My time in Georgia has entered a strange in-between stage. I’m finding it difficult to describe. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that I simply live here now. The daily routines of my host family are now my routines as well.
But there are days when I feel a complete stranger. When I feel I will never be reconciled to the isolation I experience here. Is that the right word? Isolation? I don’t want to overstate my case. Is it isolation or just loneliness? My Microsoft Word thesaurus tells me they are synonyms, which makes sense. However, there are those slight differences in meaning I instinctively feel. For me, isolation is physical; loneliness is an emotion. It’s possible to be isolated, but not lonely. And it’s equally possible to be lonely, but not isolated. Lonely in a crowd, yes?
I am not a Georgian and never will be. My Georgian is passable for daily necessities. I have “communication strategies” that involve a great deal of hand gestures, facial expressions, and intonation. My Georgian grammar is almost non-existent. I can communicate what I need to communicate and a little beyond, but not much. I can brokenly report amusing and/or frustrating incidents at school, but I cannot understand stories being told around the dinner table or in the teachers’ room. Usually I can pick up a bit, but only enough to give me a vague idea of what’s going on. Supras, when everyone is cheerfully toasting and talking, are a special sort of agony. I can maintain my party manners for an hour or two, but by the second hour it’s all a façade. All I want to do is get the hell outta there.
In such a setting when a joke is told, someone’s eyes will usually flash up to meet mine, looking for that sense of shared camaraderie. But as soon as their eyes meet mine they seem to recall that I don’t speak Georgian, eyes then flick awkwardly down and away. I’ve learned to keep a polite smile lightly on my face because it’s especially jarring for them when they are looking for that shared laughter and instead see a blank and/or unhappy look on my face. Then I start getting “What’s wrong?” questions. (Nothing’s wrong, other than the fact that I am linguistically locked-out from fully participating in the festivities)
This situation repeats itself frequently. Sometimes I don’t even get the eye flickers. Sometimes I just sit there like a statue, feeling like I don’t exist.
I understand. Really, I do. It’s hard to speak to someone who doesn’t fully understand your language. It’s aggravating, I know. And Americans are some of the worst in their attitudes towards immigrants. All those “lazy” ethnics “refusing” to learn English. At least I don’t get sort of reaction here.
But there is certainly the expectation that I learn Georgian. One certain uncle in my host family feels I have not made as much progress as I should have. No comment. And in my village, where only the English teacher and two students can communicate to any degree, it’s a little silly to expect them all to accommodate me by learning English. So much easier for me to learn Georgian! Never mind the fact that my sole purpose here is to teach English.
I have tried to learn Georgian and have been successful to a reasonable extent. But even if I had been burning the midnight oil, I’m not convinced it would have resolved the underlying issue. Being a non-native speaker is really a bitch.
So there are days when all is well with my Georgian world. I am at peace. Life is good. I am happy. Then it will be brought to my attention again, my inability to communicate or understand. And I feel it again. That familiar sense of isolation. Like a little smack that always stings. Sometimes loneliness follows, but not always. Irritation or irrational anger is a more likely response. Yeah, that’ll show those Georgians. Get mad at them. Uh-huh, Amy. Good one.
Frustrating? Hell yes. I feel that Calvin’s father (of Calvin & Hobbes fame) would tell me that it “builds character”. While my previous experiences with Spanish, the DR, and working with Spanish speakers at the plant had already made me very sympathetic towards language learners, my time here has turned that into an outpouring of empathy for them: immigrants, exchange students, even the oh-so-despised tourists. Actually, no. Scratch the tourists from the sympathy list. They’re only in it for a few weeks and then they’re back home.
On occasion I am genuinely lonely, spending time on Facebook, looking for friends to chat with, checking for emails, etc. But more often than not I am just keenly aware of my isolation. Just me and my English speaking self. In a village of monoglot Georgians.