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.