Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Time and Distance, part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post, Time and Distance, part 1. So if you skipped over that, this post is going to feel awfully in medias res. Go back and read the first one. You wouldn't watch Star Wars IV-VI before you saw I-III, would you?

Wait...

4. What, if anything, have you learned from your experience in Georgia?

A lot of Georgian. Just kidding.

I didn't learn that much.

Kidding again. I learned that if I'm going to get involved with something like this again, I'm going to learn as much as possible about the place I'm going. Wikipedia articles and the occasional Lost Planet entry weren't enough. The unfortunate thing about Georgia prior to this program's formation was that the information available typically treated Georgia with a post-Soviet attitude - that is to say, it was written under the assumption that Georgia was most heavily influenced by the fact that it had been occupied by Russia. There's some logic to this. After all, when you spoke to anyone about Georgia last year, they would have either said "Isn't that a part of Russia?" (the number one most common response) or "Oh yeah, didn't they have a war with Russia a couple of years ago?" (referring to the South Ossetia war of 2008). Back then, I typically responded no and yes, respectively. My attitude was already shaped: it's a post-Soviet nation.

Having now lived amongst its people, I would like to say without qualifiers that Georgia is so much more than its Soviet past, because it is. However, that doesn't mean that it is unaffected by that chunk of its history. I glimpsed the bitterness the Soviets left behind in discussion with old Georgian men - haggard storytellers entrenched in their disdain for Georgia's northern neighbor. "It's not the Russian people I don't like," most of them would insist, "but rather the government." Whoever they don't like, they have still done very little to expunge Russian cultural influence from their country, a fact made clear by the persistence of Russian language on street signs and in textbooks (or more obviously, every time I was asked if I spoke Russian). There are some stops on the Tbilisi metro, a two-line affair I still managed to get lost on, that have signs only in Georgian and Russian.

Enough about Russia. I've said very little that you couldn't learn in a decent travel encyclopedia, or maybe Georgia for Dummies (is that a thing? Dibs). The nitty-gritty? Georgia's kind of crazy. Marshutkas flying everywhere, vodka at eight in the morning, weddings that last all night and into the next afternoon. Any excuse to throw supra, any chance to try out a little English on a foreigner, any way to impress upon visitors that Georgia has mastered the fine art of hospitality. They have, by the way. But that's a heavily gilded lily, and after a while hospitality starts to feel a little insistent. My favorite visits were the ones in which I stayed for long enough that the novelty of my presence began to wear off and those I was with began to talk amongst themselves. When this happened, I finally felt like a part of the family rather than a foreigner. Then I would go to the next party or house and the cycle would start all over.

I don't harbor any sort of resentment for this sort of thing. I imagine that this reaction stems from years of oppression and isolation. Any novelty must be particularly intense when you've spent so much of your life assuming that Russian control would be all you'd ever know.

I learned a lot about myself as well, something that a cursory sweep of my previous posts will reveal instantly. I learned how to drink like a Georgian man (quickly and always with a toast prepared). I learned how to motivate Georgian students (promise you'll play soccer with them after class). I learned how to live in a place entirely outside of my comfort zone (with lots of loving support from friends - and a cache of movies on my hard drive for those late, restless nights).

Since I've returned, I've learned how to process a long, difficult and truly unique experience.

5. What will you miss the most?

This is easy. I already miss the people like crazy. I miss my Georgian family, laughing and smiling and perpetually snacking on mandarins. Strangely enough, I also miss the freedom that living abroad affords. With such a low cost of living, adventures were often relatively inexpensive. One of the things that has stuck with me the most is the ability to travel across an entire country in five hours. I can't even cross two states in five hours.

Ultimately, I think I invested a lot in the people but not as much in the culture. The result is a perpetually jaded expression on my face - one might call it blasé - when people question me about my world travels. "Yes, I've lived abroad. Yeah, it was...interesting." But my eyes light up when relaying stories of the people I met, stories that become more grandiose with every recollection until I find myself a fisherman of sorts, exaggerating and embellishing and mythicizing my catch, the fish tale of my few months across the ocean.


6. Be honest - do you think the country and its people have a chance? Why? What do you think they need to change?

The fact that I'm being asked this question by Georgians and foreigners alike is indicative enough of the state that Georgia is in. To be honest, it confuses me. I tend to think of wildly disputed territories in the Middle East as hopeless, places where conflict has raged literally for generations. Or, do you remember when colonialism ravaged an entire continent? I'd call that situation pretty hopeless. Places where the wounds of brutal ethnic, religious, and socio-economic conflict are continually ripped open, never allowed to heal and scar over. Those situations could be called hopeless. Yet we cannot give in to the temptation to label any situation as irreparable. And for this reason I refuse to say that Georgia and its people do not have a chance. But what the chance is, or what they're trying to chance their way out of, is of key importance.

The situation is, of course, the oppressive and frustrating conditions in which many people in Georgia live. Instead of dealing with a tyrannical dictator (though recent protests suggest that Misha is not as well-liked as I, living in the Samegrelo region, was led to believe), the people of Georgia are combating their own attitudes.

I think this is the crux of the issue: Georgia needs to wrench itself out of its current state of mind, if only because it is hypocritical. The country was occupied by an oppressive, close-minded government for something like 150 years, and now the sweet taste of freedom has set Georgians to cursing their former occupiers ("The government, not the people"). Independence, they cry. Freedom. Democracy. Some even proclaim their love of America with grins and flashes of thumbs. This could be seen as progress, though you won't ever catch me claiming that a love of America is synonymous with a progressive attitude. Open-mindedness, however, is key.

Still, as my blog has highlighted, there is so much going on under the surface. Misogyny. Xenophobia. Tinges of racism, like poison seeping into a running stream. Things we struggle with here in the US, true, but here we have an overall push to close off the source of that poison. I didn't get the sense that liberal Georgians were altogether proactive about convincing their neighbors that a change of heart was necessary. Maybe that's not fair. I think instead that many have given into hopelessness. The rest simply can't be vocal enough.

This is all incredibly disheartening. I am truly digging at a foundation that is built solely upon my own experience and the collected tales of a few others. There is so much good in Georgia, love and generosity and laughter. But I saw pain, too, hiding behind the eyes of women who know that their lot in life could be better. On the faces of the students in my class who qualified as refugees and could not afford books the government did not supply. In the slumped, half-hearted trudge of drunks on the street.

As I have said before, this is all just my opinion, and others would probably disagree (and with vigor). This is just how I see it. And so, do I think that Georgia has a chance? Yes. Despite everything, Georgians are not uniformly-minded and change abounds. The first steps toward what could objectively be called a better Georgia have already been taken. The wheels are turning. For all of the things that I've listed, it comes down to two solutions. One is passive: allowing attitudes to morph as exposure to other points of view comes in the form of teachers and tourists. The second is a little more active: encouraging the continuing efforts of Georgians to open up and reach out to their neighbors as well as countries separated by more than just a few miles of disputed territory.

In this case, change in Georgia will come, I'd say, with time and distance.