Monday, May 6, 2013

Attention Deficit

On reverse culture shock and not being the center of attention 

A friend of mine asked me what sort of reverse culture shock I thought I might have. I haven't spent even a week in the USA for 8 months.  I have been working in two very different cultures 
and in two very different living situations.

At first I told her I didn't think I would have reverse culture shock, just reverse living standard shock. It's been four months of bucket showers, no fridge, iffy electricity, lots of bugs, hand washing clothes, and taking dirty public transportation. A car, a fridge, hot water? What is this?

But then I thought, no, the biggest difference will be not being the center of attention anymore.
I'm not arrogant enough to think that I was the super exciting movie star of my Georgian or Dominican town - but I definitely had to deal with attention in a very different way than I ever have, or will have, to handle in the USA. That's just a part of travel: learning to deal with the sometimes flattering, often unwanted attention brought on by being foreign.

A case study of two very different situations and the attention they garnered.

This is me in Sakartvelo (the country of Georgia), 
on a rainy winter's day, heading into church (thus the head covering). 

This is me in the Dominican Republic, wearing a shirt my Dominican neighbor gave me
 because mine apparently wasn't tight enough. 

These photos encapsulate a bit of the cultural differences in these two countries,
and also the differences I took on as a person. 

Fashion Aside: in Georgia, the young ladies can be very stylish, but there is still a lot of black and dark colors worn, and everything is always modest. In the DR, it's what my friend called "bright and tight" (or see-through, or low-cut...). Bright colors, big jewelry, and skin-tight to show off them curves. Couldn't be more different! 

I was really good at the Shy Little Georgian Teacher thing, 
but I never quite got the Sassy Dominicana matter how I tried. 
I refused to grow out my hair, get my nails done, wear skin tight jeans 
or "find myself a man". 
So it just wasn't happening. 

I blended in in Georgia, because I look Georgian. No one gave me a second glance as I meandered about Tbilisi or sat in a marshutka. Even in my own town, people would stop me to ask for directions and not believe me when I said I didn't speak Georgian. When other foreign friends and I went out to dinner they were handed English menus and I was given Georgian ones. The funniest was when I traveled with my then boyfriend, a blonde bearded, blue eyed New Zealander. The looks of "bro-ship" approval from the Georgian men and the "why you take our women?" from the Georgian ladies was priceless. 

But when I was in school in Georgia, where everyone new I was the "Amerikelli", or at supras or neighborhood gatherings, then I got plenty of attention. Lots of stares, muttered conversations about me, constant questions on my opinion on the country, the food, and the men. I often felt I was brought to supras or to coffee with the ladies as a conversation piece. The best and worst part of supras was the dancing. I love to dance, and I love Georgian music. But somedays I felt like the "dancing bear". I wasn't pressured to dance like my host brother was, because he was a trained, amazing dancer. Or like my host mom, because she was a hilarious crowd pleaser. I was asked to dance because I was American, and it was amusing to watch me fumble the steps.
Some days, I didn't mind. I held my own dancing with a professional Georgian dancer, surrounded by 30 Georgians clapping and cheering and it was fun! A way for me to feel part of the celebration.
Some days I was tired and didn't want to be a spectacle any more.

Dancing with a neighbor

In the DR, and especially in my Haitian community, I didn't have a choice about being a spectacle. 
I couldn't blend in no matter what I wore. I'm just too white. 
I mostly hated the attention there - that attention was often overly aggressive tour guides or vendors, or creepy men shouting at me on the street. Sometimes it was just curious little kids shouting my name, wanting me to play with them in my yard. Either way, I couldn't leave my house without some sort of attention and it was exhausting. I liked when I felt part of the community, when I walked to the nearby colmado (tiny store) and neighbors said hello and little ones ran up to show off their baby siblings. I didn't like when it was men I didn't know approaching me or tour guides pointing me out to other foreigners. Sometimes I went to stores further away just to avoid them. 

Right now, I'm sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown. 
No one notices me, not even with my incredibly old laptop and kids notebook with Transformers on the cover. Not even after having sat here for almost four hours (hey, I've been working!).  
I went to church yesterday, and had the usual "hello! What country were you in this time?" exchanges. 
But that's a one time deal, a little re-entry interrogation. 
Now I'm just a Southerner, a 20-something, a fellow American.
They don't notice that I now get lost driving around my own town, or that I still pull pesos out of my wallet first, or that I say "permiso" to try to get past someone.
  Ok, maybe they notice that last one. 

It's weird. But nice. Nice and weird. 
Being "home" is nice and weird. 

I think from now on, that's how it will be. It will never feel quite as comfortable 
as felt when I lived here, but it will always be a home. 
Maybe one of many, but the first among many. 

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