Even when ranting about how much I hate subways, I have tried to keep my posts on this blog limited to things that will give people information about… well, about things other than me. Munich, Georgia, TLG, linguistics, the Tbilisi Metro – basically, I strive to be informative and extroverted on here. I have a personal journal where I write posts about stuff that goes on in my head. So even when I write a post that just details what I did with my day, I try to use what I did with my day as context for some lesson I learned about Georgia, or as a perspective from which to understand the facts that I am presenting.
However, an aspect of staying in Georgia for me – and for anyone else who comes here from an English-speaking country, I imagine – is the expat community here. There is definitely a sizable presence of English-speakers in Georgia and it’s getting bigger every two weeks. So if I take the time to post occasionally about my fellow Americans in a way that doesn’t seem to relate to Georgia, I hope it’s clear that these are people that are now part of Georgia for better or for worse.
First I’d like to say a few words about why that is. Georgia gained independence from Russia about two decades ago. In that time the country has moved away from Russia culturally, economically, politically, and linguistically. I may have mentioned before that it is common for the older generation to speak Russian in addition to Georgian. I found out recently that at the bazaar, some people seem to preferentially speak Russian – I learned this when quoted a price in Russian rather than Georgian numbers. Many taxi drivers, store clerks, and other service professionals preferentially speak Russian. However, for the younger generation, study of English is much more common.
In addition, there have been events like the Russian embargo of Georgian products, Georgia’s bid to join NATO and the EU, and most recently, President Saakashvili’s announcement that every child in Georgia will be taught English as a second language.
This is where America comes in. America is a big fan of Georgia’s move toward the West because this gives America influence in the region and a base of operations close to Russia. The Cold War may be over, but America and Russia are still competitors for influence and resources on the world stage. Georgia is also strategic for America in terms of an oil pipeline that doesn’t go through Iran. It’s in America’s interest to keep Georgia stable, independent, and English-speaking.
That’s why the US Embassy in Georgia is ginormous – I’m told it’s the biggest building in the country, although Georgians are fond of exaggerations and so this may not actually be true. However, the presence of the Embassy can definitely be felt at the Police Academy, where I encounter Americans left and right. Americans are helping train Georgian law enforcement in a variety of tasks about which I do not know the specifics, but I will say that the DEA has its own office in the Academy. I can’t imagine that too many people are trying to smuggle drugs from Turkey to Russia, or if they are, how that might affect America, but there you have it, Americans exporting our ridiculous drug war to countries that don’t have any drug problems. The DEA liaison tells me that he has previously worked in Kosovo and the Sudan. Because when I think of Kosovo and the Sudan, I think of the ethnic cleansing, the brutal tactics used by forces on both sides, the complete failure of NATO and the UN to prevent a humanitarian crisis – but apparently the American government thinks of how we can stop people who have no place to live and no food to eat from getting into drugs.
So, anyway, America is using Georgia for a variety of strategic purposes – from fighting the drug war to counterbalancing Russia to doing an end run around Iran – and TLG fits into the “winning hearts and minds” piece of that puzzle. We are here to teach Georgians about English, and about Western culture and values. Georgia is already a Christian nation, so no worries there. Learning about our language and culture will tie Georgia to the West. And sure, this will probably help the material conditions of most Georgians, as their ability to participate in the world market increases, but I have to admit to a certain amount of guilt at profiting from the cultural imperialism of the West and the hegemony of the English-speaking world.
You can already get by on English in downtown Tbilisi. I went there yesterday – there’s a McDonald’s, a ghetto fried-chicken place (called Sunny Chicken, and the manager speaks perfect English), even an upscale Gelato shop, where the signs are in English, the clerks speak English, and you can get the best Stracciatella Gelato that I’ve ever had. There are ritzy, Fifth Avenue style stores with the names in English. There’s even an English-language bookstore, with an adjoining cafe that serves 8 lari coffee drinks and 6 lari desserts – that’s just below average for New York, and unconscionably expensive for Georgia. In fact, downtown Tbilisi is so much like New York, with its crowds of self-absorbed, over-entitled yuppies who careen into and off their fellow pedestrians like pinballs, with its food prices four to eight times what you’d pay if you traveled three miles in any direction, with its obnoxious drivers constantly honking horns… it’s so much like New York that I really don’t ever want to go there again.
Americans. No offense to anyone, but I came to Georgia to get away from Americans, because the American way of life was making me miserable. There are some aspects of American culture that I really like and appreciate and would never want to do without, but I just couldn’t take the good with the bad anymore.
My roommate here is American, but he’s been an expat for years. I believe he’s spent the better part of the decade in China and Korea. It’s really interesting to talk to him because he’s missed so much of American culture – he doesn’t know about things like the Tea Party, for instance, or the new Facebook generation, and it reminds me of how much things in America have changed even in the last seven or eight years. We hosted three TLG teachers who wanted to stay in Tbilisi this weekend. Two were American. They were all very nice. It’s not that I don’t like Americans.
One of my fellow TLG teachers posted something in Georgian on her facebook. Her spelling was wrong so I told her the correct spelling and the morphological rule that applied. I mean, we’re here to Teach and Learn, right, that’s the name of our program? I guess not, because she immediately defriended me from her facebook. I don’t think that’s an American thing – probably just a general maturity thing – but it makes me wonder if it’s worth it to reach out to the other TLG people here. All the Georgians I meet are so friendly and hospitable and happy to help and be helped. Most of the Americans here are cliquey and overdramatic and immature. And of course I’m doing the quintessentially American thing by whining about it on the internet.
Being in Georgia definitely highlights my own American-ness. I’m very conscious of always being the loudest talker in the room, of having all my little American habits and prejudices and tastes and dispositions. One thing I find particularly obnoxious that I can’t shake no matter how hard I try is calling New York “The City.” I have to correct myself probably at least once a day after saying something like “you can get these in The City” or “tap beer costs six to eight dollars in The City” or “I was visiting my friend in The City.”
So I guess what I’ve learned about America from being in Georgia is this: as most of the rest of the world probably already knows, it is difficult or impossible to get away from the American sphere of influence no matter who or where you are. If you live in America you can shut your eyes, cover your ears, and do a damned good job of pretending that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. We are so good at this that we insist on calling our country America even though there are dozens of other countries that also occupy parts of the two giant land masses that bear the name “America.” This is probably why 9/11 changed America so fundamentally – Americans stopped being able to just ignore the world.
However, when you get out into the rest of the world, there is America all over the place. English is the language of trade and diplomacy and tourism in most of the world. English-language tv shows and networks and music are all over. American embassies are all over. American foreign policy is all over. The American war on drugs and the American war on terror are all over – not to mention the remnants of the old Cold War with Russia and the new Cold War with the “axis of evil.” In America if we made highway signs in English and Spanish there would be massive protests and an unprecedented uproar and probably riots. Everywhere else in the world it makes perfect sense to put highway signs in English in addition to whatever the local language is.
And if you think that English is your ticket out from under Russia’s boot, then that’s great. But if for whatever reason you just aren’t a big fan of America – like, if America has put you on the axis of evil, for example, or if America regularly conducts military operations in your country that are probably not in your best interests – well then that American omnipresence has got to get pretty fucking annoying. I’m starting to get a little annoyed at it myself.