This summer was an incredible opportunity to not only develop my Russian language skills, but also engage with the beautiful language and culture of Georgia. I arrived in Georgia with very minimal knowledge about the country’s culture and history, and I left with a deep appreciation for Georgian people and their hospitality. I engaged with Georgian culture, especially through my host family, who welcomed us into their home, talked with us about Georgian history, culture, and politics, made excellent Georgian dishes, taught us how to cook khachapuri, and asked us about American culture. I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to get to know them, and I am already planning to visit them again.
While I still have a long way to go in my study of Russian, being exposed to native Russian speakers was invaluable. I learned a lot about how to use Russian in everyday life, and I was reminded that language acquisition does not always happen linearly. Some days I felt like I was not improving at all, while other days I would find myself naturally incorporating new vocabulary or phrases into my daily conversations.
Overall, my experience in Georgia has widened my worldview and given me unique insight into current events. I have formed friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds that I hope will last a lifetime, and I am excited to continue to practice and develop my proficiency in the future.
I have been waiting to write a blog post about current events only because of the importance of the events in this region of the world right now—I want to reflect my conversations with people in Georgia as accurately as possible in a short post. I did not have to make an effort to gather information about opinions on the war in Ukraine. Many people I encountered were vocal about sharing their condemnation of the actions of the Russian government. I saw countless Ukrainian flags proudly displayed in Batumi. Many Russian speakers wear pro-Ukraine pins to signify their solidarity with Ukraine, café black boards remind customers that 20% of Georgia is occupied by Russia, anti-Russia art and graffiti is visible on almost every block, and among residents of Batumi there is sadness for what is happening in Ukraine and fear for the future.
Conversations with my Georgian host brother, conversation partner, and strangers in restaurants made it clear to me that Georgians value their independence highly. My host family expressed their support for the Ukrainians who have moved to their city, and demonstrations against the war and in support of Ukraine were held throughout the summer. However, even though there is widespread support for Ukraine, Georgia fought a war with Russia just 14 years ago, and even though the Georgians I spoke to strongly oppose the war, their position is also complicated by Georgia’s reliance on Russian tourism, their reliance on access to the Black sea, and their very real fear of Russian invasion.
I could write much more, however, in short, as an outsider, it was beautiful to see Georgian solidarity with Ukraine and I am grateful I had the opportunity to be more aware of and to learn about the war, how it affects Georgians, and public opinion in Georgia.
While staying in Georgia, I have learned a little bit about language in Georgian culture, such as the fact that most young Georgians prefer to speak Georgian, and also speak very good English. I learned how to say basic words in Georgian, including “thank you” and “hello.” In Russian, one of the most-used terms that I learned very quickly was the shortened version of the Russian word for “now.” In spoken Russian, my professors would use a fast pronunciation that sounded more like “shas.” I also learned about the importance of giving toasts in both Georgian and Russian culture, as well as common phrases used in toasts in each language.
Some of the differences in communication aren’t verbal. For example, Russian speakers don’t usually use eyes in their smiley faces. A Russian speaker will text a smiley face at the end of a sentence like this) and a frowny face like this(. At first, this took some getting used to, but it’s now a habit I have found myself using with my American friends, too. It is easier))
This week my host family held a Fourth of July celebration for me and the two other American students in my homestay. It was a wonderful evening, for which my host family made us a delicious dinner of Georgian barbecue, Georgian salad, khachapuri, watermelon, and ice cream, lit fireworks, and talked to us about our country.
According to Shota, who is 17 and has visited New York City and West Virginia in the past, America is somewhere many young Georgians dream of going. They have been exposed to American culture through social media, like TikTok, and through American TV shows. My host siblings asked us questions about the representations of American high school they’ve seen in shows on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, such as, “Are cheerleaders real?” Shota told us that he sees America as a place of excitement and great economic opportunity, and that some of his friends believed it would be easy to become famous if only they lived in America.
Our host parents talked about how important they believe America’s place is in world politics. Our host father gave a toast to our country, saying that “America doesn’t just take care of its citizens, it takes care of the world.”
While Georgians are generally extremely welcoming to visitors and very friendly towards the U.S., not everyone was so positive. For example, one older woman expressed concern about the toxicity of American food, and while some young Russians living in Batumi told us they would love to move to the U.S. if they could, others told us they think the American dream is slightly overrated, and they prefer the European lifestyle to the “busy,” “overworked,” and “materialistic” American one.
People were not kidding about Georgian food. It is absolutely delicious. My favorite Georgian foods so far are khachapuri and khinkali, which are both very famous foods in Georgia.
Khachapuri is a dish made with dough, butter, Georgian cheese, and egg, although how it is prepared varies from region to region. Batumi, where I am staying, is located in Adjara, which is a beautiful region of Georgia along the Black Sea. My host mom, Nana, taught me how to make Adjarian khachapuri and told me the significance of each part. Adjarian khachapuri is made of dough shaped like a boat, representing the boats and fisherman on the sea. The inside of the boat is filled with Georgian cheese, and there is an egg yolk baked on top of the boat, representing the sun. Our family always serves khachapuri with Georgian tea and shares the dish. Everyone breaks off pieces of the outside of the boat and dips them in the buttery cheese on the inside.
Khinkali was the first food I ate in Georgia. It is a kind of dumpling filled with meat or vegetables and broth. For future reference, the correct way to eat khinkali is to hold it by the scrunched up “tail,” bite a hole in the bottom, suck out all the juice, and then start to eat the outside of the dumping and the filling inside, leaving the tail on the plate. According to our tour guide, for Georgian men, the number of khinkali you order is important—they should only order them in large amounts.
I am writing from the Dubai airport (about to depart for Tbilisi), considering what the next six weeks have in store for me.
In high school, I participated in an immersive summer language program for Spanish in Spain, so I feel at least a little prepared for the culture shock of living with a family in a different country, but I know that adjusting to life in Georgia will likely present its own unique challenges. I am very excited for the opportunity to take language classes taught in Russian and to practice Russian outside the classroom. I have a long way to go in pronunciation and speaking in general, but, in my experience, nothing compares to being forced to practice in daily life.
That said, I also know that Russian is not the primary language of Georgia, so while I will practice Russian, I am also excited to be exposed to the Georgian language, and I am interested to learn about when, where, and how often each language is spoken. I have heard nothing but glowing reviews of the food in Georgia, so I am looking forward to trying as much as I can (and maybe learning to cook some dishes myself). Finally, especially now, I am interested in the culture and political atmosphere of Georgia.