Adaptation

Experiences have been piling up so much lately that I fear I’ve fallen woefully behind on reporting them. I feel like there are things I am forgetting already that I wanted to record.

But let me talk about a theme. I am beginning to adopt a lot of Georgianness.

A few weeks ago I went to meet one of my Georgian friends downtown. I was waiting for her in the courtyard outside the Rustaveli Metro, and when she came over to me, the first thing she said – even before “Hello” – was “Why do you look like a Georgian man?!” She almost seemed appalled that she could not pick the lone foreigner out of a crowd of Georgians. I don’t look particularly Georgian, but I also don’t look particularly un-Georgian, I guess.

Last week I met up with a girl from a later group, who told me after about an hour of conversation that Georgia was my country. She said that it wasn’t just that I like it here, but that I wanted to live here and solve problems here and basically just do things here.

Yesterday I went to a gathering at the US embassy in Didi Dighomi. There was food being served, and people started to form a line. I remarked on the strangeness of this – seeing a line in Georgia – and my friend replied “but we’re Americans.” I guess we are, but apparently I’ve already assimilated so much about Georgia that I’m getting reverse culture shock from being in a large crowd of Americans.

Going to the embassy was interesting. I kind of wished that I had set up my Twitter account with my phone here so I could tweet “I’m in America!” since embassies are like, sovereign US territory or something. It actually felt good to be in the American embassy because somehow it actually did feel like being in America, and for some strange reason I felt freer there, as if being in a foreign culture for so long had been weighing on me in ways I hadn’t even realized.

And so I think that in some ways that’s actually the way I experience culture shock. It’s subtle – it’s not that there’s anything I can put my finger on; instead, it’s more like there’s a certain amount of extra mental processing power that it takes to interact with a foreign culture – I’m always aware of differences, always analyzing every interaction to try to understand things better, always translating language, body language, and other forms of communication into a language and worldview that I understand – and it’s not that I have trouble with it, or dislike it, but rather that it’s just exercising a part of my mind that hasn’t ever been exercised this much for this long, and it can be just a little bit fatiguing. And so being at the embassy meant that I could drop that layer of observation and hyperawareness and extra processing, and just be. After two and a half months of being in Georgia, it was nice to have a tiny, two-hour-long break where I could be somewhere more familiar.

That being said, I’m really starting to get used to Gldani. The main street that I walk to get to the Metro – a street that I once found interesting and new – is now just an everyday occurrence. The filthy gravel road that I walk down on the way to work doesn’t faze me even the slightest bit, and I’ve long since stopped wondering why there are always two giant puddles of fetid, stagnant water at the end of it even when it hasn’t rained in weeks. I know where everything is and feel comfortable walking around by myself, even at night.

After midnight, though, the street dogs come out in a big way. During the day they usually kind of lay around, or wander and forage – but at night, they run and bark and gather and make a nuisance of themselves. I had to chase three of them away with some rocks to get home two nights ago. And yet, I’m pretty blasé about the dogs – I don’t really get jumpy or nervous, I just kind of coexist with them.

In one of my English classes the other day, the students had a lesson about foods, and some international foods were mentioned. I found myself describing kimchi to the class, which made me crave kimchi, which I am not confident is available in Georgia at all, and which also made me wonder what it would be like to grow up without any foreign food at all, to not know what kimchi and tortillas and burritos were. Of course, I did grow up like that – I had my first tortilla less than ten years ago, and my first kimchi about four months ago; as a child, I basically ate like six things and that was it. But anyway, I also described a burrito, and when everyone looked a little confused, I told the class that there was a burrito place near Politeknikuri, and the Georgian teacher laughed and told the class that I was now going to tell them what they have in Tbilisi. I think she was proud that I know the city so well, but of course it is in my nature to seek out all the international restaurants in Tbilisi because I can’t just eat one kind of food every day or I get very, very bored.

What else is there? I didn’t take a shower today, or yesterday, and I don’t even feel gross. I would never go for three days without a shower in the US, but in Georgia it’s kind of okay. And unlike many of my fellow volunteers, I actually have a fully functioning shower with reliable cold and hot running water 24/7. I’m not not showering because I can’t shower, or because showering is a challenge – I’m just not showering because I’ve gotten out of the habit of showering every day, because that’s what’s normal here. I’ll certainly shower within the next 24 hours – possibly twice, since I have tentative plans for some Bikram tomorrow, which pretty much demands at least a rinse afterwards – but for now, I’m a little bit oily and pretty unconcerned.

