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.

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