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.

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