I recently gave a talk to Yemeni teenagers who are learning English as part of a scholarship language program that Mr. YemenEm works closely with. To be a part of the program, students need to commit to coming to the language center every day after school. While most things in Yemen are gender segregated (school, weddings, and even some restaurants) this program is one of the few venues where boys and girls are together.
My talk was on “Fall Traditions” (fitting since I was feeling nostalgic for holiday celebrations) and I outlined the history and current practices of Halloween and Thanksgiving in the U.S. I learned a little myself, like that trick-or-treating was brought to the U.S. by my ancestors, Scottish and Irish immigrants. After my talk, I opened it up for questions. Some highlights:
Q: Yemeni girl: “In our country, we thank Allah every day for all he has given us. Why do you only have one day to give thanks in America?
A: Well, lots of do give thanks every single day, but Thanksgiving is the main day of giving thanks.
Q: You said at Halloween, it’s fun to be scared. Why?
A: Good question. I think it’s fun to be scared because we know that it’s not real. Like going to a haunted house, or watching a scary movie. It’s just fun because you get excited, but you know nothing bad will actually happen. I explained to them that when I was eight years old, I desperately wanted to go to the haunted house in our town, but my parents thought I was too young. I convinced by dad to take my sister and I and right when I walked in and saw the darkness and smoke and imagined all sorts of horrors lurking in the corners, I burst in to tears because that shit was sooo scary. A worker had to carry me through the whole thing, I could hardly look my mom in the eye when I got home. The students thought that was hilarious.
After the speech, I demonstrated the classic fall activity of making homemade caramel apples. Not that I had ever made caramel apples, but after racking my brain on various fall activities, I settled on something I had never before done, for some reason. While I waited for the sugar to melt in the pot I asked the boys in the class if they cook at home, or if their dads cook, or whether it’s just the mothers who do the cooking. A curly haired, very precocious little guy said “In Yemen, a man has his place, and a woman has her place. And a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” I had to gulp back my natural urge to be like “Yes, people once thought that way in the United States too, but we’ve progressed past that.”
I tried to get all the student to go around and say what they are thankful for, just like Americans do at Thanksgiving dinner. I started: “I am thankful that I got to move to Yemen and experience your country.”
The students didn’t quite understand. The teacher, an American woman in her 20s explained: “Well, in America on Thanksgiving, we go around and thank God for what he has given us. So this is like thanking Allah for what he has given you.” I wanted to add that some people aren’t thanking God per se, but explaining the concept of just putting a “thank you” out in to the universe and not into the ear of a listening God seemed too difficult to explain in such a religious country.
“Oh,” said one boy, a look of comprehension on his face. “Then thank you Allah for everything.”
The boy next to him said “Thank you Allah for everything.”
And so on. Not quite the “Thanksgiving” tradition, but close enough I guess.
I passed out the caramel apples for the kids to eat. Thankfully, the astute teacher noticed that the girls in nikabs, or veils, weren’t eating. “Girls, why don’t you move to the back of the room and turn your chairs around,and boys you come up front, that way the girls can eat.” I wouldn’t have noticed that, but obviously it’s hard to eat a caramel apple anyway, but especially difficult with a swath of fabric hanging over your mouth.
Meanwhile, Mr.YemenEm taught the kids how to play American football, which they loved, and one girl even proved to be awesome at catching a touchdown and spiking the ball.
After our presentations were over, the girls crowded around me, and boys crowded around Mr.YemenEm and drilled us with questions. Most had never talked to an American outside of this program. They wanted to know my favorite singer, and told me they loved Celine Dion and Justin Beiber, which I was sort of surprised by being Sana’a seems to be relatively without Western influence. They asked what I thought of Yemenis and I said everyone I’ve met has been very nice and hospitable (they will always invite us to their homes, not that we can go, unfortunately). One girl said something to the effect “Yeah, but still everyone in America thinks we’re scary, like terrorists” I told her that while some people might think that, most people in America knew better. Another very eager and adorable teenage girl said “MissYemenEm, I want to tell you something. I want to speak English so well. Like as good as you speak English, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen, and I want it more than anything.” She looked on the verge of tears. I told her “Your English sounds great! I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself. I’m sure your English will only get better and better. I wish I could speak Arabic as well as you speak English.” She told me it wasn’t the same, and that Arabic is Arabic but English is ENGLISH, as if it had an otherworldly quality to it. And I suppose it must seem that way to others, who see speaking English as their gateway to visiting America and to communicate with people outside of Yemen.
After taking dozens of photos with the girls, we were off. I hope that I taught them something positive about American culture but I have the feeling I learned more about their culture than they learned of mine.