As everything has to come to an end eventually, I am currently counting down the last few days of my ten-month trip in the United States. I was invited a couple of times to speak on what’s like for a Palestinian from Gaza to live in the U.S. for the first time. My response to such a broad question tends to sound more political than anything, and it’s no wonder when my personal life is nothing but political. I always find myself talking about my experience in terms of how people in America react when they know I am a Palestinian, of how much they know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of what image they hold of us in their minds, and the like, politically speaking. It did not dawn on me that they were looking for a completely different answer. What they meant was that whether I experienced any culture shock. I got it –or I thought I did. I attempted a new answer.
Yes, indeed. Moving to a new place can be challenging for anyone and culture shock is a normal part of such an experience as everything looks, sounds and tastes unfamiliar: from food and weather to values and customs. Speaking of food, I was “culturally” shocked to say the least. I have so many hilarious food stories to share that I could be a good raconteur, I think. I was really impressed by the sheer size of everything. And here I don’t refer to the exquisitely stunning skyline of the city of Chicago nor the massive shopping malls at which I cannot help but stare in awe each time I am there. I was talking about food, remember? I don’t think there is a place elsewhere in the world can beat the U.S. when it comes to food size. Seriously, the enormous size of one slice of pizza in Chicago is insane; it’s pretty much like ordering an entire pizza, not to mention the gigantic soda cups that they are so huge one can wear them as a hat.
During our trip to Niagara Falls, my friends and I stopped to buy some ice-cream. I ordered the small size. The guy handed me one whose size was too big to fit my hand comfortably. I turned around and asked my friend whether she ordered that one. When the guy told me I did, I said “I am sorry, but I ordered the small size.” Much to my chagrin, I was told that was the small size. When I told him “your small size is as twice as bigger than our largest one back home”, he smiled and said “welcome to America.” Food size in America has always left me dumbfounded with amazement. Couldn’t this be counted as a culture shock for me? After that, it shouldn’t be too shocking to learn that the U.S. broke most of Guinness World Records when it comes to sizes. I don’t know about that; I am just assuming.
Besides food, I may need now to move on to another type of culture shock. Well, in the U.S., people seem to have an obsession with asking for meticulous, albeit unnecessary, details. To get this straightened out, I will tell what happened with me the first time I went to buy some salad. (Food again?) Terribly sorry, but I really cannot help it. Seemingly, food is my biggest culture shock in America. Please bear with me for a moment. My last ranting for the day, I promise.
“what kind of salad?” he asked.
“what kind of salad do you have?” I wondered.
“Caesar salad, green salad, chicken salad,…”
“Caesar, please.” I thought that was it until he showered me with a series of other questions such as: “What vegetables do you like on your salad?” “What kind of cheese do you want?”, “what about the dressing?”, “the chicken, grilled or roasted?”, “the side?”
“Listen, I really don’t know what type of cheese, dressing or side. I don’t mind, either, “ I answered shyly, “I just want some Salad. Any Salad. I don’t care.” I must have looked pathetic that day, or so hungry.
Let’s now move on to another topic, what about Americans? Notice, I have mentioned this time “Americans” not the people of America since the United States of America is the place of immigration and cultural diversity, where one can meet people from all over the world. Americans are known for their friendliness and kindness. True. However, one need to walk down the street to easily realize that they seem to live a individualistic lifestyle. I can see individuals walking, running, reading, shopping, travelling, etc., whether alone or with friends rather than with their families.
Also, based on my humble experience, I could say that some Americans, not internationals, seemed to me that they aren’t quite open to conversation unless you have a dog. Yes, a dog. When I first got here, I felt homesick and just wanted to talk to people. To start a conversation with a complete stranger wasn’t an easy task however. Yes, they smile to you. They look really friendly but give you the impression that they aren’t willing to talk. I once wondered how I was supposed to have them talk to me so I can, at least, practice my English. I sincerely thought of getting a dog. But why a dog?
Well, here’s my story. At the beginning of the first semester, I used to boringly walk up and down the hill, to campus and back home respectively. When their eyes meet mine, they smile. Fine. But that’s it. Just smiles, no words, no further action, no nothing! One day, a friend of mine from NYC decided to visit me after she learnt how depressed and homesick I was. She brought her dog with her. While we both walked together to campus, I remained speechless as I saw how all of a sudden those smiling, soundless faces, the very faces I was complaining about to that friend in front of whom I flushed red with embarrassment as though I was lying to her about those faces who turned out to be so friendly, finally decided to talk to us. Wrong, to the dog.
Would it be shocking to say that I got jealous of all the attention people paid to that dog? I am not even exaggerating when I say that every single person walked past us in the street would stop to pat the dog on the head, say how cute she was, ask for her name and breed, smile again and finally wave to the dog as they walk away. Really? Isn’t this culturally shocking! I asked my friend what the hell that was. She laughed. I didn’t. This made me wonder whether Americans love dogs more than people. I still have no answer to this question, but seriously what was that? I kept thinking that day long that I might want to consider having a dog. 10 months elapsed and I still haven’t had one. It should be no wonder, however, most of my friends are internationals (from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Columbia, Mexico, Pakistan, Taiwan, China, and so forth. And, of course, I have many wonderful American friends, yet it was way easier for me to make friends with internationals in the U.S. than with Americans themselves.)
Would the aforementioned stories be good examples of my culture shock? I am not sure of this, but some are still not satisfied with this. This wasn’t what they wanted to know. They didn’t care about my salad story or the gigantic soda cup not even that cute story about the dog. They wanted to know what is like for Palestinians, perceived as needy, destitute, uneducated, unenlightened, to be in the United States of America, living a civilized life! Only then did I realize that this is the culture shock they were talking about. I came to this conclusion based on questions such as: “Are there universities in Gaza?”, “is internet available there?”, “are there stores, restaurants, parks,..etc.?”, “do people in Gaza listen to music?”, “do they play sport?” “what?! You have a beach over there?! I thought you came from a place mostly desert!”, or “today is unbearably hot, but –lucky you –you are used to this, how did you survive the winter?”, and here’s the killer; during one of the events I spoke at, a woman asked me if we are willing to build playgrounds for children instead of teaching them violence and asked me whether they go to school.
Well, if I were asked what’s the biggest culture shock for me in the U.S., I would say these questions. I sometimes take offense, and I probably shouldn’t, but this is really shocking. Dude, yes we have a tough life, but we do have a L I F E. An American friend of mine wrote “I feel angry at our education system that don’t teach us about other countries. We teach as though USA is at the center of the universe.” As a cultural ambassador in the U.S., I know it is my job to break these stereotypes. This is why I wanted the photo of this post to be “Gaza beach”. This picture shows thousands of children on the beach trying to break the World Record for kite flying. (Do you think only the U.S. can break records? Yes, we too can. Obviously we’ve got the American spirit, or better yet the Palestinian spirit.) Anyway, I am glad that this picture shows the sand along with the beach, so no one would think it’s a “desert” after all.
We might have long normalized the life of injustice, yet we have tried our best to transcend this inhumane life and live our humanity. In spite of the pain, we live. We laugh. We love. We sing. We dance. We play. We swim. We read. We study. We learn. We work. We dream. We hope. And there is no way I can defend or prove my humanity to anyone, and whoever thinks we are less than this is anything but a human. And as that gentleman welcomed me to America, I too welcome you to Gaza to see how we “teach life“.