First hours in America

My father worked at the Kuwaiti Embassy in Muscat when we were growing up and apart from the occasional trip to Dubai, my traveling experiences constituted of multiple visits to Kuwait every year. Every time my parents had the nerve to even suggest going to another country, I would feel a painful squeeze in my heart. I always needed to go home, back to Kuwait (which is ironic because leaving Muscat was the most heart wrenching experience ever). It’s not that I didn’t want to see the world, quite the contrary, that was one of my life goals. Somewhere, in one of my journals I had written down the list of “Things I Must Do Before I Die”: See every country in the world. I must point out that this was way before “Bucket List” emerged as an actual phrase.

Yes, I wanted to see the world at a very young age, but I was in no rush. I figured my university years would be the best time to start my travel adventures. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was selected to participate in a six-week student leadership training program in the US (MEPI). I focused so much of my energy on getting my parents’ consent and finalizing paperwork for my visa that I didn’t allow myself to get excited about the trip. Not until the plane actually landed in Washington DC, did I think, “wait! What’s America really going to be like?” But by then, it was too late to ponder. I was already there and I someone prodded me toward the waiting immigration officer.

I landed in Washington DC for the orientation and I loved it. It was my first time in a real city. A day or two later, my fellow participants and I were transported in a gigantic, comfortable bus to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here are my naïve thoughts during my first few days in America:

  1. IT IS SO GREEN. HOW? How can ANYWHERE in the world be this green? There are trees. EVERYWHERE. OHMYGOD. I’m never going home. THEY HAVE TREES!
  2. “Is that man DEAD?” I whispered loudly pointing at the huge man sprawled on the pavement outside AT&T. And why is that guy swatting imaginary flies and singing “ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”?  What do you mean they’re HOMELESS? They have no home whatsoever? What about their families? Is that what homeless people look like? I’ve never seen one! Will they hurt us? Doesn’t America have enough money to take care of them?
  3. I SWEAR I SAW A SQUIRREL. There! Give me my camera!
  4. Where’s the rest of the White House?
  5. TherearetreeseverywhereIjustcan’tbelieveit
  6. People are so… NICE! Everybody smiles, waves and people who work at Starbucks ask, “so how are you doing today?” Why, I’m very good, thanks! You have trees!
  7. Did that waiter completely ignore me? Because I’m wearing hijab? Oh come on, no way!
  8. There is a building with an Israeli flag right next to the White House.
  9. There is no 13th floor in this hotel. Seriously?
  10. Trees come with bugs. Creepy-crawlies, mosquitos and SPIDERS. I don’t think I can live here.

Someone took a photo of me as I took a photo of a tree

My impressions toward the end of the trip were more mature and balanced, having had time to interact with Americans. I saw the good and the bad during those six weeks, although I know I barely scratched the surface on either of those! What really struck me, however, was Americans’ passionate love for and deference to the law. On the first day we were rounded up and given a pep talk, “we don’t know what you’re used to back home but this an American university and you have to come to class on time. Your American professors will be insulted if you’re late. You have to show respect.”

Our professors stressed on the importance of even the seemingly insignificant laws. I learnt that crossing the street when it was not my turn is a crime. It even has a name! I was told that downloading copyrighted material is criminal behavior, punishable by law. We were talked through the difference between freedom of speech and hate crime. Our professor even explained the sort of insults that could land one in jail. I loved it. I took pleasure in learning about this organized society, this organized continent for heaven’s sake, and I wondered, “what is wrong with my country? Why can’t we have a proper constitution and bylaws? Why can’t we implement all this?” I came back to Kuwait frustrated. I had the leadership tools but no real resources; I felt stuck in a country that lacked the structure. I tried to hold on to the charming memory of my days in the US; I didn’t want it to fade.

As time passed, my trip became more than just a memorable adventure. I started treating it as life experience and I drew knowledge from it. What now fascinates me, for example, is Americans’ relationship with the law. I can’t wrap my head around how some Americans (who value law and order so highly) throw that all out of the window when they travel. Take the majority of Americans who come to Kuwait and are handed an invisible list of laws they can break. It’s ok to drink, everybody does it. Oh they’re going to come after me for drinking? Their country it falling apart anyway. You can buy DVDs for less than $3 here? Do they not think before engaging in “criminal” behavior? Those arguments are wrong on three basic levels. 1. The arguments are flawed. Read this post for a recap on the appeal to common practice and Ad Hominem. 2. The arguments are hypocritical if those people expect visitors to abide by the law in America. 3. Arguments (ex. for drinking) are based on an egocentric world view. The argument assumes that drinking is “normal” behavior, not taking into account that cultural practices differ from one nation to another.

What further astounds me is that many Americans who have confided in me about their success stories in smuggling alcohol are educators. There isn’t a profession in this world that I respect more than that of an educator. How, I wonder, can someone who prides him or herself in shaping generations turn around and break the law simply because they are away from home? What would he or she say to students when confronted with that question? Would he or she lie and lecture about the importance of a constitution? Or would that teacher/professor hush his or her conscience and whisper: When you’re in the West, abide by the law because otherwise there will be consequences. If you can get away with it, especially in the Arab world, break the law as you see fit. Disregard the “stupid” laws, the ones that don’t fit your concept of how the world should be. And don’t worry, everybody’s doing it.

My first days in America left me speechless. I was an inexperienced university student: always wide-eyed, a little scared and excited but always civil, so utterly careful not to offend. I wanted to learn, have fun but I certainly did not want to break any laws! Firstly because my trip was too short to spend inside a prison cell and secondly because I hate it when visitors come to Kuwait and turn a blind eye to our laws. My mother always said, “يا غريب كن أديب” which is an Arabic phrase that cautions a stranger to be well-mannered. I admit that I am passionate about cultural bridging and promoting understanding, maybe it’s because I grew up hearing such eloquent phrases from my mother or listening to my father, a hardworking diplomat. Maybe it’s because I was taught that people’s ideals are not inferior, but different. Maybe it was my training as a facilitator with Soliya or my anthropology major. I don’t know what it is but I firmly believe the world would be a better place if we each took on a little more responsibility and examined our behavior before expecting others to change.

Crazy, right?

4 thoughts on “First hours in America

  1. The tree comment was funny because I had the exact opposite reaction landing in Kuwait! It was funny for me, I had never been to the Middle East or the Arabian Gulf so once I left Rome on the last leg of my journey to Kuwait and noticed that there were few Westerners on the plane I felt really strange. When the pilot announced we were flying over Syrian airspace I kind of freaked out. Yes, people asked me to smuggle in alcohol but I refused. I didn’t drink while in Kuwait, but I don’t drink much anyway. Oddly, just because it wasn’t available sometimes I wanted to have a beer. It’s exciting to go to a place so different from your own country.

    If you think the Americans are so law abiding you should see how they are in Scandinavia! I was constantly scolded for silly things in Sweden and Denmark and in Japan too, they are sticklers for following social norms and laws. I actually liked being a woman in Kuwait, it seemed a lot of people were out to protect you and indulge you just because you were female. I got entry into a concert that was sold out because the people in the ticket booth saw how disappointed I was and I guess they were afraid I was going to cry or something. :-D Renewing my visa was also a snap — when one of the Kuwaiti soldiers was trying to deny me the visa for no good reason, his superior came out and not only gave me the visa, he bought me an ice cream and had me wait in an air conditioned office! :-D It was funny, almost like being treated like a child but I rolled with it. :-D

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