Lately I have been thinking about how it is human nature to not notice something that people elsewhere think is a problem. For example, when I was in junior high, two-piece swimsuits were popular. I didn’t let the fact that my ribs stuck out like a skeleton stop me from wearing one.
When my children were tiny, I would proudly take pictures of them to work. I guess I wasn’t very discriminating, because the office grump once took a look at the latest picture of my baby daughter and asked “So what’s wrong with her?”
Sometimes we volunteers are lucky enough to get a ride in a car. In our first few months in Azerbaijan, we would scramble around the back seat looking for a seatbelt. Now we know that usually either there isn’t one, or it doesn’t work. Recently another volunteer and I rode in a car with a new volunteer. When she nervously looked around for her seatbelt, we rolled our eyes at each other.
Another example is in housing. The Soviets built many apartment buildings to try to provide decent housing for workers. People could move from really primitive conditions in very old, obsolete homes to high-rise buildings with indoor toilets, running water and elevator access to the higher floors. Some volunteers live in this type of building and we all visit people who live in them. Besides the amenities, though, they feature mazes of wiring coming out of holes in the walls, stairwells that are dark at night (and sometimes during the day), litter everywhere and broken steps.
Azerbaijanis don’t consider the state of the common areas to be a reflection on them or that it is really any of their business. (The interesting things is that when you actually walk in the apartment, taking shoes off and putting slippers on is mandatory and most apartments are much more neat and orderly than American homes.) The volunteers mostly have come to accept these bad outdoor and stairwell conditions. We carry flashlights, step around the trash and ignore the wires.
Quite a few of our volunteers work with English teachers in schools. We were shocked at the condition of schools on our first few visits. The buildings typically look poorly built with cracked walls and crumbling steps. Often there are broken windows and trash all over outside. Playgrounds and athletic equipment are rare. Many blackboards are in such bad condition that chalk doesn’t work on them anymore. The bathrooms are usually unspeakably filthy and most teachers plan their days so they don’t have to use them. For some reason there are usually women who work as cleaners in the schools mopping the floors constantly but not cleaning the bathrooms.
Recently I went into a classroom to meet some students for a summer project in which we had to move the desks and chairs around. The desktops, as in many schools, were pieces of warped plywood covered with graffiti and carvings. They were perched precariously on metal frames. Most of the desktops were no longer attached to the base. The chairs at one time had all featured plywood seats and backs, but most of them now lack backs and some lack seats. I realized that the state of the school didn’t bother me anymore and I just got on with the project.
What most of my fellow volunteers have to keep reminding ourselves is that in American schools attended by poor children, these same conditions can exist. In addition, poor children in America can face weapons, crime, drugs and hunger, and may be homeless or pregnant. Kjds in Azerbaijan usually have nutritious food to eat, weaponless communities, drug-free schools and almost no crime. I have never heard of a homeless or pregnant student.
Last month, the New York Times reported that over 250 schoolchildren were shot in Chicago during the past school year. A new teacher had been greeted by her new students by being asked how many times she had been shot. When she replied she hadn’t, her students showed off their bullet wounds and several had been shot on different occasions. This would be totally shocking to Azerbaijanis, but Americans are apparently used to hearing about it.
Azerbaijanis have strange ideas about Americans—that we are all wealthy, our lives are easy and that since women are “free”, that women have no problems in America. When we tell them what things are really like, from our own different perspectives, they see problems that we have accepted as a matter of course.
One stems from the fact that Azerbaijanis help poor family members. It is common for one family member to partially support a poorer family member, buy a relative furniture, pay their medical bills, repair their home. Last winter, the hot water heater went out in my home. My host mother took the train to Baku to get the money from her sister. She also got money regularly from different relatives to buy clothing, pay utility bills and buy food. This woman’s husband moved to Moscow to find work. One in eight Azerbaijani men is working in Russia. The husband makes enough to support himself, but not his family. We recently had repairmen at our home for 7 weeks, painting and repairing things. The bill was paid by a nephew who works in Moscow and knew the house was in poor shape.
Of course, America is not a monolithic place, and I have noticed that in America, people I know who are from Mexico or who are black are more likely to help support their relatives than Americans as a whole. One volunteer whose family comes from Mexico says she suffered little culture shock in Azerbaijan, since many parts of the culture are similar.
So when Azerbaijanis learn that Americans, including children, are homeless, they can hardly believe it. They are also shocked that some people go to a food bank or soup kitchen to get food instead of getting food from their relatives. And that people have their utilities cut off for non-payment, but their relatives may not feel the obligation to pay the bills for them.
I try to tell them about our culture of personal responsibility, how jobs used to be available to many people who needed them, that Americans need to save a lot of money to cover medical bills, their old age and university expenses. Many Americans feel that unless they have money saved for all of these things, it is premature to give to their relatives. And that they may feel that their relatives should work harder or smarter and make better choices, such as not drinking or taking drugs. I also tell them that many Americans feel that incentive is important and can be taken away when relatives give money. I also point out that we are very charitable to strangers or foreigners who have suffered in disasters.
Azerbaijanis I know aren’t buying it. They say that when a family member needs help, the family should give them the money they need, children shouldn’t suffer because their parents can’t provide for them and that the best security is in knowing that when you need help you will get it.
A lot of volunteers still shake their heads when they see fields full of trash, people throwing trash in beautiful natural areas and in the lack of environmental regulations in Azerbaijan. But we soon realize that most Azerbaijani families generate very little garbage, use their own containers at the bazaar, buy few packaged items and live in fairly small homes, which require little electricity.
We Americans in Azerbaijan prompt ourselves to remember that we pollute the earth and air in many countries with our consumer culture, have 5 percent of the world’s population but produce 25 percent of the greenhouse gases, we pollute our own waterways with the excrement from huge factory pig and chicken farms, we blow the tops off mountains in West Virginia for cheap coal and don’t clean up the mess and don’t heed the pleas of many other countries of the world who fear that our carelessness will affect the existence of their countries. Then we have to admit that even though we are looking at a field full of trash or a dirty apartment stairwell, this Third World country of Azerbaijan is doing a better job on the environment than we are.