Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cultural Relativism in Practice: Or, "I Totes Respect Your Culture, But Don't Fucking Touch Me."

Something happened the other night that I can't quite get off my mind.

I was at a favorite bar with a bunch of favorite people--all Americans, well into a night of drinking and merry-making on a Friday evening. The vibe seemed especially upbeat and happy, enhanced even more by the homemade Bailey's I had been "testing" all afternoon.

Someone handed the friend next to me a 1,000 dram (=$2.50) bill, and asked him to get a drink. I was closer to the bar, so I offered to get it for him instead. I slid out of the booth and walked to the bar, where someone I had recently met was sitting alone and drinking a beer. It was a [Republic of] Georgian guy I had been acquainted with a few weekends before; I couldn't remember his name, but he had seemed nice and friendly before, and I was feeling nice and friendly myself, so I started to talk with him. How's it going? What's your name again? What's brought you to Yerevan? It felt totally innocent and platonic, especially since I had been making googly eyes at my boyfriend all night, who also happened to be sitting four feet away. It was the kind of conversation I've had a million times in America; one of those pleasant beer-fueled chats you have while you wait for your next Blue Moon with a girl from your old dorm or a guy from class.

With my friend's beer in hand I finished the chat and walked back over to my group, not thinking anything more of the conversation.

About an hour or two later, I got up with a friend to go to the bathroom and talk. Giggling and silly, we came back and I noticed the Georgian guy had moved much closer to the table. I passed him on the way to my seat and dismissed the fact that he kind of copped a feel when I went to sit down. It seemed innocent at the time--OK, I guess I moved too close to him, and his hands accidentally brushed my waist--and I, again, didn't think anything more of it. Deep down, I knew exactly what happened, but I didn't want to "make a scene"--I didn't want to be the "crazy girl" who misread the situation, so I let it go.

Of course, things progressed. As I talked with a girlfriend, dude continually tried to impose himself on the conversation despite our continuous pleas that "we're having a special conversation and don't want to talk to anyone now." My friend even suggested a number of times to "go chat with her BOYFRIEND." It had gotten to the point of being annoying, but again, it wasn't a big deal.

Then I felt hands across my shoulders and back, and I was up, and the f-bombs got dropped, and the curses, and the "You can't treat women like this" blah blah blah as a bald eagle screamed in the background and the Statue of Liberty unsheathed her sword.

His reaction? Total indignation and anger. I don't remember much of what he said, but I vividly remember him yelling, "Apologize to you? Apologize to your boyfriend!" as if I, during our conversation at the bar, had slid him a note that said, "I'm gonna act like I don't want it, but PLEASE feel me up later!" I felt disgusted by the way he had touched me, but enraged by the way he seemed so entitled to do so.

And then...

And then I apologized to him.

Suddenly I had the stomach-sinking feeling I had reacted totally inappropriately. As I put what had happened together in my mind--my friendliness toward him, my willingness to brush off his advance, my unclear and subtle way of speaking--caveats and stories started to echo in my mind. "Don't smile at guys you don't know." "Don't ever talk back to guys who hit on you." "Don't ever play into someone's advances." "If you're subtle, that means you're interested." I had violated basically every rule in "Interacting with Men in the Caucasus 101."

From the way I acted, I was probably giving the guy a green light to take his game to a new level. Wasn't it wrong and ethnocentric for me to be offended by a misunderstanding that was really sparked by my own cultural mistake? Of course, in the U.S., I would never have apologized; by American standards, this guy had been very inappropriate.

I'm not in America, and I realized that quickly. I took him aside and I explained to him that I had just wanted to be friendly, I wasn't in any way interested in him, and that in the U.S. it's very unacceptable to touch a woman in that way if she's a stranger. I apologized for getting upset. We left the bar and everything was OK.

But deep down, for whatever reason, I feel wrong for apologizing. Wasn't it in some way my responsibility to call him out? Even if I had given him all the signals, is it ever appropriate to touch a woman like that? Should he have been so indignant? His reaction at the time made me feel like I made a mistake, and this is probably what made me apologize so quickly.

But did I really do anything wrong? I didn't get violent. I didn't even really over-react. I just told him he couldn't fucking touch me.

