedonia is a country of rich diversity with various ethnic groups and religions represented. They, too, are coping with the challenges of diversity and learning to live with one another.
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Macedonian women have historically been a vital part of the country’s workforce, taking on both managerial and supervisory roles and working as school administrators, business owners, doctors, local government officials, and members of Parliament. Nevertheless, gender stereotypes are more evident and accepted in Macedonia than in the United States.
Female Volunteers should not expect to be able to maintain all of their American habits in Macedonia. Adapting to local norms and customs is a necessity wherever Volunteers serve. Macedonians, especially women, generally lead more restricted lifestyles than Americans do. Women do not go out alone at night, and jogging or walking alone for exercise is uncommon. In addition, women in villages do not usually smoke in public. While these activities are not forbidden for female Volunteers, they may have to make some compromises. For example, Macedonians tend to speak more quietly and do not smile as much in public. Groups of Americans may seem too loud to locals. Female Volunteers should avoid eye contact with strange men, especially on buses and in the street. In addition, gender roles and acceptable behavior between the sexes may also change within the various ethnic groups represented in the country, which includes Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Roma, and other ethnic groups.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
You may be the only trainee or Volunteer within a particular project who is a member of a minority group. You may not receive, or be able to receive, the necessary personal support from other Volunteers, and there may be no minority role models.
Once you move to your site, you may work and live with individuals who have no experience or understanding of a non-Caucasian-American culture. Because of ignorance, stereotyped cultural perceptions, or Macedonia’s historical involvement with certain countries, you may encounter varying degrees of attention in your day-to-day life. You may not be perceived as being North American, in some instances, for those Volunteers who are of Asian American background, you may even be referred to as “Japanese” or “Chinese.” These comments are not derogatory, but derive from people in Macedonia focusing attention on the ethnicity of any individual. This might lead people here to think that you are really not an American but of the country of your ethnic background. In any community where you are not known, you need to be prepared for staring, pointing, and comments. Finally, you should be prepared to encounter comments that would be considered completely inappropriate in the United States. Such offensive terms, however, usually are uttered because people are not aware of acceptable terms in English and not because they are meant to be offensive. Macedonia is a country of ethnicities whereas the United States is a country of many nationalities. This emphasis on ethnicity will lead many in Macedonia to question Volunteers who may represent an ethnic group about their background and history.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Respect comes with age in Macedonia. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. It is not uncommon for younger Volunteers to look to older ones for advice and support. Some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their experience, while others choose not to fill this role. Overall, senior Volunteers are highly valued for the wealth of experience they bring to their communities and counterparts. Yet you may sometimes feel isolated within the Peace Corps community because the majority of Volunteers are in their 20s; they may have little understanding of the lives and experiences of seniors.
Training may present its own special challenges. Older trainees have encountered a lack of attention to their needs for a particular learning environment, including timing, presentation of materials, comfort level, and health. You may need to be assertive to develop an effective individual approach to language learning.
Before leaving for Macedonia, you should consider how you will deal with issues such as possible family emergencies, maintaining lifelong friendships, and deciding who will have power of attorney for attending to your financial matters.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Homosexuality is not generally accepted in Macedonia. Although there undoubtedly are homosexuals and bisexuals in the country, there is no visible gay community, and finding local gays who live openly is unlikely. If you are accustomed to being open about your sexual orientation, you should be prepared for some feelings of isolation at home and in the workplace.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
You are free to exercise your religious beliefs but you may not engage in proselytizing or other activities that are against the law or would impair your effectiveness as a Volunteer. Most Macedonians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church. The second largest religion is Islam, but you will also find small numbers of Roman Catholics, and Protestants.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in Macedonia, you may face a special set of challenges. Macedonia has an old, poorly maintained infrastructure that does not always accommodate individuals with disabilities. Few public places, for example, have been made accessible to wheelchairs. Because sidewalks are uneven and cars frequently park in pedestrian areas, visually-impaired Volunteers may have a harder time walking around on their own.
Nevertheless, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Macedonia without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Macedonia staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.