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March 5, 2004 :: No. 169

Georgian Scholar Is Learning About American Culture

She never thought that she would be in America — the country where everyone supposedly looks like movie stars.

And never in her wildest dreams did Nino Kurtskhalia believe that she would be putting the American people and their culture under the academic microscope. But that’s exactly what she is doing as a foreign scholar at Cal State Fullerton this year. Kurtskhalia is studying on the Fullerton campus as a member of the Junior Faculty Development Program, sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The professor of English at the Georgian State Technical University in Tbilisi, Georgia, is attending American studies classes to learn more about American pop culture, race relations and women’s issues with the hopes of one day teaching American studies classes in her homeland.

She will participate in a panel discussion Monday, March 8, on “International Women’s Day: Women, Power and Social Justice” with Gloria Bogdan, lecturer in Afro-ethnic studies and women’s studies, and Khanum Shaikh, lecturer in women’s studies, as part of Women’s History Month. The discussion will be at 1 p.m. in Room 130 of the university’s Pollak Library and is open to the public.

“Coming to Cal State Fullerton offers me a wonderful opportunity to learn about a culture and country that is of great interest to people in my country,” she explains. “Not only am I learning about American culture, but I am able to observe and study American methods of teaching. Classes are much more focused on student participation than in my country.

“It’s been wonderful having Nino participate in our American studies classes,” says Leila Zenderland, professor of American studies. “Having someone respond to the issues being discussed from the perspective of another culture has been fascinating and enlightening for both the faculty and students. We feel fortunate to have the opportunity to interact with and learn from Nino.”

“I’ve found Americans to be very friendly,” Kurtskhalia adds. “When I first arrived here, I was frightened. I didn’t know anybody, and this was the first time I had been away from my family for such an extended time. Yet the people here have been so helpful in providing me with assistance. The people in my department, the students I meet, friends I’ve made — they are all very quick to offer assistance.

“In Europe, we have a different image of Americans — we see them as only glamorous and not so friendly — mostly this is a result of television shows and movies.”

Family living arrangements are different as well. In Georgia, it’s common for three generations to be living under the same roof.

“For instance, my mother-in-law also lives with my husband, my two children and me. That’s pretty typical to have at least one of your parents living with you,” she explains. “We also visit with friends much more often, and it doesn’t occur to us to call ahead. You just show up. I think Americans are busier, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. I think while individualism is prized here, there is not always a strong sense of community. I’m surprised at the number of people I’ve met who don’t know their neighbors.”

The diversity and number of different ethnic groups that call America home also surprised Kurtskhalia.

“What’s interesting is how those of different religious and ethnic groups mingle with one another,” the researcher says. “While we do have different groups in Georgia, they don’t tend to co-exist with each other as easily as you do here.”

Another difference she notes is that single adults in America tend to leave home once they reach adulthood — not necessarily when they marry.

“In my country, adult children don’t usually leave home until they marry and start their own families,” Kurtskhalia says. “It’s not unusual to find men in their 40s who are still living at home and having their parents make decisions for them. You don’t see that as often here. Adults in America are often more responsible for their own decisions.

“I think the concept of raising children is different, as well,” she continues. “In Georgia, children don’t have as much freedom to express their own thoughts. Many parents see their children as an extension of themselves, and they don’t encourage their children to think independently.”

Since Kurtskhalia is used to living in a city, Southern California’s sprawling metropolis was a surprise.

“I’m used to tall buildings and people walking along the street,” she says. “Here you see housing tracts and business separated and very few people walking.”

Even the food presents challenges. In Georgia, vegetables are always cooked, never served raw. Produce is purchased directly from the farmers so it is always fresh. And there is no such thing as Chinese food.

“The coffee is very different, too,” she adds. “We drink very strong Turkish coffee. Fortunately, I’ve discovered Starbucks, where I can get espresso like they serve at home.”

While Kurtskhalia is looking forward to reuniting with her husband and two children, she knows that it will be difficult to leave her new friends and colleagues.

“I know when I return to Georgia, I will miss California,” she says. “This has been such an incredible opportunity for me to learn more about American culture and to share my culture with others.”

Media Contacts: Nino Kurtskhalia at
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs at 657-278-4540 or