Filthy Americans

IT’s amazing to me that after over a year in Georgia I’m still learning new, very basic and fundamental things about the culture.

When I first got to Tbilisi, I was very surprised at how clean and comfortable the inside of apartments were. I wrote this:

“If you look at the average house or apartment in Tbilisi from the outside, it tends to look like those pictures you see of war zones or earthquake disaster areas – exposed concrete and rebar, lots of open or exposed areas, etc. However, once inside – at least, this is true of the host family I’m staying with at the moment – everything is new and fresh and comfortable. In fact I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any place in Tbilisi where the inside didn’t have a much nicer look and feel than the outside. Tbilisi is a city of hidden gems.”

I think that my analysis in that post was somewhat off the mark, though. I thought back then that the fact that the outside of buildings looked horrifying meant that Georgian people were less concerned with appearances and showing off wealth. I have since been told that this is not quite the case. I think that Georgians are actually very concerned with showing off to their neighbors and keeping up appearances and making sure that other people don’t think or talk badly about them, but that for whatever reason when it comes to the outside of buildings nobody seems to care. It’s not that Georgians don’t show off, it’s just that having nice exteriors on buildings isn’t one of the ways that Georgians show off.

On the other hand, having a clean house is. Georgian women put unbelievable amounts of effort into keeping the insides of their houses and apartments neat, clean, and presentable. As I said, I was very surprised by how clean and comfortable Georgian dwellings are given how filthy and decrepit they look from the outside.

But also – and here we come to the meat of this post – I expected Georgian dwellings to be less clean than American ones because Georgia is a developing country. In the US, having a clean house is associated with affluence, and having a filthy house is associated with poverty. This isn’t really ever made explicit, and I would never have noticed it if I hadn’t come to a society where the associations are somewhat different. It’s just one of those background things about culture that’s invisible to most people. But that underlying assumption is so strong that I assumed, without ever even explicitly acknowledging or thinking about it, that since the Georgian people were poor, their houses would be very dirty.

Instead, in Georgia having a clean house is an incredibly strong cultural expectation. If your house is dirty or messy, it reflects poorly on the family that lives there. People will talk. (Of course the burden for this falls entirely on the housewife.) A person’s status depends on having a clean and beautiful living space. And yet, we Americans approach Georgia without this expectation. I don’t think any of us expected Georgian households to be so clean.

So I had this realization while I was talking to a Georgian woman about what Georgians think of us. She told me that before Americans came here, Americans were considered high-status, prestigious people. Since we were high-status, Georgians expected us to not only be very clean but to expect cleanliness from them. Georgian families who hosted Americans worried that their incredibly clean houses and apartments wouldn’t be clean enough for us. They gave us the best accommodations that they could manage.

So there’s a total clash of expectations. We come here expecting Georgia to be dirty and shabby because it’s a poor country. We read about toilets that are holes in the ground, farm animals sharing the muddy streets with pedestrians, and villages with no lights or heat or water, and we expect to have to lower our standards for hygiene and cleanliness. The types of people who need everything in their environment to be pristine are scared off by this type of information. The types of people who are very nonchalant about their environs are attracted to locations like Georgia.

And so what ends up happening is that you get a group of Americans who are self-selected to be a little less concerned about things being neat and clean coming into families who have been selected as the most suitable and who have offered up their best accommodations.

And so what ends up happening is that they think we are filthy.

I’ve heard so many stories of volunteers complaining that their host moms go into their rooms, clean up, move stuff around, and generally get in the volunteers’ business. Of course, this is because as Americans we expect to have our own space that’s ours privately and it’s nobody else’s business what we do in that space. We feel entitled to live in a messy room. For many of us it’s a matter of comfort and convenience to have everything laid out in a certain way in our personal space – and what looks like a chaotic mess to anyone else feels like home to us. I know that for me, if my bedroom is too clean I feel like I’m sleeping in a hotel. I need a certain amount of clutter.

But it’s hard for us to look at it from our hosts’ perspective. I heard a story of a host family in Zestaponi who had given their TLGV the best room in the house and all the best linens and the best comforter. (Side note: Georgians mostly use duvets, with duvet covers, which as an American are totally foreign and strange to me, but the system does seem to make sense – although I still miss my enormous washable Jersey-knit Egyptian cotton comforter.) So anyway one night this volunteer comes home, presumably drunk or something, and falls asleep on top of the bed without even taking off his boots. The host mom comes in and sees this guy’s boots on her best comforter – knowing what streets in Georgia are like – and her basic conclusion is that Americans are filthy people who have no respect for their living quarters and are perfectly happy to wallow in the shit and mud they track in from the streets.

And we turn around and comment on how quaint and odd it is that Georgians all have house slippers.

