2008-09 Gathering of Voices

On Migration and Sleepwear

Wajeha Arshad

The first time I saw my neighbor outside her house wearing pajama pants and a sweatshirt, I thought she was just out to pick up her newspaper. But she hopped in her car and took off to wherever she was going. Then I told myself, maybe she just went to get coffee or something. But over the course of the week, I learned that her wardrobe consisted of nothing but pajamas, sweatpants and baggy sweaters of different colors. No, I do not spy on my neighbors from behind the curtains. It’s just that my neighbor leaves her house every morning at the same time I usually leave for school. And, she makes me feel extremely overdressed. But also, her choice of clothes surprises me. Weren’t Americans supposed to be well-dressed and organized?

I had a very different impression about Americans before I moved to Bellingham three months ago. The image that I had in my mind was just based on what I saw on TV and the lifestyle of the American community in Oman. However, now that I am living in the US, I have realized how skewed or one-sided my understanding of American culture was. Moreover, this experience has led me to question how much I really know about the people around me. Do I really have as much experience with diversity as I think? I know that I should not believe the stereotypes about different countries, but aren’t they easy to believe? They require less effort, less need to comprehend what diverse cultures are about. Stereotypes are comfortable, just like pajamas and sweatpants.

I grew up in a beautiful country in the Middle East: the Sultanate of Oman. Muscat, the capital city where I used to live, is known for its pristine beaches, golden deserts, luxury hotels and rich culture. There is a large American community in Muscat but their lifestyle is very different from other foreigners living in the country. All I knew about them was that several of them were really rich and engrossed in their own little world. Most Americans lived in the most expensive, posh areas of Muscat: Qurum and Al Khuwair. They had white collar jobs and executive positions in successful Omani businesses. Therefore, they owned fancy cars, large houses, and had expensive hobbies such as mountain climbing, scuba diving and sailing. Additionally, I noticed that some residential areas of Qurum resembled American suburbs. The houses there had triangular rooftops and front lawns very similar to the set-up here in the US. Almost all American kids were enrolled in American international schools whose fees were well beyond other expatriates or even some Omanis’ pockets. I felt that the lifestyle that these Americans established for themselves created a particular image of superiority in everyone else’s mind. Sometimes, they were favored because they were assumed to be rich. For instance, in Muscat, if a taxi driver had to choose between an American passenger and an Asian passenger, he would definitely give the white man a ride with the hope of receiving a good tip and high fare. I did not believe the stereotype that all Americans would be rich and blonde, but from the limited access and insight that I had into their culture, it was hard to imagine otherwise. For some reason, Americans seemed very unapproachable to me. While living in Muscat, I’m not sure whether I liked them at all.

When I decided to study in Bellingham, I was a little apprehensive about whether I would fit in with people here or not. All I was sure of was that the American education system was considered to be one of the best in the world. But I also wondered what impression Americans would have about Asians. One particular experience fuelled my curiosity even more: when I was waiting for my luggage in the baggage claim area of the Sea-Tac Airport, a Mexican airport employee pulled my bag off the conveyor belt for me. He didn’t struggle with it much, it really wasn’t that heavy, but what he said to me was, “You must be Asian, your luggage is really heavy”. I did not understand what he meant by this. What does my luggage have to do with me being Asian? So I asked him why he thought so and he said, “Well, that’s just how Asians are, they always have a lot of luggage”. I am still confused about what he meant, but his claim made me wonder what image of Asians he had in his mind. Or was it just his observation? Similarly, I noticed that a lot of Americans would talk to me really slowly and use a lot of hand gestures. Did they already assume that my English was weak because I was not a native speaker?

But of course, stereotypes can be proved wrong. Assumptions can be changed. And that’s exactly what I learned from moving to the US. Even my understanding of American culture was far from accurate, but I like to call this learning process “the evolution of my perspective” just to feel good about it. Now that I have started living among Americans, the image I had in my mind has been altered. A lot of my misconceptions have been clarified, but some of my observations have been confirmed as well. For example, I have always thought that I had a lot of experience with diversity since I grew up in international schools. But when I came to Bellingham and I saw people from all over the world living together, I was amazed. I have watched countless news reports about the problems with racism in the USA and that different cultures are not always appreciated here. But why would so many people want to live in this country, live the American dream, if there was absolutely no tolerance for diversity? Consequently, I realized that what the media shows us is not always fair. Politicians’ views and mistakes are not representative or similar to those of the entire nation.

At first, middle class Americans seemed odd to me. I wasn’t used to seeing them drive cars cheaper than a Mercedes or a flashy SUV. But now I’ve seen homeless Americans, Americans who live in small, modest houses, and Americans who struggle with money, healthcare and taxes. So now I know that they are not all rich and snobbish. But sometimes, people here do avoid conversation like I thought they would. For instance, people can ask me how I am feeling everyday but I would not have to give them more than a one or two word answer. “I’m fine” is usually all they would want to hear. I also noticed that neighbors do not really talk to each other. The occasional, “Hi, how’re you doing?”, while pulling out of the driveway is the only interaction I’ve had with people living on my street so far.

But, perhaps the most important thing I learned about Americans is that they are open-minded. Despite the conflicts that arise sometimes, freedom of speech and thought is valued here. In high school, I was always told what to do and how I should behave. Standing out of the norms and thinking outside the box was not always appreciated, and so I usually responded through rebellion. I know that exists here in America too, but when it comes to higher education, it is not all about spoon-feeding. I know that at some level, American education is also standardized in terms of the exams and textbooks, but creative thought is not always discouraged. Consequently, while going to school here, I have more opportunities for advancement.

Now that I realize how inaccurate my initial impression about Americans was, I often wonder to what extent I can improve my understanding and attitude towards diversity. I can’t help believing in racial stereotypes because I cannot go and live in every country in the world to gain an accurate understanding of its culture and environment. Nevertheless, it always overwhelms me when I realize that there are so many countries, and so many people who have different traditions, different religions, and different lifestyles. There are so many things I know nothing about. This shows me how small and close-minded we humans are in front of the level of understanding, knowledge and wisdom we strive to acquire. We rely on assumptions, stereotypes and what the media shows us to build some credibility and meaning in our lives. Our tribe, your tribe, insiders and outsiders: maybe this is human nature. It’s just how we are. But I suggest that we should at least be open-minded enough to allow our perspectives to evolve. We can try not to judge the new people we meet, the people we are unfamiliar with, merely based on the notions or ideas we have about them. We should not let ourselves be consumed by our judgment because this can have serious consequences.

So the next time I see my neighbor leaving her house still wearing her pajamas, maybe I won’t judge her like I did before. She has every right to wear whatever she wants to. After all, we are both living in the United States of America, and pajamas are pretty comfortable.

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