Friday, 5 April 2013

The Other Side of Things

As I sit here in this little coffee shop in Salalah (a city in Southern Oman, which you all will have the opportunity to hear about another time), I can’t help but to think about what it means to be here. Here in Oman.

I haven’t really said much in this regard, but as some of you may know, this trip has been a bit of a struggle. There have been multiple bumps and bruises along the way with drama that seems to persist. At times it’s worse than others, but life continues on.

So many times when you hear about study abroad trips, people cannot stop talking about how wonderful it is, how many experiences they’ve had, how much they’ve grown and learned. And in many ways, they are great, but you don’t typically hear about the struggles along the way. Some are harder than others. Problems differ in color and size. Perhaps you miss someone more than you can say, maybe you miss being with friends at home, maybe you miss mashed potatoes, maybe you miss knowing how to actually act and live, maybe you can’t help feeling the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. With all of the new friends that make, you still can't help but to think of home. These experiences, travelling, they are fantastic. Even with all of the difficulties, there are so many other things that fill the voids. The truth is, though, that not everything is always as magical as a picture might imply. All of the "bad" still happens and it still hurts.

There's the typical. Languages are exhausting. Speaking Arabic all of the time has been really taxing. General life has made me exhausted. Life doesn't stop while you try to figure it out.

Then there is the unexpected. As an example, I've had so many issues with my school. Contrary to original presentation, the program was disorganized, the faculty miserable, and run by people more interested in money than the happiness and success of their students. In my strongest American vernacular, it was pretty sketch.

As a beginning traveler, I've been extra sensitive to what I've interpreted as "failures" on my part. I blamed myself for not being able to break the barriers between me and everyone else. Connecting to people has been really difficult. I'm starting to realize that I've been taking myself a little too seriously, but it's still hard. Sometimes it feels like no one really understands me and I feel like I constantly have to prove myself. My inner cultural crisis is practically the theme of a stereotypical highschool movie.

Gender relations have been difficult for me. It would be one thing if "appropriate" was consistently defined. From family to family, though, standards change drastically. I've gone to families’ homes that have clear distinctions between genders. As a non-relative, talking, greeting beyond a slight acknowledgement, shaking hands were all completely off-limits. I've met others that have laughed at me for even considering wearing hijab as a non-Muslim or found it rude to be "unnecessarily" distant.

With this variance, daily interactions become a game of constant cultural negotiations. Is it okay to shake hands with a man? Is it okay to have a conversation with a man? Is it okay to make eye contact? Is it weird if I say hello? What's too friendly? Omani women don’t really have to worry about this as much. These social rules are ingrained just like we as Americans know that standing closer than three feet to someone while talking is weird or that staring is creepy. You don't have to think about it to know. But as an American coming to Oman, I can never quite figure these rules out completely.

I sit in the kitchen with one of my brothers from time to time after he gets home from school. He comes home later than the rest of us, so just as everyone leaves, he comes walking through the door. I have no purpose to be in the kitchen other than to talk with him, but I usually stay, and I'm constantly on edge wondering if it's strange to the rest of my family. In all likelihood, it's probably entirely fine. I honestly just worry too much, but living in Oman has made me question it. My host brother is family, but he isn’t at the same time. In Oman, women simply don’t (or are not supposed to) talk to men who aren't family. No one would say anything to me for talking, but it’s the little things that make people uncomfortable or affect the way that they see you. That's what I worry about.

I was talking to one of my other brother’s wives as we sat around eating mangoes in the living room walkway. She told me about the other girls that stayed with my family. She said that before me, she never really liked the others. There was one, she was nice, modest, wore hijab in the house. My sister said, though, that she found out that the student wore shorts at The Wave, a condo complex specifically for expats in Muscat. Knowing this changed everything for her. She said that it was a matter of respect, and by not staying fully covered, this girl risked shaming the name of the family even if it was only among other expats. I am a generally modest person, but in Oman I've extra cognizant of it. Still, though, there have been times that I've worn (Bermuda) shorts or showed my arms up to my shoulders when I went camping or swimming with friends.

I've taught myself to walk on eggshells, but I'm slowly relearning how to step down a bit more firmly. Everything is a process and another opportunity to learn.

I may struggle with the most basic things, but so many others embody the life I've found in Oman. It's watching a group of women in abayas and tennis shoes running across a dusty field just after sunrise. It's sitting down in the park with the family on a Friday night. It's sitting in the car as one of my Omani brothers amuses himself with extreme offensive driving. It's about making plans with friends to tie-dye a dishdasha. It's about having the context to give all of these experiences meaning.

At the risk of sounding too dramatic, travelling teaches you things. It allows you to know something that others may not have the opportunity to learn. Because of my time here, I've been able to join a subculture of exchange. I live in a world of new idiosyncrasies. From amusing to difficult, these experiences have become home. 

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