As I’ve said before, a significant part of the experience of an expat in Georgia will be TLGers. There are currently several hundred TLGers in Georgia and the government has grand plans to bring in 1000 every year and eventually increase that number to 10,000, with several native speakers in every school, so that every Georgian can learn English from a native speaker.
I recently read a post by some Peace Corp volunteers expressing the tiniest bit of resentment that there is now a flood of totally unvetted and untrained foreigners having wild escapades in Georgia and making all native English speakers look bad. At first I was offended – being TLG myself – but the more I think about it, the more I realize how fair an assessment this actually is.
So I’m dedicating this post to TLG drama. But before anyone accuses me of being preachy, I feel like I should admit to participating in this drama. I’ve gossiped and heard rumors and spread rumors and devoted a large amount of my time and energy to keeping track of everything that’s going on in every corner of Georgia for the ostensible purposes of maintaining this blog as a source of information – but also for the personal gratification of being connected to a social network, because to some extent I thrive on being in the know and having a large network of contacts and connections, and I always have. I’m not all that comfortable with being the center of attention, but I do like to be a social butterfly – the guy who knows everyone, the guy who you go to for help or information or introductions to the right people. That’s why I keep a blogroll over there on the right with about 60 or 70 blogs and counting. I enjoy being a hub of information.
However, that requires a certain amount of give and take. I generally try not to spread harmful or mean-spirited rumors about people, or if I do repeat something unflattering I try to keep it anonymous – for instance, I wrote once before that I had to break up a barfight on Halloween, but I didn’t mention the names of the belligerents – but the fact is, some of the stories that are going around about TLGers in general have come through me.
Gossip isn’t the only drama we deal with in TLG. TLG, as a whole, seems to have an alcohol problem. I say this because I used to throw bitchin’ college parties with a full bar – I would literally serve cocktails made to order out of a dorm kitchen stocked with about fifty varieties of liquor, liqueur, and mixers – and I used to bartend in Brooklyn, NY – and in neither of these scenarios did I experience anything remotely close to the kind of shit that’s been going on in my last three months in Georgia. In training there were people getting wrecked every night to the point where (rumor has it) TLG made such a name for itself in Kutaisi that eight or ten Imeretian families pulled out of TLG entirely and the people who were going to be placed there had to be placed in Ajara instead. I don’t have TLG confirmation of that rumor, but whether or not it’s true, it’s a credible story because that’s how bad our training group was. Since then there have been reports of people getting thrown out of host families and even thrown out of the country due to excessive drunkenness and its consequences.
I personally only went out drinking one night during training – because of the smoke situation and my asthma, which I believe I complained about amply in my early posts. I wanted to be on my best behavior for training and I also wanted to adjust to the new circumstances with a relatively clear head and healthy body.
However, since training week, I’ve definitely overdone it with alcohol on three distinct occasions. After each one, I’ve come out looking like a drunken idiot or worse – once I threw up all over my living room and blacked out for a whole night, once I passed out in a coffee shop in downtown Tbilisi, and once I got into a barfight with three other TLGers in front of a big group of expats.
None of these things are in character for me – I managed to get through four years of bar work (not to mention ten years of college) without getting into a single fight, throwing up in a single living room, or passing out in a single public place. So what gives?
I’ve been talking to a friend who spent a lot of time abroad, and who used to drink with some of the English teachers and expat community in South Korea. Her theory is that something about being in a foreign country – a place where you don’t really have that many ties – makes people act irresponsibly, especially with regards to alcohol. She says that somewhere in the back of your mind, you just know that the consequences of your actions aren’t going to follow you home or stick with you for life in the way that they would if you did this stuff in your hometown.
I’m not sure how much I buy this, on a personal level. On the one hand, I’ve long believed that humans control their behavior more because of social ties than because of a rational evaluation of consequences. People don’t want to lose the love of their friends and family, and they don’t want to look bad or lose face. I think that morality, for many people, comes down to image – self-image, and public image. I know that I personally treated strangers better in Brooklyn, where I felt close ties to the community, than in Queens, where I didn’t really know anyone and felt nothing but resentment towards my neighbors and just wanted to leave. When I lived in Brooklyn I would smile at people, say hello to people I saw regularly, help people with random things they needed help with, and get into conversations with strangers at the supermarket or laundromat. In Queens, I basically just kept to myself and ignored everybody, even people that I passed every day.
So I think there’s something to the idea that if we’re in a country where we are totally isolated from everyone we know, where we don’t feel at home, and where we know we’re going to be leaving at some definite point in the future, that frees us from the burdens of maintaining a positive disposition and good public image.
