One of the most common complaints that Westerners have about Georgia is that the Georgian men treat Georgian women like servants and Georgian women treat Georgian men like kings. I understand that from a cultural perspective, Georgian society is ordered that way on purpose – that’s why it’s called a Patriarchy – and that this is by design and that if you ask a Georgian, and they were being honest, they’d tell you that it’s supposed to be that way. I have never heard a Georgian woman complain about having to cook, and clean, and raise the children, and generally be a 50’s housewife – even the ones who also manage to do all of this while holding down a full-time job.
I haven’t yet figured out a way to efficiently and effectively communicate my point of view regarding this setup to a person who grew up in such a situation. To an American, even if you do believe in gender roles, you’re at least aware of the alternative point of view. I can’t seem to make Georgians that I meet in day to day life understand what I perceive as wrong about gender relations in Georgia, and generally there’s a pattern to the interaction which basically starts off with Georgians being slightly put off by the existence of a person who does not see things the way they do and ends with Georgians saying something to the effect of “you have your views and I have mine” that strongly implies a complete lack of desire to understand what my views are or where they come from.
Maybe I’m going about it the wrong way. I think that one of the problems is that I try not to talk about this stuff in my day to day life because I don’t want to be seen as being disrespectful or culturally insensitive. Holding my tongue is stressful, though, and if I don’t get to vent to Westerners sometimes I’ll end up letting loose at the wrong time. I’m also a very honest and emotive person, and so I have trouble concealing my distaste when certain topics come up. When people ask me if I like Georgian people, if I’m being honest, I would have to say that I like almost all Georgian women and maybe a dozen or so Georgian men.
This is hard for Georgians to understand, and it’s also hard for foreigners who come to Georgia for a very short time to understand. The thing is, I love the hospitality of Georgian men and I have personally been treated extremely well by basically every Georgian man I have ever met. Based on my interactions with them, I’d have virtually no complaints about the Georgian man. On the other hand, I’m not female.
My female friends in Georgia – foreign and Georgian alike – have all been treated badly by Georgian men and have all suffered due to the Georgian gender system. Sometimes this mistreatment is subtle and sometimes it is overt, but in every case it is a persistent systemic problem about Georgian society itself and not an isolated incident or the result of a cultural misunderstanding. This trouble is compounded by the fact that Georgian women don’t think of themselves as being treated poorly by Georgian men, which is a fact that I have a lot of trouble understanding.
The thing is, many Georgian women have had incidents with men harassing or assaulting or kidnapping them, but they write these incidents off and never learn anything from them. Many Georgian women do in fact notice that the work distribution in the Georgian household isn’t exactly equitable, but they never seem to wonder why it’s that way or what could possibly be done about it and they certainly never get around to assigning the blame to men.
And I think that these problems in turn are part of the greater problem in Georgian society which is that there is a serious lack of initiative when it comes to questioning beliefs. To Georgians, beliefs are not the product of experience; instead, all experiences must be filtered through existing beliefs in order to make sense out of them. The same could be said of all people, but it is much more pronounced and extreme here than it was, for instance, in New York, where people are constantly prying up the floorboards of every belief and examining what’s at the bottom of them.
So I think that most Georgian women would agree with the statement “Georgian men respect Georgian women and treat them well” pretty much regardless of any amount of evidence to the contrary. I’ve seen people ignore evidence to the contrary because it doesn’t fit in with their worldview. Just the other day, I mentioned the high rate of sexual harassment and assault of foreign women in Georgia, and two of my Georgian acquaintances insisted that the TLG women were just making things up. I get that all the time on this blog, but to have someone say it in person was kind of a shocker. This is where the being honest and emotive and holding in frustrations about Georgian gender ideas became a problem, because a surefire way to piss me off is to perpetuate the culture of denial and victim-blaming, not to mention to call basically all of my female friends in Georgia liars. At that point I let loose about Georgian men and Patriarchy and then we all went to sleep feeling insulted.
I get that there are sometimes these stumbles in intercultural relations and that sometimes friends or colleagues have arguments, but I was pretty upset the next day, and in fact I’m still not particularly happy, which is one of the reasons motivating this post. It’s actually not the argument, but what’s behind it – the fact that I hold one set of views, Georgians hold another set of views, and having a conversation about those views inevitably involves putting up with Georgians insulting a large number of people that I care about very deeply. I know they don’t mean to be insulting, but somehow that doesn’t make me less unhappy about having to have this conversation. I guess I could just preface every such conversation with a warning that I will be insulted if anyone says that my friends are making things up and so if they’re not willing to believe that sexual harassment and assault ever happens in Georgia then we should just talk about something else. Still, I’ll know they’re thinking it.
