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A Recap. No. Actually, A Lecture. So Enjoy.

Suspension of disbelief.

It's what keeps you reading a novel or watching a movie even though ridiculously some kid has just been shipped off to wizarding school for the fourth year in a row.  You put aside the part of your brain that tells you that only crazy people believe in wizarding school so that you can enjoy the deeper contexts and experiences of the events and characters in question.

On the other hand, when traveling to another nation with a culture phenomenally and quite possibly diametrically positioned against your own, you must employ suspension of belief.

You have to forget who you are for a while if your traveling is going to make any significant difference in the way you think and approach the world.

Ugly American.  You've heard the term.  It conjures up that image of a slightly overweight woman in a tank top and shorts standing in front of the Louvre screaming about how the McDonald's in Paris doesn't put enough ice in their sorry excuse for a large Coke.

What most people don't acknowledge is that most tourists from everywhere are "ugly" like this.  By virtue of living in the Central Florida area and by understanding several languages well enough, I know that there are multiple iterations of that Coke analogy and that they're offered by a disparate number of nationalities.

And every complaint boils down to the same thing, "Why can't these people be more like us?"

When one visits a new culture, they should suspend what they believe about themselves, how they think things ought to be, and who others ought to be.

It's critical to the definition of "worldly" or "well traveled".

In fact, if a person can't do this, it's a complete waste of money for them to travel.  They should just stay home until they have a true sense of how other cultures can imbue one with new found wisdom instead of assuming that they only exist to reinforce an internal sense of superiority about your own way of life.  I recommend watching Anthony Bourdain.  He seems to have it all figured out.

How was my trip to Saudi Arabia?

It was fantastic.

And mostly because I didn't stop to think about how they were doing it all wrong and why or how they should be different.  I examined the society there and tried really hard to understand why they did things the way they did.  I truly attempted to get a sense of who they were.

Now, I know what some people are thinking as they read this, "Well, you're Muslim, and it's a Muslim country, so how much adjusting did you actually have to do... not much..."  Not true.  I am an American Muslim of Pakistani heritage.  And there is a significant difference between the way that I view the world, God and just about everything else and the way a typical Saudi Arabian might.

There were moments in Saudi where I caught myself donning the cloak of judgment and weighing my cultural practice over theirs, but I would immediately stop myself.

I told myself, I will accept these people and this culture in this moment so that I can truly get a sense of who they are.  I will reserve judgment until I am confident that I know them.  I will not walk away from this with one simplified and discrete opinion.  I will recognize that there is much more to this country than I can begin to understand or experience in three weeks.  I will accept that there is some measure of wisdom in their practices.  This place will make me better than before.

Now, I am not Pollyanna.  I know and you know that there are injustices that are occurring in Saudi Arabia.  Still, my feeling is and has always been that we should worry about our injustices and let them worry about theirs.  For now, anyway.

When we are perfect and great and awesome and everyone here loves and respects each other, then we can go over there and fix them.

We might find at that point, though, we've been confusing "saving them" with "changing them."  And we might find that they don't want to change and that they're fine with the way things are.  We also might find that the way they do things over there has less to do with our general safety in the world than we might think.  We might find these things out if we suspend our own beliefs long enough to really find out who they are.

See, you and I, Americans that we are, we love our freedom, and our choices, and our individuality, and our sense of being unique and our God given right to complain and fight when just one of ninety nine of us isn't getting their due.

Sometimes, we forget, though, that everyone else doesn't see it that way.

Some cultures value structure over choice, the community over the individual and God over the exceptionality.  It's hard for us to understand and accept these different approaches, but I think we have it in us to, at the very least, acknowledge that there's more than one way to build a functioning society.

And who is right?  I cannot and will not presume.  I, having only been there for three weeks, do not have enough information to confidently dismiss another person's entire way of life.  I would hope that people who have never even been there will realize what my ambiguity means for them and the precarious conviction which with they judge this country and others.

