Monday, March 14, 2011

Awkward American (aka Tyler)

I had the strangest experience that I've had yet in the Kingdom, today. Some American educators came and took a tour of our school. I think the idea was to show them how a Saudi private school works (and we are kind of the best one...nbd). I met with one of them who was actually a very interesting and nice guy who taught at a school in Houston. Anyway he asked the normal questions you would ask like:
"What are the differences that you see in teaching Saudis vs. Americans?"
"How long do you have?" I replied.

We then had a kind of panel discussion about Arabs, America, the future of the Middle East, etc. It was in the midst of this discussion that I realized that I was totally experiencing culture shock. I was sitting on the other side of the table from these American educators...both physically and figuratively.

The big thing I noticed is that they sounded the way I did when I first got here. We as Americans really want to be open minded...and I think we actually are. However, we don't really know how to be...and we're kinda bad at it. Much of what we do to try and connect with people is show that we empathize...we understand your experience or we use our experience to try and understand it. There's nothing wrong with this...I know it's well intended and I will probably do it every time I go to a new place. I realized, though, that I understood something that many Americans do not get the chance to understand: we don't get it. We try really hard, but we just don't. As a nation, as foreign policy, as world citizens...we miss the point a lot.

Now before you go all "tea party" on me and get upset for thinking that we don't get it...that's part of the problem. One of the issues is the political thing...I kept asking my students and my colleagues what they want America to do. They keep telling me they don't want us to do anything. Just let them do what they do. I understand that we have a vested interest here involving terrorism and our only legitimate source of fuel, so we can't just do nothing. But I hear on the news and commentary in American media this same question I was always asking..."what do they want us to do?!" It really does prove that we are missing the point.

The educators that came were great guys. I certainly don't want to take anything away from the them. I am proud that my countrymen wanted to make a hell of a trek over here to actually find out what schools in the Kingdom are like. I'm glad that the students got to speak to more Americans that aren't shouting about how Islam is going to destroy the United States. I'm glad that we got to sit down and talk with them and tell them what it's like to teach internationally as an American. But I couldn't help noticing a great deal of almost reverse culture shock at the way they were answering questions about Arab-American issues.

Again, I don't have this place figured out. I could not even dream of saying that I "get it". But I think that I do understand that I don't...and from the way that acknowledging this has paved the way for deeper, more fruitful, and all around better conversations with my students and seems that this is the way to go.

On a related note: I was totally accidentally awkward because of some social cues here. One of the things here is that you shake hands with people every time you see them. You shake hands in the morning, in the hall way, even when you tell a good joke. As your students are coming in the room it's like a receiving line. This made for an awkward moment when I shook one of the guy's hands like twice and reached out for a third time on the way out the door...I was denied...realized immediately how weird it must have seemed to them and awkwardly explained the unnecessary hand shaking. They laughed uncomfortably and we parted felt like that Arrested Development episode when Michael is talking to that British girl and says something like, "...and so I bid you good morrow" and walks away mouthing "what is wrong with me...". Yeah, just like that.

Vicariously yours,

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