Friday, December 17, 2010

Part of Georgia has to go with me

A comprehensive, ongoing list of things that have been given to me that I must take home:

-Two medium-sized drinking horns.
-Two drinking bowls (yes, it's a thing)
-A chocolate bar
-Notes professing love
-Another drinking bowl, used for nostalgic purposes -- it's more of a large vial
-A picture of a horse. In a frame. It is holographic.

This has all come to me in the past 24 hours. I've been telling Lela that I can't take heavy things home with me. I got the sense that when she bought me the horn and bowl set, she had to physically restrain herself from buying the largest set they had.

My 8th graders got me the picture of the horse.

Everyone wants their picture with me. I was hesitant up until a few days ago, telling a friend that I didn't want the photos to show up over at odnoklassniki.ru, which is the Russian version of Facebook (and also requires money at signup). Even though nothing the kids would take could be construed as "inappropriate," the idea of my face floating around a Russian networking site along with other, ahem, less than savory photos did not appeal. But I rescinded my embargo on pictures once I realized that cameras were coming out of the woodwork and the only things I could do to avoid them were wear a ski mask or lock myself in my room. I don't have a ski mask and I'm being paid to be at school so I didn't really have a choice. That's what I'll tell myself.

I'm just glad nobody is crying yet. Lela's hosting a supra for me tonight and wants to take, in her words, "many photos with you." I still have to pack a number of things while making sure to leave room for souvenirs -- that's going to be a nightmare, to be honest. People have suggested shipping stuff home but honestly I'd rather just do without than go through the hassle of finding a box, deciding what to ship, getting to whatever they call a post office, fighting with the employees about where it's going and postage...ugh. And besides, some of my clothes are kind of ratty at this point from being hand washed and wrung, so I might leave a pair of pants and some shirts with my family. Somebody will use them, no doubt.

It's weird to think this is the last time I'll be in my school. I don't get overly-sentimental about these kind of goodbyes, but I know it'll hit me somewhere over the Mediterranean. And anyway, I'm anxious to get home. There's snow on the ground -- in southeastern Virginia, are you KIDDING ME?

Consider this my last dispatch from Georgian soil. I probably won't get around to a net cafe in Tbilisi, so I'll just catch up in Istanbul during my five hour layover (I can't wait to pay eight dollars for a coke at the restaurant there). So, while there will be plenty to discuss in this space once I'm home, it's with a heavy heart that I bid Georgia farewell, though I don't officially leave for another three days. Take care, my friends. See you stateside.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Days turn into hours; a Georgian show.

That's really all there is to it. It's been a long journey as I've mentioned before, but I'm heading to Tbilisi on Saturday amidst a gaggle of other bleary-eyed, worn-out volunteers ready to take a nice Christmas break. I'll stay the night, spend Sunday shopping, and spend Sunday night in the airport in preparation for a 5:15am flight. Kudos to the ones who are staying a bit longer.

So the show. Oh, the show. Yesterday, my school was chaos. I had spent Monday night with two other volunteers in Kutaisi and the following morning traveling back to Anaklia (which turned into a travel time of 4 hours because of constant stopping). I got to school around 12 and it was clear that nothing exactly productive was being done. It was just a mass of Georgians standing around, yelling, and occasionally practicing. I wasn't allowed to preview the show (except for the English bits that I had proofread and helped with pronunciation, admittedly they gave me a pretty good idea of what was going to happen).

The gym was packed. I was made to sit front and center with a bottle of cha-cha (which made me dubious, as in, "Am I going to need this alcohol to get through the show?"). I chose not to partake, wanting to approach the show with a clear mind. Plus, I was apparently going to be on television both during and after the show. Yes, my lovely English teacher invited a local TV crew in to film the entire hour-long production -- a fact she apparently forgot to tell them because they spent about 15 to 20 minutes filming my doofy American self during the course of it. But anyway, the show.

