Yesterday, in a discussion touching on Organizational Development (OD) our facilitator generated an interesting notion regarding social identity.  My 28 classmates and myself were asked to think about the different identities we see ourselves as and do they give you a one up or a one down in our specific cultural context.  Then we discussed the implications of our social identities in different cultural contexts.  I thought of two situations. The first was in Romania as a young female Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) and the other of course is as a female cancer patient in America.

It was Counterpart Conference July 2010.  Rocking my nicest sundress and favorite Steve Madden boots, and sporting the name tag that had Snap written on it I walked my 45 minutes down the Pipeline (The Roma community’s settlement in Targoviste, literally under, next to, around a gas pipeline) to the conference center.  I was to look for Crackle and Pop (get it… Snap, Crackle, and Pop from the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies ads) on the name tags of the Romanian Counterparts awkwardly meandering around the entrance.  The point was to match us Trainees with the respective Romanians that would assist, guide, and mentor us throughout our service.  This was a VERY nerve-racking moment.  I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t know why I had two people coming when most had one.  I knew that my Romanian was not developed enough to communicate all the excitement I wanted to express to my new host community.  Finally, of course I was one of the last to be paired, I found my tall, intimidating, short-skirt wearing, electric cigarette smoking Director, Haijni, and a youthful, female, sporting spunky short hair, and perfect English speaker Counterpart, Lavinia.  I hit the jackpot!  In fact, during the 2 day conference multiple Peace Corps staff members came to me with comments on how “badass” my Director was and other Trainees were in aw at how young my Counterpart was.

I thought it was the perfect fit.  I was a young (at the time 23) female, Caucasian, straight, and not very religious.  My age was a one up because many people in my community thought it was pretty cool an American would travel so far from home.  In the Romanian context I was instantly a one down for being a female PCV.  Romanians tend to cater more towards male volunteers, at lease that was what apparent to me.  Being Caucasian and straight were one ups for me because it was easier to assimilate in the community with no striking differences.  My religious thoughts ended up being the biggest one down for me in my specific context.

It ends up that my Counterpart was and is a Romanian Baptist.  She formed judgements of me and I of her from early on.  With my Romanian language skills not the best when I moved to site I needed her to be more available to me, but she didn’t see it as her role nor did she have the time to give.  I was intimidated, lost, lonely, and frankly annoyed because she was not meeting the expectations Peace Corps set forth during our Counterpart Conference (speculative: Did Peace Corps set unrealistic expectations? Yes.).  She placed judgements on me because she doesn’t believe in drinking, dancing, dating, and other social norms in Romania that she assumed I did.  It was all down hill from the first night we met when many PCTs and Counterparts went to the Irish Pub for dinner.

Oddly looking back, Laura (the Romanian Peace Corps Program Manager) was right when she said to me as I was on my way out of the country, “Katie, I don’t know why you didn’t turn Haijni for more support? She was always a huge fan of yours.”  I know why.  I saw myself as a burden to her and the community.  I didn’t have enough confidence to speak to her in the Romanian I knew let alone the fraction of Hungarian I picked up. I thought she had ‘sided’ with Lavinia.  In the end, it was the rift created by something I never thought would get in the way that blinded me from the other supports in the community.

My second wave of thoughts in class yesterday revolve around my ever so present and persistent cancer.  I now find myself apart of a mass that I didn’t foresee.  I was enlightened in class by these words, “we do not get to choose our social identities, they chose us.”  This is my life with cancer.  I love to hate it, and now I hate to love it.  I mean I don’t love cancer in the fullest sense; I love all the things that have come about.  I feel more connected than ever to my Mom.  My sisters are apart of me in a ways that I can’t explain.  My father, or technically step-father, has been a champion beyond belief.  I now know what a healthy and strong relationship is and that someone can truly love me.

Identifying as a cancer patient and soon a survivor (crossing my fingers) has only brought me closer to my belief in curbing the consistent struggle for so many, and in some small way giving back hope that can be so easily lost.

Claire Halverson Ph.D., the author of the Cultural Context Inventory, was correct with here analysis that one needs to take culture into consideration, and beyond that one needs to consider social identity and personality to really understand the context of one’s situation.