Living in the Middle East: Different Strokes

I’ve struggled for some time trying to express what it is like to live here to anyone from the West who has never lived in this part of the world.

The following are my experiences only–as best as I can express them, understand them and explain them to fellow Westerns right now. This is not a judgment or riducule of either culture.

What’chu Talkin’ ’bout Willis!?

I live in a rather small Arab town/city with little western influence. It isn’t a village, but it is not the metropolis of Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The difference, culturally, from the West is dramatic. Okay–there is some western influence. But it comes in the form of KFC and the young men listening to Tupac– that’s pop culture. I’m talking about real cultural difference, when worldviews collide

What do you do when the underlying values and definitions through which you see  and understand humankind and the world–that you’ve been taught all your life are the correct views–are faced with a people group that not only hold a different worldview than you, but sometimes a complete opposite worldview from you?

How Do You Know That You Know?

Western culture is shaped by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is often taken for granted, especially if we grew up in the post-Enlightenment. We think in “Enlightment” ways that we just assume are the ways that everyone has always thought. However, The Enlightenment was a massive shift in epistemology and worldview. It elevated reason and the scientific method as the ultimate sources of truth. It encourages individualism and critical thinking.

In the East the Enlightenment never happened. Here someone with epilepsy, for example, may still be believed by many to be possessed by spirits. Keep in mind, this is not a village. The person may drive an Infinity, go to college, eat at Pizza Hut and listen to Dr. Dre– but the Enlightenment has not created a divide between scientific and spiritual in his/her mind.

Also, accepted truth is not always based on outside knowledge or scientific study. Many people get their information from neighbors and family members and do not question its validity. Some are long held beliefs.

Way of Living: Western and Eastern

One friend from the USA, who had a baby girl, lived in an apartment complex with many people from the Middle East and India as neighbors and friends. When the baby girl was about 1 year old and was starting to stand and walk, my friend’s Eastern neighbors would often pick up the baby and make her sit again. They didn’t want her to stand, as they believed that if baby girls stand too early they will be bow-legged. My friend tried to tell them time and time again that that was not true, but they adamantly stuck by their belief as truth. Only after my friend decided to tell them, “It’s okay for her to stand because American babies are different” did they let the baby stand and walk.

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

Western culture also is a truth-based culture. Eastern cultures tend to be more relationship-based. To give an example: I asked a man for directions to a certain place and he gave them to me. However, it was clear after following his directions that he had no idea where my desired destination was, but he was not going to say that he didn’t know– in his eyes that would be rude. He’d rather lie and give bum directions than say “No” to me because that would be seen as harming the relationship. The truth (i.e. “I don’t know”) is not as important as the relationship.

Whenever I ask someone for information, I have to take it with a grain of salt. I am getting a little better at reading the very subtle body language which helps me spot when someone is afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

Have You Been a Good Boy?

Western culture is a culture that is concerned with right and wrong. When faced with how I should act in a moral situation, I ask myself, “What is the right thing to do?” In my best moments, I then choose the right thing to do, no matter the consequences.

Eastern culture is not so much concerned with right or wrong as it is with honor and shame. An Easterner in the same situation will more likely ask himself, “What action will not bring shame  (or will bring honor) on me and my family?” The consequences or effects of the action (i.e. honor or shame) matter more than the action itself. So, “right” or “wrong” may not matter if I do not get caught. As long as I did not bring shame.

The Eastern way often feels “wrong” and “unjust” to me as I experience living here–but then I am looking at the East through my culture’s view of “right and wrong”– but I can’t help that, I am a Western.

The View of Self: Western and Eastern

Me, Myself and I

The West is a blatantly individualistic culture. I remember my parents telling me that their job was to raise me to be a self-sufficient adult– who could function well in life on my own. In the West we are concerned with the health, wealth, rights and actions of individuals.

The Eastern view is different. We call it collectivism. The individual is not more important than the family or tribe. There is not as much of a concern about “my rights.” If you were never taught to view yourself as a complete and separate individual, where would you even get the idea of “my rights?”

This plays out in teaching students not to cheat. How do you tell a student who grew up in the East, whose heritage is tribal, not to help a fellow student who asked him for answers? Not to help is thought unconscionable– life is collective. And even if you can convince them it is “wrong” to help in this case, you have to deal with the fact that the way they think about “right” and “wrong” is different (as mentioned above).

Sugar and Spice

Specifically in this part of the world how the genders relate is very different from the West and other Eastern countries. Schools, even colleges, are separated by gender (at least the government ones)– though it is slowly starting to change. A man will not tell other men his wife’s name– it’s considered shameful. Unmarried, unrelated men and women should not communicate with each other, and, of course, never touch. Even if a women talks to a man, she is being too forward, shames her family and drastically affects her ability to get married (if it is found out).

Some women will not go to the movies because of what people may think about them. If they do go, they will go with a male family member– never just with other women. Law does not require a woman to cover, but if a local woman does not, the social and familial consequences would be dire or worse. Also, special permission must be granted to take photographs of women. If a photograph showing the face of a local woman, without permission, is shown to anyone whom is not her family it is a great shame.

I work with several local women. I’ve never taken their picture. I am friends with many of them on Facebook–but they never put a picture of themselves in their profile, and they often alter their name so only their friends know it is them. It is an ingenious way to make social networking something they can enjoy while remaining women of integrity and honor.

Never the ‘Twain Shall Meet?

So, the cultural gaps are many. Living here is far different than living in the West. Learning how to navigate these differences and sometimes altering a core worldview seem the keys to survival and growth here.

How would you do if you had to live in a place where all your underlying assumptions about truth, right and wrong, personal rights and gender are challenged on a daily basis?

We either bend with the breeze or we break.

Some days I bend, some days I break. But, I am always learning!

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Explore posts in the same categories: American Politics, Cross-Cultural Experiences, Culture, Philosophy, Psychology

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