Culture Shock

Sedona, AZ - because you deserve something pretty to look at after reading my rant.

Sedona, AZ – because you deserve something pretty to look at after reading my rant.

I think I was a little naïve. I thought culture shock was for people who hadn’t gotten out much. While this is my first time living abroad, I have travelled abroad enough. I’ve also moved around the U.S. living on the East coast and in the Midwest which are two very distinct cultures. I felt pretty confident that I could roll with the changes and adapt pretty easily. So, imagine my confusion, when I suddenly find myself irritated on a daily basis just walking down the street. I couldn’t understand where all of this negativity was coming from. And then yesterday, I had an epiphany. Didn’t Peace Corps say something about this in our training? Didn’t they talk about when the novelty wore off? Oh, right, that’s what culture shock is! It isn’t a knee-jerk reaction by “ugly Americans” who expect everything to be just so. No, it is more or less a stress response to living day to day in a culture that is foreign to your own. It is about learning to navigate in that world (when you don’t speak the language) and being frustrated by it. And it is about a natural resistance to these cultural differences.

At the moment, I feel pretty confident that I will never feel okay carrying on a lengthy, fairly loud conversation with my neighbor while someone attempts to give a presentation. But, you know, I might get accustomed to shoving myself to the front of the shapeless blob that Georgians prefer to an orderly line. I may never understand the reason they prefer the blob, but I’ll learn to do it. I will definitely NOT get accustomed to the way any Georgian, no matter how sane in every other way, suddenly becomes a king when they get behind the wheel of a car. Anyone not in the car becomes a valueless obstacle in their way whether that is an old lady, a puppy, or the car coming directly at them as they pass the car in front of them. To call the average Georgian driver aggressive or reckless would be an understatement of colossal proportions. And I honestly can’t even speak about the things I’ve witnessed in terms of animals – dead, dying, or just neglected.

But you see where this is going, right? Nowhere good. So, yesterday, as I’m walking back to the office from a presentation, seething at the rudeness of the audience at the presentation, shocked by the woman who pretty much shoved me out of the way to get to the food, frustrated by my inability to talk to and therefore have any kind of relationship with my coworkers, and on guard against the drivers that I’m pretty sure would run me down no problem as long as it wouldn’t hurt their cars, I’m also thinking what the hell is wrong with me? Why am I so angry all the time? And then it hits me. I’ve left the “honeymoon” phase. I’ve moved into the “negotiation” phase. This was perhaps a bit harder to recognize because the “honeymoon” phase wasn’t all that pronounced. While Georgian culture is definitely different than American culture, it isn’t strikingly so. There is nothing “exotic” about being in Georgia. I do love many things about Georgian culture. Most of these things have to do with how much they value guests and neighbors. I think Americans could learn a great deal in this area and I certainly plan to bring Georgian hospitality back with me. But on a day to day level, life here isn’t obviously different than life in the States. The infrastructure is crumbling more, there are more unemployed people, and, of course, the social norms for women are more oppressive (although women here don’t really seem to notice). But I live with a family in an apartment as nice as any I’ve ever lived in, I go for day trips to the beach with coworkers, and I go out for food or drinks with friends . I guess my point is I’m not living in a hut on an island helping to harvest the local crop. Life here feels, in a lot of ways, very ordinary. I go to work every day and sit at a desk in front of a computer. Which I think is why the less obvious cultural differences frustrate me so much. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that if things were MORE different, I’d have an easier time adjusting. But because in so many ways, they are so similar, the differences just piss me off. Well, at least the ones that offend my sense of “appropriate” social behavior.

Anyway, upon getting back to the office, I decided to do a little research to find ways to constructively get through this “negotiation” phase and on to the “adjustment” phase where I get used to these differences (or stop having the energy to care). I found a useful article with some good suggestions which I plan to try to follow. My favorites were to every day find something about the culture that I like, do something that takes courage every day which shouldn’t be hard since everything is new, and keep a journal. It was also a good reminder that one of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was to push myself and to grow. Somehow along the way, I forgot that growth comes from challenging one’s self, and challenges are by definition difficult. So, suck it up and be more positive, Jenson!

Of course, this would all be a lot easier if I didn’t have a fantastic guy at home making me wonder, “why is it I did this again?”. And of course my boy Chester who I miss desperately, but from all accounts is having a great time with his grandma.



A few weeks ago I went with my host family on what I understood to be an excursion. We were going to Martvili which is well known for a beautiful canyon. But as is often the case here, I was mistaken. We were actually going to church. As the church was more than a half hour drive from our house, I assumed it must be a church that we were visiting for a special occasion. Once again, incorrect. This is my family’s church. It has a very long history. The current structure was built in the 10th Century while the first church was built on this site in the 7th Century. But even before Christianity came to Georgia (around that time), this site was sacred to pagans who worshipped at an ancient oak that grew here. So, while I’m not a religious person, it was pretty amazing to go to a service at a site that has such an ancient spiritual history.

Eastern Orthodox Catholicism is the official religion of Georgia. Around the time that Christianity came to Georgia, the Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church began to split when Charlemagne was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor. The Byzantine Empire was not thrilled with a Westerner being crowned, as the East had been the successful defenders of Christianity against barbarian invasion for centuries at this point. Rome had fallen in the 5th Century. Over time, the rift became deeper and two separate churches were born. Anyway, this isn’t intended to be a history lesson.

