Cultural Chaos

Situation #1

“You are a very bad girl.”

Excuse you? I wanted to retort some smart, biting comment. I also had the urge to smack the speaker. Hayley — stop, have patience…

“How is that bad? Staying out late with friends was what everyone did in high school. You can’t do anything else in a small town. It’s normal…” I faltered to justify my past actions, which weren’t bad in any shape or form.

She continued, “All good girls should be back home by 10 at night.” My jaw dropped.

Obviously, I was annoyed during that conversation; I would die under that kind of cultural curfew. However, it did open my eyes to something: I don’t see many women out past 10pm in Baku, regardless of the day of the week or part of the city I happen to be in. And now I know why: married or unmarried; single or with a family; old or young…good girls are at home.

Situation #2

“It’s high time you got married.”

High time, huh? Right, because my drop-dead gorgeous looks will quickly pass by, like dust in the wind. Heaven forbid a 24-year old young lady should remain happily single. Better find a man now — snag one before it’s too late! Hayley — stop, have patience…

It’s the haughty and somewhat bossy tone that sets me over the edge, so I fail to control my own tone and word choice when I reply, “I will never get married!”

Some women laugh at my reactions, some question me further, others shake their heads and make a comment that I’ll change my mind when I find the right Azerbaijani man…

Recently I’ve built a higher level of tolerance for the topic, enough to ask one simple question: Why? Why is it “high time” that I get married?

“You just should.”

Situation #3

I love learning about a culture’s proverbs and anecdotes. So when a friend started with “We have a saying in our country,” while we were out for lunch, I got excited. She continued: “A woman can make three things from nothing: a salad, a hat, and a fight.”

I processed: salad, check. Hat, check. Fight, check. Wait — what? A raging battle took place in my mind: one side encouraged me to laugh along and go with the flow while the other induced me to scream in protest, “What kind of a saying is that, I don’t start fights from nothing!!” Hayley — stop, have patience…

Even now, I get weirdly defensive whenever I think about this saying. If anything, I justified it with my reaction. I know it’s ridiculous yet, it is?

Situation #4

I’ve been told by some women that “marriage is a game.” It tends to be said during dinner parties, over tea, with no men around. The implication is that a wife holds a household together, but she has to make her husband think he’s responsible. If she wants anything done, she has to lure her spouse into thinking he came up with the idea. She can’t be too forward, because that’s brazen. I doubt that’s the case with every marriage in Baku, but the half dozen women present during this conversation agreed with the speaker.

I admitted that I didn’t like the idea of marriage being a game. Can it be teamwork? Life is hard enough, why complicate your marriage? But, no one really listened. What do I know anyway?

Situation #5

“She wants to say that she hopes you will have many children. Children of your own.”

I looked from my friend, who was translating, to the young woman who wished me many children. The expression in her deep, brown eyes was genuine, almost bashful, and I knew she meant well by her wish. There was no judgement, she wasn’t going to demand that I get married, she was simply blessing me. Her toddler daughter scurried across the office for the second time, tempting everyone — even me — to smile.

Situation #6

I’ve been flabbergasted at the rate and severity a woman’s life can be destroyed in Baku if she is divorced. Her career, personal and professional relationships, and financial safety all suffer. Her past must be kept secret from any potential suitor. Otherwise, he’ll assume she’s an easy woman who might as well give him any favors he asks from her.

Additionally, hearing other women talk about a divorced woman is…devastating to me. We don’t know the full story, how can we judge? She has children, can we show some compassion? If she cheated, we might as well expect the husband to have cheated too, several people have told me “that’s what happens here.” I’ve found myself getting strangely caught in the middle sometimes, a few people have asked me if whether or not this woman or that woman is indeed divorced. Simply put, it’s awkward.

But what is a divorced woman to do, suffer in silence? Yes. Either that, or leave everything in Azerbaijan and start over in a different country.