And then I apologized.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"I'm small, you know? I was only 2 kilos when I was born. My mom went into labor running away from our house when it was bombed. Our house was re-built, and you can still see the Azeri village from our window. Locals know to never go close to the border, but sometimes people get lost. Those people never come back."
 -A 19-year-old student from Noyemberyan, Armenia.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Thousand Words

Found on Tumblr, taken by Instagram user INeedMoreBeer
This is a picture I found today on Tumblr, and I love it more than I can really describe. It was taken during this year's celebration of Vardavar, which is a summer festival that dates back to Armenia's pre-Christian times, and is one of the only holidays with obviously pagan roots that's still commonly throughout the country ((I think)). While I didn't get to experience Vardavar since it's in mid-summer, it sounds amazing: like Holi or Thailand's water festival. You basically run around all day spraying people with buckets of water; kids jump in the city's numerous fountains, taxi drivers get drenched if their windows are open, and unsuspecting foreign tourists are particularly beloved targets, or so I've been told (here's a great video my students showed me of the festivities).

I love this picture so much because it's such a contradiction to the Typical Armenia Image, which is some mix of Mount Ararat, a stone church, or a pomegranate, in different combinations.

And when you're here, and foreign, people are really excited to tell you the verbal equivalents of these images. "Every race has its roots in Armenia," people say. "Mesrop Mashtots helped invent your alphabet too," others note. "Did you know President Obama has Armenian blood?" students ask. "Armenian is the third most beautiful language in the world," a teacher comments. "An Armenian invented X, Y, and Z," someone else adds. "Armenian is the language of God, and we are His people."

I don't know what adjective to describe Armenian pride, but one of them is certainly "impressive." I think I'd be just as patriotic if my country and language still existed after thousands of years of wars and a genocide.

But sometimes I think all the images and ideas about Armenians and Armenian-ness are an attempt to cover up the fact that there is so much bad shit happening in this country. An unbelievable amount of corruption in every sector of life, from education to law. Closed borders with two out of four of its neighbors. A war that has no end in sight. A startling rate of emigration. Citizens' complete lack of hope or trust in the political system. Environmental degradation and lack of sustainability (the nuclear power plant that provides 40% of the country's energy is considered one of the most five dangerous nuclear facilities in the world. It's located in one of the world's most seismically active areas, and is--by the way--20 miles outside Yerevan). The fact that a trained university lecturer in Yerevan makes no more than $400 a month (less than professors in India, Malaysia, or Ethiopia.)--and if you're just an associate or assistant professor, it's more like $200 a month, despite the fact that the cost of living in the city is not much less than in the U.S. In short, it's not all stone churches and Mount Ararat and fruit.

I love the picture above because I feel like it's a representation of everything in Armenia--the bad and the good. The Stalin-era apartments, the rust, the cracked pavement; the brightly-colored laundry as it whips in the wind, the kids playing, drenching each other during a joyous summer holiday. There's no symbolically-oozing pomegranate, no William Saroyan quote, no talk about the Turks, no Photoshop-enhanced monastery. It's imperfect, it's real, it's beautiful in its own special way. It's Armenia.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Pranes, Trains, and Avtomobiles


Komine Castle in Shirakawa, Japan, where I lived as a Rotary Exchange Student


Soviet-era monument on top of the Central Train Station in Yerevan, Armenia

Mental Sediment

I thought blogging in Armenia would be so easy. "There will be so much to describe! So much to write about! So much to expound upon!"

There is, truly. My head and heart seem full of ideas, full of questions, full of frustrations, full of things I want to discuss and pinpoint, highlight and delineate.

Fortunately (for the growth of my noggin' parts) and unfortunately (for the growth of my Google analytics page), the stuff I want to write about just isn't easy to write about. To be honest, I don't even know how to answer the question "So, how is it?" let alone discuss anything worth value. I'm still so new to this country, and I don't want to come off as expanding on something I don't understand (or ever will understand). So here's what I'd like to write about--and tell you all about--once the mental sediment calms down and condenses. If it ever will?
  • The palpable, tangible pallor of revulsion that washed over my students' faces when I told them I believe gay people should be allowed to adopt children;
  • The way the temperature in the room changes when the topic of Turkey or Azerbaijan comes up, as if sadness, hatred, and anger are particles that can fill the air;
  • The idea that your country of origin dictates your religion, your traditions, your beliefs, the way you will bring up your family, and your sexuality--and God forbid if you ever question that;
  • The insistence on a flat, one dimensional (and often contrived) narrative of "ARMENIA" as a country/identity, and its effect on the country's future economic/political growth (as well as its tourist industry)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The kind of things you remember when you're in a new place:

I never felt so safe as when my big brother, when he was in high school, would take me on night drives in his Jeep. We'd listen to music and we wouldn't talk much. The dips in the hills, the fog glowing around football field lights, the cold snap of the Tennessee autumn when he'd roll down the windows to smoke--that always said enough. The whole world happened during those drives and I remember exactly how I looked, when beyond the pine trees that would glide by in the window, I would stare into my own reflection.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Family Outings

The past two weekends have been full of adventure, thanks to some awesome Armenians who have done a lot to integrate me into Armenian life and their families. I have to include an admonition right now that Armenian hospitality deserves not a separate blog post, but a separate blog; the knock-you-down-speechless quality to it evades the written word, and can only be appreciated with warm lavash at your side, homemade apricot vodka in your glass, and a gigantic Armenian family all around you.

