ME Primer 2: First Impressions

Camels.desert
Gravel and sand desert in the interior of Oman
Even as a rabid student of geography, I must admit I had very little knowledge about the cycle of daily life in the Middle East prior to beginning my first teaching job there. I thought of the region as the ultimate exotic location–the land of Aladdin, Sinbad the sailor and genies who magically appeared from shiny lamps. So, before I can begin to share my overall impressions about Arabian Gulf culture through the eyes of my Omani friends and students, let me explain a bit about my own first impressions.
While I was studying at the University of Edinburgh in 2003, I met and became friends with student teachers from Oman and Syria who forever changed my view of people from this region. I found the Syrians to be very Western in both appearance and outlook as they mixed easily with the Europeans in the program. My Syrian friends were from wealthier families in Damascus and were quick to proclaim they were not religious. In contrast, my Omani friend, Abdul, openly bristled in social situations outside class and appeared to be generally ill at ease.

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Global reach of American culture

As an American who’s been living and working overseas for more than 13 years, I often find myself pondering the question: how do the local folks I encounter on a daily basis see me? Am I viewed as a benevolent foreigner, a cultural disrupter or merely a nuisance that can be either ignored or tolerated? Since nationality is often one of the first things that comes up when meeting a local or another expat in a foreign land, it’s pretty awkward trying to completely avoid the subject, which is something I often attempt to do.

That isn’t to say that I’m ashamed of being born an American, or a ‘Canadian’ as I often proclaim when traveling in certain regions of the world. Compared to my Indian and Arab friends, I realize I’m incredibly fortunate to have the freedom of international movement that’s allowed by having a ‘preferred passport’. With only a few notable exceptions, it allows me visa-free freedom of movement across international borders while individuals from many developing countries are required to pay a fee and wait weeks (or months) to obtain a proper visa prior to traveling. Dealing with that kind of bureaucracy for months in advance could be enough to discourage even the most enthusiastic traveler, so yeah, I do feel lucky.

Before I go any further, let me say I ‘get’ that some Americans may think of American expats as somehow being traitors or less patriotic than the American masses who choose not to explore the world outside the USA. American culture, especially music and film, is so globally dominant that I’m certain it must feel quite reasonable for some to assume they can enjoy a full life without ever setting foot on the soil of a foreign land.

For better or worse, this writer seems to have been born with a genetic predisposition to wander this amazing (and sometimes terrifying) planet we all must share. What I’ve discovered is that there are a variety of ways in which Americans are perceived abroad, depending on the culture of the region and current events being portrayed in the media on any particular day.

Is it possible for anyone to truly be free of prejudice?

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