My trip to Kuwait was a little bit like an adventure on a Starbucks cup; it reminded me that everyone sees the world a little differently. The world’s most famous coffee shop used to have these cups that had quotes on them by various people, from various places, with various professions, and various points of view about life, all under the heading of “The Way I See It.” The excitement of finding out what little glimpse of the world would be inscribed in black ink onto the white paper cup containing my caramel hot chocolate was well over half the fun of going to Starbucks, and definitely a large part of my choosing it over Second Cup on any given day. Among the quotes are such gems as:
“When I was young I was misled by flash cards into believing that xylophones and zebras were much more common.”
“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear.”
“You can learn a lot more from listening than you can from talking. Find someone with whom you don’t agree in the slightest and ask them to explain themselves at length. Then take a seat, shut your mouth, and don’t argue back. It’s physically impossible to listen with your mouth open.”
I spent my four days in the small Middle Eastern country of Kuwait this past May asking non-stop questions. Questions about why they wear this, and why they do that, and what they think about this, and who is that, and how does that work, and when did that happen, and how is it possible that having a separate nanny for each of your children is normal. No one was safe. I interrogated my friend Katlyn, her family, her friends; basically anyone who could help to explain the alternate reality that I found myself in. I’ve travelled a fair bit, but I don’t think any place has ever felt quite so completely foreign and new as Kuwait did.
I mean, outwardly, there are many similarities between Kuwait and any other modern country. I could go to the mall and eat at a Chinese restaurant, and then go order a Chai Tea latte at a coffee shop before going to browse at the Gap. I could order pizza, or go out to an Italian restaurant with a menu in English. But underneath the surface of it all, there was something intrinsically different, unknown, unfamiliar, and ultimately baffling. I think it was the juxtaposition between the modern and the traditional, the dishdashas and the Rolex watches, the valet parking at the mall and the crowded stalls at the Old Souk market, the modesty and the vanity simultaneously existing in the covered women with three layers of makeup and high heels, that had me so in awe of the place. I was intrigued by the way in which religion and politics were so intertwined that it is actually illegal to eat or drink in public during daylight hours during Ramadan. Maybe I find it odd because the North American society that I’ve grown up in is so preoccupied with the separation of church and state, so assertive of the right to freedom of religion, so individualistic in nature that the government wouldn’t dream of imposing some of the laws on its citizens that exist in Kuwait, and we as citizens can’t fathom ever following them.
I sat in Katlyn’s apartment and listened to her go on about all that she had learned in the eight months that she had spent living there. I went out to lunch at a restaurant that was also a furniture shop and let Katlyn’s friends tell me all about their experiences of living as expatriates in an Islamic country so far from home. I tried Oreo popcorn one evening while hanging out with Katlyn’s parents and siblings, and listened to them talk about their daily lives there over the past two years. Katlyn’s parents drove us out to the desert one morning, and her dad gave me a little bit of the history of the country, and the “Highway of Death” that we were driving on toward the Iraqi border. We stopped by some of the bombed-out ruins of the Gulf War, and Katlyn and I got out and wandered around. I was struck by how different it was from visiting ancient ruins, or anything that the tourism industry has gotten its hands on. There were no roped-off areas, no admission fees, no red tape, no crowds of people pulling out their iPhones to take pictures to post on facebook; just history sitting there in the sand. And as I meandered through the crumbling cement of what used to be people’s homes and saw remnants of bathroom sinks, couches, and ceiling fans, it hit eerily closer to home than the remnants of more ancient tragedies often do. These bombings had happened during my lifetime, in homes that marked a similar way of life to my own.
The Arabian Gulf/Persian Gulf became more than a name on a map. The Middle East became more than a never-ending string of news segments that seem to be full of unsolvable problems and endless commotion that I didn’t really understand. Being there helped me to better understand the multiple friends and acquaintances of mine who grew up there and emigrated to Canada and now go to my church in Ontario. I gained a new appreciation for what it might have been like to be a Christian in a society that is so thoroughly Muslim.
Even in this age of globalization where I can buy the same hamburger on the opposite side of the world, or the same dress at Forever 21 in Korea and Kuwait, people see things differently, have different definitions of normal, have different experiences that lead them to draw different conclusions. And as I visited the grade one class that Katlyn had been teaching for a few months, I watched each of those little kids, and thought about the preconceptions that they were developing, the definition of normal that they were formulating, the mental state that was evolving as they lived out their young lives in a place that was so completely different than the places that I spent my childhood in. I thought about the kids that I had been teaching in Korea over the past two years, and about how the world that they understood was so different both from that of these kids at a private English school in Kuwait, and the one that was the structure for my initial analysis of life. And a week later I sat on a train in England and watched two little boys interacting with their father or uncle, and I knew that their expectations and understandings of life were so utterly different than kids growing up in other parts of the world. And I thought about that day in the future when these kids grow up, travel to some place new, meet these other kids, and realize that the world is big, even though it’s small, realize that things they never gave a second thought to are completely new or foreign to others. When you’re little, things are the way they are. You don’t question it, until you go someplace where things aren’t the way they are.
The way I see it is not the way you see it.