Barfight and Epiphany

I basically had an epiphany slammed directly into my forehead – in the form of an angry, drunken Georgian’s head.

The epiphany was: I may have been judging Georgian men a shade too harshly.

How, you might be wondering, does being headbutted make me feel more positively inclined towards the countrymen of the person who delivered the headbutt? Here’s how.

Last week I was involved in a barfight. Barfights are stupid and dangerous, and the general consensus about how to win a barfight is: 1) don’t get in one; 2) if you do get in one, get out as fast as possible; 3) see #1. Since I failed at 1 and 3, I got out as fast as possible, and no one was seriously hurt and everything worked out okay in the end. I wasn’t even going to write about it on this here blog.

I was thinking about not mentioning this incident because it’s the kind of thing that could cause me some embarrassment and reflect poorly on myself and my fellow TLGVs. The reason I find it embarrassing to have been in a barfight is that barfights are stupid and dangerous, and I was foolish to have even put myself in a situation where a barfight might occur.

And so I was thinking about that kind of situation: the shitty expat bar, the foreigners trying to drink away all the stress of living in a strange country, the locals who come to prey on expats in one way or another out in force, the cultural misunderstandings, the difficulty in communicating, the language barrier, and just take that situation and drown it in beer and vodka. I think most people who have lived abroad, especially in less developed countries, knows what I’m talking about. And it just takes one, tiny, stupid argument to set the whole thing off.

I’m always the last one to want to go to bars in Georgia. They’re smoky, they’re expensive, and they’re filled with assholes. When my friends want to go out, I always resist. I’m usually the last one to the bar, if I do break down and end up going.

And as I was reflecting on how stupid I was for even going to that shitty expat bar in the first place, I realized that the vast majority of incidents that I have used to judge Georgian men with respect to their treatment of Westerners occurred in basically this same context. Drinking, language barrier, assholes, etc.

Now, I’m not justifying this at all. The guys who hang out in bars and try to pick up drunk foreign women are sleazy assholes, and some of them are violent sleazy assholes, like the one who headbutted me last week. But not every Georgian man does that.

As time has gone on, I have made friends and taken on students who I believe are genuinely good people. None of them really spend much time at bars. They work hard, they study hard, and they live their lives quietly and peacefully. They mostly seem shy, and despite the fact that they usually have the best English, they often seem vaguely embarrassed to be speaking out loud. They mostly don’t smoke and they mostly don’t drink much.

Georgian society can’t be easy on these guys. Georgians are very tolerant of difference in that they never overtly try to make others conform, but they are very intolerant in that they constantly point out and usually mock any kind of nonconformity. I can imagine that introverted, studious, or reserved Georgian men are probably incredibly self-conscious due to all this, and it certainly explains some things about their demeanor.

The Georgian men that I meet at bars, at parties, at friends’ houses, or in other scenarios where socialization and/or drinking are the main activities (school counts, because in Georgian schools socialization is the main activity) generally make me uncomfortable – I generally don’t like their personalities for a variety of reasons. There are a few exceptions, but not many. The Georgian men that I meet through business or educational connections or in contexts where self-improvement or collaboration are the main activities are generally pretty exceptional people. A lot of the kids at Buckswood, a lot of the guys at the Police Academy, and a lot of my private students fit this bill.

And after being told that the guy who headbutted me had previously been involved in fights with several of my friends (again, glad I don’t go to the shitty expat bar very often) I realized something – despite my sense of outrage and self-righteousness and the belief that I did not deserve a headbutting, I can see it from the other side. I can imagine that the Georgians who hang out at the shitty expat bar probably think of Americans (and other foreigners) as a bunch of drunk assholes who come to Georgia to make trouble. Barfights are stupid and dangerous and no one is ever really on the right side of one.

I would certainly not want Georgians to judge Americans based on how I act when I’m drinking – although it’s clear that they already do, given the stereotypes of Americans as loud, arrogant, opinionated, and willing to hold forth at any length on any subject to anyone who will listen.

Georgian society still values misogyny, still encodes ridiculous gender roles and is still formally headed by a “Patriarch” who routinely makes Santorumesque pronouncements about social issues. However, what I have realized is that the Georgian men who embody these problems are the most vocal and obvious and the most likely to interact with Westerners, while the men who eschew them tend to do so quietly and in the background (probably because the loud misogynists victimize them).

I’ve also realized that what many of us have usually written off as harmless fun – drinking with Georgians, that is – probably damages TLG’s reputation in Georgia at least as much as what Georgian men write off as harmless fun – drinking with Americans – has damaged Georgia’s reputation among TLG volunteers.

(For those who don’t know, I was in the infamous Group 3, whose antics in Kutaisi got several host families to pull out of the program, resulting in about ten volunteers being sent to Ajara instead of Imereti, although by no means did all of us actually participate in said antics.)

So what have I learned from all this? Don’t go to shitty expat bars, and don’t judge a nation by its drinkers.

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9 Responses to Barfight and Epiphany

  1. tnlr says:

    > Last week I was involved in a barfight

    Congratulations. Now the only thing you are missing for the mission to be completely assimilated there is to get married.

    Something tells me that it is coming…

  2. Astor says:

    “..a “Patriarch” who routinely makes Santorumesque pronouncements about social issues.”
    that’s an.. unsettlingly accurate description of Ilia.

  3. pasumonok says:

    i don’t know how to react to the phrase : “Don’t go to shitty expat bars, and don’t judge a nation by its drinkers” becoz that’s all we do with our friends (well we don’t go to shitty expat bars, just shitty bars in general; or we gather at my apt.) and if were to judge us sober, well u wouldn’t be able to 🙂
    not all the non-neanderthal guys are shy; have u seen the response video to patriarch’s claim that women should serve their men? It is called “I can wash my own feet” and features bunch of guys, doing–guess what?–their own feet washing. i’ll post it when u get to a different comp that allows me to use youtube.

  4. tcjogden69 says:

    Dear Neal,
    Have a read of my counter-blog here. http://tcjbritishvili.wordpress.com/ Enjoy.

    • panoptical says:

      I’m glad I’ve inspired you to put your thoughts and experiences down on paper (well, not paper…). Georgia needs more discussion and more exposure.

      To tell you the truth, nothing you’ve said here rankled me even a little. I think there are places where you’ve mistaken my intentions and places where we’ll have to agree to disagree, but overall you’ve presented your case articulately and in that particularly British way you folks have of telling someone to fuck off in the most civil and urbane way possible.

      So instead of just saying that you took my words out of context, I’ll try to actually provide the context:

      The Georgian government invited me to their country in an effort to address a complicated set of issues that could best be summed up as: Georgia lacks substantial ties to the rest of the world.

      Whether or not you agree that Georgia should build cultural and economic ties to America, Europe, etc. is up to you. I can say that the end goal of these ties is to spur foreign investment and foreign tourism, both of which would greatly benefit Georgians’ material conditions. If you’re opposed to globalization or American/Western hegemony, I can understand how this goal might seem deleterious to Georgian culture – and I do try to keep that in mind in my interactions. However, I am specifically being paid, with Georgian tax money, to bring my linguistic and cultural perspective to bear on the problems facing Georgia. I am being paid to teach English, but also to expose Georgians to American culture – to our experiences, our opinions, our values, and our modes of thought. Not to replace Georgian culture, but to add to it.

      Georgia does not need another voice saying “everything in Georgia is great and we’re the best country in the world.” Georgia already has several television stations broadcasting that message 24/7. If I seem to focus on the problems in Georgia, it is because I would like Georgians to know that their way is not the only way – not because I think that my way is the only way.

      But what really benefits Georgia (in terms of attracting tourism, investment, and political capital from the world) is having Westerners here to bring Georgia to life in a way that the facts and figures on Wikipedia cannot. People who are considering coming to Georgia want to know what problems they will face here, and how to surmount those problems. They want to know the major issues and the trivial ones. They want to know if it is safe to go out alone at night and if they ought to bring dental floss or if they can buy it here. That is the main service that my blog aims to provide.

      In short, my blog primarily exists to explain to Americans how, exactly, Georgia differs from America, so that they can be prepared for what they will find when they come here.

      I can understand how you might get the impression that all of these differences add up to an unhappy American, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

      As for the social commentary – the part of my blog which is devoted to exposing Georgians to Western culture – sure, I understand that there are reasons why Georgian culture is the way it is, and I understand that Georgians value their traditions highly. However, there are some aspects of Georgian culture that foreigners might not understand and might not like, and I think that, if we’re being honest, we owe it to Georgians to explain to them which aspects we object to and why. Of course, it’s their choice whether they want to accommodate foreigners, and to what extent.

      In the US, we generally expect foreigners to adapt to our culture, so if Georgians wanted to adopt the same position, I could not really fault them for it. But it seems to me that most Georgians – at least, the ones that I interact with – want to be more Western and want to be perceived as more Western. Again, an explicit part of my job is to show them how to achieve that goal.

      With regards to Easter – and here’s where I rankle you – I come from a country that was founded, in part, by people who left your country to escape religious persecution. To many Americans, religion is still a very thorny issue, and a significant (and often hotly contested) part of the American ethos is not having to make professions of religious faith to strangers. Georgians deserve to know that – they deserve to know that they may be wading into a controversy that they know nothing about when they use the wrong Easter greeting. Learning a modicum of religious sensitivity is a fundamental part of interacting with the rest of the world.

      Don’t want to end on that, but don’t have much else to say… enjoy your day!

      • Swiss_Olive says:

        I am probably not articulate enough to answer to all the points raised in this debate, which was btw very interesting to read (also, I agree with tcjogden69 on about 90% of things he had to say). I would also agree with you Neal, and I understand most of your reasoning. But here’s what baffles me, and this is what makes it so hard for me to agree with you wholeheartedly: not only during this post, and your answer to tcjogden69’s post, but also in a couple of others do you constantly switch between “we Americans” to “we Westerners” (or “I as a US citizen” etc, you get the gist). Please note that the biggest part of Europe would also count as “western” and does NOT think like you, or does NOT share the same perception of what an average American would call a “Western attitude”. What you are showing to Georgians is the American way of being a Westerner; the average European would most probably be quite unsettled if somebody wished a simple happy Easter, because it obviously doesn’t carry the same meaning to him as it does to you, historical background and all.
        I do not wish to say that your points are not valid, but please try to seperate American values and traits form Western values, and if that is too hard to do, please think about if the average European would agree with your particular point on a “Western trait” you are trying to make. If you did that, most Western readers would enjoy your blog more, I think – the Western hemisphere really doesn’t contain only US citizens and Canadians, after all.

        • Swiss_Olive says:

          Correctian: I meant “would remain quite unaffected” instead of “be quite unsettled”.

      • tcjogden69 says:

        Thanks for replying. I’ve replied again but thought a lengthy reply here would be a bit unwieldy, so check out my page again if you fancy it.

  5. Left Eye Looking says:

    Neal,

    Just say NO to bar fights. Or start carrying a batong, shuriken, or pepper spray with you.

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