my quest blog

Cultural Comparisons

Haitham, one of my brightest communications class students, stood in front of my desk nervously fidgeting with his notebook until I finally nudged him into telling me why he’d made an appointment to speak with me in the privacy my office. “I just wanted you to know I really admire your culture,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘your’ in an effort to express his dismay with his own.
“Really,” I retorted, with an amused expression on my face that I couldn’t seem to control. “I can think of a few aspects of American culture I don’t admire,” I added. In his most earnest voice, Haitham continued by explaining that he was actually referring to ‘standards’ which he felt were completely absent in Omani culture.

We continued our conversation for another 20 minutes or so as I tried to explain the positive aspects I clearly recognized in Omani culture, while admitting that having Western organizational skills and efficiency in task completion wasn’t always the ticket to happiness as evidenced by watching any international newscast.

As a Western teacher working in a conservative Middle Eastern country, I’d always tried to walk a fine line between encouraging my students to rise to the challenge of overcoming the provincial local attitudes that sometimes interfered with the learning process and saying anything that might be viewed as critical of their culture per se. In my classroom interactions, my aim was to motivate my students to improve their communication skills in a way that would enhance their contributions to the development of their country.

In Haitham’s case, it seemed clear that he felt stuck in a place that would inevitably limit his potential. My intent was to help him accept what he saw as the failings of his culture, and encourage him to not view them as a barrier to his academic and professional future. I suggested that he apply for one of the Omani government’s study abroad scholarships so he could experience the inner workings of Western culture first-hand.

From my conversations with other Omani students who had left the embrace of their home country to study abroad, I realized just how difficult adapting to a Western lifestyle would probably be for Haitham. I knew from my own experience as an expat how often I’d longed for silence at sunrise (always avoid living next to a mosque in Oman if you like to sleep in!), or craved restaurant cuisine that didn’t taste vaguely East Indian. “Yes, indeed,” I mentally whispered to myself.  This would be just the medicine Haitham needed to open his mind to the positive aspects of his culture.

A few of my students in Sohar, Oman
“I just wanted you to know I really admire your culture,” he said…

I don’t think my words gave Haitham much comfort right at that moment, because I can still see the expression of sadness he wore as he exited my office. I couldn’t help feeling empathetic since I left the USA to live and work abroad at least partially because of the failings I saw in the culture of my own country.

Should I have pointed out to Haitham that America has a serious problem with violence, especially gun violence? He would have been forced to agree that this wasn’t a problem in Oman. When Oman’s wise Sultan came to power through a palace coup in 1970, he had been sure to remove weapons from the grasp of his country’s rival tribes.

Through his wise leadership, he had united the country under one banner and turned his Sultanate into a model of peace and prosperity. Of course, as I was continually reminded by my Western colleagues, the average Omani paid a price for this unity by not being allowed to criticize the Sultan’s decisions.

I wonder aloud now if the messiness of our own ‘democracy’ is truly worth the much-heralded freedom of speech Westerners prize so highly, or the right to bear arms that’s sacred to so many Americans. Is it necessary to give up some degree of safety and security in order to have the level of individual freedom most Westerners expect?

My wonderful Omani neighbors

I could have perhaps improved Haitham’s mood by reminding him that there’s been ever-expanding disintegration within many American families as divorce rates have skyrocketed and individuals have placed greater importance on having their own personal needs met rather than the needs of the family unit. Most research indicates that this phenomenon has had wide ranging negative impacts on American society as the number of financially struggling single parent households has increased.

It’s a fact that working single parents have less time to spend teaching their children to be good citizens or helping them with their studies. This in turn has led to an increased reliance on public education and, in addition, has become a major source of stress for already over-burdened teachers who are expected to somehow provide what’s lacking in students’ home lives. Is it any wonder that many people claim there’s a crisis within the USA’s public education systems?

It seems convenient for many to lay the blame for the disintegration of the American family on government policies or to scapegoat LGBTQ culture, especially when there’s no easy answer to a problem produced by the American way of life in general. Isn’t it possible that Americans have become more obsessed with giving their children material possessions than quality family time which is more highly prized in many other cultures?

In addition, the short term (feel-good) rewards of individualism at all costs seems to have swept all levels of American society. How else can we explain the election of a President who regularly places his own ego above the interests of national unity and stability?

A typical family in Oman, as well as in other collectivistic cultures around the world, place family cohesion and harmony above an individual’s needs. Even the most important decisions are made collectively by the family, or more precisely by the parents and older brothers in the case of younger female siblings.

I recall being completely shocked when a seemingly Westernized Omani friend nonchalantly told me that his family had selected the woman he would marry. He seemed resigned to tribal traditions which dictated that his mother and older sisters would choose his bride.

In this way, wealth is kept within the family and marriage is often merely a means of legally reproducing heirs to carry on the family name. Even if there is a divorce—yes, divorces do happen, even though they are much rarer than in the West—both the mother and father remain members of the extended family and the children stay in a secure environment.

The collectivistic tendencies within Arab culture are so powerful that Palestinian psychologist Marwan Dwairy’s research has noted that his Arab clients’ symptoms became more severe when self-actualization strategies were introduced into therapy. According to Dwairy, the notion that a patient’s  individual emotional needs should be addressed was seen as an attempt to break those family bonds and remove the client’s fundamental link to security .

While unity, harmony and obedience are the hallmarks of many tribal societies, there’s also an ugly side that’s occasionally exposed. In some rural parts of the Middle East, where the need to preserve the public reputation of the family name is of utmost importance, extreme events such as honor killings still take place, although less frequently than in the past. This usually involves a disobedient daughter being killed by an older brother in order to remove the shroud of shame hanging over the  entire family unit.

So, which family model is more desirable? Does stability at all costs outweigh the freedom to choose? Or is the freedom to choose our own destinies an essential factor for happiness, even when the choices we make may be selfish and not benefit others or the society at large?

Whenever I was having a particularly stressful day at the university where I taught, I would try to imagine myself wrapped in the comforting cocoon of family, country and religion that seemed to satisfy most of my Omani students so completely. In my personal chaotic world where there are often no black and white choices, my students generally exhibited a type of contentment that I often longed for. How peaceful it must feel to believe that all one’s needs can be so simply met by family, country and religion.

One thing I do feel certain about is that once Haitham’s awareness of his culture had been awakened, he would never again be able to see the world in quite the same way. As someone who was taught to think critically from an early age, I understand his dilemma.

Peace ~ henry