Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Bulgaria

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is 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 Bulgaria, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Bulgaria.

Outside of Bulgaria’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 a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Bulgaria 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 Bulgaria, 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 pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

The Peace Corps staff in Bulgaria recognizes the 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.

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Bulgaria has been working to align its laws with the requirements of the European Union, which it joined in January 2007. Yet legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and discrimination has only recently been introduced.

As with any other social matter, there is a large difference in attitudes toward gender between smaller communities and big cities and between the older and younger generations. Traditionally, especially in more rural areas, Bulgarian women are expected to cook and look after other needs of their husbands and children while they also hold jobs outside of the home. In turn, women often expect men to open doors for them, to give them their seats on public transportation, and to show them other signs of courtesy. Women also often expect men to help if they are performing a task that is considered difficult or demeaning, and men will offer to help women whom they believe are confused by minor mechanical or equipment-related problems. Female Volunteers may therefore feel that their skills are questioned in the typically male professional environment. Another common occurrence is for young women to be honked at by drivers or yelled at by groups of young men in the streets. If this happens to you, it is best to ignore the behavior and avoid making eye contact, as any response is likely to aggravate the situation.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

You may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer within a particular project. You may not receive, or be able to receive, the necessary personal support from other Volunteers. While staff and your fellow Volunteers will do their very best to support you, there may not be current Volunteers or staff role models who can personally relate to your experiences.

Once you move to your site, you are likely to live among people who have no experience or understanding of a non-Caucasian-American culture. Because of ignorance, stereotypes, cultural perceptions, or Bulgaria’s historical involvement with certain countries, you are likely to encounter varying degrees of harassment in your day-to-day life. You may not be perceived as being American, or you may be evaluated as less professionally competent than other Volunteers. In any community where you are not known, you need to be prepared for staring, pointing, and comments. Finally, you should be prepared to hear derogatory terms and racial comments that would be completely inappropriate in the United States. Such offensive terms usually are uttered because people are not aware of acceptable terms in English, although in some instances the intent is to harass or offend. Bulgarians as a whole tend to be very accepting, curious, and open to individuals once they get to know them on a personal level. Because of this, many Volunteers of color have been extremely well-accepted and well-liked in their communities, once their communities came to know them. Their time in these communities has had a significant and positive impact on how the community members understand and appreciate diversity.

Volunteers who could be taken for a member of the Roma minority (who are descended from migrants from India) probably have the most trouble with casual racism.

Peace Corps/Bulgaria currently has African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other members of minority groups among its Volunteer corps. They all manage these issues in their own way. Members of the Peace Corps staff will do everything they can to help you manage any difficulties.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

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 most Volunteers are in their 20s. They may have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans. You may also find that while younger Volunteers cannot always offer you support, they still look to you for advice and support. While some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, others choose not to fill this role.

Training may present its own special challenges. Older trainees have sometimes found that the learning environment does not completely match the learning style and material they are most comfortable with in terms of timing, presentation of materials, comfort level, and health. You may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach to language learning. And, when possible, you may need to collaborate on identifying sites and assignments most appropriate for an older Volunteer. Peace Corps staff has much experience supporting and mentoring Volunteers of all ages and is here to work to support you.

Before leaving for Bulgaria, 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[edit]

In general, Bulgarians view homosexuality as immoral. There are, of course, many Bulgarians with alternative lifestyles, but their lifestyle would not be well-accepted in Bulgaria if they chose to be open about it. Most Bulgarians choose to keep their personal lifestyles private, and there seems to be an attitude of acceptance when a community does not need to acknowledge a person’s sexual orientation. You may discover that you cannot be open about your sexual orientation in your assigned community. Dress and mannerisms considered normal in the United States, such as particular hairstyles or earrings on men, may be viewed with disdain in your community. In addition, your civil liberties may be ignored and you may be hassled in bars or on the street Relationships with host country nationals can happen, but as with all cross-cultural relationships, they may not be easy. Lesbians, like all American women, are likely to have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex. Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men may have to deal with machismo: Talk of sexual conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes. Volunteers with alternative lifestyles have occasionally set up informal forums for support and information sharing.

The most popular singer in Bulgaria, Azis, has achieved a level of fame (or notoriety) for being sexually ambiguous. He usually dresses in drag and is bisexual.

In the past, gay and lesbian Volunteers have requested to be placed in or near large cities, where there people are more likely to be accepting of homosexuality. There are several gay bars and one lesbian bar in Sofia.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion (83 percent of Bulgarians consider themselves members), so you may not be able to find an active Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim congregation near your site and may need to travel to a bigger city to attend religious events or ceremonies. Only Christmas and Easter are observed as official religious holidays. Alternatively, you could be living in a primarily Muslim community, and only Muslim religious services may be easily accessible.

Some Bulgarians hold stereotypes about members of other faiths. Volunteers have reported being asked about their religion and some have been subject to rudeness or hateful speech. One possible response to questions about one’s religious beliefs is to say that in America, people sometimes prefer not to discuss their religion. In general, Bulgarians are not an overly religious people, but Bulgarian culture and religious heritage go hand-in-hand for many Bulgarians. Peace Corps/Bulgaria has Volunteers of many faiths, and most of them find that the question of religion does not interfere with the work they are doing in Bulgaria.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

As a disabled Volunteer in Bulgaria, you may face a special set of challenges. Bulgaria 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 moving around on their own. If you are reading this Welcome Book, 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 Bulgaria without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Bulgaria 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.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers[edit]

Married couples should expect to live separately during their pre-service training. Typically, married Bulgarian trainees, particularly those working in the same Peace Corps sector, live with separate host families in the same community during their pre-service training, and attend language classes together daily. If you do live in separate communities, it would be due to logistical necessity based on the design of the training program and your work area. Reasonable efforts will be made to accommodate proximity and visitation concerns. All married couples will live together following pre-service training when they move to their permanent sites as Volunteers.

Married couples may face challenges stemming from traditional Bulgarian gender roles. A married female Volunteer may find herself the object of gossip among older Bulgarian women, who may wonder whether she is taking proper care of her husband, can cook and preserve enough vegetables for the winter, or spends too much time with other men. While the wife may be expected to do all the domestic chores, the husband may be expected to assume an overtly dominant role in the household. In addition, the independence exercised by each member of an American couple may be perceived as immoral behavior. Still, many married couples have served successfully in Bulgaria without having to make unreasonable compromises.