Medical Writing

Deborah Liao, PharmD

Baku good? Azerbaijan good?

I’m not sure I’d say Baku was good. Or Azerbaijan was good. It was interesting and educational, more than anything else. It also didn’t help that I was pretty busy and stressed with work so I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked. And I was only there for a week, having traveled by overnight train from Tbilisi. Which, by the way, is way slower than actually taking a bus or car or mashuktra from Georgia to Azerbaijan.

As is typical of me, I fail to do any reading about a place before actually going there. What interests me more is the geographic location and the relative lack of knowledge I have about a place. Sort of like Paraguay. I looked on a map of South America, saw Paraguay, didn’t know anyone who had gone there, and decided to take a 24-hour bus from Montevideo to Asunción. But that’s a different story.

Basically, I like this go in clueless approach because way too often, I hear stories about people who do a ton of reading about a place only to find themselves disappointed by the reality. Which is often smaller, less glamorous, and dirtier than most people imagine. Because travel guides don’t talk about the plastic trash coating most surfaces throughout the world. It doesn’t sell and it’s not exotic or glamorous or IG-worthy. And that’s another story entirely (our tendency to edit photos to be IG-worthy).

With that said, that’s how I found myself in Baku, Azerbaijan after a fitful night of sleep on the train. Partly because of our midnight border crossing with very stern and non-English speaking customs agents on the Azerbaijani side (the Georgian side is way friendlier and they basically wave you in and out with a smile). Partly because the stopping and starting kept on waking me up. And partly because I woke up feeling like I was being broiled to death in the middle of the night when the heat kicked in and I had to strip off my extra layers. At least I had the compartment to myself, so that was good.

Anyway, standout moments during the train ride? I’ll say that being a heavily tattooed Asian woman who is also queer, has been interesting. Less so for the queer part, in most instances (because people see my Asian features, my heavy tattooing, and my at least hetero-acceptable presentation). In this part of the world, I’ll say that being a very heavily tattooed female elicits various responses. The young men love it and think it’s so cool. Most of the younger women also think it’s so cool. The older women (although some are probably close to my age), usually stare and think disapproving thoughts in my direction. For example, one of the two train attendants, both of whom didn’t speak much English (and I had zero Georgian or Russian), saw my arms and sternly told me “too much tattoo”. To which I shrugged and awkwardly laughed. The other, who saw me in the morning, was enamored with my tattoos and enjoyed touching my skin. It’s a slightly intimate and awkward situation having a stranger stroking your flesh. And since I spoke no Georgian or Russian, they totally talked about me in front of me. Most of the time I can get the gist of what they’re saying based on body language (which is a good skill I’ve picked up from my travels – you can generally understand what someone is TRYING to say to you even if you can’t understand the specifics). Usually it’s like, holy shit, can you believe this, look at all her tattoos. And I also got the comments about me being American (based on my passport). I guess they thought I was from China or somewhere in the -stans.

From the time I did have to wander around Baku, my main impressions were a sandy colored and dry city. As well, my impressions were of poverty, until I found the fanciest place to work out at, the Club Port Baku. Located next to the BP offices, it’s obviously the place for the wealthy and overseas BP executives (and their wives, girlfriends, or mistresses) to work out and be seen. I didn’t think that women actually wore almost sheer body stockings to the gym to “work out”, but it is actually a thing. I just had to put that out there because I was so amused when I did see it. And the vibe there was so Russian but in a city that is no longer controlled by Russia and is so rich in oil and so close to the Middle East but not as Middle Eastern as I would have thought (forgive my shitty and poorly informed US education on the region because our media doesn’t generally care at all about covering news from this region of the world). I was confused. As I think most of the world is. Or at least us uneducated and less worldly folks from the US.

Which brings us to my fun international dating as a queer, Asian-American, and heavily tattooed woman in countries where it’s generally not okay to be queer. Although not specifically outlawed according to Azerbainjani law (unlike in Russia where it’s institutionalized), let’s just say the Caucasian region sucks for queers. Take Chechnya as the prime example (and possibly fuel for Azerbaijan actions against queers?). Well, in 2017, according to Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijani police conducted “a violent campaign, arresting and torturing men presumed to be gay or bisexual, as well as transgender women...Government officials have not denied the crackdown, and have instead attempted to justify it on spurious morality and public health grounds” (also, see news re: Tajikistan’s gay registry on similar “public health grounds”). Keeping that in mind, the really fucked up part of my brain thought, well, at least I’m not a gay man. Because somehow, I feel like it’s worse for gay men, even though non-heteronormative women are also murdered, raped, etc. for not playing by society’s rules. In my head, I assume that gay men in some regions of the world are more likely to be killed and tortured whereas a generally hetero-appearing queer woman would “just” be raped. Or something along those lines. Which is also horrible, but on a scale of horrible to horrendous, well, some things are possibly worse? I don’t know. And I’m also totally wrong because queers (men and women) are probably just as likely to be killed in some countries (according to the 2017 spartacus gayguide, the worst 10 countries are: Cameroon, Libya, Malawi, Qatar, UAE, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Chechnya; Azerbaijan is #111 on the list of 197 countries). And let’s be honest, that shit happens in the US too (see Brandon Teena, for one of the most notorious and well publicized cases). So yeah, the US is actually #39 on the list, amongst the lowest of industrialized countries (the first 38 are Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Reunion, Spain, UK, Austria, Gibraltar, Greenland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Uruguay, Colombia, French Polynesia, Israel, Malta, New Caledonia, Switzerland, Andorra, Australia, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Portugal, Slovenia, South Africa, Argentina, Czech Republic, Estonia, Guam, and Puerto Rico).

