Archive for September, 2010

In the midst of all of my travels, I’ve realized a simple truth:  I hate being a tourist.  It’s the oddest thing, but so true.

I utterly dislike being the stranger in the room, who doesn’t get the joke.  I hate being the person lugging around the obscenely large camera that screams, “I’m not from around here.”

I hate looking lost.  Let me clarify.  I don’t dislike wandering aimlessly, with no where in particular to go.  I just hate that everyone around me knows it.

I love cultures that swallow me up, and instantly welcome me in as one of their own.

Though not as open as Brazilians, from my observation, I’ve noticed this about the Lebanese.  The first meeting is met with a bit of caution and observation.  The second time feels a bit more like, “We’ve met before, huh?”  The next one feels like family.

I’ve been fortunate, in three weeks, to have met some people that form my little community, though not everyone is Lebanese.

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In any case, it’s great, because I hate that touristy feeling.

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This may seem totally ignorant, so blame it on the American in me, but I must ask the question: How does one eat a date?

You’ve heard of Southern hospitality?  Well, I think Middle Eastern hospitality is gonna give it a run for its money.  Recently one of my colleagues graciously gave me a bag of fruit, which included an apple (with which I’m quite familiar) and some dates.  And while I’d like to say I’m familiar with these little delights of a fruit, I can’t.

Something felt very wrong when I tried taking a bite into it, however, I was a bit embarrassed to go back and ask for proper date-eating etiquette.

And this has consistently been my biggest dilemma when traveling, especially to warm weather places.  I’m not familiar with the produce.  Even while shopping in the local grocery store.  I could properly identify about 1 in every 5 fruits the store was selling (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post that will have to wait until later).

I remember when I traveled to Mozambique.  I found myself wandering in the garden of the house where we were camped out, and I happened upon a pineapple plant.  In fact, I was so excited when I asked the family’s gardener about it.  He stared at me with a bit of disbelief that I had made it so far in my life without seeing the source of pineapples.

Hey!  I’m from Chicago.  What can I say?  If you need to identify a skyscraper or hop a ride on an elevated train car, I’m your girl.

The same happened in Brazil.  I was thrilled to no end at seeing sugar cane for the first time.  I awed in wonder, “so this is where sugar comes from?”  Many a’ Portuguese lessons took place on the side of the road on the edge of a sugar cane field or in the produce section of the grocery store.

All of this has taught me to be curious about other people’s cultures and things I don’t know.  There’s a whole world out there waiting to meet you, if you’re willing to admit what you don’t know.

So as it stands, I’m still a little unsure of how to eat a date…any takers on explaining it to me?

The rain is here!  The rain is here!

This morning, I was awakened by the low rumble of thunder, like a gradual drum roll of the timpani that quickly crescendoed into a giant boom.  Then another!  And another!

The illusive rain I had heard about has finally arrived.  I’m not sure how long it’s here to stay, but I think I underestimated its power.  Though I haven’t yet dared to venture outside, it’s evident that it’s not rain that is falling from the sky, rather sheets of water are being whipped across the earth.

They say it’ll cool the place down, and I’m fine with that, however, the Chicago girl in me gets a little scared at a change of weather at this time of year even though I know the shift won’t be as drastic.

It’s funny how weather plays into the psyche of a place and a people.  It’s the first topic that’s raised in an unfamiliar situation.  It’s the first topic to fill an awkward pause in conversations.  It’s how we experience our world.

Since my arrival, many Lebanese have made a beeline to the topic of weather.  They’ve compared it to years past and made general predictions about what is to come.  One girl even giggled with delight when we went into the mountains and she was able to don her sweater.  Oh how people differ when it comes to weather.  I always dread having to pull out my heavy outer garments when the onset of winter in Chicago is evident.

Being from Chicago, I’m always skeptical when anyone in this latitude speaks of winter, so I’m curious to see how this Lebanese winter will play out.

The quickest way to disappointment is to come saddled with expectations.  I learned this lesson early in childhood (though not in so many words).  I think it happened when my favorite kindergarten teacher moved away or maybe the time my uncle told me he’d take me out to play tennis and never did.  (sounds like someone still hasn’t let something go!)  In any case, I learned early on about disappointment.

Another result of resisting expectations, is the element of surprise.  By not having expectations, I’m surprised when anything happens.  And surprise is a mild way to describe what I feel on the roads in Lebanon.

Before I came to Lebanon, I consulted a former co-worker, who hails from Beirut, in hopes that he would give me the low down on the country.  He let me pick his brain, and shared little tidbits here and there.  He dissuaded my fears about falafels, and assured me that they would not be my daily fare.  Don’t get me wrong, I love falafels, but a girl can only eat so many fried bean balls.

One observation he made was that driving would be different.  When I asked him to explain, he simply snickered and said, “Oh, you’ll see when you get there.”  I always exercise caution when something is so intense that a person defaults to experience over explanation.

Though Lebanese drivers speak confidently about the driving system they have devised, I describe it as an organized, yet chaotic game of chicken.

Their methodical system of bobs and weaves, on a highway where lane markers and the rules of the road are mere suggestion, all set to the sound of incessant honking, a communication method favored over rearview mirrors, always leaves my heart stuck in my throat.

I am then confounded by the glut of luxury cars, caught in the tangle of traffic. In fact, I just don’t get it!  Why would anyone risk their Ferrari or Bentley to the unforgiving roads of Lebanon?

I’ve begun to change my standard in identifying luxury cars, as Beemers, Mercedes, Land Rovers and Audis are so commonplace that they rival Hondas in America for their standard appeal.

I keep toying with this idea of the car in Lebanon, and I’m sure it’s a subject that I will not exhaust for a long time, as it seems to speak to a piece of the Lebanese psyche in a way I don’t yet understand.

I accompanied a friend yesterday on his hunt for his first car.

I was surprised at the sheer number of used car dealerships lined up, one after another, for a long stretch of the road, each jammed full of cars, looking for new owners.

According to www.nationmaster.com, a keeper of statistics, Lebanon is ranked #17 in the world for number of motor vehicles per 1000 people, with a whopping 434 per 1000, and our outing seemed to support this number.

Many come from within the country, though others came from outside of the country.  In fact, may of the used cars from America were still proudly crowned with their state license plates.

The Lebanese Autobahn will surely continue to provide me with clever observations about the Lebanese Glam Life, techniques on how to quickly maneuver myself out of an accident in the case of an oncoming vehicle located directly in my path and survival tips on how to simultaneously cover my eyes and brace myself, while breathing a final prayer of forgiveness.

Today, I was presented with the task of explaining the word “swag” to a couple of my new Lebanese friends and to my Brazilian co-worker.  I started off by saying, “you know, a cool guy.”  (Read: the cool guy, who gets all the chicks)  I accompanied my explanation with a little back and forth wave of my body, which in my mind represented cool.  I was met with blank stares, so I suggested we consult Urbandictionary.com.  Usually, this site, which is the urban version of Wikipedia meeting an Oxford dictionary, doesn’t let me down, but today…..well let’s just say if this were my first day on the job as an English teacher, I failed at getting my lesson across.

Later in the day, I decided to make my foray into running in Lebanon.  Our school, like many other Adventist universities, sits on top of a large hill overlooking the city.  And I planned to run it.  About 3 steps into the run, the cocky American runner, who recently completed her first half marathon, shriveled into a humble American runner, who hailed from the plains of Illinois and hadn’t run any hills in over 8 years.

My legs fought for every inch of ground as I struggled up the hill.  It was in that moment, after my first 3 steps, that I decided, before I boldly signed up for the Beirut marathon, as I initially planned to do, I should get to know the lay of the land and familiarize myself with the terrain.  I should avoid rushing in boldly using all of the methods that worked for me in the past.  I should toss aside my preconceived notions about what this run would be like.

My challenge of explaining swag, along with my mountainside run, helped me acknowledge the uphill climb that lies ahead of me.  The challenge of learning a language, learning about a new group of people and learning about myself, all while avoiding stereotypes, comes with a steep learning curve.  While it’s easy to identify other people’s stereotypes, I’ve had to also acknowledge my own and challenge them.  I have had to challenge what I’ve always been told.  Stereotypes and prejudices are a lazy man’s excuse for not constructing his own opinion.

