The Western Lens

For my job, I recently had to pick out a photo that illustrates how the U.S. is working to improve health in Yemen. While the U.S. really does a lot to improve health here, the photo selection was slim. I asked a Yemeni co-worker where I might find some pics and he led me into the hallway where there was a nice framed shot of a healthcare worker giving Yemeni kids polio vaccines (There was a polio outbreak in Yemen in 2005).  “Oh perfect!,” I said. “Just what I was looking for.”

“Well yes, but if you look closely at the doctor….” he said.

I looked more closely and saw that in the doctor’s right hand, he held the polio vaccine, ready to go in a little boy’s mouth. In his other, rather grimy hand, he held a lit cigarette. Oh, and he had a gun strapped on his back. Hmm, maybe not the best picture for a Western audience. This co-worker and I had a good laugh and I joked that yeah, it’s rare to have your American doctor puffing away on a cig during an appointment. Probably even more rare for them to be packing heat. My other photo choice was a row of midwives, all in head to toe crisp white, with nothing visible but their eyes. Probably a little jarring for Western audiences too.

But a lot of what I’m seeing here might be surprising to Western audiences, American audiences in particular. I’m merely a novice traveler, but am quickly learning that seeing new cultures through a Western lens is not the best way to absorb new experiences.

In my former job as a journalist, I always tried my best to go into each particularly controversial story I worked on without preconceived notions. I’ll admit, that was very difficult for some stories – like when I spoke with an NRA official who explained to me why it’s a violation of the First Amendment or a pediatrician’s oath or something to ask parents if they keep a gun in the home to encourage them to lock it up. But still, I had to at least try to keep an open mind to hear what the source was saying, process the information, and to write fairly about points of view that were different than my own.

Here, I try to do something similar. When I see two men riding a motorcycle with a little pigtailed toddler standing up in the front, holding on to the handlebars while they fly between cars in gridlocked traffic, I try not to think of U.S. seatbelt laws and how some people might call Child Protective Services if they saw their neighbors put their toddler in the car without a carseat. “This isn’t the U.S.,” I tell myself, and they have bigger fish to fry here than seatbelts and carseat laws.

A few days ago on our drive home from work, a bunch of kids were running in a somewhat busy street, kicking around a soccer ball. I said to a colleague that it’s really not any different than how we played after school when we were kids, only we were on lawns. (I haven’t seen any lawns in Sana’a). It’s a different life here and I can’t be comparing growing up in an urban city in the poorest country in the Middle East to growing up in a leafy ‘burb in the Midwest.  Besides, the kids here were having every bit as much fun as my friends and I used to.

One final tale: My Arabic tutor Mohammad, who is the sweetest guy ever and even loaned me a book of Yemen poetry, sometimes gives me cultural lessons in addition to Arabic vocab. Well, truth be told, when my brain hurts from remembering words, I attempt to distract him by asking questions about Yemen culture  (I employed this same method in high school. “The Punnett square is fascinating, Mrs. Smith. What color eyes do your kids have, by the way? Blue? Oh and you and your husband both have brown? Adopted, you say?) Recently Mohammad taught me the word for clock (sa’a) and I asked him if Yemenis are not big on time-telling devices because there are no clocks in our hotel room and the hotel staff seemed to think I was crazy when I asked for a clock. Because we have no alarm clock, Mr.YemenEm wakes me up every day like I’m in elementary school and he’s my dad. (If he was really my dad, he’d wake me up by singing along to “Maria” from the Westside Story soundtrack). Mohammad said “Yes! This is true! We don’t have many clocks because we don’t need to know the time so much. If you have an appointment and it’s at 1:00 and you show up at 2:00, that is fine.”

Again, very, very different than the American culture, which is driven by the clock, down to the minute. I wonder if anyone besides Americans are so morally offended by tardiness? (Probably the Swiss, right?) Ah, whatever, we are how we are. So are other cultures. Cross-cultural comparisons are interesting, but I’m trying to just toss out my ideas of how things should be (ie, how they are in America) and just take each new experience here for what it is: Uniquely Yemeni.

Still buckling my seatbelt, even in Yemen,

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