I guess I have to say that it was probably the most adorable, awkward, and fun thing I've attended in Georgia. They really went all-out. The "gym" was decked with curtains, they had rented a sound system, and all the kids were in costume. Unfortunately, wireless systems haven't quite reached our little corner of the Black Sea, so during the performance of Cinderella (in which my host sister Ani, 11, was the titular character) the kids just passed one wired microphone between them. The cable proved to be a hassle; during the palace ball scene one of the teachers had to pull the cord out from underneath the kids' feet.

About 60% of the show was in English. Two of my tenth-graders, Salume and Tatia, narrated everything. Tatia would read Georgian and Salume, by far my most accomplished pupil, would translate it into English with her fairly competent pronunciation. Mari, my 15 year old host sister who you may recall speaks very little English, read the story of how Anaklia got its name (I'll post this later). Other students told the stories of why they decorate the fir tree at Christmas and how woman was created.

The best part, though, was the music and dancing. There were three or four Georgian dances during the course of the show, and I was surprised at how well my students dance. Three musicians provided live accompaniment with two drums and an accordion. The accordionist nearly stole the show when one act was unprepared and he was shoved in front of the crowd to sing a traditional Georgian folk song along with his accordion.

It was full of awkwardness, naturally. Mostly it arose from technological issues, including the fact that all of my students (aside from our school's 7-student choir) had recorded their songs in Zugdidi a few days early and simply lip-synched. This is pretty common in Georgia, I've heard, so as a critic I'll let it slide.

I got interviewed after the show. I fumbled about: "Er, um, yeah, I've been here for two months, hurr hurr, the show was great, blah blah." I couldn't do the school and students much justice in one minute, and I refused to watch it later that night. Lela said they screwed up the subtitles horribly. This did not surprise me.

Tomorrow is my farewell supra. I will rise early on Saturday to begin the journey home. Monday night I will be at home where it is apparently a lot colder and a lot more American. Go figure.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Digging in with a bit more honesty

Note: the following post is a bit more realistic and critical of Georgia. It also contains some swears which I am not going to censor because I think that's stupid. I did, however, choose to leave out one particularly nasty racial slur because I personally can't stand it. If you find this hypocritical in the least, I invite you to click the little red X in the top right hand corner of your screen. Otherwise keep reading and feel free to comment. I reserve the right to delete your comments if you say rude things, disagree with me, or if I just plain feel like it. Ahh, administrative powers.

Geographical and technological isolation have meant that I'm not really on top of what tends to unfold online. I don't follow other volunteers' blogs with regularity (though second-grouper Raughley always provides laughs and fantastic play-by-plays of his experiences) in part because I am ashamed of the infrequency of my blogs, and partially because I just get exhausted trying to keep up with it all. I'm trying to have my own experience out here, I guess, but when I get on the net, I just want a bit of familiarity -- Facebook, Gmail, CNN, Politifact, rinse, repeat. I don't waste time, necessarily, but I just have other priorities.

Sometimes, though, Georgia finds me online. A fellow volunteer, Nicole, was recently called a racial slur, not uncommon for African American volunteers working over here. Understandably frustrated, she posted on Facebook about her experience. The comments exploded from there, in which a Georgian living in America essentially told her to "cool off" about it and understand that Georgians hear this word in rap music, etc, and think it's not offensive. Nicole took offense to this, saying that she's been dealing with stares, unwelcome advances (it's also common for Georgians to want to touch the hair of black volunteers), and other cultural disconnects that would make anyone feel out of place and angry in any culture. Another volunteer, Neal, leaped to Nicole's defense, essentially pointing out in as many words that ignorance is no excuse for such behavior.