On the other hand, I personally want to stay in Georgia and build a community of friends here. I don’t want to be seen as a drunken idiot or an immature gossip or whatever. And aside from public image, I also worry about ending up in a hospital or in jail. What if I got drunk and fell over and broke something, you know? I know there’s an element of lawlessness in Georgian culture that makes people feel that it is okay to let loose, but that same lawlessness makes Georgia a very unsafe place for a person with impaired balance and reaction time. There are literally holes in the sidewalk that you could fall into if you don’t pay attention – for about two weeks, there was on on my walk home that was about four feet wide and about five or six feet deep. Slip into that and you’ll be lucky to just break a bone. Not to mention that my front steps don’t have a railing on the right side, which means that if I got drunk enough to be falling over, I could fall over and die on my way into my house.
So I’ve tried to be careful and limit my drinking. And yet.
And I wonder if I’m really drinking much more than I did in the US, or if there’s some other psychological factor at work when I drink. In the US I usually drink with close friends. We take care of each other, we trust each other, and we always have a way home or to someone’s house where we can stay. The bars that I go to don’t have the kind of people who get wasted and get into fights. I know there are problems in NYC, but for me, drinking there was always safe and in ten years I knew when to stop on all but two or three occasions.
So what is it with being an expat? Is it like my friend said – that it frees you from the feeling of being watched by a community? Is it culture shock – is drinking the only outlet for a level of stress that goes unexpressed, that we may not even know that we have until we’ve had a few too many? Is it the college-frat-party-like environment of TLG, in which there are only four or five hundred people to socialize with (aside from the townies) and the only way you can stand to be around most of them is to get really fucking drunk? Or is it the Georgian culture of drinking a shitload of beer and wine and vodka and chacha and toasting to literally everyone and their mother and are we Americans just the lightweights that everyone in the former Soviet bloc thinks we are?
So with that as background… yeah. TLG is a breeding ground for drama. TLG gatherings tend to be extended bitch-sessions in which people complain about host families, schools, salaries, weird Georgian cultural stuff, and, most of all, other TLGers. Some TLGers are starting to despise other TLGers on principle.
The thing is, TLGers aren’t screened all that much, which means that TLG consists of a fairly representative selection of people. For me, this means that some are incredibly interesting, intelligent, respectful, mature, and worthwhile people, and most are not. Take this average cross-section of people and add the stress of culture shock, take them totally out of their element, and put them in a place where alcohol is cheap and encouraged, and you basically get exactly what you would expect.
But that’s okay. Most people respond to their environments enough that if I select the groups and the environments carefully I have a very good time. I like my house for this because I can set the tone and decide who to invite – although the downside is, again, this means I have to spend money on hosting, and generally also clean up after people.
The latest TLG drama unfolded on facebook. Some really cool people decided to throw a Christmas party and, due to the nature of TLG, felt compelled to include in the event description the following:
“Just as a preface: There will be NO fighting, NO puking, and NO other inappropriate gestures of any kind. If you usually use holiday parties as an excuse to get wasted and cause problems, this party is not for you. Let’s have fun, but keep it classy.”
Some other individual decided to throw a counter-party the next day:
“Just as a preface: There WILL BE fighting, puking, and other inappropriate gestures of ALL kinds. If you usually use holiday parties as an excuse to get wasted and cause problems, this party IS for you. If you’re usually part of the crew that takes themselves far too seriously and thinks you actually have a real role in this country then this is NOT for you. Let’s have fun, and keep it real.”
I don’t know if they’re serious, or if this is some kind of joke that I just don’t get. I have been avoiding going to bars and parties here because there always seems to be someone wasted or fighting or passed out or puking – and yes, sometimes this has been me – and I am trying to stay away from that so that no more stupid crap happens to me during my stay in Georgia. TLGers already have a well-deserved reputation for causing problems and being, well, a bunch of dickheads, and while some people choose to try to remain above these problems, apparently others have chosen to mock them as “taking themselves too seriously.”
I’m not a fan of taking anything seriously unless it’s an issue that really, really deserves it. This one does. For whatever reason, TLGers – at least, in Tbilisi – seem to surround themselves in drama and trouble and seem totally unable to rein in their impulses or control themselves and behave in appropriate ways in public places when alcohol is involved.
Aside from just ignoring the seriousness of the warning not to cause problems, it also seems mean-spirited to mock someone who is trying to show everyone a good time before some of us go on break and others leave Georgia forever. Again, if it’s supposed to be a joke, I don’t get it. To me, it just seems like a dick move. But it’s just one minor example of how asinine and ubiquitous this TLG drama can be.
On the bright side, it’s certainly motivation to make more Georgian friends.
This one’s for all the haters: