An American in Zugdidi

I had a busy last few weeks! My boyfriend Ben came to visit and we spent a wonderful ten days in Mestia, Zugdidi, and Tbilisi for the holidays. A post about Georgian New Year’s and Christmas celebrations will be coming soon!

In the meantime, I feel like it’s due time for a post about culture shock. I’ve been living in Zugdidi for about four months now. I’m settled into a routine. I’ve experienced a lot of frustration and a lot of personal growth due to cultural differences. I missed airing my grievances on Festivus, but I’m going to do it now! It’s long, I’m sorry. Also, please take all observations with a grain of salt. My experiences are but a small drop in the large ocean of Georgian culture. I barely know the language so I’m aware there’s a lot that goes over my head. I do love Georgia, especially the people. My time in Zugdidi so far would not be the same without my friends, colleagues, and host family. I’m appreciative of all the opportunities I’ve been granted that allow such deep immersion in the culture. As a foreigner in any culture, that always means things will get weird.

Just to clarify, culture shock is the reaction one has to cultural differences, not the cultural differences themselves. My pet peeve is seeing TikToks titled “Culture Shocks From My Study Abroad,” when the proper thing to say would be “Surprising Cultural Differences That Contributed to My Culture Shock.”

Everyone wants to know about what I think of Georgian food (delicious!), Georgian national dance (beautiful and I think it’s amazing so many of my students take lessons and there’s a real passion for it), the language (difficult to learn but fascinating), etc. These are aspects of culture that only scratch the surface. Learning about the culture means taking a deep dive into habits, relationships, and systems. I think that’s where the most interesting differences can be found.

Teaching

I’ll likely make a separate post about teaching in the future, but there are some aspects of my teaching experience I’d like to highlight as far as cultural differences go:

  1. Student absences: There aren’t attendance grades (which based on my two weeks of attending university in Austria, seems to be common in European higher education) and I’m sure tuition isn’t as high and debt-inducing as in the U.S. but many students just don’t attend class. I have a group of at least 12 students – and I say at least because I’ve never seen an official roll sheet but over the course of the first three weeks of class I passed around a paper for students to write their names and emails and came away with 12 – but there have been days where only two students show up. 30 minutes late! The best attendance was by far in the first weeks of class but the lack of students was especially jarring in November when I’d plan a fun game only to find three students in class.
  2. Methodology: I’ll dive in deeper in a future post but the greatest shock was that students weren’t so quick to do partner work or share their opinions. All the language teaching training I’ve received has come from the communicative theory, meaning that language learning is seen as a social process that requires conversations, connections, and creativity in order to learn. Not the case in these classrooms! I’ve only attended a few classes with one co-teacher and discovered that lessons are entirely lecture-based. Students really have no opportunities to use the language aside from reading out loud directly from the text when called upon. In one lesson, the students were asked to read a passage about Frida Kahlo and then summarize it out loud. Every single student recited the passage word for word from memory! I’ve noticed this when asking questions about text or audio in class. Students have to find the answer word-for-word directly from the source and that is their final answer. We’ve been working a bit on paraphrasing and summarizing but I’m not sure if there are opportunities for students to use these skills elsewhere, anyway.

Facebook, Foto-Sessia, and Phones

I cannot imagine Georgia without Facebook. Georgia would simply cease to exist in my mind without the social media platform. It’s used for everything. It’s how people do business. Email? No. Attachments are sent via Facebook Messenger. You can’t get a hold of anyone unless you can find their profile on Facebook. Businesses update opening hours and important information on their Facebook pages. Want to make a reservation at a restaurant? Facebook. My students send me messages all the time, which means they see my profile and my photos from high school, and my friends list and it still blows my mind that it’s so normal here. I made a class website and have gotten a lot of my students to check their emails, so that’s helped a bit. It’s one of those things that I don’t see myself ever assimilating to fully; I have to maintain some boundaries!

You know how so many people on social media are guilty of staging things? And if you didn’t post something, well, did it really happen? Welcome to Georgian Facebook! I can’t do anything for an organization without photos being taken and put on the Facebook page. The photos are far more important than the content of the actual event. People in charge of the events they ask me to speak at sometimes stop paying attention after they finish snapping photos in the first five minutes. I have a portfolio of glamour shots taken of me teaching uploaded to Facebook. This is fine because I haven’t done anything I wouldn’t want on social media but living my life knowing that each and every moment I am in public might be captured and uploaded somewhere is kind of crazy. I am never taking a media release form for granted again. Foto-sessias are like a pasttime. I gasp every time I see a Georgian friend has uploaded a nice picture of themselves or their kids and there are 400 likes and 120 comments. Georgian culture is very social and centered on relationships. So, the popularity of Facebook makes a lot of sense but it feels like a bit much for me sometimes.

Because of the importance of relationships, I’ve noticed how much people love to stay connected. Ringers are always on. Voicemails aren’t really a thing and neither is email, so you better be answering your phone. In the middle of class, in the middle of a conference, in the middle of dinner, anywhere and at any time you can and should answer your phone. Some of my students have their textbooks on their phones so I can’t really ask them to put the phones away in class. Messages between friends are returned instantaneously and I know my students are Facebook messaging people when I’m asking them their opinions of the news article we just read. I have students dip into the hallway to answer a phone call. In my head before I’ve thought Come on, it can definitely wait. Maybe to me, it can wait. But that’s not a battle I need to pick with an entire culture.

Hydration

I carry my silly little sticker-covered emotional support Nalgene around with me and it sticks out like a sore thumb. There are water coolers at the university and I think I might be the only one that uses them. I gave up drinking pop almost entirely in high school but I might pick it up again because I cannot sit down for a meal here without being offered Coke or sugary lemonade. Which makes sense – for all the hospitality and eagerness to please guests, of course it’s strange that I would opt to drink plain, boring water when there are higher-value options. “I thought Americans love Coca-Cola!” my hosts say. Really, I would love to explain that La Croix is the new thing but discussing trends in US wellness culture never seems like a great supra topic. I was out for a pizza and wine night with some gal pals, talking about hangovers. I mentioned that if you drink a glass of water for every glass of alcohol, you’ll probably feel a lot better the next morning. They couldn’t believe it! They had never heard such a thing. Sometimes a student will tell me they have a headache. “When’s the last time you had any water?” I ask them. “Three days ago. But I had an energy drink this morning!” I never considered myself all that knowledgeable on any topic of health but it’s become my mission to make carrying around water bottles cool.

Vehicles

Every time I get into a vehicle I assume the worst. I either have a weird conversation with the driver, have to close my eyes to avoid seeing the road ahead, or hang on for dear life and say a prayer. (But usually all three.) I’ve heard that driving and traffic is scarier in Vietnam and India, so if you’ve been there you’ve probably had worse experiences. I thought I’d be more used to it after living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan but I’m still a scaredy-cat and my driving passenger anxiety has only increased. A former Peace Corps volunteer uploaded a video that captures the craziness well. I opt to take the train to and from Tbilisi whenever possible, but it leaves at strange times so sometimes I have to take either a cruiser bus or a marshrutka. The bus isn’t so bad except in October there was a news article about how it ended up in a ditch in a rain storm. But I like it more than the train because it takes a break at a rest stop that has a Wendy’s.

Actually, I’ve only taken the marshrutka round-trip once and I don’t think I’ll do that again. I had been saying prayers for almost four hours when, 30 minutes from Zugdidi, I saw that all the other passengers were visibly afraid. I thought I was going to die. I had never seen locals look at all phased by any roadside maneuvers until this moment. I knew that the one time I saw locals show fear, it would be my last. I closed my eyes and braced myself. After some seconds passed, I opened my eyes and saw a dog running off the road. We almost hit a stray dog! That’s what the big concern was about? I had to stop myself from laughing out loud I was so relieved.

I should probably explain marshrutkas. They’re abundant in Eurasia so I took my fair share of them in Bishkek. They’re mini-vans that are usually pretty cheap to ride in (20¢). You can take marshrutkas around the town but the routes sometimes feel spontaneous and you have to shout at the driver to be let out, so if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going, it can be a pain. The ones that go around town get crammed full of people and of course, all the old ladies get the seats so you have to contort yourself to remain standing and to keep your head out of some guy’s armpit. I am blessed that the city bus in Zugdidi goes to the university and God forbid I have to take a marshrutka to get somewhere in town. Taxis are still extraordinarily cheap as a Westerner so that’s always the better option.

You can also take marshrutkas to villages in the surrounding area and to towns and cities all over Georgia. There’s usually room for everyone to sit, but not comfortably. They leave for the destination when they’re full; sometimes I’ve waited over two hours. A difference between this process in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia is that people often reserve seats on marshrutkas. This is almost necessary when going to Tbilisi because nearly most of the seats get reserved and you can’t always show up an hour before it might depart to get a seat. My friend Ani helped me once, which is a good thing because we called the first number the lady at the station gave me; the person that answered said he wasn’t driving that Friday at 2:00 but this other guy was, so we should call him. We did, and this guy said that he wasn’t driving that day and someone else was but he didn’t have that driver’s phone number so we better just show up in person the day of. I had class at 9:00 that morning (too early for anything in Georgia) so sweet Ani went to the station at 10:30 to reserve me “the best seat” for the 2:00 ride. I sat in the first row behind the driver’s seat and had an excellent view of the small TV console loudly playing music videos of the dance-party-electronic persuasion that featured quite a bit of adult content. The driver was chainsmoking with the window mostly closed for the entire drive.

Marshrutkas will remain a mystery to me. Throughout the drive, we stopped a lot to pick up other people and drop some off. Did these people have seats reserved? The driver must have known exactly how many seats he needed to leave free when we departed from the station. Maybe they knew the guy (probably someone’s brother-in-law’s soccer coach’s cousin) and could call the right phone number. But sometimes the pick-ups were completely random! There aren’t any official stops on marshrutka rides. If you know exactly where you’re going, you just screech gachereet! (stop!) at the driver. If others need to get out at this stop they can. But if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s hard to know where it’s possible to yell out gachereet! if someone else doesn’t say it first. I could not imagine being here without a smartphone. I wouldn’t make it very far. I follow along on Google Maps until a gachereet! looks central enough for me to hop off and order a Bolt.

I’ve now taken four marshrutkas on the mountain pass to Mestia. It still scares me a lot, especially seeing the memorials to car accident victims every 30 kilometers, but I’m adapting better to the process of getting a seat and enduring second-hand smoke. One quirk that remains is that there aren’t often seatbelts on marshrutkas. But, when there are, I’m the only passenger wearing one and sometimes I get weird looks. If we get into a head-on collision, sure, the seat in front of me might stop me from flying through the windshield. But if we’re going to roll down the side of the mountain, everyone would get jostled around like dice in a Yahtzee cup. I prefer to stay strapped into my seat.

City Planning

The most interesting part of my day usually is going from my house to the bus stop. This is when the sources of my irritation culminate in a loud, orchestral clamor that lasts the entire duration of the 15-minute walk. First, I say good morning to the cows loose on the street and take care not to step in the poop they leave all over the sidewalk. I cross two intersections and hope no one blows through a red light, and walk in the street because cars are parked unevenly over the sidewalk. Then, I reach the “Mexican” fast food restaurant where there is always an interesting medley of indiscernible smells, and meet the stray dogs. Then, I’m in the city center! I wait to join someone who also needs to cross the four-lane one-way. There’s a lot of work being done to the building exteriors which means squeezing through construction sites and clouds of dust from jackhammers while avoiding showers of sparks raining down where electricians are working in bucket trucks. I twist my ankle on the same patch of uneven sidewalk every other day. Sometimes I catch the scent of burning plastic wafting from a trash bin someone threw a cigarette into.

Soon, I reach my sanctuary: a large intersection with some of the only pedestrian lights in town. I wait patiently for the green man while I watch angry confrontations between those who choose to walk into oncoming traffic* and the cars that slam on their brakes. I walk past the man with a karaoke machine and through the first section of the bazaar. Buyers and sellers pack the sidewalk and I have to stop myself from muttering, For God’s sake, MOVE, people! under my breath. I remind myself that it’s impossible to be late for anything in Georgia and I’m stressing myself out over nothing. I use the underground passage to safely cross the road and arrive at the bus stop. For another 15 minutes, I endure an inundation of coughs and sneezes and crowds. But there is a beautiful view of the mountains along the route and sometimes if my students are on the bus, they say hello first.

