11.14.2007

Re-creation

The Peace Corps threw a party last weekend. Or, rather, its volunteers did. It got me thinking about the ways in which we re-create cultures when there is no real precedent.

Peace Corps culture here in Azerbaijan (and I suppose elsewhere) is a funny thing, a weird amalgamation of Azeri and American, with the odd smattering of Russian and ethnic minority along the way. This is a culture we both want to adapt to and defy, a culture in which we must live, but we often find constricting; it is a culture in which holding to American norms becomes defiance, and transgression, we hope at least, can be instructive.

This becomes apparent even in the little things: cooking for my host family, a friend washing dishes when he goes to visit, getting up to get my own tea instead of rattling my empty cup on the saucer. We're trying, somehow, to re-create a little slice of home in a place with no precedents. Women can't drink here - they're lucky to have a few sips of wine at a wedding. Hell, women can only really work if their husbands deign to allow it. Perhaps, we hope, men getting their own tea will show someone that women don't always have to do it - that they don't have to serve their men hand and foot.

Sometimes, though, it gets cloistered, and we create little islands of Americanism behind the high walls surrounding courtyards in houses rented by volunteers. Sometimes the music of a party, in which men and women are drinking and dancing together, spills out into the street a little more loudly than the neighbors would like, and the men make extra trips to buy booze for the women to drink, and the music isn't the traditional wailing of oboes and accordions and men's voices that take a strange, high, keening pitch. At these times, it's strange the next day leaving the courtyard and being hit by the Azeriness of it all - the people and the old Ladas and the muddy streets and the mangy stray dogs huddled in corners or trying to absorb the warmth of the sun. On these days we ride the marshrutkas, the little kamikaze minibuses, which honk madly at the cows blocking the highways and bump over ruts and are happy to cram more people and chickens in than can sit on seats, back to our sites. And the next day, we go back to living our Peace Corps lives, our culturally approrpiate and sedate lives that seem so foreign, and yet somehow have become nearly second nature.