Monday, July 13, 2009

Culture Shock Redux

This letter, from a dear friend who has lived and worked in the Middle East for about 17 years, is an (hilarious) answer to the question of whether or not one experiences culture shock even after living abroad for a number of years:

Haji on a Bike

If any of you suspected that I am close to cracking, this account may prove it. This Saturday afternoon, Raymond and I decided to do a bike run in prep for the triathlon two weeks away. Since we live on the side of a mountain with potholed roads we go over to the Jewish side to ride our bikes. On the way out of the Arab neighborhood, we pass an intersection that usually has a couple of professional begger boys who are more or less annoying. Anyway, today, the sight of a two foreigners on bikes was just too unusual for them. (Actually, in 17 years here, I’ve never seen a woman on a bike. I asked why and the answer was that it is considered a shame because maybe she is riding somewhere to have s*x. But since I was white haired, modestly dressed, and with my graying husband, I thought I could get by with it.)

Still, the younger of the urchins, probably about age ten, started chasing us and waving his plastic pipe. He didn’t catch Raymond in front but when I came by, he hit me with his pipe. This is terribly disrespectful here because of my gender, age, and guest status. I wasn’t hurt but I was mad. (Did I mention that we’d have a terrible week in our neighborhood). Also, while I may look like a white haired granny outside but inside there is this cowgirl from western Nebraska on her white horse raring to get out.

I told Raymond what had happened and decided to go back and confront the obnoxious kid. At first, when he saw me waiting for the light to change, he just laughed at me but when I started biking towards him, he started to run, still taunting me, dodging between the on coming cars. I just kept coming, dodging the same cars. Once we cleared the intersection, I had a clear path and started gaining on him. Now, I may be a granny but a 190 lb. old lady on a 30 year old metal Schwinn bike is a force to be dealt with. Going downhill, Raymond can’t even catch me on his light racing bike and lucky for me downhill is the way the kid decided to run.

The kid is not longer laughing and running as fast as he can. I’m getting closer and closer so he dodged into a side street but luckily it was still paved so I was almost on top of him by the end of another block when he darted to a side parking lot. Now while in my mind I was back on my white horse, the old bike didn’t take the sharp corner at high speed into gravel as well as my horse would have. I slid, skidded, and crashed. If the kid would have kept going across the field, he would have been free but in his panic, he jumped into a car waiting in the parking lot.

All of a sudden, this distinguished elderly gentleman dressed in suit and tie sitting quietly in his car has a screaming urchin in his back seat, a foreign woman on a bike crashing to the ground, jumping up, and jerking on his car handles. I politely asked if this was his son but he said that he had never seen the kid before. I explained that he had hit me. Meanwhile the kid is going into all the Muslim gestures for begging but I told him that he was a shame to Mohammed so he stopped and went back to begging the old man to save him from this wild lady with the flying white hair, the skewed bike helmet, the smoke coming out of her ears, the blood running out of her palms.

By now a crowd is starting to form. A car that had seen what had happened drove down and verified that the boy had hit me. (Raymond said later that they were Jewish security men and asked him “What are you doing letting her be here by herself?” Raymond joked that he was more worried for the kid.) Neighbors or passers by stopped. The kid’s big brother came. Raymond caught up with me and whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t take out on him what happened to Katrina’. That did sound reasonable but the school marm in me still wanted this kid to face the music for his actions so we wouldn’t have trouble from him every time we went through our intersection. I decided that I wanted to give him one whack on the backside like he had hit me. I am still very mad and teased him, “You afraid from haji (old lady)?” and “You shame your entire family.”

Finally his brother and the elderly man whose backseat was this kid’s fort forced his hands away from the lock and I opened the door, dragged him out, they held him and I whacked his bottom with the plastic pipe and then shook his hand. This was probably not the culturally appropriate way to handle this but needless to say, I had had enough. He was still calling me names but he was also shamed in front of the whole crowd. Later, we saw one of the self appointed negotiators and he said that the kid’s father had hit him which is much more culturally appropriate.

So I got back on my bike and with plenty of adrenalin left over, I put on a number of kilometers for the race which gave me plenty of time to think and ponder whether I am getting really too frayed from the stress here or whether this was just a symptom of being fifty and doing, saying, and dressing as I want. I’m still laughing at the kid who thought that he could outrun the white haired haji on a bike. Streaming down that hill I felt like the cavalry on my white horse coming to the rescue of right and justice with the William Tell Overture in the background. Raymond said that it could also be interpreted as the granny from hell on her Radial Flyer bike.

Whatever, this granny has a bent bike, bloody palm, sore shoulder, torn jeans and scabs on her knees now but it was worth it to catch that kid! I’ve made the street safe for old ladies on bikes. …even if I’m the only one.

Afterward: This "granny" is a true hero of mine. After raising three delightful children while running a bookstore with her dear husband in the occupied West Bank, she sensed God's calling to re-enter academia with a goal of becoming a university professor. She recently completed her MA at Jerusalem University College and is in the process of re-locating to Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband where she will be begin her Ph,D in medieval Middle Eastern studies. She is the recipient of The Maybelle Burton Graduate Fellowship, a three year grant offered to the most promising graduate student entering the Department of History's Ph,D. Program in any given year. I told her that this guy has nothing on her and that there is most definitely a book in this. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Bonnie Jacobs said...

This 69-year-old great-grandma loves this story. Thanks for sharing it.