Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Georgia

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Outside of Georgia’s capital, residents of rural communities might have had little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical U.S. behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Georgia are known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community where you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

As a Volunteer and representative of the United States, you are responsible not only for sharing the diversity of U.S. culture (to include your individual culture and the culture of other Americans) with your host country national counterparts, but also for learning from the diversity of your host country. An important aspect of this cultural exchange will be to demonstrate inclusiveness within your community in a sensitive manner. Additionally, you will share the responsibility of learning about the diversity of your fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and exploring how best to respect differences while serving as supportive allies as you go through this challenging new experience.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence they have in the United States; male Volunteers may be expected to not perform chores or other tasks ascribed to women; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead a diversity, inclusion, and sensitivity discussion during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support. This training covers how to adapt personal choices and behavior to be respectful of the host country culture, which can have a direct impact on how Volunteers are viewed and treated by their new communities. The Peace Corps emphasizes professional behavior and cross-cultural sensitivity among volunteers and within their communities to help integrate and be successful during service.

An ideal way to view the pursuit of cross-cultural adaptation and/or cultural integration is to recognize that everything done in your host country has both a specific reason for why it is done and an expected outcome. Trust that your host country counterparts are acting with positive intentions and work to mutually seek understanding and commonality. Language differences may add a communication barrier and lead to misunderstandings. Listen more than you speak and seek clarity. Remember that having the ability to laugh at yourself and at life’s little surprises goes a long way—laughter is universal. Georgia is a closed-group culture and relationships are highly valued. This usually affects how feedback is shared or received in social or work settings. People may avoid giving critical feedback to save relations, or they may be sensitive to critical feedback, especially if shared publicly. Georgians are openhearted but proud and they appreciate people who demonstrate curiosity in their culture and history. It’s common for Georgians to help their friends, neighbors, relatives or other people in the closed-group, rather than providing help for a public cause or purpose. In this way, the notion of volunteerism as Americans understand it is quite new (but growing). Despite the collectivistic culture, Georgians tend to be very individualistic in their opinions and, sometimes actions, and sometimes are not very good team players.

Georgia is a sharing culture and you will observe people share meals during breaks at work. There is a strong cultural expectation to offer others any food or drinks that you may be publicly consuming. One of the common practices in Georgia is to engage foreigners in toast-making and drinking culture. However, consider that Georgians value people who can control their alcohol consumption and maintain healthy and respectful behavior. Remember that it is more important for Georgians to share the spirit of Supra (feast) and toast-making, rather than to engage in actual drinking with them.

Possible Gender Role Issues

Gender is a set of socially constructed roles, responsibilities, behaviors, and opportunities. Gender differs from sex, which refers specifically to biological and physiological characteristics of males and females. Gender roles and expectations are learned, change over time, and vary within and among cultures. Volunteers are trained in gender awareness as they approach their work in the host country. Gender roles in the United States may differ greatly from those in your country of service. It is important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender where you are. For example, in many cultures males are held in higher regard than females and females may manage the households. In some places, females are encouraged to attend school, while in other countries females are discouraged from engaging in such activities and instead work inside or outside of the home.

During the pre-service training, trainees receive an introduction to gender awareness in their country of service, and examine their own thinking about gender roles and how this thinking has impacted them. They then learn how to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in their host country and to understand how these gender roles can benefit or limit what females and males may or may not do. During their 27 months of service, Volunteers will further engage in gender trainings to understand better how their gender identity impacts who they are as females or males in the host country and how this perception influences their work and relationships.

Georgia is a traditional patriarchal culture. Although several women have achieved high rank within the government, people at the community level have not had much experience with women who have professional roles or who live independently of their families. Volunteers report that service is more difficult for female than for male Volunteers. It is sometimes a challenge for Volunteers in Georgia to cope effectively and constructively with the different status of women and men and the different standards of behavior to which they are held.

Female Volunteers may find that a single woman living alone goes against the cultural norm. They may receive more unwanted and inappropriate attention from Georgian men than in the United States or have to work harder than male Volunteers to gain the respect of Georgian colleagues in the workplace. Female Volunteers will also have to adapt to cultural norms of not smoking or drinking in public, which could result in unwanted attention and harassment and may lead to an undesirable reputation in the community.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Volunteers of color sometimes, but not always, have a different Peace Corps experience than white Volunteers. Because of limited exposure, some foreign nationals will expect to see U.S. citizens who are white. Cultures of the world do not typically envision the States as a place of rich diversity with various culturally acceptable perspectives, personalities, and characteristics. Thus, a Volunteer of color may be questioned as about their U.S. citizenship.

