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I have a team (advisers and consultants from my company) as well as my counterpart’s team (government employees), and they are located in different buildings. I work with both of them, although it’s usually different work or at least from a different perspective.

The company advisers’ space is fairly quiet, I can concentrate, I can ask them quick questions about a situation or get the background story to things that come up, and I overhear them discuss events or meetings that no one happened to inform me of. Everyone spends a lot of time welcoming each other when you come into the room in the morning and saying goodbye in the evening, which is probably mostly due to the Afghan national advisers in the room and a general awareness of the culture here. Mostly, though, the feel is similar to what I’m used to in the US, where everyone is diligently working on their respective tasks (e.g. often people in the same room send each other emails rather than just talking to each other and disturbing others). Furthermore, a large number of the discussions in the room are in Persian so I can often tune them out while I work.

The other team is eager and always wanting to talk in their limited English. It is often difficult to get them to stay on task. Every time I go to their space they ask me about my health, ask me to sit (even if I have only come for something quick), offer me tea (when I decline, usually end up bringing some anyway) and candy, put lunch in front of me (never asking if I have plans or need to be somewhere else), and talk (and laugh) with me for as long as they can. I actually don’t mind any of this, although the lunch thing is a bit frustrating because I don’t want to be rude. But anytime I mention leaving, needing to do work, going to my computer (which I keep in the other space), or try to get up to leave, I get a battery of questions: where are you going, why are you going, who will you be with, what will you be doing, when will you be back, do you have to go, etc. It ends up feeling like an interrogation, and if I do not give concrete answers, the battery continues, particularly with the question “when will you be back.” Let me include that I see these people every day for a couple hours and often a couple times a day, but the process is the same (or even a bit worse as I get to know those team members who are more shy &/or less familiar with English and they begin to join in with the interrogation).

Obviously, it is very difficult to get work done in that space. I don’t want to be a distraction from the work that needs to be done. I am hoping that as they get more used to me it will get easier. How much hope do I have for this? I’m not sure. When I commented about the lunch that has appeared more than once (Note: after the first time I asked my company colleagues about it, and they who told me that the lunch actually costs a dollar from the cook here, which I had no way of knowing about or contributing to), I tried protesting that I am not a guest. The decided response is that you are a guest in Afghanistan for one year. Hospitality is very important feature of the Afghan culture, but it feels particularly strange to me when it’s in a work environment.

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I have been in Kabul for just under 60 hours. And my brain is tired. Usually, when you travel to a new place, there are certain familiarities (e.g. hotels look and work very similarly), and you only need to learn the slight nuances of each place. But in Kabul, it feels like everything is substantially different and the process of doing things must be relearned. Leaving my house for work requires so many new steps (some for security, some to be culturally sensitive, and others that I have no idea about) that I can’t believe it is in any way related to the commuting I did around DC. Likewise, on my first night here, somehow I turned off everything in the bathroom (including the light, fan to outside, and hot water heater) and despite all my best attempts I could not get any or all of them back on. (I would have had a very difficult shower the next day had it not been for the maid, who cleaned my room during the day, fixing it while I was out.) My only exception to these new procedures is the bed in my room, which luckily, works the same as every other bed 🙂

I have so many things that I want to share about what I am learning and seeing here, but today I will tell you a little about my work and a little success I had today.

I work as an advisor to a counterpart within a very new team/unit of the Afghan government. My counterpart has a staff of 4 guys (I think there is one more who is out sick right now) and 2 girls. I only briefly met them yesterday, but I could tell that they are eager to learn and interested in me (very different experience from walking into a team meeting in the US). Today, I sat in a training with them (which was given in Persian so I had no idea what they were discussing, but the slides were in English). After the training, I tried talking with the girls, although it’s very difficult because their English is limited. One of the girls was doing a google search (in Persian) about one of the topics from the training. They commented about how it is difficult because they do not have many websites (or books or other materials) available in Persian about the topics they are learning and working on.

Well, it made perfect sense to me what they needed (translations!) so I showed them that google has an impressive feature that will translate texts as well as entire webpages. The internet is slow, but when the example page I showed them finally came up, the entire group was so excited. They were making jokes and laughing about this. Technology and a little knowledge can open up so much for them.

So much has happened in the past few days that I feel like I could write for days about all of it (or, at least, I could if I wasn’t jet-lagged), but I must start at the beginning.

First, let me explain that one of the things my company really emphasizes is “developing your personal network,” and I would say that networking generally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I choose my friends carefully. I am fairly introverted and find small talk (especially for the sake of small talk) quite draining. This doesn’t bode well for my “network.” But knowing this is an area of weakness, I have tried to participate in some company activities (such as attending happy hours even though I don’t drink).

Meanwhile, I was trying to get the lowdown on how to get a project abroad, doing several informational interviews as well as talking with anyone who would listen. There is a formal method of applying for project roles, but none of the roles were anything near my skill set or experience level. The key was knowing about the positions before they are made available in the formal process.

Each time I talked with someone they would give me advice, necessary skill sets/training, other interesting contacts, etc. I got to hear some great stories from these people, and I really appreciate that they were willing to take time to speak with me. However, the advice was often completely contradictory from one person to another. Worse still, the consistent things every person said about staffing an international project were:

  • the first thing they want is someone with previous international work experience (total catch-22) and a lot of experience (“gray hair”)
  • it’s difficult to break into the fairly click-ish group in the company
  • there’s no telling when or if you will be placed on an international assignment even if you do everything right

Yep, I felt pretty defeated about my prospects. So I tried to get closer to my objectives through my projects in the U.S. (Dept of State) and complained (to anyone) about how frustrating it was that when you are relatively young, having time and energy, the system is set so you can’t take advantage of it.

Then one morning I got an instant message from a girl in Afghanistan who I knew from a team I am on. She knew of a role in Afghanistan and thought I might be interested… And from there she helped me tweak my resume for the role, put my name to senior leadership for approval, coach me for the interview with the client in Kabul (which happened at midnight EST), and then, when I got it, gave me lots of packing advice. I really owe her a lot. It’s a long story, but here are the two funny things I take away from it.

  1. When I asked her what I might bring from the US as a token of appreciation, the only thing she could think of was to bring ground Starbucks coffee (and now we know that Starbucks hasn’t actually taken over the world, as I’m sure we all thought previously).
  2. She recently told me that when she was in the states she had talked with me at a happy hour. At the time, I apparently said I thought it was cool that she was heading to Afghanistan and asked her a bunch of questions because I was interested. The reason she sent me the instant message that morning was because she remembered our conversation. And the kicker is that I really don’t remember it. I probably had similar conversations with multiple people at the few happy hours I attended. But she remembered and unknowingly I was actually networking so “now you know the rest of the story…”

Oh, wait, you don’t.  I’ve only just gotten to Kabul.I apologize for writing such a long post without telling you more, but as someone who always said bad things about networking I had to come clean about just how far it can take you (just under 7,000 miles:)

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