And of course there’s the inevitable Georgian that now lightly peppers my speech. The most common is “არა,” which of course means “no,” which I now say instead of “no” even when the person I am responding to is an English speaker. And I’ve taken to sarcastically referring to myself as a “ცუდი ბიჭი,” or “bad boy,” whenever I say or do something that is considered perfectly normal or acceptable in America but taboo or inappropriate in Georgia. Which seems to happen a lot… I guess I just like to transgress social boundaries.

Okay, last anecdote. I picked up some ძირა (dzira) from the supermarket. According to my English club, ძირა is a Georgian herb that is used ONLY in ხინკალი (khinkali). I, however, being the international scofflaw that I am, decided to ignore this rule and throw some ძირა into a curry just for the fuck of it. Well, that, and because it smelled and tasted suspiciously like another herb that I am accustomed to putting into curries in America. Lo and behold, this special Georgian herb found only in ხინკალი goes by another name in the rest of the world: cumin. It went extremely well in the curry because it is one of curry’s basic ingredients, and I had been wondering why I was having so much trouble finding it here. Anyway, when I told my English club that I had put ძირა into a curry, it was like their minds were literally blown. They were skeptical and called me “original” which I think might have been a praiseworthily canny use of an English-language euphemism. But really, Georgians don’t use cumin in *anything* other than ხინკალი? I find that hard to believe. As a side note, all of the ხინკალი recipes I can find on the internet call for caraway, not cumin, but whatever.

I promise I’ll post my curry recipes soon. I made a kick-ass potato curry on Saturday and served an interesting, filling, all-vegetarian meal to a group of friends, which I regard as quite an accomplishment. The point of this story? Cooking in Georgia is also becoming more of a normal, everyday thing, and I’m adapting to and learning about the local ingredients and local names for things. Still haven’t found any კოჭა, though…

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19 Responses to Adaptation

  1. Victoria says:

    Regarding the first bit of your post, that’s exactly how I responded to culture shock, too. It was just like my brain never really stopped, and I didn’t notice it so much until I, too, was invited to the American embassy in Strasbourg to watch the election of Obama. The time difference was such that we could watch the election results from six in the morning on there on CNN, as they were being broadcast in the evening in the US. They served an “American” breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon, etc., even though it certainly was an American breakfast passed back through French understanding of an American breakfast. (Biscuits weren’t exactly how they’d be done in America, and sausages were those big German sausages.)

    And I just remember feeling so… at ease for the first time, so much so that I didn’t realize how much not at ease, how much my brain was working double-time, the whole rest of the time I was there. It was even worse by the time I got home. I was horribly sick my first two days of being home, I honestly think as my body’s way of purging all the stress.

    That said, I loved my trip, just like you! So I definitely relate. 🙂

  2. natarajan says:

    dz is like english j, right?
    then thats what it is called in most of India, too 🙂

    • panoptical says:

      Actually “dz” is just like English “dz” – as in “adze” or “bends.” But good to know, and glad to have you commenting 🙂

  3. pasumonok says:

    as a FLEX exchange alumni, a person who has spent a year in a zoo (aka american high school), and somebody who’se been coaching georgian kids about states and culture shock, i will do something stupid–i will give u an advice:
    the worst thing 2 do when u have a cultural shock is 2 hang out with people from ur country, read news from home and generally, try 2 bring home back in2 ur life. it makes it much worse.
    dzira is cumina, hahahahahahha!duh! expect an e-mail from me with spice translations.
    hey, i think i’ve mentioned this be4, but i know a spice guy who has practically everything and–i especially asked him–he has fresh ginger too. i might draw a map for u or something. depends on how helpful i feel. 🙂
    by the way, this is a perfect, textbook culture shock timing. however, once it’s over, u’ll feel like u’re very georgian. and i don’t know whether that’s good or bad.

    • Eric says:

      OH MY GAWD. That map to the spice guy would be extremely helpful to me since I’m staying for a year.

      Bitcho, I wouldn’t be that surprised if that’s all they use cumin for.
      My host mother has never thought of using our tomato sauce in cooking. They’ve only used it as a condiment.
      AND they’ve only used basil in salads, never cooked.

    • panoptical says:

      A map would be highly appreciated, or just directions – I’m fairly good at finding things. As for culture shock, I am spending a lot of time with Georgians but there are also a lot of Americans here who I like very much, and I live with one, so it’s not like I’ll ever really escape 🙂 Spice translations would be nice too – I could use some turmeric too…

  4. pasumonok says:

    by the way, shower is a major indicator. many peace corps have mentioned that.

