Stop. Think. Ask.
I recently returned from the US where I had a couple of frustrating encounters (I wrote about one of those incidents here). Despite the four million Muslims in America (don’t let that number scare you, they’re still less than 2% of the population), globalization, access to the world wide web and people’s ability to travel around the world, the average American is still flustered at the sight of a woman in a hijab or headscarf.
I’ve had so many different reactions in the short time I spent in the US that if I had written them all down I would have published a thick book by now. Most people can quickly mask their discomfort, not without the initial double take though. Then there are those who avert their eyes and frown. They’re usually shopkeepers and salespeople in small to medium-sized stores (not in metropolises). They also feel the need to keep an eye on me, double-check my credit card and ask for photo identification. They avoid eye-contact and seem a little disgruntled. Maybe they’re worried I’d scare other customers away?
The cafés and restaurants fall into two categories. If it’s a small place, the person taking my order will raise their voice and speak slowly. Once they realize that I know what a blueberry muffin is and that I like my latté skinny, but extra hot, they accept me. Their suspicions melt away and we’re finally making the appropriate barista/customer small talk while I impatiently eye my coffee. If it’s a fancier place, however, I’m often ignored. The non-Mulsim-looking friend(s) with me will receive the wait staffs’ attention.
Thankfully, not all encounters are awkward or negative. I’ve had great conversations with random salespeople and servers. Some, just go about their business – treating everybody equally, with a smile on their face for everyone. It’s so refreshing.
I also face the language barrier – or lack thereof. People are genuinely surprised that I speak English. Yes, Arabic is my first language but do they not realize that America didn’t invent English? Don’t they know that English is the dominant (and often required) language in nearly all fields whether medical, financial or scientific? English is the primary language in 35 countries and is referred to the lingua franca of our world today. In other words, people should be surprised when someone doesn’t have a basic knowledge of English.
I love traveling around the US and living there for a year was an incredible experience. I just wish people would take a few seconds to think before asking me a question. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a stupid question was wrong. Questions can be extremely offensive or idiotic. There’s a difference between wanting to learn more, and repeating a ridiculous claim you haven’t bothered to investigate. I admire how Americans want to learn about others – I wish Kuwaitis would do the same and broaden their horizons, mingle with others and familiarize themselves with other cultures. What I do not appreciate, however, are comments about how much money I probably have or the obnoxious, “do you have hair under that scarf?”
Totally unrelated, here’s another picture from a café I loved. Click here to read the post on Brew Ha-Ha.