Friday, July 31, 2015

Should I Stay or Should I Go

Reasons I am Ready to Leave Tbilisi:

  • My apartment is infested with spiders and I can't deal with it
  • My bed is basically a wooden packing pallet and I want to sleep in the best bed ever aka my mom's house
  • It's hot as balls, and only getting hotter over the next few weeks
  • Some people are being douche canoes and I'm realizing that people I thought were friends were really just using me
  • I want Indian buffet and stuffed crust pizza and Chipotle and smoothies
  • I can't cook anything here as I have no oven, my kitchen is the size of a matchbox, and my kitchen tools consist of like 3 wooden spoons and a bowl
  • I need good drip coffee
  • **I am dying to see my girlfriends and family**

Reasons I'm not Ready to Leave Tbilisi:

  • I'm finally hitting my stride at work
  • I'm finally making potentially useful professional connections
  • I (was) totally on a roll with going to the gym
  • Fall is apparently magical here (hello, grape harvest season)
  • There is still so much unexplored in the country as a whole and in Tbilisi
  • I haven't eaten enough Georgian food and I will miss it 
  • I don't want to go back to school and deal with stuff like getting furniture for my apartment, buying textbooks, Batten math boot camp, and being on Grounds
  • I am dreading reopening my planner and going back to the grind of daily minutiae
  • I love speaking Russian, and I love hearing Georgian
  • I LOVE pretending I'm a real adult, and thinking of my future life and potential trajectories 

Bonus non-categorized:
  • I'm weirdly starting to think like a Georgian girl, like, hunting for a husband...and I'm kind of okay with it...but that's super scary so I probably need to get back to America where I'm unattractive and unremarkable STAT
  • I am SO sick of living my life in a constant countdown. Nothing is ever open ended, nothing is ever up to my own discretion, nothing is ever semi-permanent. I live in a series of temporary cycles, always waiting for the end, and it's giving me a mother f**king ulcer. I want to be able to stay somewhere until I'm bored with it, I want to be able to leave when I'm finished, not when my calendar tells me it's time to move onto the next cycle...

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How to Field Marriage Proposals while Traveling

Sometimes it happens. You're traveling (especially as a woman alone, but not exclusively), and you meet a guy. Maybe it's a fun weekend fling, or maybe the interest is more one-sided, but suddenly the topic of marriage comes up. Usually prefaced by one of these subtle questions...

"Do you think you could ever marry a person from this country?"

"Our skin tones combined would make a gorgeous baby"

"Wouldn't you like stay here and find a local husband?"

Whether your hand is solicited directly or through an intermediary (usually an aunt or grandmother), it's important to deal with the situation appropriately. 

In any case, if the proposal is respectful and honest, you should approach the situation with equal respect along with cultural sensitivity. 
So let's swallow our ethnocentric impulses and try to put ourselves in someone else's shoes.  

Of course, an appropriate reaction depends on the proposal...if it's mostly a joke, you might be able to just laugh it off. If it's aggressive or threatening, or you feel uncomfortable or in danger (say, your taxi driver keeps pulling over on a deserted highway to beg you to marry him), then you need to be prepared to get the hell out of there.

Regardless of whether you want to marry the person, or what reasons you have, the first thing that will likely come to your mind is "that's crazy!"
While in Western European/American cultures, such a proposal may in fact be crazy, it is only so because it runs counter to cultural expectations and norms. There's nothing inherently crazy about the idea, is there? Take yourself out of your cultural context. Apart from the "weird" factor, which comes mainly from what experiences you already have had and what expectations they've built, what are the actual reasons you are not interested in marrying this person?

If You Don't Want to Marry Them...

Think of the real, deep reasons why you don't want to accept the proposal.
Don't make excuses that aren't true, unless they won't accept your refusal. 

Resist your first impulse to say "no, that's crazy!" because it sounds so different than any experience you've so far had or seen.
Accept the cultural differences that have led to this situation, try to understand the proposer's desires and reasoning. 
Explain calmly and clearly why you are not interested in the proposal, without being condescending or judgmental. 
Try to not let the proposal affect the way you think of and respect this person, if your prior relationship was otherwise positive. 

Don't back down from your decision because you feel bad for them.
If they are interested in marriage as a way to move them out of a negative situation in their home country, suggest other ways you'd be willing to help, like helping them apply for a green card
If you're certain of your decision, don't make it seem like you're not by saying things like "maybe in a year or so" or "let's talk about this later"- it will only build a false hope and make it more difficult for both of you in the future. 

If You Do Want to Marry Them...

Think of your relationship out of the context of your current location or trip- are you getting caught up in the romance and excitement or could this relationship really stand on its own?

Think of (and discuss) the practicalities: where will you live? What kind of work will you do? Do you share the same cultural values? Do you share the same vision for what your life will look like in 5 years? In 50? (consider the story of "The White Massai"- Corinne Hofmann)

On a Personal Note...
I have been proposed to a few times, and interest has been hinted at innumerably. A favorite line of questioning in Georgia goes: 
"Do you like Georgia? Do you like Georgian food? Are you married? You can stay here! I have a son/nephew/cousin/friend you can marry!"

I was proposed to by a Chechen man who already had one wife...he then proceeded to tell me how beautiful I would look in a hijab.

I was proposed to by the sweetest, most sincere and emotional Chechen body builder- he offered to wash dishes and cook even though it's a shame for men to do those things in Chechen culture, because I had such a "beautiful smile"

I was proposed to by a man who speaks barely any Russian and no English, through three women who served as translators and character witnesses for him. When I declined, he said he'd be willing to just get married on paper for now so he can come to America, and then he would just wait for me to be ready to marry him for real.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

GIRLS ONLY: an Exposé on Georgian Men

If you're a boy, and you insist on reading this, you can't get mad at my blatant objectification of men and probable sexism. Well, you can get mad, but you have brought it upon yourself.

Here it is, what you've all been waiting for, the complete guide to Georgian men...okay, not really. This is just a couple of observations I've made over the past few weeks about the less fair sex. Simply thoughts and personal opinions, and if you find anything here offensive, you're probably right, but sorrynotsorry. 

There are three categories of Georgian (young) men. 

  • 30-40% are extremely hot
  • 10-20% are average, normal
  • the rest are really, really scary
Let me elaborate...the hotness is pretty self-explanatory. I wish I could post pictures of real people I know, but I post this blog on my Facebook and things would get awkward very fast, so you're just going to have to trust me. In my Faces of Georgia series you can see how varied the phenotype is, but in general Georgian hotness has an aggressive masculinity to it, a roughness. There are more or less no preppy guys or 'metro-sexuals' and fashion is quite different than in the US, so adjust your expectations accordingly. One very common look is angular features (read: chiseled jaw, strong cheekbones), dark hair, maybe some stubble/5'o'clock shadow, brilliant blue-green eyes. Dark hair is most common, followed by light brown, and I've seen more gingers than expected (like 15), but natural blonde is very rare. I've also noticed a lot of men with very lush lips. 

Exhibit A: pro-footballer turned politician, Kakha Kaladze
The second group is normal. These men are clean, nice looking, probably friendly. They seem approachable and potentially fun and interesting, but no immediate thirst develops upon sight. They sometimes have very big noses, are super skinny (rarely do I see overweight young men), or have terrible haircuts (more on this later). I would definitely be friendly with a guy like this who approached me, but likely wouldn't try and approach him or garner his interest.

This third category is interesting, because it can sometimes straddle the line with the first group. I've seen lots of men who are very physically attractive, but have some kind of mannerisms, attitude, or vibe that is intensely unsettling. The defining factor is often the stare: Georgian people stare like no other, it's just not considered as rude in this culture as in the US. There are different types of stares, some significantly more creepy than others. If a hot guy looks at me, that's great, that's exciting, but if he looks at me with an intense desperation and slight anger like I'm the high school diploma he never flag. These men are scary AF. The extreme end of the spectrum is men covered in prison tattoos, missing teeth, gold teeth, or just very yellowed (ahem, cigarettes) and crooked; dirty, clothes way too tight, usually heroin-addict-thin, black fingernails, and just an overall grimy, slimy appearance. You can find these men: slinking around highway underpasses, riding the metro in the middle of the day (shouldn't you be at work?), smoking outside mini-markets, and selling fruit and old car parts at Didube (I think this is their headquarters)!

One other feature I'll mention is body hair, because that's unavoidable. I went to the beach the other day and got a pretty wide survey. There are quite a few men who just have a smattering of hair on their chests, but I didn't see anyone completely hairless on their upper half. There are also many men who are just unfortunate. I mean, body hair is definitely not a bad thing. Women have different tastes in how much hair is ideal (but actually, men, f that, who cares what girls think? Focus on being confident and happy in whatever body you have, regardless!), and different guys pull off looks differently, but sometimes it's a bit shocking. Like, how do you even get any air or light through that forest? Chest, back, shoulders, arms...also, unibrows are trending. Just be aware, ladies.

pretty typical body hair distribution pattern
These categories are really only useful when applied to younger men, because an entirely new category develops for older men...

Even the hottest Georgian boys very quickly drop into manhood suddenly and unforgivingly. They usually peak between the ages of 17 and 23 (it actually makes me feel kind of creepy how attractive I find some of these 19 year-olds), then, unfailingly, their hairlines recede, their stomachs expand, their backs grow more rounded (and hairy), their foreheads crease. It's aging, it's not unique to Georgians or men, but here it tends to happen earlier and more suddenly, and in a uniform wave. I correlate this shift with the shift into the "real world." When he gets his first real office job, the process begins. 

I'll call this the Georgian dad-bod, but without any kind of sexual appeal. Here are some great examples:
the dad bod emerges
this is, in fact, not a stock photo, but a FB profile pic
this hairline is a favorite

Georgian men's haircuts. I would REALLY like to use some personal pictures here, but while this post may be kind of mean, it's not that mean. There are three main tragic haircuts:
1. Very short but with thin, scraggly 
2. The Dima Bilan mullet 
3. He's bald or almost bald (this happens, I get it, not really a problem, but still probably not the ideal look for most people)

Dima's bangs are nearing the danger zone, but not quite

the offending bangs are something like this

The infamous Dima mullet...the Eastern European young man's equivalent of "The Rachel"
Also note: this picture is from a website called Cool Mens Hair...
*full disclosure, despite his hair missteps, I am completely in love with Dima Bilan.

Additionally, lots of Georgian men seem to have these thick, dark, luscious eyelashes that look like they just stepped out of a CoverGirl mascara ad. 

Most guys have pretty normal, even, dare I day, attractive facial structures- it's just the styling that can be off. Bad facial hair or hair cuts, terrible clothing, weird vibes, they don't take care of their bodies, etc...

Are the photo restrictions for this post driving you crazy too? It's quite hard to find pictures online, as Googling "Georgian men" is usually just pictures of random people whose pictures were used in some article relating to the US state. My Faces of Georgia project is finally launched! Additionally, please feel free to stalk browse my facebook (look for last names ending in -shvili or -dze) or, for your viewing pleasure, here are some shots I got permission to use. Of course, I won't categorize or comment on them  ;)

(the guy on the left is not Georgian)

So, if the Georgian man appeals to you, or is just intriguing, come on over to beautiful Tbilisi! I'll give you a tour, feed you, and absolutely find you a husband- just give me half an hour to ask around.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Balancing Act and my Bitch Day

When I was living in Russia last year, I wrote an article for the School of Russian and Asian Studies website on the 6 Biggest Culture Shocks in Russia. One of the things on the list was the difficulty of balancing being a local and being a tourist, and this is a challenge I am also facing here in Tbilisi that I want to talk a bit more about.
When I moved to St. Petersburg, I moved to St. Petersburg. I told myself I wasn't studying abroad, wasn't going on vacation, wasn't taking a 'trip,'- I was moving and starting a new life. I did this to force myself out of my shell, to force myself to integrate more deeply and honestly into the community, to reject my natural tendency to be lazy and sit at home alone, and it absolutely worked. I built a life in St. Petersburg, cultivated a circle of friends, and developed a comfortable daily routine. I was so, so happy. 
And then I left. Imagine creating a life that you love, where you feel full of potential, constantly active and engaged in your life, not just coasting along on expectations and traditional paths. Imagine seeing so many brilliant possibilities in front of you- opportunities to grow and improve yourself, develop your career, to strengthen your spirit. Imagine being brimming with hope and peace...and walking away from it. 
It seemed so arbitrary, so forced, and so unfair. Why would I leave a place I had finally found happiness? A place I felt I still had so much room to grow? A place I saw my future? 
Well, I still need a college degree. Despite learning many things in Russia, including how to dress for -25 C (-13F), how to pass exams without actually taking them, how to take stealth pictures of military and police stuff, how to play baseball on an abandoned soccer field frequented by junkies, how to look past nationality and ethnicity and see someone's most essential self, how to deal with baseless racism and hatred, and getting REALLY good at charades, I still need my diploma. I know UVA still has a few things to teach me, and in the two years I have left there, I will continue to grow and learn, but it was a very difficult transition. 
Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because that impulse to fully integrate and assimilate is still strong in me. I can't be a tourist for more than a few days, because I hate tourists...a more introspective post on that probably very self-important view later. I want to be a local, I want to blend in, I want to be seen as having some credibility and be accepted into society as a valuable member, not an interloper. Of course, this is nearly impossible, but the goal is to get as close to "local" status as possible. Go to as many supras as I can, learn the language (at least a few words), learn how to correctly toast, learn in what stores to buy what, learn how to dress, how to walk on the street, how to carry myself.

Here's what I wrote about the balance last year...

"There will be plenty of days where you are a tourist – on a group tour of the Hermitage, walking tour of Red Square, bus trip to a suburb – and there will be other days when all you want is to blend in like a local. Constantly seeing your city through a tourist’s eyes is a blessing, a wonderful way to be constantly entertained and fulfilled, especially if you are living in one of the world’s great cities! Of course, after months living in the city, you also want to broadcast to the world that you’re a pro, an expert, and definitely not as green as those backpackers with a giant map snapping 100 pictures in front of the Kremlin…

Especially in Russia where blending in usually entails wearing your emotionless facemask and walking like a model down the catwalk, it can take a toll on your emotional state, exhausting you and breaking down the baby-deer sense of wonder that characterized your honeymoon phase. One of the most crucial aspects of success in Russia is learning to balance these two personas – the wide-eyed tourist and the street-smart local – and learning when to use which one to make the most of your time here."

seeking balance like a Russian gymnast
Georgia is very similar in the way women carry themselves. To blend in, you must dress a certain way (I would describe it as conservatively stylish, subtly sexy), walk fast (but not as fast as in St. Petersburg) and look straight ahead, not take pictures (especially not with your iPhone 6), and generally not be 6 ' in that respect alone, I am already clearly a foreigner. I can, at least, look like I live here and am not a tourist, and that requires exhibiting a degree of aloofness, looking unaffected. It's quite challenging because I am honestly very affected by this city, this country, these people- constantly surprised. I also can't help but smile and this basically broadcasts to people that I'm not just foreign but also probably a bit crazy.