With all this context, I Tinder matched with a Pakistani-Norwegian medical student. In this case, for those of you white folks who don’t have identity issues and don’t know how else to explain who you are and where you’re from or where your parents are from and what generation you are, when I refer to her as the Pakistani-Norwegian, I’m using it like we use Asian-American in the US. I know, it’s confusing. You might think she’s a half-breed. Or that I’m a half-breed. Us non-white folks generally know what it means. She is a first-gen Norwegian of Pakistani parents and is ethnically Pakistani. News flash. She’s not white.

Because it sometimes gets lonely on the road and going to the gym only does so much for me, we ended up going on a date. To an Irish bar (Finnegan’s). In Azerbaijan. Because there’s an Irish bar in every corner of the world, it seems like. At least every place that I’ve been. Except for maybe Mongolia, but I’m pretty certain there is at least one Irish bar in Ulaanbaator. And maybe the Faroes, but again, I wasn’t seeking out an Irish bar in those areas so I cannot confirm or deny the existence of one.

To say the evening was interesting is an understatement. To say that she’s not an outspoken and fiery and feisty date is also an understatement. It all started out innocently enough when we got snacks and drinks. Then an Azerbaijani guy started to horn in on our conversation. At first he was sort of amusing and doofy. And he was really into my tattoos. As in excited by them. And with the addition of alcohol, he started getting handsy. He wouldn’t take his hand off of me and wanted me to go home with him. And he also tried to kiss me and my date. That’s when her feistiness reared its head and she got up in his face, verbally told him off, then when that didn’t work, physically started shoving him. It was sort of hot. I like tough women. I’m too passive and let that shit fly and hope the guy goes away. I should learn to stand up for myself a bit more when I’m getting groped. Oh, did I mention he also tried to get me to touch his crotch (through his pants)? At the bar? Talk about no self-control.

Anyway, brief scuffle aside, the bouncer dude also stepped in and kept a watchful eye on the situation. Then we left. And wandered around. It was late. I was tired. But I also wanted some company. Because I’m bad at directly asking people back to my place, we ended up wandering down to the park by the Caspian Sea at 4:00 am or so to continue our chat. We also thought it was sort of safe to be a little physically closer, although earlier in the night we had joked about the possibility of getting stoned to death for being queer. Because let’s face it, I doubt white hetero couples really make jokes like that in foreign countries when they hold hands. And if you do, maybe it’s because you’re afraid of Muslims and not really thinking about the fact that you can’t exist as a queer person in some countries and you have to live your life in fear and live a lie with a marriage and kids and all the things that you wanted but not with someone of the gender you can’t help but be attracted to. Which reminds me, if you think it’s a choice, you're an idiot. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Because if you were stuck in a horrendous life situation like that, it would be SO MUCH EASIER to not be queer. And you’d be more likely to stay alive. But we can’t change it. Even I’ve thought it would be easier to not be queer, but I still like women way more than men (let’s say it’s a 97% to 3% split). Sometimes I hate that I can’t change it because hey, you can coast through life everywhere and no one wants to murder you because you're married to a man. Yet here we are and these were the cards I was given in life.

However, back to the Caspian Sea and my date and I at 4:00 am. We thought we were safe and no one was watching. But one of the guards spotted us and hid behind a toilet. And then he snuck off to tell his guard friends. Because out of the darkness, we were approached by 3 or 4 guards. I don’t quite remember how many, but it was more than 2. It was probably 3. It was also 4:00 am and it was dark and I was briefly scared. I didn’t know if we were going to get arrested or if they were going to attack us or something. But the Pakistani-Norwegian has traveled in the region extensively (and also speaks Arabic, Russian, English, Norwegian, and Spanish) and read the situation well – she said they were too cowardly to do anything to us. They would just stand there awkwardly and semi-threateningly. In the end, we walked away quickly and checked to see if they were following us.

Some people might say we were stupid for doing that. Perhaps we were. Yet it’s something any straight couple could get away with and not fear for their lives. At the very least, nothing happened. I think it could have been way worse if we had been men. And she was a really fun date. I like tough women like that. She’s a real warrior type. I need more of those in my life.

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