Suffice it to say, the past few weeks have been made truly incredible by so much generosity, so I wanted to write a little bit about my most recent adventures into the Armenian countryside.

Women making tonir lavash in a traditional oven.
Last weekend, my first adventure was to Areni, which is a major wine producing area in Armenia and the location of the Areni Wine Festival every October. I was very excited to experience what a wine festival might be in Armenia; I had dressed cute, and imagined myself leisurely strolling through a sun-dappled vineyard, nibbling cheese and covering my mouth daintily as I laughed with the British Ambassador or some other high-class diplomat, because that's what happens at wine festivals in foreign countries, right?

The road to Areni passes very close to the Turkish and Azeri border (particularly Nakhchivan, which is a bizarre exclave of Azerbaijan that's sandwiched between Iran and Armenia). I didn't realize this until, as we drove, the mountains and hills on the right side of the road disappeared behind tall, 10-ft high piles of dirt. I didn't think anything of it (too busy daydreaming about witty banter with diplomatz) until someone laughed, "Don't worry, Lusijan--now that the dirt is here, the Azeri snipers can't shoot at cars any more."


Once we started getting closer to Areni, I noticed a really strange preponderance of outdoor stalls selling coke. I wondered why so many merchants were insisting on selling the drink outside and not kept cool. Then I realized the Fanta bottles had dark liquid in them too. Ohhh!!!

Wine seller at Areni
Areni Wine Festival stalls
The wine festival itself ended up being fantastic, crazy, loud, exciting, and completely different from what I expected, just like most other experiences in Hayastan. I spotted the American Ambassador and the Armenian President, ate tons of Armenian BBQ, drank more wine than was probably appropriate, and even ran into some friends.

After the wine festival and a long, leisurely lunch at which my Armenian hosts succeeded in quadrupling my daily calorie intake, we headed to Noravank Monastery, built in the 13th century.

Noravank Monastery, Yeghegnadzor

At Noravank, my hosts pointed out a special carving--the only place in Armenia where God the Father is depicted in art. The story goes that he (He?) was given almond-shaped eyes and a thick beard, so that marauding Mongols would see in him their likeness and leave the church in peace. To be totally frank, I never know what to believe when it comes to Armenian history, but that's what they told me.

This weekend, I went with my teacher's brother and his two daughters to pick apples at their family orchard. 

Mount Ararat, outside Yerevan.
The drive to the orchard was breathtaking. Every hairpin turn was a more majestic view of Mt Ararat; every hill a different herd of scraggly cows. It made me remember how deeply I love being a passenger in foreign countries. It is the purest quiet, to melt into yourself while others talk around you in a language you can't understand.


Going to the orchard with the family--who were exquisitely kind but also very quiet--was like giving my soul a spa day. No sounds of traffic, no Armenian bros yelling "Arrrri, aper! Arrraaa!"; no worries about work or schedules or anything else. The neighbor's cows lowed, the roosters fought under our ladders, and we picked apples. It was paradise.

When the daughters got tired of picking apples, they strolled past the brambles growing on the orchard fence and returned with handfuls of blackberries and raspberries. They showed me how to rub the skin off a fresh hazelnut and how to crack open a walnut with a rock. A 'walnut' from a bag in Safeway is so different from a 'popok' that you cracked yourself. Everything is relative.

Chicken, cow, beehives.
After an afternoon of harvesting, we returned to Yerevan for a gigantic feast of chicken porridge (harissa), lavash, salad, fruit, vodka, wine, and cake. Everyone in the family seemed to be there--the grandmother, cousins, kids, siblings, even one of the daughters' boyfriends. Toast after toast came--toasts welcoming me to Armenia, toasts for my continued success, toasts to welcome me into their family, toasts to my parents, toasts to the maker of the porridge, toasts to health and good luck. I even got an impromptu Armenian lesson by one of the family members, who taught me two new verb tenses and wouldn't let me say anything in English that she knew I could say in Armenian. When I finally got home and dropped the three giant bags of apples (along with two jars of homemade jam) on to my bedroom floor, I had to pinch myself. Did that really just happen?

Sometimes I think I must be dreaming.