Hoo boy. Now, I've surely simplified this way too much, but 27 replies later and it's clear that racial slurs are a hot topic for volunteers in Georgia. I'm only using this topic as a springboard into other issues that I've seen going on, but I'll say this: I definitely fall into Neal's camp. Georgians have enough access to television and the internet to know the difference between "kind of acceptable words" and "extremely offensive words." Every Georgian I've met has known the meaning of words like "fuck," "damn," and "shit." I accidentally let the last of those three slip under my breath around one of my host sisters in a moment of heated frustration with something I read online. Realizing she probably heard me, I quickly apologized in both Georgian and English. She speaks hardly any English and even as I was apologizing, she was laughing and saying her favorite English phrase: "bad boy!"

The point being that Georgians know more than we give them credit for when we defend their use of racial slurs as "blissful lack of awareness." Furthermore, you don't throw words around in other languages if you don't have any inkling of their meaning. And this is rarely the case, I think. If you know that a word references a person of a specific race, then you know that that word may have certain connotations. I'll give you an example: I've got a number of British friends out here, and have been unsure of some slang used to refer to specific nationalities (i.e. English, Irish, Welch, etc). Instead of just yelling whatever words I've heard at them, I've pulled them aside and asked them which words were actually offensive and which were just ordinary slang. That's what you should do. If you're not sure about the word, look it up. If you've heard the word in a song, chances are you heard it on Youtube and that means you were using the internet, where a ton of sites will help you understand what you're hearing. If you can't look it up, maybe don't use it. I know that as volunteers in a country recovering from oppressive Soviet rule, we need to be understanding about these sort of things. But I bet that if there were some slur for Georgians and I walked down the street in Zugdidi saying it to people, I would get layed out within five minutes.

Before I start sounding like a really white person discussing issues I don't know enough about (too late), I'll go ahead and take a breath and explain why I'm frustrated by this sort of thing. I recall during my application process and training that this was going to be a "cultural exchange." The second half of that implies a give-and-take. Now, surely not all Georgians are happy that we're here, fair enough, but it seems like when something happens, the volunteers are either blamed or told that we should just pat the Georgian culture on its head and send it on its merry way. We're not perfect folks, and I'm not excusing the behavior of any volunteer who brings the flak raining down on his or her head. Drawing a Georgian into a fight because you're too drunk to handle yourself is your own fault, not Georgia's. However, being black or Asian or a woman should not create a situation that leaves other Georgians saying, "well, that's just the culture right now." While some Georgians understand that this aspect of the culture needs to change, and fast, others have defended such behavior by pointing again to the oppression and closed-down nature of the culture under Soviet rule. Unfortunately, I think it's about time Georgians started holding their brethren accountable for the words that they use in ignorance, and working with us on ways to help them understand. Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Now, with that being said, I know perfectly well that not all Georgians are racist. Using a racial slur without knowing its meaning is just a sign of being uninformed. And as a positive note, a lot of Georgians seem to be aware that racial slurs are not appropriate. And even if they have preconceived notions about your race (or your religion, or your political leanings, or what have you), most Georgians just shrug it off and pour you another shot of cha cha. To a certain extent, I think we all do this. Okay, so I don't have any racial issues to put aside when I invite my black friends over, but, y'know, sometimes it's hard for me to sit down and drink with a Republican (zing!). The issue is that some Georgians are engaging in what could easily be called "willful ignorance," in the meantime subjecting my fellow volunteers to all of the above-mentioned situations -- and more that I haven't discussed -- that leave them with a bad taste in their mouths.

So now I'm all riled up about racial tension, something I cannot really experience first-hand out here, let's talk about another issue I am biologically unqualified to discuss: gender issues! Oh joy!

