Thursday, June 17, 2004

A few thoughts on the natives

One of the reasons I really enjoy the kind of internship that I'm doing is because I get to interact with and try to understand cultures that are very foreign to me. It almost seems, at times, that the more foreign a culture is, the more curious I am about it. People who have grown up in different parts of the world just seem to do things that make absolutely no sense to me. A wise man once said that "You'll understand people better if you assume that people's behavior is rational, at least from their point of view. Try to see what they see." I've had a few thoughts, lately, about things out here that are very different from what I would expect, with my limited American background. Since I've got no one to tell these thoughts to around here, and I assume I've got a captive audience, I'll list a few:

1. Today, a group finished answering a questionnaire surprisingly fast. All, that is, except for the man who indicated that he had the most education in the group (one question asks them to tell how many years of education they have received). Watching this man agonize over the questionnaire for almost an hour, I became thouroughly convinced that he possesses almost no critical thinking skills. It seemed that he fundamentally did not know how to read a question, consider the options, and write down a correct answer. These are my conclusions, at this point. While I could have misjudged the guy, the credit officer who helped conduct this questionnaire suggested to me that in Tajikistan, the most qualified people aren't necessarily the ones in the universities. Apparently, there's a good chance that this particular university student has never spent any time in the university, but merely pays off his professors to obtain grades and a diploma. It makes sense, too, because he's the only breadwinner in a family of six, and if he figures that he can afford the bribes for a diploma, and come out ahead, then he does it.

2. Speaking of bribes, I have noticed before that policemen outside the US like to stop and hassle drivers for the sole reason to pad their incomes, a little bit. It goes way overboard in Tadjikistan, though, as there is quite literally a police officer standing on every street corner and intersection. These representatives of Dushanbe's finest stop cars at random, and the only way to get them off your back is to subtley slap a little somethin-somethin extra into their hand as you shake it. My humble driver, Talib, has demonstrated this several times, as we've driven around, over the past week. Some drivers take it to new heights, however, by pre-empting and getting real buddy-buddy with the coppers. I had another driver who specifically went out of his way on Tuesday to buy cold drinks for the men in blue. When he drives around the city, he happily honks and waves at all of his police-friends. I'm certainly not criticizing the system, here, because it seems that Tajiks are some of the most courteous drivers in the world, and they actually follow the rules. Since the unusually ubiquitous police don't need any reason to pull someone over, the drivers don't seem to want to provide them with additional excuses.

3. I have not yet met a FINCA client who keeps enough of a family budget to know how much they spend on food in a week or month. This is not particularly surprising, I suppose, in a poorer country where families live from day to day. What is surprising, however, is that every single client can immediately tell me how much their home is worth. At first glance this may not seem remarkable. It is, however, rather interesting. For many reasons, it has been suggested that housing in this country cannot be reflective of family wealth. This is because it is not liquid, the banking industry is too underdeveloped to allow families to use it for collateral. Most families were provided with their residences by the old Soviet government decades ago, or they live in small villages with clans that have occupied that area for generations. All of this should suggest that there is essentially no housing market, and that families don't necessarily move into domiciles whose value is commensurate with their income. How then can a person know that their home will fetch $15,000-45,000 on a non-existent market? Furthermore, how can a family that makes $50 per month sit on a piece of capital as large as $20,000 and still not afford to send their children to college for a mere couple hundred dollars a year? Finally, why is it that people immediately quote the value of their residence in dollars, as opposed to the local currency? It's almost as if they're assuming that I'm suggesting to them that I'm interested in buying their home! I don't yet have an answer to these questions, but I'm still thinking.

4. On a lighter note, my sister Anna recently forwarded me a great e-article on Russian culture. Since I am a great forwarder of fascinating internet literature, I figured that this one was too much fun to pass up.

That's all for now.

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