Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cross Cultural Communication

Multiple times each day, I am asked to explain a word, phrase, picture, or an American cultural phenomenon to someone here. Now, in the States, this would probably be easy (and also unnecessary, since most people wouldn't need to have things explained), but because of the language and cultural barriers here, often times my explanations are less than stellar and absolutely NOT helpful.

Here are two recent examples:

Coworker: "What is a Viking?"
Me: "A Viking is a... well... they were warriors, like, in boats. They raided and adventured and stuff during the 8th-11th centuries. And they... were... Norwegian? Or Scandinavian? Or something. And they... they had the hats! You know, the hats with horns?" *acts out horn hat*
Coworker: *blank stare*
Me: "Yeah... you should probably just google it."

Me and a friend watching America's Funniest Home Videos
(don't even ask me why this was playing in the Middle East):
TV Host: "Look at that dog! He's the next Fred Astaire!"
Friend: "Whats a fred-stare?"
Me: "Fred Astaire was a guy. A dancer. Ginger Rogers? Fred and Ginger? They were like, the most iconic dancing couple in history! They were movie stars in the 1930s and 40s."
Friend: *blank stare*
Me: "They danced. Fred danced. The announcer is just joking that the dog is a good dancer."
Friend: "Oh. Haha. Dancing dog."

More often than not, the person who asked me explain something ends up more confused than before I explained. These examples are harmless, purely fact, but I am cautious about what I say when it comes to opinion questions, because my response is often taken as "the American point of view." Despite my insistence that I am in no way representative of the entire United States population, my opinion is often perceived as being "what Americans think."

Often times, this whole situation is incredibly frustrating for me. There are so many concepts that I have in my head, but seem to be unable to verbally express. Like, a Viking. Of course I know what a Viking is... unless you ask me. I get so many questions that I don't fully know how to explain: "What is an 'urban center'?" "What is 'Biblical authority'?" "Who is Lady Gaga?" "How does voting work?" "Do Americans eat Middle Eastern food?" There's nothing worse than being asked these questions and leaving people totally confused because of my poorly articulated answers.

Actually, I take that back. There is something much worse, and that is being asked questions that I am completely incapable of answering: "Why do Americans think we're all terrorists?" "How come Westerners dislike Arabs?" "Why don't soldiers get in trouble when they shoot us but we get arrested when we throw rocks back?" "How come people can just steal our land?" "Why doesn't Israel have to obey International Law?" "Why does America let Israel get away with imprisoning, abusing, and terrorizing us?" "Why doesn't anyone care?"

Half the time I just tear up and sob "I DON'T KNOW!!!!!!!!" Because really, how does one answer a question like any of these? Occasionally I will try to highlight the difference between the American government and the American people (which is a distinction that most are very familiar with here, as much of international aid they get is from American donors who are absolutely adored, yet the American government is rarely spoken of fondly). Sometimes I try to argue the point that there is not a single thing that all Americans do, and that the groups they are talking about are not representative of every American. But mostly I just get depressed. I mourn for these people who seem to have been forgotten by the West; abandoned by the powerful nations.

This video does a good job of recognizing how ignorant we tend to be of the situation in Palestine. This is a trailer for a documentary about Palestinian Christians that was filmed by a friend of Bethlehem Bible College, where I work. It is intended for Pentecostals and Evangelicals, but even if you are neither, I highly recommend that you watch it, or at least the first 3 1/2 minutes of it. The first few sentences totally mirror my own reaction when first arriving in Palestine almost two years ago: How could I have not known about this?! 


This is all heavy stuff, I know. But just think, you get to turn off your computer and leave this blog post behind, but the people living here don't have that luxury. This isn't a story on a blog for them... this is every day life. You can imagine how draining it is to live in this context all of the time. But the good news is that I am having a much better week than I was last week. I'm feeling so much better, I cut my hair (more on that later), I finally did a huge grocery shopping run, and I've finally started to get into a rhythm here. While living in Palestine was very draining at first, I find that I'm getting a little more used to the pace of life, which is definitely a relief. I have some great stories to share... but I need a little bit more time to get things in order in my head. So until then, be safe and stay healthy... AND WATCH THAT VIDEO!

1 comment:

  1. really thoughtful post, M. I can totally identify with a lot of your feelings...though central america is nothing like the middle eastern context, the cultural challenges that you are experiencing don't change. I often feel tongue tied whenever i have to explain anything about the US...to the point my coworker even said "you don't like talking about your country, do you?" ! it's a daily struggle. but you are learning what life is like outside of the US, which is the best thing you could ever do (in my humble opinion :) love and prayers as you forge ahead through the mess!!