I’ve been trying to find the right way to say this. It seems like whenever I talk about Georgian culture I’m relying on certain assumptions about culture that other people don’t really share. I might as well just lay them out here:
1. Any discussion about culture, by necessity, contains generalizations and oversimplifications. This is because culture is a situation brought about by the actions, thoughts, and beliefs of a large number of people, and all people are unique. It’s not like Georgian culture is a book that everyone is reading from.
2. People do not only group geographically. Sure, one can speak of “American” culture, but one can also talk about internet culture, gay culture, Jewish culture, black culture, or whatever. Each person can choose to identify with and communicate with almost any cultural group they wish, and while some of those groups are easily located geographically, most are not.
3. I have a lot of experience with other cultures. I come from a multicultural nation, a multicultural city, and a multicultural generation. When people say that I have only experienced “American” culture, they are almost completely wrong. First of all, “American” culture means different things to different people, and to many Americans, those of us who live in the Big City, especially the coastal cities, aren’t real Americans. City culture exists in stark contrast to the “heartland” or “main street” culture. I have never been to a state fair. I don’t like apple pie, I don’t like pork chops and applesauce, and I’ve never been to a national park.
What I have done is grown up in the most ethnically diverse county in the entire United States. I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a predominantly black junior high school and a predominantly Asian high school. I have European and Native American ancestors. I grew up eating Italian and German food but now vastly prefer Indian and Mexican. I was raised in the Roman Catholic church but have celebrated the Jewish holiday of Passover for the last decade. When I was a kid, my mother moved a thousand miles south, and visiting her in Florida every summer was a challenge for me because the culture of Florida is different from that of New York in ways that I have trouble tolerating.
4. I believe in a set of universal human rights. These apply to people regardless of their culture or upbringing, and systematically violating any of them is wrong and bad. This is in contrast to the idea of moral relativism, which holds that “good” and “bad” are simply cultural constructs and have no real-world value. I believe that any culture that supports the systematic violation of human rights – for instance, a culture that supports violence against particular humans based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation – is wrong and has to change. I believe that the American culture of the early 20th century, in which blacks were systematically discriminated against, often with extreme violence, was wrong, and had to change. I believe that the American culture that currently supports violence against gays is wrong, and has to change.
American culture has been changing constantly, and despite the progress that we have made at ending these cultural patterns of violence and discrimination, we have not lost those aspects of American culture that make us unique. Nobody came and took away our baseball and apple pie when we made racial discrimination illegal. Nobody came to take away our french fries and blue jeans when we made workplace sexual harassment illegal.
Knowing that these things are wrong requires no understanding of American culture and fixing them helps, rather than harms, American culture. Any observations that I might make about aspects of any other culture that I believe need to be fixed follow the same pattern.
5. Culture shock is a series of anomalies in a person’s outlook and disposition resulting from the stress of adjusting to new circumstances. Culture shock takes place over a series of weeks or months, not over a series of five minutes.
If I went to Japan and got punched in the face, and complained about it on the internet, it would not be a result of culture shock. It would be because getting punched in the face really sucks no matter where you are from and where you live.
The point is, dismissing every complaint that every foreigner makes about any aspect of anything that has occurred in this country as being a result of “culture shock” is incredibly rude. “I hate this place and I want to go home” is probably culture shock. “I had a bad day because I was allergic to the upholstery in a van I had to ride in” is probably not culture shock.
6. Culture is always changing. A corollary of this seemingly obvious fact is that when assessing a culture, the age of the culture is mostly irrelevant. A person cannot remember anything that happened before they were born, so a tradition that is five thousand years old and a tradition that is fifty years old feel much the same to someone who is under fifty.
I get that if you’ve been doing something for your whole life, it becomes important to you. I have been showering every day for my whole life, and now when I skip a day or two it just doesn’t quite feel right to me. This is regardless of the fact that my ancestors a hundred years ago probably didn’t even have showers.
A lot of Georgians seem to believe that their traditions are more important to them than mine are to me because Georgian traditions are older. However, at the same time, my understanding is that the older generation of Georgians often complain about how the younger generations conduct themselves. I imagine that people around 70 or 80 years old would have a lot to say about how much Georgian traditions have evolved just within their lifetimes.
My point is, traditions have to be evaluated based on how they serve the people who are practicing them today, rather than on how closely they match the culture that predominated among the people’s ancestors a hundred or a thousand years ago.
7. The more time you spend in a culture, the more you understand it. It becomes more familiar, more normal, and maybe over the course of a few months or years you begin to adapt yourself and become a part of the new culture.
Most TLGers, however, will be in this country for three to eight months. When I write about my experiences, observations, first impressions, and gut reactions, I’m writing about the reality that they will experience upon arrival in Georgia. I’m telling them what they might live through for the first month or two of adaptation. Sure, I like Georgia enough that I might decide to extend my contract beyond June 23rd, or I might decide to stay here in some other capacity, and thus over the long term I might come to have a more informed and nuanced view of Georgian society. If I do, I will be in the vast minority and my experiences would no longer really be applicable for people who are vacationing here for a week or two, or volunteering here for a few months.
So for all the people whose response to me boils down to “you don’t understand Georgia well enough to be saying these things,” my response is that if I understood Georgia as well as a native Georgian I would not be able to communicate the experience of getting to know Georgia, would I?