And this bothers me because I don’t want to be friends with someone that I can’t have an honest conversation with. This goes back to what I was just saying about examining beliefs. I constantly examine my beliefs and part of that examination involves testing them out with other people. I want to know where we have the same beliefs, where we have different beliefs, and what’s behind the similarities and differences. Knowing these things increases my understanding of the world and of myself. I don’t have conversations just to hear myself talk and I honestly couldn’t give a shit what you think about the weather this summer. Small talk is a conversation starter, not a conversation.
With many Georgians, there are just too many things I can’t say. Every conversation – even the most basic ones, like “do you like Georgia?” – is a chore, because I have to sort through all of the thoughts that I can’t express for fear of seeming culturally insensitive or of provoking a conversation that I do not want to have. I like to say that I have many Georgian friends, but the truth is that there are relatively few who I can be totally honest with about things that would be a complete non-issue in the US. This bothers me because I really would like to have a real and meaningful dialogue of ideas but apparently I have to do it really, really slowly and carefully and until then the people who I think are my friends are really more like strangers than they are like the people I would call my friends in New York.
It also sort of tweaks me a little bit that everyone thinks it’s okay to say whatever they want about America and Americans but I have to walk on eggshells about Georgia and Georgians. I mean, I know that I’m a guest in a foreign country and I should be respectful, but I think being respectful is actually much harder in Georgia than it is in America. Georgians take themselves way too seriously sometimes and the whole national pride thing is just out of control.
When I lived in New York I never went to church unless there was a wedding or a funeral, and during those I would generally feel very uncomfortable. I could tell people “I don’t like going to church” and regardless of their religious views, not liking church in America just isn’t very controversial. If I tell Georgians that I don’t like going to church, they are generally very put off. Honestly, I don’t understand why Georgians like churches, they don’t understand why I don’t like churches, and it’s not really a big deal – or it wouldn’t be, except that Georgians feel that churches are part of their national identity, and so if I say I don’t like churches Georgians take this to mean that I don’t like them.
In fact, I’ve complained about the very same thing with Khinkali. When I say that I don’t like Khinkali, Georgians are usually somewhere between baffled and crushed. I’ve spoken before about the general aversion to negativity in this culture (and when you don’t like something, saying you don’t like it is impolite in Georgian, so instead when a Georgian doesn’t like something they say that they don’t love it) but I think also that Georgians genuinely believe Khinkali is the best food in the world and that it’s part of Georgian identity and so if I don’t like khinkali, not only do I not like them, but I am also fucking crazy.
Anyway, I can’t think of a single element of American identity that I hold so dear that if someone insulted it I would take it personally. If someone came up to me and said “I hate freedom, individuality, apple pie, McDonald’s, baseball, the word “soccer,” guns, American football, the colors red, white, and blue, Jazz, New York, Disneyworld, and the entire Western Hemisphere, so fuck every single one of those things!” I honestly wouldn’t even bat an eye. I just don’t care. If someone said they didn’t like chocolate, then I’d be surprised, because chocolate is the best thing ever, but chocolate isn’t associated with America and in fact America generally produces crap chocolate anyway, which I can say without any fear of insulting any Americans that might be reading.
I’ve digressed, but my overall point is that this intercultural communication stuff is tricky and I would even go so far as to say that what I’ve described here fits into the framework of what is known as “culture shock” – although not perfectly, because rather than a desire to associate with more Americans I had a desire to associate with particular Georgians with whom I have a history of good communication. I wish Georgians would be a little more open to new ideas and differing opinions, although to their credit Georgians never try to impose their own opinions on others (they just do the socially acceptable equivalent of covering their ears and going “la la la la la”). I wish Georgians would relax just a little bit with the nationalism stuff and realize that criticism can be constructive and that not every criticism of a particular thing about Georgia amounts to a condemnation of the whole country. But I think that Georgia actually is moving in that general direction and that communication between Georgians and Westerners is already getting better with practice. It’s hard work sometimes, is all.