Wednesday, February 18, 2009

12 Months of Culture Shock

There are days during extensive travel to a foreign place where everything just seems to make no sense. Everything bothers you, and sparks unjustified and sweeping statements against a really very heterogeneous group of people. The interesting thing is that these "bad" days very often follow the "good" days, almost as if your mind had exhausted its cultural comprehension capabilities and needed a rest. I would place this back and forth vacillation in the third stage of culture shock, which for me is happening in the 6th month of my travel in Oman. Let's start at the beginning though.

The stages of culture shock are extremely frustrating. You really need to live for a significant period of time in the foreign country (in my opinion, over half a year or more) to really experience this. Upon first arrival in the new place, you usually will be euphorically happy, vastly overestimating the greatness of your new home. That lasts until you get homesick for your old place and start to idealize it. (For me, around 2 months in). Suddenly, not much seems rosy in the new place anymore. The peoples' gender relations, their clothes, their education system, the way their banks operate, the fact that you can't find your favorite item in the supermarket: everything seems just all wrong and back home seems all right. Depending on the sharpness of the cultural differnces between the old and new places, this stage could last anywhere from a month to 4 months.

Next is the third stage, which where I am now (6 months in). At this point you've learned to applaud the good and accept the bad. Yes, you miss some things from home, but not everything is great there either. Returning home in the previous stage, when everything is perfect at home in your mind, can lead to some pretty serious boomerang effect "reverse culture shock" upon arriving home, and realizing that your memory did not serve you well: Things aren't so hot here either. Nevertheless, despite the predominant sense of balance in stage three, there are days when you revert to stage two. This happened to me yesterday. Ironically enough, only a few days after my day of feeling empowered and integrated into the society. (See blog post "Commanding Respect").

My husband and I went to Muscat to do some shopping yesterday and during the whole trip I felt slapped in the face by all sorts of things that just completely clashed with the way that I understand the world. Here are some examples of what I mean, some more serious than others no doubt.

1. Why is there no whole wheat pasta here? Ever?
2. I don't care if this meat is Halal, I just want to know if it's free range (see post on "Halal" at
3. Why do the men here always think they can get in front of me at the checkout line? And then immediately back off when they see my husband coming to join me in line?
4. Why do they eat so many dates here? Seriously.
5. Why do men here think they can talk about me in Arabic, while staring right at me no less, and think I don't know or don't care. Shoo hayda? (What's that?) 'Eysh? I say to them. Shoo bidak? What you do you want?? And they look so surprised. Not much forethought there, guys...
6. Speaking of forethought: why do they drive 90 mph with their children jumping around the car? I don't understand how you can say you care about your children when you drive like a maniac on a highway with your infant cushioned between you and the steering wheel.
7. Why do these people wear uniforms all the time? All the men and all the women look identical. And then why do my female students complain that I don't say hi to them when I walk past them from behind....probably because you look like all the other 600 girls at the school from behind.
8. Why do my neighbors let their children play in the dumpster by our house that's buzzing with flies and filled with broken glass and other garbage bin-worth things.....but not let them play with my friend's puppy because dogs are "dirty"?? (Note that this idea of avoiding dogs is less prevalent in the more rural areas. See post called "Dogs" at

All this said, I know that America is ridiculous as well, and I'm sure that today will be much better. I do love Oman. I really do.

Welcome to the third stage of culture shock.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Excellent Article

Being a female teacher in a conservative society, I was touched by this article about terrorized girls trying to go to school in Afghanistan. By comparison, Oman is a haven of female empowerment.

Commanding Respect

I just returned to my office from a simple walk to the post office. Strolling to the post office half a mile away shouldn't be note-worthy, but here, for me, it is. My masculine clothing, my distinctly western way of walking, and my gender, all make a little neighborhood walk into an event. Today, however, was different. Although I still got the stares, the car honks, the confusion, I didn't take notice. I didn't look, I didn't react, and most importantly, I didn't care.

It was a moment of liberation for me, to be able to go about my business, as I am, and return to my office feeling refreshed and empowered, rather than tired and disillusioned.

I've heard many western women, both in person, and on blogs like mine, complain of feeling like a lab rat--being watched, tested, poked at. There is definitely an element of truth to this feeling. I've felt exactly the same. Nevertheless, today taught me a lesson that I already knew in theory: being a western woman in a conservative Muslim town doesn't need to be painful. People are people wherever they are. Men are men. Women are women, and people stand out everywhere. The person that attracts the gasps on the streets of New York may be rare, but it happens. In southern Alabama, who gets noticed? In small town Kansas, who gets stared at? In the Italian countryside, who do people whisper about? Maybe it wouldn't be me, but it would be somebody.

All over the world, people have learned to cope and act with confidence despite being scorned or isolated. And this is precisely what has authentically brought them into the society. I can't be an Omani woman, but I can become integrated as who I am--if I act like that's okay. Of course, this does not mean that I should go running in a sports bra and shorts because I think that's okay in America. By no means. No matter what, respect cannot be lost.

Combining that respect, however, with a no-guilt attitude about who you are and where you're from as a western woman will get you much more respect in return than hiding, apologizing, and fearing your daily interactions with the people around you.