In places where American stereotypes and/or caste system dynamics influence perception, Volunteers of color should be mindful of the reasons for these views without creating contentious environments. All too often, host country nationals are simply unaware of the diversity of the United States and require additional information and dialogue. Direct interactions with someone new or something different can take time to get used to, but those who take the time tend to be better off. Although host country nationals may assert that the United States is made up of predominately one race, we know that is not true. If a member of your community knows of compatriots living in the United States or of notable U.S. citizens of color, you can build on this knowledge as a point of reference for discussing diversity within the States.

For Volunteers of color, the range of responses to their skin color may vary from the extremely kind to the very insensitive. In African and Latin American countries, host country nationals may say “welcome home” to African Americans or Hispanic Americans. Sometimes Volunteers expect to be “welcomed home” but are disappointed when they are not. More commonly, if a Volunteer is mistaken for a hostcountry national citizen, he or she is expected to behave as a male or female in that culture behaves, and to speak the local language fluently. Host country nationals are sometimes frustrated when the Volunteer does not speak the local language with ease. Conversely, some in the same country may call you a “sell out” because they feel the United States has not done enough to help with social issues. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the host country national, in which the Volunteer can ask questions surrounding perception and collaborate with respect to issues and projects at hand, while engaging in cross-cultural exchanges. All Volunteers, to include white Volunteers and those of color, should be mindful of the issues of race that are embedded in U.S. culture and within the culture in your country of service. These issues may significantly affect how Volunteers interact with fellow Volunteers and host country nationals. Being open and inclusive to everyone will improve your experience in interacting with fellow Volunteers and members of your host community.

Volunteers from any minority group may be the only minority trainees or Volunteers within a particular program. They may work and live with individuals with no experience with, or understanding of, their culture. They may not receive the necessary personal support from other Volunteers or find minority role models within Peace Corps country staff. In general, host families and counterparts are very accepting of diversity among Volunteers, and close relationships are forged without any regard to ethnicity. In Georgia, African-American Volunteers may be evaluated as less professionally competent than nonblack Volunteers by host country counterparts. They may be called “negroes,” which may not necessarily be used as a derogatory term, but as the local word to describe black people. Rap music is also popular and Georgians may inadvertently use words from the songs inappropriately. African-American Volunteers may find themselves the focus of constant staring, pointing, and comments.

Hispanics may have various reactions from host country nationals. Due to physical appearance, they may blend in their communities easier than other minority groups. Additionally, Georgians may embrace Latin Americans as old friends based on the historic speculation that Iberians once cohabited the country. However, Latin American Volunteers may also be subject to stereotypes as a result of the very popular telenovelas shown on Georgian television, or may also be perceived to be of Asian heritage. To combat potentially culturally insensitive comments, it’s best to take these uncomfortable situations and turn them into opportunities for cultural exchange.

Likewise, Asian-American Volunteers may be the subject of stereotyped perceptions of behavior observed in films. Asian-American Volunteers of any background may be mistaken for Chinese citizens living in country. They may not be accepted as Americans and may be identified by their cultural heritage, not by their American citizenship. Asian-American Volunteers experience a large amount of negative attention in Georgia. Members of the host community and other strangers may harass AsianAmerican Volunteers, both verbally and physically. Staring and verbal provocations are common while traveling and also in Tbilisi (especially on the metro). The safety risks for Asians, particularly females, are very high. Some Georgians may believe Asian-American females to be prostitutes; therefore, Asian-American females are discouraged from traveling or being outside alone at night.

Possible Issues for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Ally (LGBTQA)

Volunteers For LGBTQ Volunteers: Given Georgia’s traditional values, sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities might not be discussed openly. In some cases, the LGBTQ community may be stigmatized. Mindful of the cultural norms and country-specific laws, the decision to serve openly is left to each individual Peace Corps Volunteer. Many LGBTQ Volunteers have chosen to be discreet about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity within their host communities. Some LGBTQ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions, while some have come out only to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Dealing with questions about boyfriends, girlfriends, marriage, and children may, at times, be stressful for LGBTQ Volunteers. You may find that Georgia is a less open and inclusive environment than you have previously experienced. Please know, however, that Peace Corps is supportive of you and Peace Corps staff welcomes dialogue about how to ensure your success as an LGBTQA Volunteer. More information about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer is available at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Peace Corps Alumni website at lgbrpcv.org. Additionally, the Peace Corps’ LGBTQ employee resource group, Spectrum, can be reached at spectrum@peacecorps.gov.