There’s been a lot of work done to the central boulevard. On one side of the boulevard is four lanes of south-flowing traffic and on the other side, four lanes of north-flowing traffic. So you cross one road to reach the boulevard but then cross another road to be fully on the other side. The boulevard is a really beautiful walking path with benches, fountains, and greenery. The greenery is a bit controversial, however. The city asked for comments after the completion of the boulevard in September and the consensus from drivers and pedestrians is that the bushes lining the boulevard makes it difficult to see pedestrians until they’re in the middle of the crosswalk. Georgian drivers don’t slow down for anything unless it’s right in front of them. There have been several reports of people hit by cars since I’ve been here and tragically, a pedestrian death that happened around New Year’s. Walking really requires an abundance of caution that I’m still getting used to.

*Interesting thing I learned! “Universalism” is when a culture adheres strictly to rules, and when rules are consistent. “Particularism” is when cultures see rules loosely, meaning exceptions can be made based on the circumstances. That’s why I’m horrified to see people crossing the street when the light is red (the US is steeped in universalism) and nobody here bats an eye.

Attention From Men

My immediate discomfort was going from a Montana 7 to a Georgia 12. During my first month here, if a man approached me speaking Georgian I’d assume he wasn’t a threat and offer to speak Russian or broken English. On one occasion, this led to a random man following me with his car as I walked along a busy road, insistently shouting, “Cahm an! Cahm an! In car! I take you!” after I told him many times in three languages “no,” and “I don’t understand”. On another, it led to a man coercing me into giving him my number at McDonald’s after he tried to buy me ice cream. (I blocked the number and that’s the end of it, thankfully.) My coordinator, who I’m quite close to, told me I have “the Georgian beauty.” This is an incredibly nice compliment but I’m not sure I want it that badly.

I got asked out by a bartender in Tbilisi who offered to travel twice a week to Zugdidi to date me. There’s the occasion I got a DM from a student, asking me if I had a boyfriend. Every time I sat on a park bench by myself I’d get a lot of very blatant stares. There were the old men waiting for the marshrutka, talking amongst themselves though I could overhear dzalian lamazi gogo (very beautiful girl) over and over as they glanced at me. The inebriated man who sat across the aisle from me asked if the French traveler I befriended was my brother or husband. Da, u menya brat (Yes, I have a brother), I said. He mostly left me alone after that. If I had lived in a city where cat-calling is frequent, maybe I’d be less jarred. Sure, the boys in high school could be vulgar and sometimes there’d be weird vibes from men at the bar or house parties. There are creepers in every country. But never in my life have I been so boldly approached, so frequently.

I’m trying to be better at cutting off conversations and repressing friendliness. A guy wanted to talk to me on the marshrutka back from Mestia. He did seem nice, but that’s how it always starts. Rusuli? (Russian?) he asked me, hopefully. Ara, bodishi. Inglisuri. Bodishi. (No, sorry. English. Sorry.) I felt bad the rest of the ride. I thought, I should practice Russian! What if he was really just curious about what a foreigner was doing on a marshrutka to Zugdidi? I’m depriving us both of an enriching conversation and opportunity for cultural exchange! I’m always curious when I meet a foreigner in Montana, after all. But then, I realized that not once has a woman ever continued a conversation with me after learning I wasn’t Georgian when they approached me in public. How much of it is actually curiosity? I know plenty of Georgian men through friends and work; they are all friendly, kind, and respectful. Overall, I feel very safe in Zugdidi and throughout Georgia. However, I’m learning that it’s not worth giving men the benefit of the doubt when I’m alone, which unfortunately is the case for women no matter where they are in the world.

I bought a fake gold band for 37¢ at the bazaar that I keep in my purse; I slip it on each time I take a long walk or sit and read in the park by myself. I think it actually has staved off a lot of interactions. I hate that a cheap piece of jewelry deters men better than the words “no thanks, not interested,” coming from my mouth in either Georgian, English, or Russian. I do think that an internal feminist debate is worth my safety, though.

Conclusion

Apologies I don’t have better photos to illustrate these points. This really is only a small portion of cultural differences and I’ll try to weave in more throughout my upcoming posts. Something strange happens to me almost every day, so I am definitely not lacking in material. I’m discovering so much about this beautiful country and am really grateful for the friends I’ve made that help me navigate it all. I’m very lucky to be in a position to learn about a new culture and hope I do it justice by sharing, no matter how candid.

It’s still the holiday season here and in a few days, I’ll be visiting Armenia with some friends from Tbilisi. I’m looking forward to lots of writing!

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