  5. stranger says:

    “I would never go for three days without a shower in the US, but in Georgia it’s kind of okay.”0_0 I’m Georgian and for me it’s not really ok , but anyway.. keep blogging, i found you’re blog very interesting 🙂

  6. Connie says:

    Pasumonk, please post the spice translations, spice guy directions/map. It would help all of us a lot.

  7. Tamunaki says:

    It’s always very interesting to observe how foreigners experience life in your country, this helps to have a fresh look on things you might not notice otherwise. My attention was caught by this paragraph and I actually read it twice “I found myself describing kimchi to the class, which made me crave kimchi, which I am not confident is available in Georgia at all, and which also made me wonder what it would be like to grow up without any foreign food at all, to not know what kimchi and tortillas and burritos were. Of course, I did grow up like that – I had my first tortilla less than ten years ago, and my first kimchi about four months ago; as a child, I basically ate like six things and that was it. But anyway, I also described a burrito, and when everyone looked a little confused, I told the class that there was a burrito place near Politeknikuri, and the Georgian teacher laughed and told the class that I was now going to tell them what they have in Tbilisi”… but I found it hard to understand the point. What I mean is that, when I read the sentence “what it would be like to grow up without any foreign food at all, to not know what kimchi and tortillas and burritos were”, I expected to hear elaboration on how lack of access to foreign food could affect the personal development or how it actually would define a person… or smth like in that line … but I neither saw the development of the line nor the conclusion, so I was a bit lost what was all it about… Neal, did you have anything specific in mind while bringing up this issue or it was just… I would really appreciate your response

    • panoptical says:

      For me, trying international foods was a very important part of growing up. I can’t say that I was really an adult before I was willing to try foods from other countries besides America. Also, trying other foods made me brave enough to try other things – like coming to Georgia without really knowing anything about what it would be like. And I think that eating foods that my parents and other people that I grew up with have never tried makes me feel like I’ve improved my life, like I’ve made something out of it other than what I was given. I don’t know – food is just so important to me, as a symbol of getting out of my small neighborhood and opening up my mind to new experiences. I wonder if Georgians have any such symbols.

      I think there’s a link between the Georgian ties to tradition and the fact that Georgians think that Georgian food is the best in the world. I think it’s nice that Georgians are happy with what they have, in terms of traditional ways of life, traditional foods, etc, but I think that this also to some extent discourages experimentation and originality. And the fact that some of the Georgians that I know literally thought that Georgia was the only place in the world that used cumin makes me wonder what else Georgians are missing out on, or what other traditions Georgians have that they actually share with most of the world without even knowing it.

      As for affecting personal development, I don’t know – I think that we don’t really have a scientific understanding of how cultural factors affect our eventual personalities, but I’m just glad that I was able to experience parts of other cultures living in New York because I think that it made me a much more understanding and interesting person.

  8. Tamunaki says:

    Thanks Neal, that’s what I’ve missed in your post 🙂

  9. Tamunaki says:

    I agree with what you’ve said, including about the Georgian’s belief that we had best food in the world.

    This is one of the things we try to hang on so much and it has its reasons, I will try to share my view on that later on.

    What I wanted to say right now is following- I don’t know if you come to realize (I believe you do) that very often people don’t have opportunity to try other things and see other world even if they would want to do so. People like you or I (I was lucky to be able to travel in more than 30 countries throughout last 5 years) are very privileged to have those options. Recently I was reading that around 1 billion people live in poverty now in 21st century. And in your previous blog you wrote that it was hard for you to understand how people in Georgia could make their ends having that low salary. Knowing those facts makes it hard,at least for me to expect other attitude from the majority of Georgian population. Although that doesn’t justify our snobbish approach to many issues…

  10. geoskeptic says:

    “..the fact that some of the Georgians that I know literally thought that Georgia was the only place in the world that used cumin makes me wonder what else Georgians are missing out on..”
    loved it 😉

  11. JR says:

    I ran across this Georgian recipe site. Since it is Georgian, you should not have trouble getting the ingredients and you get to learn more about their food too. Some sound really good and reasonable.

    http://georgiantaste.blogspot.com/

  12. Tamunaki says:

    Neal, I was wondering, what is “Typical American food”? I’ve been to US only once for couple of days and hosts were taking us in fancy restaurants, so I didn’t get a chance to taste ordinary American dishes

    • panoptical says:

