Georgian friendship and family ties are strong, and Georgia is a fairly small country, which means that it often seems like everybody knows everybody. As I become more and more integrated into the country, and into family and community life here, that feeling continues to grow.
Part of this strong, tightly connected network of classmates and distant cousins and former teachers and neighbors and former neighbors’ classmates’ distant cousin’s former teachers is that when you know someone – when you are connected by this word-of-mouth network of what is essentially people vouching for one another based on some strong, long-term relationship – they enter a certain circle of trust. The strongest, most inner circle might be the nuclear family, then the extended family, then close family friends, then neighbors, then other Georgians, then foreigners who are friends, then foreigners who are strangers would be the most outer circle. These circles determine what you will and will not say to someone – they represent the privilege of accessing certain private information. Certain stories are perfectly fine for the family but embarrassing if the neighbors find out. Certain facts are well-known among Georgians, but are considered insulting if spoken by a foreigner.
As a foreigner who is married to a Georgian, I probably present a somewhat problematic case in terms of resolving which circle I am in. My wife’s family and friends have begun accepting me into their inner circles more and more as time goes on – they call me a Kartveli Sidze, or “Georgian Son-in-Law” – and they have begun letting me in on their secrets. I’m fairly certain none of them read this, though, so I’ll let you in on the parts that pertain to TLG.
When family friends or relatives visit, TLG is a natural topic of conversation. Since I am now a part of the family, I get the candid, Georgians-only version rather than the polite, English-translated version that I used to get. I have found out that my mother-in-law’s cousin is the deputy director at a school where the TLG volunteer is a very good girl who knows how to conduct lessons very well, but that her predecessors were a mixed bag – one apparently did not shower enough for Georgian tastes and none of them dressed properly.
That’s the gossip we don’t get as TLGVs – the negative stuff. TLG tells us that we don’t have to dress formally – and it’s true; we don’t have to – but when we wear worn-out shoes and clothes, or when our clothes are wrinkled or disheveled, Georgians judge us. I wish they would just tell us – “hey, your shirt clearly hasn’t been ironed, ever, and everyone at school makes fun of you for it” – because how else are we going to know? Americans (and I suspect other Westerners too) think of Georgians as super laid-back, and we have no way of knowing that they care about clothes or what their standards are if they’re not willing to be honest because they fear offending us. My advice: casual dress is okay, but it has to be neat (or as they say in the UK, “smart”) and clean, and Georgian standards for both of these things are probably much higher than you think. When in doubt, ask your host mother.
My wife’s former English tutor visited today and told me that her daughter teaches English and her TLG volunteer doesn’t do anything in class. I wanted to suggest that she tell her daughter to ask her TLG volunteer to read texts and correct students’ pronunciation, but I am so new to the Georgian inner circle of gossip that I feared getting kicked out if I spoke out of turn. One thing I can say conclusively, having now spoken to many Georgian teachers who I do not work with, is that Georgian teachers expect TLG volunteers to take initiative and be assertive in class. From experience, I can also say that this is extremely difficult and that Georgian teachers do not cede control of the classroom easily and that while many teachers are receptive to our ideas, many teachers are not receptive to our ideas.
In other words, coteaching is a two-way street, and I’ve heard TLGVs blaming their coteachers when that relationship ends up being uneven or unsuccessful, and now I’ve heard Georgian English teachers blaming TLGVs for the same problems. There are two sides to every story. Honestly, though, if I could make a single change to the way coteaching works, I would have training for the Georgian teachers on how to use TLG volunteers. When a Georgian teacher says her TLG volunteer doesn’t know how to conduct a lesson, or doesn’t do anything during the lesson, I can’t help but feel like that teacher is letting a valuable resource go to waste.
All in all, it’s been very enlightening to find out how Georgians really perceive us – foreigners in general and TLG volunteers in particular. It’s also been interesting to see their perceptions change to match reality. With TLG in its third year – and with many of us starting to build much more meaningful and substantive relationships with Georgians – I think we will soon start to see Georgians come to a more complete understanding of foreigners. I think we’ll start to see Georgians understand that they can’t necessarily judge us by their standards – that we’re not “dirty” just because we don’t starch and iron our shirts every day; we’re not “lazy” just because we tend to defer to our coteachers rather than trying to assert control over a lesson – and learn how to communicate about their own cultural norms in a focused and productive way.
I hope that soon, Georgians will be willing and able to comfortably articulate to us what their expectations are with respect to our attire, or to ask a visiting native speaker questions about the language and guide him or her in becoming a part of the learning process for students and teachers alike.
In other words, I hope that soon, Georgians will bring us all into their inner circle.