Basically, I'm just hoping that people will stop thinking, "Why aren't they like us?"

Because we all know that this thought eventually becomes, "You should be like us."

And then it becomes, "You will be like us."

And, you know what will be the absolute last thing they will want then?

Is to be anything is like us.

Seek first to understand and then to be understood.  Remember, an American* first said that.

*If memory serves, it was Stephen Covey.

Reader Comments (46)

Yes, it was STeven Covey who said "Seek first to understand and then to be understood." I have it on a talking stick I got from one of his seminars.

I can't wait to see you in August.....squeeeee!!!

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

That's not how I would have written it.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterwhall

You should read Committed. I'm only a few chapters in, but one cool concept she talks about is how are ability to be disappointed and unhappy is proportionate to the number of choices and expectations we have in our lives.

But, um, seriously? Isn't this how MOST people travel????? I mean... isn't that the point of spending all that money???

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Britt

Right is subjective. "They" are right to them, you are right to you, we all are right to us when we allow ourselves to be an us, united by some common thinking point.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

My sister's husband and my nephew went to Saudi Arabia several years ago and they gushed about how beautiful it was over there.

I hear it's tough to get a really good martini, though. ;)

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterB.E. Earl

You write beautifully and I completely get what you are saying.

My starting point is the fallacy that there is one 'US' here.

If there ever was a mishmash of ideology going on it is here. And that tends to scare people because it's so hard to control.

Of course that's where religion comes in. It's always been a way to control the masses.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz Hill

Next time I go to a foreign country, you are coming with me.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Before I took my one and only trip out of the country to Europe (save a few trips on cruise destinations which don't count as "international"), it was hard for me to really comprehend how others lived.

It should be a requirement for life that we travel beyond our borders.

Whenever I travel, I do a lot of research beforehand. When I go to another country, I want to blend so that I can truly experience the different culture. When I get home, I can talk about all of the differences. I guess it's just that I think that in order for one to be a gracious host, one must also understand how to be a gracious guest.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKailyn

Like Britt, I fail to see the point of traveling if you're not interested in other cultures. You could just pick up McDonald's and stay home and watch the Travel Channel.

And seriously? Who the hell goes to a foreign country to eat McDonald's? Who the he'll goes to a different state to eat McDonald's?

In other words, I think you are absolutely right. As usual. :)

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFinn

I LOVE Anthony Bourdain.
And everything else you said was 100% dead -on. As usual.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSybil Law

I don't think it's always a matter of "I'm right and you're wrong". I think most of it is a comfort issue - people are used to a certain way of life and going somewhere new can really put a crimp in that comfort. I know I'd have that problem.

And my fucking Diet Coke better have enough ice in it.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAvitable

Bravo! Everyone should travel with an open mind to get the full experience. That's not to say you can't go to McDonald's for some familiar food because that night's dinner selection is something you cannot bring yourself to try, like monkey brains. But if you are going to eat American fast food evert day, why bother traveling?

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCrabby Mommy

This was written so so well. I was trying to explain this sentiment the other day and you have managed to put it together so beautifully worded and wise. Thanks.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterracheal

Brilliant. Thank you. Love it.
Dig Anthony B., too. ;p

I'm reminded of the quote from James Michener:

"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home. You are like a pebble thrown into water; you become wet on the surface, but are never part of the water."

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAl_Pal

My Daddy used to go to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan regularly for business back in the 90s. He somehow always got invited back to someones home for dinner, while one of his co-workers would be eating McDonalds.

He always said he felt like he needed to embrace their culture while he was there, and didn't want to insult someone by refusing to try something new while visiting.

I say all this because I believe most Americans have this lower opinion of humans in general. Here, there, it doesn't really matter where we are...we just seem to not enjoy the people around us.

Of course, my Daddy also wanted to be a door greeter at WalMart when he retired, he loved all people.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBecca

They have wizarding schools in Saudi Arabia?

