Culture Shock

Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
Trip End Jun 02, 2006

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Culture Shock

One of the many arrogant assumptions I made before coming to Cairo was that culture shock would be minimal. I mean come on, I'm an experienced traveler I did eight countries in 100 days, I know how to be flexible. For the first six weeks I trudged ahead, ignoring the frustrations and letting a pile of misunderstandings build up behind me. Last weekend I was forced to stop and realize how poorly I was actually dealing with it all.

It was Saturday and I was sitting in AUC's deserted campus while the rest of my American counterparts were taking weekend trips to the beach. I had been staring blankly ahead of me for half an hour, I would have been crying if I wasn't so angry.

What in the world am I doing here? I could have gone on that trip to an oasis. I got out of crew and everything and here I am going to class. I had just taken a stats exam that had been awful first because the professor had given it on the weekend and second because I had come very close to flunking it. I pride myself on being a good student and I always finish tests on time, looking over all the problems before I hand it in. But this had been a one hour and forty minute nightmare. And to make things worse I was now headed to another academic obligation. My physics professor was traveling to the U.S. unexpectedly which meant he would miss a week of lectures. So, cancel them, right? Not in Cairo, he had the mandatory sessions moved to Saturday without even a vote.

As for the stats class, where do I begin? I approached the course with the same strategy that had gotten me through dozens of upper-level math courses before. Sit in the front, take notes, read the book, and study like crazy before the exam. The first problem had arrived with the language barrier. Although the class is taught in English the students all ask questions in Arabic. So when the professor answers them in English with "no, it doesn't work that way" or "that's right, that's the first step" I'm completely lost. Compiling this problem is the TA who prefers to use Egyptian Arabic to explain things rather than his broken English.

Language is hardly the only difference. Time and time again I am the only to arrive punctually, sitting like a freshman in an empty classroom. I make myself and keeping eating lunch until the time the class starts, and still even when late I am early. The students file in ten minutes later and give me perplexed looks. The professor complains every week and then goes ten minutes over to make up for the lost time.

Students talk a lot in class, and all at once. In the beginning, I insisted on raising my hand. Only after I recognized the bizarre nation of my lone appendage stretching upward, signifying absolutely nothing to the preoccupied professor, did I resign to shouting out the answers along with everyone else. Inevitably, half the class is confused so the chorus of numbers continues until at last the prod and nods and says "somebody said it."

Still sitting on the bench and staring vacantly at the half-size basketball court in front of me, I pick up my mobile to call Nancy.

"Kayte, how are you?" She answers in heavily accented English.

"Ana qwayis." I answer. In Arabic, you always say you're good.

"How was your exam?"

"It was awful. It was very, very difficult. Feahlan saab," I add in Arabic to make sure she understands my misery.

"Oh....malesh." With one word Nancy has provided the answer to all my culture shock problems. Malesh. It means "forget about it, move on." Egyptians use it all the time, it is a national mindset. I ponder the word, my American values are telling me to go study, to visit the profs during office hours, to lock myself in my dorm room until I improve my grade. But in the sun, with Cairo's cats crawling around me, the American in me is shrinking. Hmm....malesh...yes, malesh.

Rurba= a feeling of foreignness, to miss one's native land

I learned the word rurba in Pittsburgh while watching a video about an Egyptian man working in the U.S. I ignored the long definition and wrote "homesickness" on my flash card. Five months later in Cairo I realized how wrong my simplification was in. When you travel to the other side of the U.S. you are homesick. Even in Europe, while studying in France, I felt homesick. For the Middle East you need a much stronger word.

Rurba is knowing every day that you don't belong. It is the stares on the metro. It is having to cover up your ankles. It is people asking you why you don't wax your arms or put ketchup on your pizza.

Now I can imagine what it must be like for Arabs in America. As I see people staring at by bared forearms, I wonder how they feel in the U.S. when people stare at their veils. When I get frustrated with their questions about me still being single I wonder how Arab students when people ask them about why they don't live in the dorms. I don't know if I'll ever stop feeling rurba while I am in Egypt, I doubt it. But I am sure that when I go back home I will have renewed compassion for those who feel rurba in America and I might that much more patient when the Chinese student doesn't understand a math problem or when a veiled women is struggling to communicate with the bus driver.
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kcbell on

Would that q stand for the Queen?

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