What is Integration?
I am writing this from a café in my community, a café that I’ve been to twice this week, a café that’s run by one of my favorite women in town. We do some verbal sparring for a bit, she asks me why on earth I’d want to live alone, and then I get to work.
Some information before continuing: I live in a small town in Armenia. It’s an amazing place full of wonderfully kind, welcoming people. For women, finding a place to gather outside of the home is difficult – cafés are almost entirely the domain of men, as are the parks and street corners. It’s strange for me, a woman in Armenia, to enter a café and not only drink coffee but sit for hours working. I know this, and I accept this, and I invite my friends to come break unwritten rules with me, I invite my students to come do their homework here with me. I’m pushing boundaries and stereotypes, and I hope that by doing this I can create a more comfortable space for women in my town, and for myself as well.
Entering a space that’s populated only by men is not something that would have made me uncomfortable in the U.S. It’s not something that always makes me uncomfortable here in Armenia. But knowing that there are spaces Armenian women don’t enter, and knowing that there are hundreds of cultural norms I still don’t understand, can make me hyper-aware that I am in a space where my presence seems abnormal.
Enough of that for now; lets continue the story.
When I was here on Monday, I walked in and chatted a bit with Alina, the bartender. Other than her, there were only men inside. I put my headphones in immediately when I sat down, pulled out my laptop, and got to work.
After a few minutes in the café, one of my adult students walked in. We chatted a bit, and then he sat down and I put my headphones back in. Throughout the afternoon, I took my headphones out and put them back in depending on how many people were in the café. I wanted to work without getting drawn into conversations about my age and marital status. There are many times when I enjoy those discussions, but they feel better when there are other women around me.
I worked for three or four hours without speaking to anyone, and when I stood up to pay for my coffee I found out that my student from earlier had paid for it already.
Today when I came in, all four of the tables were filled with men. I hesitated for a second, unwilling to enter this small café and be the only female aside from the bartender in a room of twelve men. I gathered my gender role-challenging reserves and walked in, sat down on the couch, pulled out my laptop, and ordered a double coffee.
Once the lunch hour passed, the café emptied out and I found myself alone with Alina. After a few minutes, she decided to go on her lunch break. She handed me the key, told me to close the door from the inside, and just let people knock. She’d call when she got back.
And so as I write this, I am alone in a cafe, and entrusted with a space that, an hour ago, felt challenging and uncomfortable. Alina will come back. More men will enter the café. Someone will tell me to take out my headphones and talk to him. I will feel unsettled. I will wish that I wasn’t sitting here, putting myself in such a vulnerable position.
In this moment, in this space, I feel integrated. I feel trusted within my community, and I feel like more than a foreigner, more than an interesting distraction from the day. I can’t tell you how I’ll feel in ten minutes, or tomorrow, or next week, or next month, but right now I’ve found a space where I feel comfortable and part of this town.