Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Come Have Lunch With My Family!

Neighborly interactions are different everywhere. For that matter, they change through time as well. In twenty-first century America (in the majority of neighborhoods in the country), the idea of neighborly relations encapsulated in the image of borrowing a cup of sugar and 2 eggs, or of Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith having a cocktail after work while the Mrs.'s chat about the newest furniture fabric cleaner--is undeniably passee.

You go home to your house. I go home to my house. That's the way we have it now, and that's the way we like it. By no means does that go to say that we never interact. But unless neighbors have a compelling reason to mingle, suburban America isn't down with neighbors-as-extended-family motif. In all fairness, we don't even see our extended families very often.

Here in Oman, as in most of the Arab world and many other areas, the story is different. To be polite, the daily visit is de rigeur. Turning down an invitation (even if they come every day) for lunch or coffee is rude. Moreover, it is not understood. This is the other side of Arab hospitality--the side that can cause neighborly tensions and down-right hard feelings.

This is thankfully one culture clash that I actually understand. There are a few causes for my current standing as a poor neighbor:

1. Hospitality. They are simply generous people.

2. The reciprocal cultural norm of accepting hospitality. You have to give it, and just as much you have to take it up.

3. I am a bleep on the Omani suburb radar screen. I should be doing more to become one with the Omani women. I have already been told that I would be much more beautiful if I covered my hair, and that if God is good (which, of course, he is) I will join them in Islam.

4. Lastly, there is little to no concept in rural Oman of personal space. This is not at all unique to Oman, but rather to all poor and closely-knit societies. Fifteen people to the same house. You're lucky if you get to share a room with only two siblings. Swarms of little kids. Even the recently married cousins of the family spent their wedding night in the decked-out bedroom which opens onto the women's sitting room and borders on the kitchen! Not my idea of personal space. This, however, is perfectly normal, and even desired here.

Let me give you a simple anecdote to illustrate this last point. One of the smartest students at the college lives in this house next to ours. Often we drive him to school because we are going the same way and he doesn't have a car. Everyday his mother franticly waves us into the house. (In fact she does this whenever we pass by her.) As usual, yesterday he said to us in his nearly perfect English as we were dropping him off, "Please come, we have not seen you for such a long time. My mother always asks why you don't come. Please, come have lunch."

It was 2:30, the day at work had been harrowing. In fact, the whole week had been hellish. Both George and I were overcome with the feeling you get after a long day a work (especially a long day of battling through cultural--not language--communication blockages to accomplish simple tasks). That feeling that desperately wants to get out of the business clothes, grab an unhealthy snack, and go cross-eyed in front of the TV. In short, to have personal space in a safe place.

This concept is unknown to my very intelligent student. He just doesn't get it, and his family even less-so. He has never had personal space. Besides, why would you ever want to cut out your family? This is no slight to him, it is merely a consequence of their perfectly satisfactory way of life.

We said to him, "Not today, it's been a long, and we really need some space."
He says, "No problem, come relax, we will give you lunch."
We say, "No thanks, we really just need to have our own quiet space."
He says, "Ok, we will just sit."
We say, "No, some other time, we need our personal space now."
He acquiesces. "Ok, my mother will be disappointed." She becons to us warmly, but a bit too feverishly, through the car window. "Inshallah, God willing, tomorrow."

They are a lovely family. We like them. But to them, 2 hours of coffee, mandatory dates and force-fed, pre-peeled fruit sounds like a comforting and relaxing afternoon after a hard day at work. To me, well, I want my bathrobe, a cup of hot chocolate and nobody talking to me. That's what I'm used to. To them, that is both boring and bizarre.

So, while I appreciate the nuanced cultural complications of living in this neighborhood, to those of you in average American neighborhood, do this for me: Relish in being able to stroll by your neighbors as you take the dog for a walk or check your mail box and just give a simple wave and a "how-dy do-dy"--and have that be just fine.