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.


  1. Since I'm trying to avoid conflicts over the internet and especially between Georgians and Georgia's guest, because of the rule of hospitality, I will make my comment short:

    I'm the Georgian who is mentioned above this note, that lives in USA.

    I asked Nicole to calm down, because her language was offensive to me and to my country.

    I tried to explain the reason why that happened, why somebody called her inappropriate way so, she could feel better, but she didn't want to understand my point.

    The point is, that not every Georgian speaks English, that's why you are there, plus not everyone has an access over the internet, but they do have an access to cable TV. Now, you imagine 13 years old kid who likes Rap music sees one black guy meets another, shakes his hand and says: What's up "N"?! Kid thinks this is a very cool way to say hi to African-American in US and tried to copy that, because he doesn't know that it is only allowed among black society and is not OKAY white person to address black men the same way.

    That was my point, I tried to explained, showed my point, but once you get racially sensitive and having issues then you don't want to listen to anyone, and I mean anyone who is oppose to you.

    You cannot be expert in Georgia after living there for 4 months or so, and I was born and raised there and I know how it is, because I have experienced the same on myself, I didn't know that the word "N" was offensive until I came to USA 4 1/2 years ago, I swear!

    And call entire nation and country ignorant because of that is not Okay, it is an offense to your host and for any Georgian who loves its country.

  2. FYI: This is Georgian rapper who calls himself White "Negga", and you are expecting from him to explain the meaning of that word? If he knew, he'd never called himself "Negga".

  3. while in america we don't have bride napping we still have to deal with a lot of these issues. there are still places in this country where a black man can't walk down the street with out being harrassed by the police or have women run to the other side of the street.

    Women on average make less then men in this country because we are seen as weaker. Not saying its right just that it is.
    You have a right to express how you feel about the things you have seen and experienced there. I commend you for also stating the positives in this blog.

    You seem to have a good head on your shoulders.

  4. Thanks for the comment, n.lea. Of course, I recognize that America deals with the same sort of issues. And when I'm in the U.S., I scream about those issues as well -- and with a lot less understanding and willingness to point to the positives. But I've been asked to come over here and aide in a process of western integration and cultural exchange, which some Georgians are understandably resisting. You can't change as a society without first recognizing what is going wrong. I hope that my blog, and posts on other blogs, will help in this process. It's not my intention to make the US sound better than Georgia, but I'm here, right now, seeing these issues, having these experiences, and this is how they make me feel.

    People like the commenter above you are counter-productive, I feel, because they make excuses for their culture instead of recognizing some of the faults.

    Givi, I never called your country ignorant. I have loved my experience in Georgia and if you'd taken the time to read, oh, ANY of my previous posts, you'd realize that. Instead, you've come over to MY blog and latched onto one thing you disagree with, and then totally misinterpreted it. You are the one who is being overly-sensitive. If we cannot take critique of ourselves and our culture, we cannot grow and change. I'm sure you've had some serious and well-founded criticism of American culture in your four years over there, but some would argue that that's not enough time to "be an expert." I don't have to be an expert in a society to know when I don't agree with something. If you aren't okay with that, I'm sorry that my blog offended you. Feel free to tell me to get out, as you have done with other volunteers. That's so helpful.

  5. Adam, I'm not to talking about you calling Georgia ignorant, I'm talking about the people who did so.

    I can accept any criticism if it is done the right way, I'm not excusing for anyone nor I defend someone, I'm just explaining the fact that have caused, because of not knowing the context of the word.
    I didn't say to get out, I kindly asked for favor, because if you don't like the place where you live you whether like it or leave it, right?
    Instead of complaining all over the web.

    Hospitality is the key of Georgia, it is more than a tradition and when your guest complains, that is not OKAY for Georgian, it maybe acceptable in USA, but not for us, we take it as an offense. Seriously!

    I have read your other post and I appreciate your effort that you are putting in Georgia's education and thank you again for being there at the right time, but please, again .. I ask you (not exactly you) to respect our customs, our traditions and try not offend us.

    Have a happy holidays and safe trip to home.

  6. Yeah, but once again, I'll point to the "cultural exchange" bit in the post. Customs and traditions are great and all, but when they're so inflexible as to cause extreme tension or discomfort amongst people outside the culture, this is a problem. Furthermore, as volunteers are actually living in Georgia, rather than just visiting, we have been told to become a part of the family rather than just a guest in the houses we are living in. The key difference here is that I pour the vodka for the guys who live across the street when they come over to my host family's house to drink -- a sign of respect for your guests. They thought this was fantastic. The host family dynamic is one thing I respect greatly.

    However, these rules of hospitality cannot be applied to the country of Georgia itself. If we're living here for four months or ten months or whatever, it becomes home in some ways (see my previous post, "Meeting in the streets...") Georgia isn't just a big house in which you are invited to come have a drink. It's a working, functioning nation with laws, government, and people of vastly differing opinion. Insulting my family by complaining about their hospitality is absolutely in violation of delicate cultural norms and is something I try to avoid every day. Critiquing the country as a whole and pointing out ways for it to improve, including exposing the ignorance of the very few people who have, in fact, violated the culture of hospitality themselves, in order to help Georgia improve is part of my job. We're regularly asked to fill out forms that ask us the nitty-gritty details about our lives. Should we answer that everything's just peachy because doing otherwise would violate the nation's hospitality? Of course not. Other Georgians have posted here asking deep, difficult questions about the future of Georgia and my opinion on the culture. Should I lie to them to spare their feelings? Of course not! They asked me genuine questions and I'm going to give them genuine answers. I can love and respect a nation and culture while still being frustrated with parts of it. I don't need to be an "expert" on the culture, as you have said. (Plus, I've talked to plenty of Georgians who feel the exact. same. way. that I do).

    Again, I welcome disagreement but I don't see how what you've said applies to what I'm doing.