      America is too diverse for there to be a typical American food. Growing up, I ate Americanized Italian food whenever I visited my mother’s family, because her father was Italian – basically, I ate spaghetti and meatballs every Thursday night for like ten years – and Americanized German food (mostly meat loaf or pot roast, plus really good mashed potatoes) whenever I visited my father’s family, because his mother was German. At home I usually ate macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, or macaroni with butter, and once a week my parents usually took me to a fast food restaurant where I typically ate chicken nuggets with french fries. For lunch I always ate sandwiches, usually peanut butter and jelly (which I believe is the pinnacle of all of civilization’s achievements, from the domestication of wheat to the invention of peanut butter by Canadian and American scientists over a hundred years ago), but sometimes ham and very occasionally bologna. Breakfast on school days was usually some kind of store-bought junk food – cake or doughnuts – because it didn’t have to be cooked – but on the weekends we made biscuits or crescent rolls or cinnamon rolls, and my parents would make us french toast or pancakes if they were in the mood. American-style breakfast sausage (heavily influenced by German bratwurst) was always welcome, and my parents finally introduced me to bacon at around 12 or 13 and I instantly loved it. Last but not least would be the family barbecues. My favorite barbecued food is still the hamburger (although due to urban limitations I have generally cooked my burgers on a skillet in the last five years) so we’d have hamburgers and hot dogs (Nathan’s or Sabrett) and I would stuff myself silly with them. I’m not a huge fan of barbecued chicken (I prefer rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, or chicken cutlets) but usually my dad would make some kind of bbq chicken or occasionally bbq steak.

      Other Americans have vastly different experiences though. For instance, there’s this phrase “as American as apple pie” which implies that apple pie is the quintessential American dish – however, I personally can’t stand apple pie or any other use of cooked or mashed apples (a problem that dates back to my early childhood in which I was unable to stomach apple sauce but my parents fed it to me anyway, which has traumatized me against eating anything even remotely like apple sauce). Coincidentally, another very “American” dish that I also will not eat is called “pork chops and apple sauce.”

      There’s also regional food. In Louisiana you have cajun food, which has one of my favorite flavor profiles due to the particular combination of spices they use. Cajun-style blackened chicken is awesome, as is pretty much anything with cajun spices, and there’s a dish called “jambalaya” which is basically rice with a small amount of tomato, a bunch of salt and spices, and some meats thrown in (my favorite being chicken and sausage, although many people also add seafood). I’ve also had the privilege of eating sausage made with alligator at a cajun restaurant in Brooklyn.

      Another good one is Tex-Mex – an American spin on Mexican food that tends toward the less healthy, more cheesy and spicy direction, although I also enjoy straight-up authentic Mexican food. I wish I had more time right now to go into all the interesting regional and cultural dishes and eating habits. There are special foods for holidays, for fairs (state fairs, county fairs, and in cities, street fairs) and carnivals… there’s just so much.

      I guess I’ll just go over one more region – New York. New York City is famous, food-wise, for several things. One is New York style pizza – as distinguished from Italian style and Chicago style pizza. Another is the New York bagel, which comes from the city’s large Jewish immigrant population, and is reputed to be extra delicious because of the New York City tap water used in its production. Another is the New York pretzel – the kind you get from guys in carts on the street – which also seems to be fairly specific (it’s soft, but somewhat crispy on the outside, and salted). Another is the city’s incredible diversity of food – just as an example, there are at least five Georgian restaurants or bakeries in NYC, plus pan-Soviet restaurants that serve some Georgian dishes. I’ve eaten at restaurants that served Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, Israeli, Yemenite, Cuban, Turkish, Thai, Greek, German, Italian, Tex-Mex, Eastern-European-Jewish, British-style Indian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Croatian, Australian, French, Irish, Vietnamese (to be fair, the Vietnamese place I went to was in upstate New York), Korean, Chinese Mexican, and probably other cuisines that I’m missing, not to mention all the places that I haven’t gotten to go to yet representing foods from all over the world.

      So for me, when I cook for myself or my friends, my go-to foods are hamburgers, chicken quesadillas, nachos with ground beef, burritos, potatoes, and curry, and for breakfast, usually eggs, bacon, and often crepes. I made really killer crepes suzette once and impressed a whole lot of people. As you can see, what’s “typical” for me involves American, Indian, Mexican, French and miscellaneous other cuisines.

  13. Tamunaki says:

    Thanks for interesting and comprehensive overview. I was reading that majority of American population suffer with overweight/obesity, is that linked to quality of food?

    • panoptical says:

      The most credible theory that I’ve heard is that it is linked to high fructose corn syrup, which is in a surprising amount of things, is incredibly cheap due to questionable US agricultural policies, and is very, very bad for you. Fast food and out-of-control portion sizes are also fairly big problems.

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