Yeah, even more than racial issues, Georgia is definitely dealing with gender inequality. It's hard to even pick a place to begin, but let's start with the fact that bride kidnapping is still a thing out here. It's not common and certainly not legal, but it happens. It happened to the host sister of another volunteer recently (fortunately, the man was caught and fined 10,000 lari). It happened to two other women I know in Georgia (many years ago, also anyone I may have mentioned this to, please do not say who they are, they wish to remain anonymous for good reason). Yet many insist that this "does not happen anymore." This is only one way in which the patriarchal monster rears its ugly head. In marriage, women are expected to always be virgins, while there is not necessarily a purity requirement for men. Infidelity is common for men (though not quite as expected as it is in Russia) and jokes about the alleged infidelity are common -- I've seen this first hand. In some cases, women aren't allowed to go out at night by themselves because their husbands tell them not to. When the aforementioned bride kidnapping occurs, rape is common and families will sometimes ostracize the young women, forcing her to marry her captor.

I realize that I'm casting Georgia in a rather unflattering light, but based on what I've seen and discussed, it's at least partially founded. I'm sure that some Georgians will argue with this interpretation, but a society in which women are treated like this is not empowering. I have met women whose initial reaction is to say that Georgia is fantastic, wonderful, amazing...and then I see how troubled they are by what's going on around them after talking with them for just a few minutes (sometimes through a translator).

There's a positive side to things, though. There are strong women all around us, aware of what's going on and working to change it. Our entire program was basically run by women, all of whom fit the archetype of the strong female (I've discussed some of them before). My host English teacher is a calm, controlling force and her mother is incredibly intimidating. Even some of my students show signs of wanting to take charge of their lives. And Georgia certainly has the opportunity to change for the better. It's a democratic society and has a lot more access to information and ideas than it ever has before. It's a matter of time, I think, before the overall attitudes towards women start to shift in a positive direction and build a ton of momentum. I just wish it was happening even faster.

For now, though, we've got to be content with the people who are working against some of the sexist tendencies we've seen out here. Despite what I've said, Georgia is nowhere near the most hostile environment that could exist, and the fact that women are allowed to work, vote, and make their own decisions is something I definitely need to recognize. It's just difficult when you've met some of the victims of the nastier bits of the culture. So please try to understand that before you flay me alive, my Georgian friends!

Let's move on and wrap up with a little bit of self-indulgence. Neal's blog, which I'll link in a minute, led me to this post, which directs a nice bit of annoyance towards the TLG program, some of it founded, some of it...not so much. I'll just say this. Most of us weren't really aware of the exact extent to which the government was going with this program before we got here. I don't know about teachers losing their jobs or not getting salaries or what have you, but believe me, most of us would have been grateful for more training even if it meant giving up some pay. Or at least, that's how I feel.

And in reference to the volunteer who made "questionable decisions," he didn't do anything different than anyone else, and he's not suing. He's an upstanding teacher whose school and students support him. I guess this just frustrated me because I know him personally. There are plenty of people and things to criticize about the TLG program, this volunteer is not one of them.

I referenced several people in this long, rambling post. Neal has a blog right on over here that is quite fantastic. Some of his comments over on the book of faces got me thinking for this post! Nicole has blog right on over here, and she's from the Bahamas, so that's pretty cool. I already gave you Raughley's blog -- I made a guest appearance in one of his posts featuring dragons and ninjas!

I'm headed home in 6 days. It's a strange thought, bittersweet and piercing. Honestly, though, I can't wait to eat some Mexican food.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A bad case of the "Can't-Hardly-Waits"

That is, my Facebook feed which is more often than not dominated by fellow TLG-ers has developed two distinct trends:

-"TLG, where the hell is my plane ticket?"

and

-"Less than two weeks until I go home/my Europe trip/the crushing loneliness of village life finally passes!"

Okay, so it's not all that lonely, as most volunteers will tell you. But as wonderful as this experience has been, it's hard not to feel, as my friend Bran put it, "like you're on the last leg of a marathon." A marathon where you get wine instead of water and butter instead of protein supplements.

Everyone's getting pretty sad around here. They were aware when I came in that I was only signed on for a semester, but Georgians get pretty attached to people in a short amount of time. As one fellow volunteer was told by her host family, "four months is enough time to love somebody."