So I bought a pair of house slippers. In America I was never really a “take your shoes off in the house” person. My apartments growing up tended to have wall to wall carpeting, which meant that if you tracked mud and dirt in off the street you could just wait until it dried and vacuum it up, which I generally did on the order of once every month or two. My aunt used to get her carpets shampooed, which we in the family viewed as both a flamboyant display of wealth and a symptom of my aunt’s freakish obsession with cleanliness. For me a vacuum was enough, and in the kitchen and bathroom, I’d mop every once in a while.

Here carpeting in the house seems rare, although occasionally I’ll see like an area rug or something, and the floors tend to be fairly cold in winter, which normally would incline me to just leave my sneakers on in the house. This does track dirt in, and while I don’t mind this (and will clean it up every once in a while, usually when I have company), my gf has clearly expressed to me that she considers my willingness to live in filth that I dragged in off the street to be a substantial character flaw and failing in my personality, and so I gave in and bought the damned slippers. They’re very nice, but it still feels weird to own slippers. I feel more Georgian every day. In theatre, one of the techniques for getting into character is to wear that character’s shoes – it makes you feel different. Try it.

I want to stress that I don’t think that Americans in general are filthy. First of all, it’s not like we eat off the floor, so what does it matter if it’s a little dirty? Second of all, it’s not like we’re walking down dirt roads covered in cow shit, so I think that if our streets are less dirty it justifies being a little less fastidious about our floors. Third, as I said before, the clean freaks of America are turned off by Georgia’s reputation and would never come here, so the median filthiness of TLG volunteers is just going to end up being higher than that of Americans overall (not that I’m judging).

But in Georgia there seems to be a strong cultural division between inside the house and outside the house. This division pertains socially as well – there’s strong separation between the public and private sphere. Generally, the outside is dirty and filthy and that’s okay, and Georgians seem willing to tolerate a lot more filth and garbage and whatnot in their outside environment than Americans do, judging by the litter and farm animals and other related phenomena. Generally, the inside is kept clean and orderly. The outside looks shabby and run-down. The inside looks modern and well-maintained. It’s a theme.

This post is running long. I’ll conclude with this: I think if you’re coming to live with a host family, these things about the cleanliness and the house slippers and the partitioning of inside from outside need to be on your mind. It’s definitely going to become an issue, but how big of an issue and how well it’s handled depend on being informed in advance. This isn’t a cultural difference that is obvious or easy to articulate and families often won’t even bring it up out of politeness, but it is an important one that has led to countless misunderstandings and numerous conflicts.

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19 Responses to Filthy Americans

  1. Mach says:

    Nice observations there, thanks for the post Neal.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Maybe you won’t agree with this, but I’ve lived with host families for over a year now. It’s normal to see Georgians do the dishes with the same rag and sponge they use wipe the floor and table. I often see them ashing their cigarettes on the dishes that we all eat on.
    Lastly, everyone smokes in the house.
    Okay, I’m going to make a lot of people mad by posting this, but I’m feeling really frisky this month. It’s a bad culture shock month for me. Sorry.

    • panoptical says:

      Oh, I definitely agree – there is a lot of variation within Georgia, but overall I would say that the personal health and hygiene standards here are far below what I came to expect in New York. People tend to shower less and smell worse here. They tend to eat food that has been sitting out for hours or days, completely ignorant of the concepts of bacterial growth or food contamination. Georgians will obsess over visible dirt on the floor but completely ignore things that are actually harmful to the human body, like bacteria, contagious illness, cigarette smoke, and burning garbage. Doctors in hospitals don’t take proper care to prevent infection and a visit to a Georgian hospital will often make a patient worse rather than better.

      That being said, they still think we Americans are filthy. I recognize a certain amount of irony there, but I think it is important to realize where they are coming from.

  3. A007 says:

    Well, no shoes rule is less common in west Georgia, from my observations (I am from there). And this annoyed me greatly when I lived there. I do not know if you lived/traveled extensively anywhere else but US and Georgia, but shoes indoors are unacceptable in quiet many places, obvious ones being East Asia and Middle East, less obvious Russia and most of the Europe (at least Northern part of it). I’ve heard Canadians do not wear shoes indoors as well.

    So I would say US is exception rather than rule.

  4. katarzynawid says:

    Conversely – as the clean-looking home is a sign of status, is helping out around the house then seen as an insult? A suggestion that they’re not clean, or good enough?
    I have never encountered such protests, vigorous and continuous, to helping out as I have here! I do the dishes in secret, it’s madness!

    • panoptical says:

      Interesting thought!

