Breaking the ice at XacBank

Why is it that when you’re just starting a job, you always introduce yourself to the CEO with spinach in your teeth, or rip your pants pocket, or spill toner on your shirt?

My finest hour was when I was starting on the copy desk at a newspaper, trying to make a good impression as a head-down, able worker, and the copy chief gave me a big story. I had my take-out dinner on my desk. As I stared intently at the screen, trying to be the model of a journalist who’s so totally engrossed in the task at hand he can’t even be bothered to look at his food, I gave my Orangina a vigorous shake, as instructed on the bottle. Forgetting about the cap. Which was off.

The guy sitting next to me said he couldn’t believe his eyes: me just shaking this bottle, the bright-yellow fizzy drink flying everywhere. And it took me a second to catch on, too: even as I felt myself getting I drenched I think I was in disbelief at the sheer stupidity of what I was doing, so I kept right on shaking the bottle for another second, soaking my clothes, dinner, and workstation in sugary goodness.

Yeah, I’m awesome.

So I’m on Day 2 as a Kiva Fellow at XacBank, here in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. XacBank is the first microfinance institution Kiva has partnered with in this country, and I have been given specific instructions to make a good first impression as a Kiva representative because Kiva is super-excited about the partnership. And I am, too: I’ve been pumped to get to Mongolia ever since I heard Kiva would be starting operations here.

In Azerbaijan, where I spent about two months as a Fellow before coming here, each of the MFIs I worked with rents a few rooms and has a few employees in their main office. I got to know the CEOs personally. We all wore sweaters to work most days. The employees were tight, like families.

XacBank (pronounced haas-bank) is like — well, a bank. It’s a microfinance bank, but it’s definitely a bank. Gleaming marble floors. ATMs. Currency exchange. An HR department. Fatigue-wearing security guards with guns. Suits and ties. A conference room with snazzy rolling chairs.

So, of course, Day 2, I break a mug right in the hallway by the stairs, the most high-traffic part of the office. I’m actually thinking, as I put the mug down on the blatantly-neither-flat-nor-level Hyundai water cooler (see photo): “This sure seems likely to fall, as this is not a flat surface.” I’m actually thinking that.

This is not a flat surface.

This is not a flat surface.

And this is not a new experience. I’ve been down this road before, either thinking “if I back up any more, I’ll put my tail light out on that fire hydrant,” or “if I flick this cigarette butt that way, it’ll hit that dude’s Harley,” and then proceeding to do it anyway.

So, yeah, I’m setting down the mug, figuring it will fall, but as I do I get distracted because this bracelet I bought it untied, and for some reason that takes priority over the mug — as if tying the bracelet cannot wait, but the mug can be put back together again once its shattered — and I sit down on the plush leather sofa to tie it and I hear a crash.

So now I’m picking up broken ceramic shards and apologizing to whoever walks by. And I’m having a lousy day — I’m new to this country, it’s freezing cold, there’s bad news coming by e-mail from home and I’m too far away to be of help, I feel lonely and jet-lagged — and I’m experiencing wave after wave of let’s-call-the-new-guy-’butterfingers’ shame.

So this co-worker, no idea who he is, walks by. He sees what’s happened. He stops.

“In Mongolia,” he says, “it’s good luck if you break something. We say that if you break a glass, all conflicts will go away. So now, any conflicts people were having with each other on this floor will be solved.”

I’m not sure if this is true, or if he was just feeling sorry for me and decided to make something up. It made me feel better, though.


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