Iraq in the summer is a true broiler, although not necessarily more so than what I’d left behind in Oman. Here however, the lack of a reliable supply of electricity meant daily intermittent power cuts while the university electricians transferred to an alternate grid provided by immense electrical generators that sat just inside the blast walls behind the main university administration building. During these transition periods, we would all—teachers and students alike–perspire profusely inside the suffocating space created by the sheet-metal walls of our prefab classrooms. These blackouts were random and could come at any time in any part of the city and eventually became just another routine part of daily life in Iraq.
The American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniyah (AUIS) was located on a temporary campus in a fairly upscale neighborhood a few miles southeast of the city center. It was a mix of existing cement block and mortar buildings and (prefab) portable classroom ‘cabins’, all surrounded by high concrete blast walls. There were always heavily-armed Kurdish peshmerga guards stationed just outside the front gate which could only be used by faculty and administration. There was a second entrance at the opposite end of the campus where the students were thoroughly searched each morning before being allowed to enter the main campus.
June 2010: Arriving at the airport in Irbil (also spelled Arbil or Erbil), the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, I was struck by the diversity of the people buzzing around the small, crowded terminal. I had been equally surprised by the large number of Chinese workers on my flight from Dubai, most wearing a company shirt that identified their purpose for the trip.
I was aware that the regional government of Kurdistan was ramping up production of their oil reserves, but flying in foreign workers in such large numbers was surely a sign of the kind of new-found prosperity I’d become accustomed to in the Arabian Gulf countries. From the online research I’d done, I had expected this experience to be very different from my previous 3 years spent in the Gulf, both in cultural and standard of living. For a moment, I felt my heart move toward disappointment, but that emotion was quickly replaced by my need to focus as I entered a new culture, one that would turn out to be more proudly rooted in tradition than any I’d experienced before.
While reading about other cultures is valuable, it has limits as an educational tool and doesn’t fully prepare you for the experience of actually ‘being’ in a different culture. You can do research online or by reading travel guidebooks, but you will still remain in your comfort zone without the emotional changes and challenges that take place once you find yourself alone and surrounded by a different culture.
I remember walking the streets of a lesser known inland Chinese city and suddenly being startled by cries of “laowai, laowai” coming from across the street. I understood the meaning of laowai–foreigner–in Mandarin Chinese, but I was still surprised that it was considered acceptable to yell that at a foreigner in public. Of course, many of the other locals on the street at the time (which was everyone) stared at me, which of course made me feel more than a bit conspicuous as I picked up my pace to pass everyone with a smile and wave. You see, all the research I had done before going to work and live in China hadn’t fully prepared me for dealing with such an awkward public situation, but it did make me aware that keeping a sense of humor would be a valuable asset in future encounters which might otherwise have turned out to be uncomfortable for both me and the locals I encountered on a daily basis.
Gaining some degree of cultural awareness doesn’t depend on having advanced degrees or being highly intellectual, but in my view it’s accessible to anyone with a keen sense of ‘personal’ awareness and who’s willing and able to spend time living within a foreign culture. Skillful observation of the target (foreign) culture as well as critical examination of your own cultural upbringing are also prerequisites. At its heart, cultural awareness rests on an individual’s ability to ask the right questions about both their own culture and the new one.