On the flight coming back from Dubai, my friend and I ended up sitting next to an interesting man. It was 9 o’clock at night and at that point we were all extremely exhausted, but somehow due to my friend’s gregarious nature, it did not stop us from making conversation. My friend is quite sociable in nature and happens to be incredibly good at talking to random strangers; a skill that I aspire to master!
The man had a brawny stature and was clad in suit and tie, like a business type. We carefully carried our luggage down the aisle approaching his row. I have a feeling he was watching us approach, a little perplexed as to why American teenagers were in an airplane coming from Dubai at 10 PM on a school night throwing a few Arabic words back and forth in conversation.
“So are you Americans?” he said. Though I thought it was quite conspicuous, we figured some clarification wouldn’t hurt. Yes, we were American; in fact we were exchange students here on a government sponsored scholarship. “So how do you like it here?” he asked nonchalantly with a warm grin. Most of the local people we have talked with have been under the assumption that as moody pubescent American teens full of existential crises, we would be unable to appreciate Oman’s quiet slower way of life. To his surprise, we informed him of our mutually positive experiences. “The people here are so friendly. It is an incredibly hospitable country”…we went on and on. Somehow though, like almost everyone else we talk to, he wanted to know why we chose Oman.
We proceeded to explain the mission statement of Yes Abroad, and let me tell you that is one daunting task. We told him we were here attending local high schools living with Omani families, learning about their culture, while in the process hoping to rehabilitate citizen diplomacy between the U.S. and countries with predominant Muslim populations. Quite a mouthful isn’t it? Generally the majority of people we talk to have very positive reactions, but are pretty surprised that the U.S. government would not only endorse this program, but would also allocate money for it as well.
He then asked about the general attitude of our schoolmates in Oman. It is interesting, because I would say for the most part Omanis are very open-minded. Though most kids side with popular opinion, kids here certainly care. They are very willing to not only discuss their beliefs with you, but are also very sensitive not to offend your own sensibilities. Unfortunately, with the younger generation of Omanis, there is a wide spread belief of “why would you want to come here?” American pop culture and media has infiltrated their own lives to a certain extent and no matter how much they enjoy our export of culture, they are quick to assume we must look down in disdain on other cultures.
It was a little embarrassing to say the least as our conversation moved on to our U.S. government shutdown. We had to discuss the prideful adults in our congress who disdain compromise and perseverate on the word “entitlements” without seeing the benefit of lifting up the lives of the children and families of our country as a whole. Ya, true story; people really do not get why we would shut down our own government.
The next question I could not see coming. He proceeded to ask me, what bothers you the most about America. Honestly, I’m sure no matter what country you are from you will inevitably have frustrations with the culture and/or bureaucracy. However, the first thing that came to my mind wasn’t anything concrete. I said I was frustrated by our emphasis as a culture and even in our education system on history as told through our impact on the world without seeing the sometimes negative effects of our impact or seeing the world’s impact on us.
After being abroad for almost two months, the thing that irked me the most about my own country was how unprepared we are to explore other cultures, the lack of emphasis our schools put on anything but ourselves; though maybe that is how it is wherever one lives; our tendency to look inward instead of outward. I mean let’s face it, we were quite opposed to ever switching to metric and for a country of immigrants, a second language is not even required until midway through middle school, and much of our history books revolve around us. I think it is quite important to retain a sense of civic pride, but for such an influential country in the world, you would think we would care more about what is happening in the world around us. I think that is why I also feel so personally invested in counteracting this through my participation with the YES program.
I did however have the opportunity to add my favorite qualities of the U.S. as well. I feel very proud to live in a country that puts so much emphasis on ideas and creativity. I really value living in a place where people are allowed to express their opinions freely and the public has such an open exchange of information through the media and other forums.
It turns out Mr. Airplane man worked for a large business, and as an executive manager it required him to travel all over he world. He has been to almost every continent, but he has never made it to the U.S. Eventually he admitted to me that his 16-year-old son has always been fascinated with the U.S., but as a parent he can’t help but be a little concerned for the reasons I had mentioned earlier, our cultural exports. I think though America will never be the place one imagines straight out of a Hollywood film, there is something to be said for our emphasis on innovation and new ideas. We spoke about the positives of America. Regionally there is so much diversity, and every state offers an entirely different experience. I don’t know if you can ever guarantee someone the “American dream”, but I let him know that I have enjoyed my childhood in the U.S. very much. The flight was about to land, but it was a very interesting conversation for me.