So. This is a Different Culture.

I found a moment when the internet’s on! I have to be an opportunist, and pretty persistant, to find a time when the internet in my flat actually works. Also, the water was out all of yesterday in my apartment block.

But, it’s finally Thursday. This week has gone pretty fast, and it’s been rather manageable. I think this is the first week that teaching at the ISC has felt like an actual job, rather than my own personal hell.

Yes, I know that’s probably overly dramatic, but — you know what? I’m spending six hours a day with 29 four-year-olds. I’ve earned the RIGHT to be dramatic.

Damn straight.

Anyway, I love Thursday afternoons. I’m a bit fried, but it’s confirmation of the fact that I’m staying here, I’m DOING it. That’s why I’m tired, I’m actually living.

I’m definitely proud of my job. It’s good work, I believe in it. Teaching is a magnificent task, and as a kindergarten teacher I am seriously helping others. I’ve had other jobs which didn’t mean a thing. Legal assistant, pizza delivery girl, gym manager, secretary. Maybe they meant that I’d get paid a lot, or I’d work good hours, but I wasn’t accomplishing anything worthwhile.

Here, I know that I’m contributing to these kids’ lives. I’m not just teaching them to read (although that’s pretty f***ing awesome), I’m introducing them into the world. I’m another role model for them. I’m a new mommy, a big friend, someone safe and trustworthy. I’m not tucked away in a cubicle, working for the weekend. Every day I can come home and know that I’ve done something worthwhile.

One of my students, Meer, gave me a present today. I was putting away his backpack and he says, “Bosta! (wait!)” and pulls out a little cardboard box, slightly crushed, tied with a ribbon. Inside is a little bracelet and a note that says, “Miss Rachel, Happy Barthday. Have a good day. -Meer”.

It’s not my birthday, and it’s a pretty cheap bracelet, but I’d be damned if my heart didn’t melt right then and I put on the bracelet straightaway. I’m still wearing it. I seriously don’t ever want to take it off. And the misspelled note is on my wall.

On the other hand, outside of school I’m pretty frustrated. I am realizing how restricting these GD gender expectations are. This shame culture is sneaky, and tentative, and will grab you if you’re not extremely cautious.

There is no dating before marriage here. And engagement is considered marriage. My friend, a Kurdish woman at the school, broke off an engagement to her fiancee last spring and all of her friends and family promptly stopped speaking with her. Her family. They saw that she’d shamed them and so they abandoned her. It just seems so fickle. My value is: parents are supposed to love you no matter what. Unfortunately, my experience has told me that’s often untrue.

And for me, I don’t know where the line is between friendship and a marriage proposal with a guy. A Kurdish woman would never speak to a man without a gaggle of other women, but for me, and American, standards are relaxed a bit. Even though I dress modestly, wear a cardigan in 40C weather, try to be respectful, it’s not enough. I can speak to a man one-on-one (thank g-d), but then when do I back off so they don’t get the wrong idea? Kurds I’ve met tell me that Kurdish men and women are incredibly jealous in relationships. And hey, if I had basically one shot to get married and be respectable in the eyes of my culture, then I’d probably be jealous too. There’s a lot at stake, and a lot of people are attention-starved, and they’ll welcome and encourage attention from a young American woman who (judging by American TV) probably has loose morals. Or will at least get them an American green card if they marry her.

And for me —- the worst is traveling on my own. Because I LOVE to travel on my own. But here, it’s really hard. When I’m on my own, people (mostly men) ask me if I’m married, where’s my father and brother (my “guardians” until I get married – and then my husband is), what’s my religion, what’s my “type.” And even in the bazaar in broad daylight, women try to set me up with their sons or nephews. I get a lot of unwanted attention on my own – “westerners” here are both admired and scoffed at. Admired, because we can give Kurds what they don’t have, or at least what their culture doesn’t allow. Scoffed at, because we don’t act respectably Kurdish.

Learning Kurdish will help me navigate a lot of this, but that only goes so far.

Especially after dark. I’m not supposed to go out on my own after dark. Especially getting a taxi after 8:30 or so. The taxi drivers can get pretty creepy. As my friend Aso said, “Anyone can buy a taxi and pick up people. They don’t even have to know the city well.” There are a lot of really bad taxi drivers, who don’t know where some pretty obvious landmarks are. And there are a lot of drivers who MASSIVELY hit on female passengers. I don’t know the city well enough to know whether the driver is even taking me in the right direction, so it’s unnerving to put all the power in the hands of some potentially creepy, unknown man.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem if I had people to travel with. But the other expats, that gloriously inclusive group, refuses to hang out with me. They go out and don’t tell me about it. Last night I got a call from a Kurdish friend, wondering why I wasn’t at dinner. The expats and a bunch of Kurds I know went out to eat, but the expats didn’t tell me. Even though I called them, they never picked up or returned my texts.

It’s a clique. Didn’t we grow out of those in high school?

All this wouldn’t be as bad if I could travel alone. There are times when I really, really wish I were a guy. Not really, though. I just wish that I had the freedoms that a man has. There are so many restrictions that come with this body, and right now I’m sick of them. I’m sick of the stares, the inappropriate questions, the glares from some men when I speak to them, being ignored by waiters in restaurants.

I hate that, because the other “westerners” won’t hang out with me and most of the Kurdish women I know are married, when I hang out with a male Kurd everyone chitters and there’s talk behind my back of my morals (even though the only reason I’m hanging out with them is because the other westerners are out getting hammered at some restaurant and chain-smoking. How’s that for loose morals?), and I constantly have to be aware that the man I’m with might only be hanging out with me because he wants to hit on me.

And before you shrug and say, well, you signed up for this, remember that you’re living in a country where a woman is the secretary of state. Gabby Douglas took the Olympics by storm. There’s feminism. And if none of that means anything to you, think of this:

You can wear shorts.

2 thoughts on “So. This is a Different Culture.

  1. I agree with the person above: you write very well and share your story beautifully. Thanks!

    As to the content of this post, I seem to recall several conversations around our dinner table about some of these very concepts. All cultures have aspects that are beyond the pale of some other culture. People are strange in that way: we all KNOW we are correct at a fundamental level, and because this is so utterly obvious (to us!), we do not need to explain things to others. This can make it difficult for outsiders to fit in (my brother would say this is one of the main purposes for many, if not most, cultural quirks, but I digress). Sounds like you’re actually doing quite well at maximizing your experience there, even though there are indeed difficult aspects to things.

    Oh, as to friends and family: we love and accept you no matter what. Period. But you knew that.

    Love ya!

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