Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts on being in a conservative, Muslim country

This is one of several posts about our amazing Christmas vacation to visit my parents in South Asia. It was our first time over there and it was suuuuuch a cross-cultural experience. So far I have posted about what it was like to walk the streets and sight-see, our harrowing adventures on an overnight train trip, an incredible village wedding, and staying in a crumbling beach shack.

Today: Random Thoughts and Reactions to South Asia
  • You know the map on the plane that shows your progress? Well, one of the slides on the map screen on Qatar Airways showed the location of Mecca in relation to the plane so that the Muslims would know which direction to pray in. First time I've seen that.

  • The toughest thing to get used to... by far.... is not looking men in the eye. Looking them in the eye is basically giving the indication that you're a slut. Unfortunately it is programmed into me that to be friendly in a strange culture just nod and smile at everyone. Looking at the ground is SO hard to do. Beyond that, it's so strange that while I'm looking at the ground, it's perfectly acceptable for the men around me to stare at me conspicuously. And they do. They'll walk right up to you to stare at you. I think that is how it differs from Indonesia. In Indonesia you'd get stared at, but I could glare back. Here.... no.

sisters showing off our own henna-decorated hands
  • I LOVE salwar kameez. That is what all of us girls are wearing, and to be honest I think they are quite feminine and having my head covered doesn't bother me at all. They are so comfortable. The other thing I love is the local food. O man, naan and chai everywhere... it's fantastic.
  • We went to a Christian service in the local town. It was quite... sobering... and powerful in a way. We were searched before going inside because if anyone in this city (which is large) wanted to target Christians on Christmas week, they would probably attack this service. In fact, the church was attacked a couple of years ago. Sobering. To see the men there interact with the women as equals was beautiful after a week of men disdaining women. The singing was.... haha..... awful. Barely qualified as music, but it certainly was a joyful noise. It was probably the most international service I've ever been to. There was a large contingent of Africans, and I loved them - whenever we sang they always appeared to be barely restraining bursting out into a full on dance. There were Koreans, and English, and Australians, and Americans, and of course plenty of the local people.
    Below is a youtube video I took (not of the service). It's a local Christian man that started playing for a group of Westerners gathered to celebrate Christmas. His story that blew me away the most was when he was talking about meeting new people and telling them about his faith. In the US we use cheesy things like tracts and crappy illustrations, etc. This man just busts out the apostles creed. Hah!

  • After breakfast as we sat around drinking chai, my family got into a discussion about marriage in this country. The current social tension is between "love marriages" and "promise marriages", which is of course partly a debate between arranged marriages and "falling in love". My mom pulled out the classifieds section of the local paper and read some of these ads:
- "18 years beautiful USA citizen daughter, 5'6", O/A levels, pursuing bachelor in USA".
- "20 years UK citizen daughter, 5'6", four years Graduation Degree (UK), highly established, cultured family."
- "23, 5'4" beautiful daughter, Masters (USA), white-complexioned, slim & smart"
- "29 year MBBS son, pursuing residency in surgery (US), visiting Pakistan"
So weird, eh? What surprised me is that they are trying to match people that are living in the US, the UK, and Australia.
  • It’s evident from the comments we get from the taxi and rickshaw drivers that they are just as curious as we are about the tension between our countries. To be totally honest , it has been discouraging to see the ingrained attitudes of these people towards the US. One driver asked my brother and sister-in-law if they liked the country, and they effusively said yes (as we always do, we wish to show great respect to make up for the image they have of Westerners). The driver replied by saying, “Bush doesn’t like us”, and then spit on the ground with disdain. My sister’s jaw dropped open - she lives here and she said that spitting is an extreme insult.

    Later that day another driver asked where we were from. When we said America, he asked honestly, “Is America a bad place? Everything on TV that I see shows a very bad place.” My dad told him that tv is often a misrepresentation. I don’t know which TV he’s watching - the angry words of the cleric’s channel, or Western movies. When I think about our Western movies and how they would be perceived here, I can understand the man's honest question, it just saddens me. Just as much as the average Joe in the US would have a completely skewed perspective of what life would be like for a regular family here, the people here have a skewed perspective of the US based on the extremes that are in the news and movies. Thank you, Paris Hilton.

    Another driver asked us the same question - where are you from. Hearing America, he asked why we were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Welll… my dad just dodged that one, but if I was a man and could join into the conversation (soooo frustrating, by the way), I would have said that we are in Afghanistan because the Taliban of Afghanistan killed 3,000 of our people on 9-11, and we’d like for that to not happen again. The very asking of that question shows that there is much misunderstanding for WHY the US is doing what they are doing in the Middle East, and I so wish I could help explain. I think they’d understand that. However, why we are in Iraq? Since I myself don’t think that war is justified, I would have no answer, except to say that not all Americans agree with our leaders.

    In fact, one day when another cab driver shared his dislike for Bush, my father (a Republican) told him he’d only have to wait another week or so before he wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore (it was the week before Obama was taking office). I am relieved that at the very least, Obama gives us a moment where we are given grace in these countries. They have pinned much of their hatred on Bush, and his absence will give us a chance to rebuild our reputation.

    I guess the bottom line of what I'm saying is that the entire thing is messier than I expected. It's not just the evil extremists who don't like or trust the US - it's the majority of people. Granted, most people aren't going to kill anyone over it, but there are deeply ingrained attitudes against all things Western. Some of our differences are just misunderstandings or just plain lies that are spread by people who wish to gain support for their own causes. On the other hand, there are genuine ideological differences that have to be dealt with. At the moment a big one is the situation in Gaza. The way the US has unequivocally supported Israel against Palestine enrages the Muslim world and deepens their resentment. As a visitor, it is my responsibility to show respect for these individuals and their cultures. I also ache to have the language ability and cultural savvy to sit down with the people here that asking questions and have a heart-to-heart about how they see it and how we see it. I think that dialogue would help SO much. I hope that our leaders are doing what they can to have that dialogue respectfully at the top level.

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