Europe? Asia? Middle East?

azer-LMAP-md

Azerbaijan is shown in the rusty orange color. How would YOU define it geographically? Picture from http://www.operationworld.org.

I few weeks ago I updated my phone. The timing was perfect because I figured I could ask about Verizon’s international coverage. Now, I was expecting the worst news about using my phone in Azerbaijan; two years previously there was much confusion about using it in Turkey and I did not expect an improvement with Azerbaijan. But hey, I’m trekking to the Verizon store anyway, might as well see what they say.

“I am accepted for a grant to go abroad later this year for nine to ten months, and I want to see what my options are for international coverage.”

“Oh really? Where are you headed?” Mr. Sales Guy asked.

“Azerbaijan.”

Wha–is that even a real place?! I saw that look ripple across his face. I could only mentally chuckle.

We made our way to the computers. “Where is Azer-blah….”

“Azerbaijan….”

“Yeah, where is that located?”

“You could try Europe, or Eurasia” I offered, considering that Fulbright categorized the country under those geographical designations.

“Could you spell that for me?”

I spelt it; “It might be under the Middle East if you want to try that.” I found this to be increasingly humorous. After researching Azerbaijan for the greater part of the past year, I’ve learned that no one knows where to place it. There it is, on the map–but is it in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia? How about we throw around the term “Eurasia” and really confuse everybody?

Mr. Sales Guy searched for some time before finally saying, with a slight hint of judgment, “It’s actually in Asia.”

My mind started racing: Asia? But that’s so…broad. Does Verizon mean “Asia” like China, Japan, or the Koreas? Because Azerbaijan is totally different from “that type” of “Asia.” And don’t give me that tone, Sales Guy, you can’t even say Azerbaijan’s name without fumbling.

This minor interaction confirms what I’ve concluded about Azerbaijan’s geographical designation: it is contingent upon personal interpretations (or motivations). For example, a mission/Christian charity is likely to place it under the Middle East because of its majority Muslim status. Meanwhile a university’s study abroad program (or Fulbright) considers the Russian heritage of the region and says that Azerbaijan is a Eurasian country–a ‘perfect’ combination of European and Asian cultural history. Yet several international business articles declare ambitious ventures in the European country of Azerbaijan. The academic in me finds this fascinating.

But, one of the main goals of Fulbright and similar programs (such as the Peace Corps), is to educate the American populace about other places. For those of us who are honored to travel under such grants, we provide insight into parts of the world that, basically, no one else knows about. We are representatives of “the other” even before we leave the country and actually have experiences. That’s kind-of stressful, but also pretty cool.

In the end, I left the Verizon store with a new phone but also with the gratification that Mr. Sales Guy is at least aware that there is a country in the world by the name of Azer-blah-bai-jan….or something like that.

Until next time….  🙂

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