Situation #7

I looked at the group that showed up to English conversation class: five students, all girls. I scraped my pre-made lesson plan, “So, do you want to talk about boys?” They laughed and immediately jumped on the topic. Of course we talked about marriage, and it was interesting to note that the girls almost definitely wanted children, but weren’t so sure about that whole marriage thing. Eventually one of them turned to me and asked that fateful question, “Do you want to get married?”

I fought my usual knee-jerk response of “NO! I shall NEVER get married!” and channeled my responsible, role-model teacher side. I appreciated that she asked and, for a brief moment, I double-guessed myself.

“I’m not planning on it, but if the right one comes along, then sure.”

“How old do you want to be?”

Huh, I haven’t thought about that… “How old do I want to be if I meet the right person?”

She nodded her confirmation as the other girls leaned in or cocked their heads to the side. In a country where many girls get married fairly young (about 18 to 22), my answer was doubtlessly interesting.

“It would be great if I could meet him before I’m 30. But if I don’t meet him until I’m older, even 50, then I would be okay with that.” I also explained that I do other things in my life, such as exploring the world, in order to find happiness. It’s important to make yourself happy and not rely solely on a boyfriend/husband/significant other figure to do that for you.

Their smiles melted my heart. Now, I can only hope that if any of them wants to take a bit of a detour from tradition, that she will find support from friends and family.

Those situational snapshots are examples of some of my (many, many) on-going, inner dialogues during my time abroad in Azerbaijan as an American expat: Relationships, (specifically marriage), and what it means to be a woman in Azerbaijani society.

A part of me wants to never again voice any question on dating, relationships, sex, or marriage here. Some take it that I’m passing judgement on them and their culture. I will admit that yes, I judge something when I first come across it. Yet with people and their culture, I’m careful to bite my tongue until I formulate the best, noninflammatory statement or response. Although, I’m human and I know that my words can offend when I very much do not intend that.

It doesn’t help that I become offended when others try to convince me the relationship scene/marriage dynamics here are perfectly natural and work for everyone. Or when people slap a label like “Bad Girl” on me. My only response is to dig in my heels, halt all discussion, and quickly change the topic. I don’t want to confess that I disagree with them. I don’t want to confess that picturing myself as an Azerbaijani woman, either single or in a relationship, makes me uneasy. The experiences outlined above (and much more) suggest that a woman’s ultimate role and responsibility in Azerbaijani culture is to be a wife and mother. Sure, have a career, but it’s more important to have a family with the career. If she is divorced or remains unmarried, then she must lack morals. But the alternatives of cheating or entering into a lifelong commitment without genuine feelings seem immoral to me too.

It’s always at this point during my inner dialogue that I get frustrated with myself. Doesn’t this happen in the United States? Yeah. Haven’t people back home told you to “settle down already”? A handful, yes. Don’t couples cheat on each other all around the world? Sadly, yes. So why on earth are you so bothered by all that here?

Of course I don’t have a straight answer. Basically, I’m a cultural mess…I’m in cultural chaos.

I like to think that I can separate the personal from any new environment I encounter. And I can do that for a short amount of time. However, staying in a different place for a fairly significant amount of time challenges the will power to remain purely objective. It becomes emotional because I’m invested. Invested in the country as a curious observer. Invested in people as a resource, teacher, and friend. Invested in the crazy journey because it has challenged me in unexpected and empowering ways.

So this foreign culture in which I’ve been inserted has unearthed questions about my own home culture, and questions about myself, that I’ll agonize over for a while. (If you can’t tell by the end of this post, I’m really good at agonizing.) And you know, that’s alright. I think it’s good for people to be thrown into chaos every once in a while. It helps us evaluate and analyze our lives, and forces us to step back in an attempt to see the bigger picture.

Even though my time in Azerbaijan thus far has been a roller coaster, I’m excited to see what the next three months will bring, even if it just brings more questions and little answers.

Until next time…  (:

A fellow Fulbrighter in Azerbaijan wrote a piece somewhat similar as this post, but much more eloquently and with far less agony. I highly recommend it. Click here to read “With a Large Grain of Salt” from Madeline’s blog Land of Fire, City of Winds



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