Sunday, December 4, 2011

Part 4...Cultural Differences

Continuing on with my story about how I became the PCV I am today, let's talk a little bit more about my ego.

Now, I have talked about how when I first got here, I had my opinions and my ideas [link]. Most of those opinions and ideas revolved around how to engage in community development, but some focused on cultural relativism. Growing up in rural Alaska, I fancied myself a "progressive" when it came to understanding the dynamics of majority-minority cultural living. My head was pretty big on this and no matter what cultural difference popped up, I was quick to point out [what I thought was] the underlying reason. Azerbaijanis rarely drink cold water and often blame the consumption of cold water as a cause of illness. "Duh," I would often say. If you want to make sure your water is clean and potable, you boil it.

Anyway, a few months later and these differences began to seem normal to me, almost welcomed. It reminded me that I was living thousands of miles from home and I was doing something grandiose.

It wasn't until those intense, underlying cultural differences started to erode my understanding of Azerbaijan that I got frustrated. The gender dynamic here is so very different than the US, the way people view friendships and relationships, child rearing, the absence of coffee...every way I know how to interact with others is thrown out the window because Azerbaijan are not America.

I struggled to understand how to interact with my landlord or how to console my friend when a family member died (I have since learned that a casserole is not the right way to share in bereavement). Even after three years, I am still navigating Azerbaijani culture and making mistakes daily. I know I offend even my closest of friends with ill-timed words or judgement-filled questions. Even if I lived here for 5 more years, I do not think I would truly ever get it. I am too used to being given major amounts of leeway because I am American - and that is okay with me. I have adapted and so has my community. I guess that is the real point here, communication and acceptance - and lots and lots of laughter when I do or say something silly.