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.