I'm getting that vibe around here. I keep insisting that I'll recommend Anaklia to get another volunteer right away, but Lela just laughs and says, "We don't want another volunteer. We want YOU." While reviewing the conditional, Lela asks the students to talk about their wishes and dreams. One eighth grade girl says, "My wish is that Adam will stay." I wipe a tear from eye, pause, and respond "Instead of 'will,' be sure to use 'would' in this context."

It's also a bit hard to be generous and get the message across. Obviously, generosity is best done selflessly, so I don't get hung up on miscommunication, but let me give you an example. I'm often allowed to bring home the internet card from the school and surf the web to my heart's content. Lasha, our school's bookkeeper, is really the only other person who uses it regularly, so I don't feel too bad about taking it home. Anyway, it's 45 lari a month to maintain service, and it ran out yesterday. I was in Batumi until Sunday night, but came home to find the internet card waiting for me -- soon learning that Lela had "accidentally" forgotten to give it to Lasha, who was now angry with her. So yesterday, I got Lela to tell Lasha and Khveecha, my school principal, that I would pay for the next month as a gift to them. Something got lost in translation, and Lela said very sternly, "They said yes as long as they can use it sometimes." I felt horrible. My whole intention was to help out with the cost of the card they bought at Lela's and my request last month, not hold it hostage for the next two weeks. It took a few minutes to get the message across but I think it was communicated at last.

Sometimes I feel wildly out of touch. I wish it were easier to talk to friends -- the time difference just makes things that more difficult. But in about 12 days, I'll be at home or on my way, just in time to miss all of my William and Mary friends as they head home for break. Oh well. At least I'll have Skype!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The main exhibits at Foreigner Zoo

Georgians stare like it’s their job. I can only imagine how hard the female volunteers have it in this country – I’ve heard it’s pretty bad. Someone suggested the stares I get are MY fault, what with my long hair, goatee, and eyebrow piercing. Fair point, to be sure, but my appearance is far from the most shocking of all the volunteers. Really, I can take the staring in itself, but it’s a constant reminder that I’m worlds away from home. Just when I start to lose myself in this place, when I momentarily forget that my family and friends are thousands of miles away, I climb onto a bus where four guys gape at me while I’m not looking. It’s like being jerked out of a pleasant dream. There’s no fault to be placed here, mind you. It’s just one of those cultural disconnects we all face, though I’m sure it would help if my Georgian were more up to snuff.

Comfort always comes back to food for me. Here Georgians and I share a similar interest. I love trying new things and being surprised at what I like, but even in one of my most adventurous frames of mind I still miss the familiar. That’s why I was so excited when some other volunteers introduced me to this little Turkish food stall in Zugdidi. I don’t quite remember the name of what the little family behind the counter serves, but it’s basically a grilled wrap with sliced roasted chicken, vegetables, and yogurt. I’ve had three in the course of two days.

Zugdidi is kind of a mini-city. I can’t decide if it’s deceptively large or deceptively small (not that the meaning of either of those is altogether clear to anyone), but in truth I haven’t explored it much. There’s a park near the town center that’s relaxing – the paths wind through the grass and trees are scarce and trimmed. A few of us gathered there on Monday and were swiftly reminded that groups of Westerners tend to attract even larger groups of young Georgian men eager to try out their English on the women. Note to such Georgians: “I love you! I love America!” is no longer acceptable English practice. With everyone saying it, it’s starting to lose its meaning. Try something else.

I’m gathering more information about the “show” that Lela and the students are putting on in a week or two. I know they want to sing “Happy New Year” by Abba in Georgian and English; several students will be singing traditional Georgian songs and English Christmas songs; I am expected, as it turns out, to sing the Star Spangled Banner, another Christmas song or two, and a Georgian folk song in 3 part harmony. Let me remind you that this is a show the students are putting on for me. It’s a gift to me. I feel like I’ll be doing most of the performing…