I sit here writing this blog in an American coffee shop, American pop music on the radio, sipping my $3 latte, thinking about how being a western person in this city can present a lot of interesting contradictions. This afternoon, I’m in a coffee shop; I had pizza for lunch. This evening, I will go back to my flat in my neighborhood where my roommate is the only other western person I’ve ever seen in the area, and my other roommates are students with refugee status. I’ll probably have a dinner of the local staple, bean sandwiches, for about 50 cents.
Students in our position want to engage with the culture, to be as local as possible, to be where the people are, speaking their language and relating to them in a way they can understand. At the same time, though, we have another foot firmly planted in our home country. We have privileges that most locals don’t have. I have breezed by a security checkpoint without being asked any questions because my hair is blonde and my skin is white and I was walking with purpose. That isn’t fair. So, then, what do we do with that?
I study Arabic, but no matter how good I get, my appearance will always create confusion about the language coming out of my mouth. Sometimes, I will try to order food in what sounds (to me) like a decent approximation of the language, and I will get a blank look, as if cognitive dissonance does not allow the locals to understand that a westerner could speak Arabic.
So, a lot of it ends up being a good blow to the pride. It’s a process of getting comfortable in the discomfort of straddling the fence between the cultures, one foot in America and one foot in the Middle East.