    • pasumonok says:

      as a guest u are not supposed to help 🙂 u are just supposed 2 eat 🙂
      ok, i have never seen people use the same sponge for dishes that they use for floor. did that really happen? not normal.
      i used to work as a nanny in u.s., i went to many houses….man, i’ve seen week-old pizza stuck in the couch…and the cars smelling funny and full of month-old leftovers…
      the standard good georgian housewife would freak.
      my u.s. friend from college visited me twice and called me a “domestic godess” and i swear, i do quarter of cleaning (floor, dishes, fridge), half of cooking, etc compared to what i am supposed to (according to women in my family).
      i’ve said it before, think 50s housewife in the states–that’s the georgian standard.
      and why wouldn’t u take off ur shoes be4 going 2 bed?

  5. Left Eye Looking says:

    Hmmm….I don’t know. In my travels most of the American expats that I have encountered over the past 15 years have been very dirty with only a few exceptions. When I was in Catania my Sicilian friends and former employer would recount harrowing tales about the filthiness of American expats in Italy. But I’ve heard the same story in the Balkans, Germany, France, Mexico, etc. Having said that I’ve lived with American expats and all of them have been gross. Underwear with skidmarks on the floor, plates of dried food, dvds, cds, old laundry, clipped finger nails, tampons, hair, all in a mixed pile….yeah i’ve seen it all. Those were the women.
    In the gov’t building in Tbilisi during the orientation last year someone left a steaming pile of excrement in the women’s shower. Other people couldn’t aim and peed next to the toilets.
    Who does that?
    Other things I’ve seen like taking pizza boxes with week old pizza and putting them in the cabinets/cupboard instead of throwing the boxes away is pretty disgusting. Are people really that lazy that they can’t be bothered to dispose of a pizza box? Keeping dead rodents in the refrigerater. Then there were all of the expats I’ve met in hotels, hostels, on trains, and while there have been one or two exceptions what I’ve noticed isn’t so much the filthiness but a lack of consideration for others. Taking the entire contents of a suitcase and dumping it out on the floor in a communal space and never bothering to pick it up.
    And hygiene issues…. Leaving bloody tampons and pads uncovered/unwrapped in the trash bin. Disgusting! Piles of dead skin, eyelashes, snot in the sink, ring around the toilet, blood, vomit.

    Having traveled to 22 countries for 15 years, doing a variety of jobs, I’ve only met 4 American expats who were aware of their surroundings and considerate of others. The others that I’ve met are pretty inconsiderate of others and can’t grasp the concept of sharing a communal space.

    • Anonymous says:

      that is disgusting, sound like you’ve met some pretty shitty americans! sorry! but we aren’t all like that.

      • Left Eye Looking says:

        @ Anonymous…you’re probably right, I’m sure some Americans aren’t like that. However, the ones that I have met overseas have been absolutely feral. BTW, I’m American.

        I wonder if the reason why American expats are nasty is because they are abroad and feel less inclined to clean up after themselves? Kind of how many Americans go abroad just to get drunk and high because they’re away from home, a little juvenile behavior to go with the new cultural experiences? Maybe a mentality of rebellion, i.e. “Yay I’m away from home now I can go wild! Woo Hoo!”

        I’ve found Georgians make a concentrated effort to be clean despite obvious setbacks like a lack of running water. The things that drove me bonkers in Georgia were patients smoking in hospitals, nurses eating sunflower seeds while on duty, and doctors who weren’t wearing gloves. And re-using the pee cups for patients. I was admitted into the hospitals in Georgia for food poisoning I often worried that the syringes were old and being reused and weren’t clean.

        I’m so paranoid about bacteria, infectious diseases, and body fluids. I worked in pharma/biotech so it’s entirely possible that I’m a clean freak from time spent in a FDA clean room. I had a microbiologist roommate who had a particle counter in her living room…that is so cool. I want to purchase one of those!

  6. Will says:

    Hi Neal. I rarely disagree with any of what you write. However, there is one fundamental thing you overlooked in your explanation of the seemingly overall lack of interest in Georgian dwelling exteriors. The reason they are not aesthetically pleasing is due to money. Who has the money to afford such a frill in Georgia? Not to mention, with some of the Soviet-bloc architecture that exists, doing anything remotely fancy to the exterior is impractical (what would you do exactly?) The whole idea strikes me as being like putting lipstick on a pig anyway. 😀

    • panoptical says:

      No, really, money doesn’t explain it – Georgians waste money on tons of things (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Tbilisi is kind of drowning in casinos, which cater to a class of people with lots of disposable income) and there actually is a sizable upper class in Georgia, most of whom live in places that look far, far worse from the outside than even the poorest New York neighborhoods. When you walk into a building with broken windows, no working doorbell, no lights in the halls, a fifty-year old elevator that works no more than 80% of the time, broken marble steps, and graffiti all over the walls, you don’t then expect to see an apartment that’s been gut-renovated in the last five years, with heating and air conditioning, chandeliers, art on the walls, brand new furniture, modern kitchen appliances, on-demand hot water, a washing machine, a computer, and a flat-screen TV. Yet that’s basically the story in at least half of Vake and much of Saburtalo as well. People who drive BMWs and live in a house that’s never been painted.

