Clash of Cultures
I don't always introduce her with a preface regarding her feeling toward the ongoing war in Ukraine, but there is a sense of need to do so. "She's one of the good ones," an ugly phrase that has escaped my lips more than once since our relationship began. It's hard to imagine being able to say something like that about any other group of humans, but today in many, if not most, places in the world, this is a reality about Russian people.
Even more in the Republic of Georgia is this strange modern hostility apparent. It would be grossly naive not to acknowledge that this anger hasn't been earned. A war that took place only a little over a decade ago is still fresh on the minds of many of the Georgian natives. This war was followed by waves of tourists who would come in and behave like most children of superpower nations with a sense of elitism and endless comments about being unable to find a particular store or brand that most certainly should exist in all developed nations countries. Coming from my ever-self-parodying, star-spangled awesome homeland, it is an attitude that I've found deeply embedded in myself on occasion. Yet I feel the words of Ayn Rand best describe the bedrock from where these words and attitudes stem, "Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned. It is a quest for automatic knowledge—for an automatic evaluation of men's characters that bypasses the responsibility of exercising rational or moral judgment—and, above all, a quest for an automatic self-esteem (or pseudo-self-esteem)."
I never looked too hard to refute these words when I read them in college. The above quote may not be the textbook definition of racism and certainly does not cover all forms of its evilness, but I had gone to a public high school in nowhere-vill America and could plainly remember those with a racist attitude being the ones who truly had nothing else better going on for them outside of their skin color. The problem is that since we are all susceptible to the feeling of inadequacy, we are all equally susceptible to leaning on our own tribe to glean self-worth.
Ira, my partner, walked downstairs one morning to buy some bread. The local shop, like many others in the city, bakes bread called puri (pronounced poo-ree) in a traditional open-top oven called a tone (pronounced ton-AY). The smell in the morning draws you in, and the small price usually has people lining up to the edge of the city block. Ira returned beaming with two large canoe-shaped loaves.
"I ordered it in Georgian," she exclaimed as she placed them on the counter.
Apparently, the man was thrilled by the use of his home language and returned the favor by speaking to Ira in Russian.
A few days later, I went out to buy bread and decided to go to the same shop Ira had discovered. When I got to the end of the line, I, too, ordered in the native tongue. He handed me the bread and then asked me some questions in Russian, to which I responded that I didn't understand Russian. The woman behind me was incredibly upset by this interaction and stepped forward to shout at the man. I only understood the part where she said "language of the occupant," but it was enough for me to understand the full situation. Ultimately I could also relate to both of the humans involved in the altercation, which left me standing in the middle of the two with an armful of bread, stating, "everything is all right." Eventually, I thanked both of them for different reasons and walked home.
I find myself outraged by Red paint splashed on Russian vehicles, to which I always want to sarcastically ask, "Exactly how many Ukrainian lives were saved by this? All the while sitting in the back of a taxi casually looking at war news like one does for stats on their favorite football team. International conflict is dehumanizing on every level, and not I nor anyone I know is completely immune to its insidious effects.
I don't have answers to how hearts, lives, and land borders can be mended, but I'm grateful I manage to find beauty in other unpredicted side effects of this conflict. In the city, there are new spaces to visit, populated by those who chose to flee their tyrannical government in search of freedom. My nights are often filled with poetry spoken in a language I don't understand in tiny bookshops with cheap beer and wine. I sit there imagining that I'm surrounded by the same sort of intellectuals who fled when the red army took power one hundred years ago. I listen to the stories of people like my friend Lyonya who rode across the border on a bicycle in wonder, respect, and amazement.
It's nights like this where I find a bit of hope that we can learn from each other and spark new creativity, ideas, and friendships. Recently I had a long conversation with a Georgian army veteran. Mostly we spoke of languages and their evolutions, but the topic drifted near the end.
"Russians have a slave mentality," he said. Slav or Slavic is where the word for slave originated. Their culture has never known freedom. The concept of it can shock them to their core, and they don't understand it when they come here or anyplace where freedom is engrained in the hearts of men."
"Do you think it's something someone can learn?"
"If they want to… yes and then their thoughts and lives are changed forever."