It wasn’t easy to explain swag, but in the end, I think they got it, when I said, “think Muhammad Ali, before a big fight., or a basketball player on the court.”

This entire experience will surely be an uphill climb, especially as I’m teaching those essential phrases.

Maybe the scariest part about moving to a faraway land is that life goes on.  Life goes on where you are, and life goes on where you were.  Though I knew this to be true, I really started to accept it this weekend.

I went to a rooftop “gathering,” if you will, this past weekend that was for foreign teachers at two international schools in Beirut.  The space was filled with Americans, a few Canadians, a dotting of Europeans and a South African.  Some were Serial International Teachers, having done stints in Pakistan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.  One couple met while doing Peace Corps in Moldova.  Others had found love and married into Lebanese families.

For the second time, I felt at home among a group of people.  The first was when I visited Georgetown’s MSFS (Masters of Science in Foreign Service) program.  It seemed like everyone there was speaking my language.

While shooting the breeze with some of the teachers, I asked a couple, who I would categorize as Serial International Teachers, how they manage to live in two time zones.  The wife looked at me and said in a matter of fact way, “You eventually stop living in your former time zone.”

I must admit, my heart sank a little.  I don’t know if I believe it to be true to that extent, but I do think that life goes on.  Children keep growing.  People fall in love.  The mail continues to be delivered.  Life moves on.

This past weekend, I was very active in church.  In fact, I was probably more active this weekend than I had been in a whole year at home, not because I didn’t want to be active, but because I never committed to a church community.  Now that I’m trying it on, commitment doesn’t feel so bad.

At our Friday night service we talked about seeds, and how we’re always planting them.  Not all of my readers are spiritual, but either way, I think this can be applied in all aspects of life.

In life, we’re always planting seeds.  Because we can never geographically be everywhere and life goes one whether we’re present or not, we should always be conscious of the seeds we’re planting.

After going into Beirut this weekend, I realized that our school offers an oasis from the congestion that is Beirut.  Here’s a glimpse into it.  These are all of the seeds we found on our campus:

I fumbled clumsily to place my suitcases on the conveyor belt, as I went through the routine customs inspection in the Lebanese airport.  Though on the outside I tried to put up the front of a seasoned traveler, who regularly frequents Lebanon, on the inside, I was shaking nervously, like a leaf in the middle of a storm, not because I was carrying contraband, but because this is Lebanon.

The single conveyor belt was more than adequately staffed, with its three smartly attired military officers.  I later found out that they were more effective at being wingmen than anything else.

My suitcases slid through the scanner with ease, and then they posed the inevitable question, “What’s your nationality.”  “American,” I responded casually.  To which the customs officer responded assuredly, “But you’re African, right?”  A small confusion passed over my face.  “No, no.  I’m American,” I said.  Once again showing them my passport for proof.

They exchanged a few words amongst themselves, in Arabic, which furthered my desire to learn the language.  Then, by committee, they came to the conclusion that they were right and I was wrong.  We continued the discussion, with me gesticulating and them insisting.  Finally, after our exchange, when I felt as though I had explained it sufficiently, I walked away with my luggage in tow, proud of my ability to communicate my message, only to hear, “Bye Africano.”  I shook my head to myself and chuckled on the inside.

The lesson I learned: To Lebanese customs guys Black = African

Maybe they didn’t get the memo about the diaspora over here…

This got me thinking about stereotypes; honestly, my hands aren’t clean either.

Before I left home two close friends recommended that I listen to Chimamanda Adichie’s speech entitled The Danger of a Single Story.  I’d highly recommend it to you as well.  I put off listening to it until my final moments at home, when I needed company while I packed my suitcase.  As I listened, I realized it really was the message I needed to hear as I made my way over to Lebanon.

Here are a few of the things that were totally different than I expected (or different than what other people expected):

There’s a lot of diversity at my school, from Egyptians to Brazilians to Serbians to Hungarians to Sudanese to Americans (like me):

There are beaches in Lebanon and girls wear bikinis (even the big girls)

The hijab is not worn by all the women in Lebanon, as this is a Christian and Muslim country, and even all of the Muslim women don’t wear them.

Most of the stuff I can find at home, I can find here

While I won’t blend in, I also won’t be the oddity I thought I would be