  7. Native perspective here... says:

    The reason why Georgian buildings are so run down on the outside is because that is “common space” – in other words, it’s everyone’s space, so that’s why no one takes care of it. I know it seems weird, but in Georgia people concentrate more on what is “theirs” and don’t care of that of other people too much.

    Georgians don’t want to bother with putting effort into something that’s not theirs and that won’t give them any rewards. We pride ourselves on when we look good, when our houses are clean, and when our families are good families. In America, if you have a drug addict neighbor, it reflects poorly on you since you’re living in the same neighborhood, but in Georgia it doesn’t matter that much. It’s what *you* look like and need that you focus on. Just look at the traffic in Tbilisi – no one stops for pedestrians. This is because the mentality is “I’m driving and need to get somewhere, that pedestrian can take care of him/herself”. And if not, too bad – not my problem.

    This is true for relationships as well- Georgians help out family, friends, and neighbors – but a Georgian from another town who’s a stranger? Tough luck – you’re on your own. All of this applies mainly to Tbilisi and the big cities though- people are friendlier in the countrysides.
    Strangely enough, the culture puts a huge emphasis on being nice to and helping out foreigners, but not so much your fellow Georgians. Can’t it be both?! -Rant over-

    • --> says:

      Wow! Extremely well described that is the nature of the problem. If one looks houses of countryside it is noticeable that their exteriors are much well kept than apartment blocks in cities. And this is because of the same reason – people treat their houses as their own property while it is not the case in cities.

      What do you think would be the remedy of the situation – if any?

      • Native perspective here... says:

        Well, the remedy is to somehow change the mentality so that Georgians help each other out and feel unified. Look at our diaspora- no one helps each other out! Compare that to Armenians, who support each other when abroad and do very well.

        Here in the U.S., if I ask someone how they studied for a test (what materials they used, etc..) or which job markets are hiring, they will tell me. Georgians (at least, those living in Georgia….) will not tell you, since they want to get the job/good grade, and if they can’t get it, then no one else should get it. That’s what keeps us behind, and that’s what has to change. Respect for your fellow citizens and non-jealousy. The younger generation is showing signs of change, but I don’t know how long it will take them to fix the situation- hopefully soon?

        • --> says:

          > if they can’t get it, then no one else should get it.

          > That’s what keeps us behind, and that’s
          > what has to change.

          Well said – you nailed it down. This is (my personal opinion) because of people’s perceived opinion about scarcity and finite amount of resources available.

          As an example – in States one person helping another with resources (like information about job markets/availability, study materials, charity) does not mean that these resources are permanently removed for someone else’s or whole society’s use. If a person A helping person B with something it does not mean that that ‘something’ won’t be available anymore for person C, D and so on.

          In Georgia it is not the case – if one person is helping another person or consuming some goods he/she has to be very careful how it is done or who is the intended recipient because the perception is that these goods/deeds once performed are permanently removed from the pool –

          i.e. if I am helping a homeless/lo income person I can do it only once so have to know quite well who to help any why. If I am telling about available job to someone I need to make sure that he/she is the my best friend who will repay me back because I won’t have that job/vacancy available in the future and so on.

          So it really comes down to the economic nature of the whole problem – people have no choice or – more importantly – they think that there is no choice at all.

          Only education, expanding horizons will change this…

  8. Amanda says:

    I’ve actually been in many American households where shoes are taken off at the door- I actually do this out of habit because it’s more comfortable for me to take my shoes off when I’m finally at home. It seems like a good idea though, especially if you ever plan to sit down on the floor for any reason. Cows may not be taking dumps on the streets of New York City, but plenty of homeless people, pigeons, rats, drunks and weirdos are and I can’t imagine any place being dirtier on the outside.
    And slippers… I love slippers! Plenty of Americans wear slippers in the house. I don’t think it’s so much of a cultural thing as far as what region of the world you live in, but more of a personal preference issue stemming from how you were raised.

    • panoptical says:

      Well, yes and no – in America, it’s more of a personal preference issue; in Georgia, it’s a cultural thing. So like, in America, some people wear slippers and some people don’t even own slippers; in Georgia it is unheard of not to have house slippers and if you walk around in your house without them (like, say, in socks, or barefoot) people will think that you are crazy and doomed.

  9. oahsdjkshbd says:

    Always been unpleasant to me how most of the Americans I’ve met and spent time with, would rub their shoe soles in a couch and most certainly eat whatever they dropped on the ground (5 second rule). It’s simply not hygienic.

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