The biggest difference between St. Petersburg and Tbilisi in this balancing act is that in St. Petersburg, everyone is kind of self-important, whereas in Tbilisi people are much more low-key. The attitude towards Americans is also quite different- in Georgia, being American is still considered cool, and even prestigious. There is a large community of expats which I avoid because the stereotype of being an American here is that you probably work for the embassy or a big international company and you're probably making bank with your western-level salary- I am in fact on a very tight budget, so for that reason alone I don't want to be put in that category which is basically just asking vendors to overcharge you. I also want to stand out from other Americans because I want to be invited into circles of Georgians- if I already have an expat circle, it's harder to be available and open to the local communities I want to join. Additionally, Americans are generally pretty obnoxious and can be very culturally insensitive- I'm obnoxious enough as it is, I don't need to also be associated with the loud, drunk, English-yelling, money-flashing American crowd.

That being I woke up feeling like a total bitch.It's probably because I got 5 hours of sleep, but I just felt angry and mean. When I got to work it got even worse as I was forced to stop and wait as the guards checked my documents. This happens usually once a week or less, and I understand it's a security precaution, but the guards have been explicitly told to let me in, and I know sometimes they don't recognize my face, but the guards this morning definitely knew who I was. I guess they were just in the mood to be authoritarian. In any case, I was very frustrated at having to wait for them to check that I was allowed in (which we all knew I was), and the system in general (just give me a freaking electronic pass!). I was snappy with the guards and went to my office angry. I also had basically no work to do, so the frustration just built as I watched Girls and ate Belvita crackers and I decided I needed to get out of the office around 3 pm. So I went downstairs, intentionally leaving my passport in the office, with my attitude 100% American.
Just for a few hours I wanted to lift my head up, to be confident and fully embrace my nationality, to turn my back on the cultural expectations here and my desire to assimilate that encourage me to blend in and stay quiet. I didn't want to try and stutter out Georgian, I didn't want to be polite, I didn't want to be sensitive and accepting of cultural differences, I just wanted to flash my iPhone, pretend I was that typical rich, important expat, and act like I was too good for the little things that bother me here. Every day I tolerate broken sidewalks, constantly almost getting run over, terrible customer service, bureaucratic red tape, and the lack of American creature comforts. Today, I decided to not make excuses for Georgia, to not be understanding or sympathetic, to be ethnocentric and bitchy and just let the chips fall where they may.

So, as I left the building I sassily told the guard to remember my face because I wasn't bringing my passport, I kept my eyes on my (very rare in Tbilisi) iPhone 6 as I catwalked down Rustaveli Ave, and I beelined towards the bastion of America on Freedom Square- Dunkin Donuts. 
I haven't been to a DD in several years, but I was craving cake and a frappuccino, and apparently "America runs on Dunkin," so I went for it. There is something weird about being in an American store in a foreign country- everything usually looks and tastes the same, like a portal to the States, and you half expect Americans to be behind the counter...but of course the employees are Georgian. I pulled no punches, though. Even if it was just a few minutes, I was in America and acted like it. Employees were cleaning the floor right in front of the cash register, literally hitting my feet with the mop, and I snapped at them in English I'm sure they didn't understand, but my tone was clear enough to send them scurrying away. I ordered with no pauses, no simplified vocabulary, no neutralized accent, and looked dead into the cashier's confused face with no empathy. 

My donut tasted like chemicals and plastic and I loved it. I could feel bald eagle wings flapping above me as I sipped my 'coolatta' (could they have come up with a stupider name?) and released the constant fear of broadcasting my foreignness to the world. For once, I embraced the stares- of judgement, confusion, hatred, jealousy, lust...I didn't look away, I didn't hide, and it felt so freeing. 

As much as I try to blend in, I will never fool anyone into thinking I'm Georgian. I am American. Although I usually shy away from the label, because I think it says too much and too little all at the same time, sometimes you just have to embrace the other-ness and have a bitch day.