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSciFi Dad

Unforgettable: The lady from New York dressed in bermuda shorts - her legs were blue with veins and she had a paunch - standing in front of a little shop on a street in Ocho Rios, Jamaica saying in a voice loud enough for all creation to hear: "There are a lot of blacks in Jamaica I guess."

Unforgivable: On a return trip to Zihuatenejo with almost twenty years since our last visit I noted the ad signs - even the stop sign - in English. I almost understand the ads, but I do not want ALTO to say STOP on the Pacific coast of tropical Mexico. I go to Mexico to be in Mexico. That was sad.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRW

@SciFi Dad, OK this wins the thread!

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRW

A-freaking-MEN! You'd think that a country full of individuals would appreciate other individuals' individuality.

Google is going to send you tons of people searching for individuality now.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Kaylene

@Robin, Bring your talking stick. We'll play some version of "monkey in the middle" with it with Adam being the monkey. Of course.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@whall, Well played, my friend, well played. By the way, I've been interviewing for nemeses and I'm really surprised I haven't come across your resume as of yet. Please consider applying for the position.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Miss Britt, No, Britt, that is not how most people travel. Most people waste their money and should stay home. This here? This is one of those times where you take for granted how special your unique outlook on life really is.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Poppy, Wise words. As usual.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@B.E. Earl, This is true. It's also hard to find bacon pickled in beer. So, you'd probably hate it. :)

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Liz Hill, You're right "us" is a fallacy. That just adds to the annoying nature of wanting to make people like us, right?

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Jason, OMG!! REALLY?!! YaaaaaY!! Wait. Was that a joke?! ::Off to cry myself to sleep now::

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa
June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Kailyn, And I think that is exactly how it *should* be done.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Finn, I never get tired of the phrase "you are absolutely right."

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Sybil Law, There are very few celebrities out there that would make me act like a gushy idiot. Anthony Bourdain holds a permanent position on that very short list.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Avitable, I don't think anything that has had a significant impact on me as a person has ever been "comfortable." If comfort is the objective, why leave home at all? Why even change out of your underwear in the morning... oh, wait. Sorry.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Crabby Mommy, I, myself, have been known to eat at McDonald's when abroad. It's like a palate cleansing sometimes. Heh.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@racheal, You're very welcome and I'm glad I could help!

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Al_Pal, Never part of the water. Love that.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Becca, More people should be like your Daddy.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@SciFi Dad, Hehe. Yes. Yes, there are. What else would explain their unlimited access to fossil fuels and gold?

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@RW, Bootlicker.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@RW, HAHAHAHA... there are a lot of black people in Jamaica... yes, moron, yes, there are.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Elizabeth Kaylene, Anything to get Google to notice me. Thanks!

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Faiqa, Thank you for not pointing out that I misused "are" where I should have said "our".

If this perspective is really rare, I think that is incredibly sad. At any rate, I sent this post out anywhere I could in the hopes of making it less rare.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Britt

@Faiqa, As long as liquor is involved... :)

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

Two thoughts come to mind...
1. you taking a picture of a guy sleeping on a rickshaw in New Delhi.
2. the tour bus driver telling us how we were never going to be able to afford dinner at the Le about blending in with the people! :)

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertariq

It is so refreshing to read this post. I believe whole-heartedly with everything you said. As to your question of who is right...after living in two foreign countries, I used to ask this question a lot to myself and now I realize that we all are. We do what works for us. It doesn't make us or them better or worse for it. It took me a long time to get to this place while living in China, where like Saudi Arabia, things are done SO differently.

Like others have said, I think I would like to travel with you. :)

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlecia

This was a nice post.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhumaira

@Faiqa, I have no problem with the occasional palate cleansing. I think everyone reaches a point where they miss food from home, even if it's fast food. My problem is more with those people that spend most (if not all) of their trip eating food from home. The best meals I've had in my limited travel experience have been in little hole-in-the-walls that we just stumbled upon walking around town.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCrabby Mommy

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