Monday, November 23, 2009
On Avoiding Collisions (at all cost)
The air is turning chilly in Kuwait. There is a cold wind blowing, and as I rushed through the sliding glass doors to get into the warmth of the school building, I almost ran into a male student. He too was rushing, but in the opposite direction. He wore the traditional robe and headpiece, indicating perhaps a tendency toward the more conservative in this region. As time slowed to a crawl and our impending collision neared, we each twisted frantically. In a nanosecond, we blew past each other, narrowly avoiding catastrophe. In this region of the world, it is haram (forbidden) for men and women to touch. In a crowded university environment, this aspect of culture makes for some oddly hilarious moments. The elevator doors open and a gaggle of female students rushes in (to take the elevator up one floor). As the doors begin to shut, a male student hits the elevator button and the doors open again. The boy stops, staring into the elevator, confronted by the age-old-dilemma...do I enter the elevator and risk brushing up against a female student by accident...or do I wait an eternity for the slow moving elevator to return empty? Nine times out of ten, the boy shrugs, steps back, and allows the door to close again. When I was moving into my new building several months ago, I had several experiences when the elevator was filled with male construction workers. I was always amazed by their ability to fold into one another so that they could give me at least a 2-foot margin of space. I realize that contrary to my life in the west, I can go weeks without brushing by a male. It's like the invisible electric fence...a flashing danger sign against the possibility that a physical touch will ignite something hidden and forbidden. Perhaps this is why men chase women in cars...it's a desperate attempt to get close, to feel the adrenaline, to somehow initiate contact...even if the contact ends with the woman's car wrapped around a pole. As a counselor, I wonder how marriage can work when the man and woman have grown up in societies where even speaking to someone of the opposite gender can ruin the family reputation? Can you really spend your entire life avoiding the collision of the genders? And is that really a healthy way to live? I wonder, will I keep doing the non-collision dance even when it's no longer needed? How do you tune your mind and body to shift from culture to culture...twisting away, avoiding eye contact, driving with eyes straight ahead in the Middle East, but smiling, making eye contact and (gasp) even flirting in the west! Living between cultures can be like a masquerade...a different costume for each corner of the globe...but as globalization continues its fierce march onward, will there someday be a chance to throw away the costume and just be? I don't think there's an answer to that question, so in the meantime, let the masquerade ball continue!