The shared roots with the Roman Catholic church are definitely evident in the rituals. And as someone who grew up in Protestant churches, it was interesting to contemplate (while the service commenced in a language I do not yet understand) how different the “church” experience is for Catholics vs. Protestants. For Catholics there is so much focus on ritual and the role of the priest since he (always he) is your conduit to God. In my experience of Protestant churches, the focus seemed to be so much more on communion with other Christians and ritual didn’t hold a very high place in service. Since protestants believe they have a direct relationship with God (what a radical Martin Luther was!!), church isn’t where you go for forgiveness and to demonstrate your faith but where you go to connect with others who share your faith. This led me to think about how those differences in religious experience and belief went on to shape the culture of the United States and continue to shape the ancient culture of Georgia. Georgians don’t need to attend service for community. They have very strong communities made up of family, neighbors, and friends. People in the U.S., on the other hand, are almost pathologically individualistic. I’m not judging here. If I have learned only one thing since arriving in Georgia, it is that I am deeply “American” in my individualism. And I am totally fine with that. Because Georgians have so much faith in the Patriarch (the head father), much of the culture is informed by his pronouncements. Thus, you have events like the May riot (led by priests) attacking the anti-homophobia march and the cult of virginity that is pervasive here and deems any woman who isn’t a virgin unmarriageable. While in America, we have such a radical diversity of beliefs, that even when the majority of Americans finally agree on a topic, there will always be a radical fringe that continues to act out. I don’t know. At this point, I’m kind of thinking out loud and I have a lot of thoughts that haven’t gelled into any sort of coherent perspective.

I will say that my visit to this church was incredibly welcoming. Georgians believe that a guest is a gift from God. So, imagine you are the guest of a priest whose entire life is devoted to God. Yeah, they were pretty great hosts. I was given a tour of the new home of the Mothers, then invited to the home of the Fathers where I was a guest for lunch. They then brought us to wine storehouse and we had a toast in which we drank from large clay bowls. It was a “bolomde” toast which means you have to drink to the bottom. Quite a challenge. I would imagine I will be attending again some time soon. I’m okay with that. Who wouldn’t want to spend part of their Sunday morning in a place as beautiful as this.

Finding my groove?

I apologize in advance for no photos with this post. I recognize photos are more fun than text, but I haven’t done a lot of picture taking since I got to Kutaisi. I promise to remedy that in the near future.

So, I’ve now been at my site for about two and a half weeks. Judging by the concerned responses I got from friends after my last post, I’m thinking it may have been a bit depressing. But rest assured, things are looking up. No, I’m not suddenly able to communicate with everyone in my office, but I’m not invisible anymore. I’ve actually been doing useful things for my coworkers like editing translations, drafting brochures in English, and reviewing various marketing materials. It is kind of a relief to learn that I do actually know something about this stuff after working for a decade in that area. I was a little surprised. But, Deb Maddow, you will probably not be surprised to read that, whether in the states or in Georgia, I still avoid writing copy like nobody’s business! That is one task I cannot complete without a deadline. Ugh. I’m hoping that in the future, I’ll just give guidance on how the copy should be written. Because, really, they need to be developing those skills themselves, right?! I’m here to impart my knowledge, not do it for them.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Drudgery aside, I am feeling much better at work and actually feeling like I will have something of value to share here. It is amazing the positive impact that a little confidence and feeling of value can have on one’s perspective. In addition to having a better appreciation of the depth of knowledge I’ve acquired in my fields of expertise (that phrase is used VERY loosely), I’ve also begun to understand more about what I need personally in my work environment. And I’m starting to nurture a few fledgling ideas for after I leave here (I am aware I just got here!). These Ideas are far more entrepreneurial than anything I’ve done in my past life. Kind of excited about them.

Outside of work, all is well. I think life here will be very busy. In September, I will start running some English clubs. Hopefully next week I start studying Georgian again. I’ll be meeting with a tutor twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. I’m excited to get back to it, because not being able to communicate with people gets old pretty quickly. It is a frustration you just get used to though. I laugh a lot at my futile efforts to communicate even slightly complicated messages. It is the only thing you can do. And sometimes you can bond over the hopelessness of communicating effectively. At the moment, that is the nature of my relationship with my host family. And that’s okay.

I lied earlier. I have taken some photos since I’ve been in Kutaisi. My host family attends church in a town a bit outside of the city called Martvili. Their church was built in the 13th Century. I was super impressed until someone pointed out they are all that old here. Anyway, I took some beautiful photos there which I will share when I have some time. That same weekend I also took a daytrip to Batumi with a bunch of PCVs, but sadly my camera was dead. But I’m headed there again this weekend with my host family and hope to get some great photos. Batumi is a resort city on the Black Sea. The Georgian government has invested a lot in the city over the last 10 years. I wish they would invest in some sand for their beach! Rocks are not fun, even if they are rounded. Other hoped for travels include a possible camping trip next weekend to Khevsureti, a beautiful mountainous region in the northeastern part of Georgia; maybe an overnight weekend trip to Batumi before the season is over; and hopefully a September camping trip to a lake in the Racha region, also an incredibly beautiful mountainous region. Oh, and I need to get back to Khashuri to visit my PST host family. Wooh! That’s a lot of travel! But soon enough, the colder weather will be here and I may hibernate. So, it seems now is the time!