Everything is Perception (except what’s not)

I know a lot of Americans (family members included) who sometimes say that if you’re not from America, you don’t really have a right to criticize or speak badly of America.  Of immigrants who aren’t American citizens, I hear it said, “If you don’t like it here, then go home, but don’t stay here and just complain.”

I suppose you could say I sort of approach Morocco with that mindset.  I mean, I realize it’s an entirely different scenario.  After all, Morocco isn’t bombing Canada, Britain, or other American allies, one factor that might make it more difficult to approach Morocco with such respect.

But I still try to view my experience here as humbly as possible, remembering this isn’t my Kingdom, and it’s incredibly gracious and welcoming of the Kingdom of Morocco that I’m even allowed to be here doing what I do.   I remind myself: I might live here, but I’m not Moroccan.  It’s not really my place to criticize Morocco or Moroccan politics or Moroccan culture.  If you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Morocco, and you decide at some point that you don’t like Morocco, go home.  Even the Country Director will tell you that.

And yet, the more I love Morocco, the more willing I am to openly criticize the things about this culture that make me uncomfortable.   That makes sense, right?  As an American, when we challenge the status quo and criticize the way things happen, we do so because we want things to be better or because we know things can be better.  You cannot form a “more perfect union” without understanding what about the union needs to be perfected.  

I think part of living and working in a different culture automatically implies that you’re bound to encounter whatever needs perfecting.  The question is, how long do you have to live there before it’s okay to say, “Yeah, this is messed up”?  That’s where this gets really sticky for me.  Because when you’re a foreigner, it’s so easy to step into an unknown place and misdiagnose whatever you might think is an “illness.”  Or just to speak in more general terms, one mistake we often make as foreigners is to view everything in “foreign” terms solely because it’s “foreign” to us.  But just because something is different from me doesn’t make it wholly different.

Let me be more specific.  One phrase I catch myself saying too often is, “Wow, that was so Moroccan.”  It’s as if to say that almost anything I see that’s different from my American mindset fits into a nice category I can conveniently call “Moroccan.”  Just to illustrate how absurd that is, can you imagine a foreigner showing up at an American restaurant and remarking, “Wow, Philip just used a fork to eat his meal.  That’s so American.”  American, relative to what?  To that foreigner’s experience of eating habits in other cultures or in their own culture?  Maybe.  But while “eating habits” can certainly describe one aspect of a culture, eating habits are not the sum of that culture.  That I eat with a fork is not what makes me an American.  And even if it was, what about Americans who eat with chopsticks?  Sporks?  Their hands?  At best, your eating habits only offer a very small glimpse into a cultural experience.  It doesn’t offer the kind of glimpse that gives you the right to then make a blanket generalization about what that eating habit might entail.

And let’s be honest.  Eating habits are a relatively mundane topic.  What about dating styles?  Sexual harassment?  What about religious or political beliefs?  To properly understand and define a culture, you have to understand first that culture is really a kind of smorgasbord of everything from religious ritual to eating habits to language to, well, the works.  I could live here the rest of my life and never understand Moroccan culture fully.  Because every time I return to the smorgasbord, it’s a little different; there’s always a new food to try, or maybe even different cooks this time.

And yet, while I’m okay with admitting that I’ll never fully experience the buffet (to keep running with the metaphor), I didn’t like broccoli the first time.  And I’m not going to like it now.  There are just some things about Morocco, just as there are some things about America, that I do not like, and I’m in the slow process of figuring out how to be honest about those things without either generalizing or offending.  It’s a matter of figuring out how to be honest about those things, not because I want Morocco to be more like America or more Westernized, necessarily, but because I want Morocco to be a better place for Morocco.  

I’ll spare you (for now) in listening to any complaints I might have (you should thank me, considering I just got evicted from my house, am constipated, and dropped my phone in my turkish toilet earlier [at least I was constipated]), but I’m hoping as this next year unfolds, I can find a graceful way to speak honestly about what I sometimes find uncomfortable in a culture that’s not my own, and in the meantime, I’ll try to appreciate more when American immigrants (or really, anyone who lacks an American passport) might have complaints about my own culture.  I’ll not be quite as quick to dismiss what they have to say, because they might have some good advice that’s worth hearing.  And when it comes to forming more perfect unions, advice from those we disagree with or from those who are foreign to us should be just as important as advice from our own citizenry.  We can learn a lot about ourselves from those who are not us.

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