For Ally Volunteers: Peace Corps staff intends to create open, inclusive, and accepting environments. As an agency, the Peace Corps encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their LGBTQ colleagues in order to create a safe environment.

LGBTQ Volunteers have served successfully in Georgia and have very fond memories of their community and service. LGBTQA support groups may be available in your country of service, providing a network to support the needs of the Peace Corps LGBTQA community. Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives.

Georgia has very traditional gender roles for men and women and social expectations are for people to get married and have children immediately after marriage. Homosexuality in Georgia is not openly discussed or accepted. For their own cultural integration, as well as safety and security concerns, most LGBT Volunteers choose not to reveal their sexual orientation to their host family, local friends, or counterparts. While there is an underground gay community in Tbilisi, finding support may be difficult since Volunteers are placed in rural communities where very traditional gender roles are the norm. Lesbians and gays will have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends and girlfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all Volunteers). Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men must deal with machismo; talk of conquest(s), girl watching, and dirty jokes.

Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Health Services determined you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without additional medical support, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Georgia without a significant risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/Georgia staff will work with disabled Volunteers to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

As a disabled Volunteer in Georgia, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. In Georgia, as in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. There is very little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States.

That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Georgia without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Georgia staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in their training, housing, jobsites, or in other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible Issues for Volunteer Couples

Before committing to Peace Corps service, couples should consider how different degrees of enthusiasm about Peace Corps service, adaptation to the physical and cultural environment, and homesickness will affect their lives. It can be helpful to recognize that your reactions to these issues will change throughout your service, and you may not always feel the same as your partner. You and your partner will have different jobs, different schedules, and difference societal pressures. One partner may learn the language faster than the other or have a more satisfying assignment. This can create competition and put different kinds of stress on each person. Anticipating how these pressures will affect you and your partner differently throughout your service can help you remain a source of support for each other. Making friends with other Volunteers is a critical part of fitting into the larger volunteer culture and can also be a good way to expand your support network. While couples will live together during their service, they may live in separate towns during their preservice training. This is a stressful time for most Volunteers, and it can be helpful to discuss in advance how you will deal with this potential separation. Your partner can be an important source of stability but can also add stress to your training experience. You may feel torn between traveling to visit your partner and focusing on your training, your host family, and friends you have made at your training site. Couples often face pressure from host country nationals to change their roles to conform better with traditional Georgian relationships. Georgian men and women alike will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to Georgian culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for you both.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

In Georgia, Volunteers are frequently asked about their religious affiliation and may be invited to attend a community church. Volunteers not in the practice of attending church may be challenged to explain their reasons for not wanting to go, but it is possible to politely decline if the church or religious practice is not of your choice. Georgians often assume if you are not Orthodox, you must be Catholic and you may need to offer an explanation, especially if you are another Christian religion. Georgia is generally a tolerant society for religious diversity, even for non-Christians, and most Volunteers facing these issues have found effective ways to cope and have come to feel quite at home in Georgia. Atheism, however, may be less understood.

Possible Issues for 50+ Volunteers

Senior Volunteers may find their age an asset in Georgia. They will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. On the other hand, they will be in a distinct minority within the Volunteer population and could find themselves feeling isolated, looked up to, or ignored. Seniors are often accustomed to a greater degree of independence and freedom of movement than the Peace Corps’ program focus and safety and security practices allow. Pre-service training can be particularly stressful for seniors, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A senior may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Younger Volunteers may look to an older Volunteer for advice and support; some seniors find this to be an enjoyable experience, while others choose not to fill this role. Some seniors may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job. More than younger Volunteers, older Volunteers may have challenges in maintaining lifelong friendships and dealing with financial matters from afar. They may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone in the States. Respect comes with age in Georgia. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. On the other hand, older Volunteers may feel isolated within the Peace Corps overseas because the majority of Volunteers are in their 20s. In training, seniors may encounter frustration in not having their needs met for an effective learning environment in areas such as timing, presentation, and style. They will need to be committed to developing an effective, individual approach to language learning. During their service, seniors may work and live with individuals who have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans.