Between Iraq and a Hard Place: Episode 21
Hannah and Colleen rant a bit about the very annoying Americans they have met or seen in Iraq or in airports flying to and from Iraq. These are the cons of Americans abroad and then some of the good things we bring along with us too!
And here’s a rough transcript–no guarantees on the grammar, though! =)
Hannah: Hi guys I’m Hannah.
Colleen: I’m Colleen,
Hannah: And we combined have lived in Iraq for…
Colleen: Eleven years.
Hannah: We get a lot of questions about life in Iraq and we decided that the best way to address those questions is to do a little podcast. So we’re gonna answer some questions that are really common.
Colleen: The ones we get asked all the time.
Hannah: Yeah. Because apparently it’s a weird thing to live in Iraq. Who knew.
Colleen: Yeah strange.
Hannah: So this week we’re going to talk about annoying American habits. I kind of want to just give the disclaimer that like we’re both Americans. So we are speaking from the American perspective on Americans, I guess. And I’m sure that there are many other cultures and countries that maybe are equally annoying but I think we tend to notice our own fellow countrymen and be annoyed or embarrassed for ourselves.
Colleen: Right, we take on some of the things that they do and be like me and they’re representing me and my country and I don’t like how they’re coming across to the other people around them that are from different countries.
Hannah: Yeah, because there is there are a lot of people from different countries working in Iraq. Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, couple of British people, Scottish people, Australians, Finns.
Colleen: Yes, there are some Finns, some Germans, Swiss Germans, Dutch, Australians, New Zealanders, like I feel like I met people from everywhere, Koreans.
Hannah: We had a lot of Koreans in Dohuk as well. And I think that we don’t notice the things that other cultures other countries do. I don’t know.
Colleen: I guess they’re speaking other languages we don’t understand their rudeness.
Hannah: Right. It’s gonna be a little bit of a ranty podcast but hopefully not the whole way through. Hopefully that.
Colleen: So the biggest thing that I feel like is one of the struggles that Americans have in living in Iraq or even visiting Iraq is a lack of flexibility. I remember talking to one family who was planning on moving to Iraq and they asked me, “What’s the number one skill that you need to live there?” And I said flexibility. And they were like, “No, no, no, I mean like a skill like something we can learn.” And I was like, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. When I say you need to have flexibility and that’s the most important thing, that really is the most important thing.” And they came back to me a year later after having lived in Iraq for a while and said, “You know when you told us the flexibility was the most important thing I didn’t understand it then. But you were right.” And I was like, “I know”.
Hannah: And that’s a thing that maybe is common to all humanity that we have this idea in our head of the way that things should be. And so when things do not go that way, I know I, as a person, tend to like dig in my heels and stubbornly be like, “No. I wanted to go this way.” And I definitely had to unlearn a lot of that, not just in Iraq, but in other situations, too. But I think Iraq especially does that.
Colleen: And it may apply to any time you you know live or visit a different culture at all. Your expectations for the way things are normally won’t be met. I mean it can be anything from you don’t like what they have offered for breakfast because your breakfast in America does not usually consist of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and hummus. Or it may be that because there’s not consistent electricity you don’t get 24 hour power or air conditioning and your hotel room is hotter than you would like. And I’ve known I’ve seen people react really badly to some of these situations when it’s not the fault of the establishment in that foreign country that their expectations are not being met. They’re just not being flexible with their expectations and what you know what they’ve signed up for, I guess.
Hannah: And I think we we see that even in America with Americans to some extent is that like when things don’t go the way they normally do people tend to lose their tempers rather quickly. And I feel like that’s just exacerbated. I mean from the moment you step into an airport, really like if you’ve ever seen anyone lose it over a flight being late that’s evidence of our inability to adapt maybe. The number of people that I mean, honestly I I expect to see people flip out more in airports than I have I have seen enough people get angry over weather delays that I’m like It’s not that person’s fault, like it’s not their fault that there is a thunderstorm and that’s why we can’t fly out. Chill. Yeah.
Hannah: Americans definitely tend to be a lot less accepting of those things and demand that something be done for them when, in many ways, that person is not capable of fixing or changing that. Like that person cannot you know four hours away or stop the incoming snowstorm. I don’t know. I don’t understand it, I guess, but I’ve seen it happen enough and primarily with Americans that you know it’s a thing.
Hannah: I think like you were saying we saw in Iraq. And part of that, honestly, is culture shock that you just kind of react against things that you see as cultural flaws that are not necessarily like the culture’s fault. You know you can’t get mad at the culture for a dust storm. It’s not their fault that those happen.
Hannah: The fact that they’re all totally chill with it though can make it more frustrating. I guess you know everyone around you is like “OK” and you’re like “No, this is wrong.”
Hannah: Yeah. And so I think learning learning to see those things as like, oh this is me having an attitude problem about this not something that I am capable of changing about where I am. It leads to a lot less stress.
Colleen: I think this is a big part of the next kind of major flaw that I think a lot of Americans have, or an annoying habit is a lack of awareness. Yeah. Like that sense of learning to see the culture that you’re in and take in that information and change your own behavior or actions based on the information that you’ve taken in. I think a lot of Americans, because we don’t interact with a ton of other cultures in our daily lives, haven’t practiced adapting our behavior to the way the people around us are behaving. If it’s not what we’re always used to and so we can break cultural morés or do things you know really differently than the culture around us because we’ve never paid attention to it we’ve never watched. I’ve noticed it even happened when I help people, you know, cross cultural boundaries locally here in Nashville, and where a lot of Middle Eastern people always always always take off their shoes at the doorway. And a lot of Americans don’t. And so if they’re not paying attention to that, they you know just waltz right in with their shoes then that can be seen as as really offensive. Although most of the ladies here are very gracious about it.
Hannah: Yeah, I think that’s true that we don’t look around. We don’t see a lot of cultural differences modeled to us or if we do it’s like on the Internet or on TV where we’re not forced to conform to those things to some extent.
Colleen: Well and when we see other people in other cultures in our country we expect them to adapt to our way of doing things in our culture.
Hannah: I saw that a lot with teachers, American teachers primarily, who didn’t get the idea that you don’t correct to student necessarily in front of the other students or that you don’t culturally it is very acceptable to like shame another student. So I would see it Americans do that on a smaller scale not realizing what the cultural implication of that is and the impact that it has on the students because they’re not observing what a huge deal shame actually is in that culture.And I mean I was guilty of that too especially at first year or two.
Colleen: I did that.
Hannah: Because I didn’t I didn’t realize like coming from a culture where it’s not shame honor walking into a classroom and calling a kid out for their bad behavior has a wider implication more of a a breaking of relationship than it would here in the U.S. where it’s just like oh yeah I’m misbehaving I’ll correct it. And I mean you you want to have grace for people who are new, but to some extent some Americans just aren’t teachable. They get kind of in that mindset of this is the way that things again back to that the flexibility thing like this is a way that things are supposed to be and this is a way I understand the world and my way is the right way.
Colleen: All right. I think the other big area where that lack of awareness plays in though too is loudness.
Colleen: Americans are so loud: laughing, talking, gesturing. Americans take up a lot of social space and like space in this in the room, sound wise. And is not until you you know, you sit quietly in the corner of a restaurant full of Middle Easterners with one table of American contractors. And you’re like they’re taking up all of this space in this room. All of it. And it’s annoying.
Hannah: Yeah. I had an Iraqi friend that we were talking to one of my teammates who was just convinced that she if she dyed her hair dark she could blend in with the culture and no one would ever know she was American. And our Iraqi friend was talking with us about that and she basically told her she was like, “No. The way that you stand the way that you walk the way that you carry yourself pins you as an American.” Because we tend to take big steps and have our shoulders like back in our heads up like we’re letting the world know, to some extent, “Here we are. Get out of my way.” And I don’t think we’re doing it consciously. It’s just like that’s the way our culture teaches us to behave right to to make space for ourselves in the world. And when you step into a culture where women, especially, are not expected to have much space, that is a big, not red flag in a bad way, but like a red flag like a mouse in a maze where you keeping track of them. Like that’s how you keep track of people who are American or who who have lived even Iraqi people who have lived in America tend to take on some of those aspects. Yeah which is also really fascinating and probably an entirely different podcast too.
Colleen: Well I mean in the same way that you and I picked up Iraqi cultural characteristics that we continue to live by in some ways, probably also unconsciously, here in the U.S. you know it goes the other way too.
Hannah: Yeah for sure
Colleen: But only if we’re adaptable and teachable and are willing to learn.
Hannah: We kind of touched on like Americans expecting to be right. One of the things that I hear a lot is that like there’s this expectation that everyone will speak English or they will be able to find someone who speaks English.
Colleen: And if they can’t you’re really upset. I think I’m sensing that this is a pet peeve of yours.
Hannah: It is a pet peeve of mine partly because that mindset tends to devalue other languages. And so I became really conscious of, I’m walking into a classroom of kids who at minimum speak three languages Arabic, Kurdish, and English. Some of them also speak a Assyrian are Aramaic or German or Turkish or … some of them are multilingual. And so to walk into that room as a person who only speaks English was like, if one of my students is struggling with English it’s not because they’re stupid it’s because they have all these other languages also swimming around in their brains and English is stinking hard.
Colleen: It’s the most if not the most but it’s one of the most confusing and unruled kind of languages.
Hannah: Yeah. And so to just like rock up to a place and expect everyone to fluently speak your language is really very arrogant. Because they already speak at least two to three other languages. What makes me as an American think that I am so special that they must also speak my language. I think it really annoyed me to to see and this I didn’t see this with my teammates, I will say. But I saw in other expat Americans the unwillingness to learn how to correctly pronounce people’s names. Yeah. I kind of also come from a background where it’s like you don’t use people’s nicknames especially if you’re in some authority form over them you use their actual name. Just kind of as a respect thing. Right. And so I always tried really hard. Some students have really difficult to pronounce names.
Colleen: Yes. And there are sounds that we don’t make in English.
Hannah: There are. And it’s such a intricate language that mispronouncing can sometimes change the meaning to something that’s really terrible.
Hannah: Huh. Like we had a teacher who was pronouncing his co-teacher’s name actually incorrectly without realizing it. The words are very very close and similar but he ended up calling her, it tastes good, instead of her actual name. And it was a struggle.
Hannah: Yeah. And I think there’s there’s a space for just having a hard time pronouncing a name. But to that person about it and being like, “Look, I have a really hard time with your name. I’m trying really hard. Do you want me to call you something else. In the meantime. Like if this is embarrassing for you. Hmm. Is there another name that I can call you.”
Colleen: Well and it’s that I mean that person then is putting in that effort.And the problem comes when people don’t put in any effort to change right
Hannah: And just assume that I’m going to say it this way. This is the best I can do. Therefore it’s good right. It’s good enough. It’s not my fault your name is so hard.
Hannah: I think I think I also am a little peeved with that because oddly enough people have a hard time pronouncing my name correctly. Which I mean my name is Hannah. You’d think it would be easy but I’ve gotten some weird things over the years and I know how that makes me feel like I am not seen as a person in some ways. And I don’t I don’t want that for other people either.
Colleen: Right. Yeah. And to be not seen by someone who’s your teacher or someone who you respect and are expected to have an on going relationship with is especially difficult for young people. If you want to have a good impact on someone’s life and help you know teach them and guide them then saying their name correctly is kind of like the least you can do.
Hannah: Right. And I think there is definitely grace for learning a language, like as you’re learning a language you’re going to mispronounce things and it’s going to be difficult. And there will be struggles but I think there is that attitude of like, I want to be corrected. I want to do this properly and I’m trying.
Colleen: I’m trying please help me. Again that comes back to the concept of arrogance and humility. And if you aren’t teachable, it’s so annoying.
Hannah: Yeah it is. And I do not speak Kurdish well enough for the amount of time that I spent in Kurdistan.
Colleen: Neither do I.
Hannah: But whenever I would try, usually the teachers or the students would laugh at me not out of like, “oh you’re such an idiot.” But out of like, “You’re trying so hard and it’s so cute It’s so cute the way that you say things. And I would be like, “No, help me say it right.” And sometimes they would but sometimes they’d be like, “But it’s so cute, you just keep saying it like that we love it.
Colleen: Like a baby. Yeah baby talk and you’re like, “No, I don’t want to talk like a two year old. I am an adult.”
Hannah: Yes. Help me say things correctly.
Colleen: I think the other area where Americans tend to always think they’re right it ends up getting them into some difficulties and problems is with the area of politics. We tend to think a that our political system is the only right way to do anything and that can get especially Middle Easterners kind of miffed because they’re like you’re just a baby country. We’ve been doing like politics and government since you know centuries forever ago since the beginning of time. What do you know? And we also tend to think that politics and doing things our way will fix all the problems in somewhere else. Especially over and over again about know democracy it’s like now you have a democratic government in your country. It’s all fixed. It’s all going to be fine now without any regard for how people actually think and behave and are influenced and the history and the regions and the prejudices and the past. You know there’s just so much more that goes into something than this top down kind of governmental structure that you put it on top of something.
Hannah: Yeah yeah. And I think that we, I tried really hard not to talk about politics and yes me too partly because I don’t I didn’t and I still don’t understand all the political ins and outs of government there. I think there is a mindset amongst a lot of Kurds especially that you mistrust the government you mistrust politicians you don’t pin a lot of hope on them. Which can be really frustrating to Americans because we want democracy to work and there has to be some amount of trust in political systems for democracy to work.
Colleen: Or even the idea that you trust the outcome of elections and that kind of thing which we’re growing in our struggle with even in the US.
Hannah: Right. But have a country that has seen terrible political leader after terrible political leader after terrible political leader, you kind of have to go, “Oh maybe you’re right. Maybe maybe you’re right to to not pin all your hopes and dreams on this political leader that is rising in the ranks.”
Colleen: And also as much as you can want to put on democracy as a system. A lot of their cultural thinking tends to be a lot more tribal. And so the political parties that I encountered in Iraq don’t have very different ideologies or philosophies of how government should work or in many ways they are just leaders of different tribal groups of people. All right. And so it can look like democracy on the outside without it being an actual democratic system. That was something and I ran into a lot of times where Americans just didn’t understand and weren’t teachable either about how things were just intrinsically different.
Hannah: Yeah all of this doesn’t mean that we don’t want Americans to go to Iraq or we don’t want them to experience what life is like there. I think there are a lot of good reasons, obviously like we both went. My literal job is to send Americans to Iraq because there are a lot of positive things that Americans do bring one thing. And I think it’s the biggest positive that Americans have is that we are super optimistic. We are optimistic about things being able to change because we have a history of that in our country that things generally are trending towards positive change. Historically, for Americans things have been getting better and better. And to be able to walk into a country that doesn’t have that kind of hope and be able to be kind of an encouragement of it could but it could get better.
Colleen: It can get better.
Hannah: It can be better. It can be more is I think a really valuable thing. I had not an Iraqi but British expat in Iraq asked me once like, “Why are Americans so like positive all the time like you guys are the least cynical culture that I have ever met.” And I was like well it’s because, generally in the US, things are pretty good for the majority of people. We’ve never aside from the Civil War never had war on our own soil. That’s an amazing thing that will lead to a lot of optimism for a culture. So I think that’s a big one, is that we just we go to places wanting better for them which sometimes leads to wrong action but, heart’s in the right place I guess.
Colleen: I think also because of all of the success of our country and the growth of things like, you know the wealth and the education and the that kind of stuff, a lot of Americans have a lot of skills to bring to help. And a lot of things that we as individuals have learned that we can share. But I think it’s also important that we share those things with a dose of humility and awareness and willing to learn and then bring those things to bear. And so, for those people that do go, they’re going to be far more effective and benefit both the culture they’re serving as well as themselves and their own culture by coming with a servant’s heart.
Hannah: And Americans do tend to be very generous to go along with that. I think we recognize to some extent that we have an abundance and we do want to share that with the rest of the world. And so we do tend to be very giving of our time and our experience and as well as our money and our resources, to some extent, it depends on which group.
Colleen: Obviously we’ve been talking about Americans as like this monolithic thing
Hannah: We recognize which there is a lot of diversity.
Colleen: Definitely some stereotyping going on. And it’s it’s full mostly from just our experience. But yes, there’s always going to be a wide range of differences in our culture as well as in Iraqi or Kurdish or Middle Eastern culture. There’s always going to be a wide range of differences.
Hannah: And I think we both have the heart to give both of those cultures different experiences by bringing Americans and Middle Easterners together, to some extent.
Colleen: Yeah absolutely.
Hannah: And having them learn from each other and befriend each other and bring the good things from both cultures together in a way that is is open and friendly and beautiful. So as much as even coming back to the U.S. looking at American society and being like, “Guys, why are we like this?” Kind of changing the attitude of like, OK yes I don’t understand why we’re like this, but here are the good things that I have learned from this other culture. And so here are the good things that I see in American culture. How can I make those two things work together.
Colleen: And even just the ability to not completely objectively, but more objectively look at and evaluate your own culture and decide like, OK what about my culture is what I want to keep? What about my culture is a moral thing? And what about it is a cultural thing? What about it is just a habit it’s a bad habit or a good habit that my culture produces? Being all that come at it from a little bit more of an outsider’s perspective has been really valuable.
Hannah: And there’s some confidence that comes with that too. And the ability to merge those cultures and walk somewhat confidently with a foot in both worlds is kind of a beautiful thing. And I think that’s again why we want to bring other people into it.
Colleen: Yeah. Both in Iraq and here in Nashville.
Hannah: And here in Nashville and you guys wherever you are like reach out and step across some of those those cultural boundaries you’re probably gonna make a fool of yourself at some point.
Colleen: That’s OK!
Hannah: But it’s OK. And look at your own life and see like where we’re ways that I’m not flexible or where ways that I am very typically American and how can I adjust that to be more friendly to the cultures that are around me.
Colleen: And as always the very most important thing that you can do to start any friendship or cross-cultural encounter the first thing you need to say is hello.
Hannah: It’s that easy. We’re going to say goodbye though for a little while. We’re going to be gone from new podcasting until probably sometime in January
Colleen: Because you know, Christmas. Yeah.
Hannah: Gosh it snuck up on us!
Colleen: But it’s so exciting.
Hannah: It is. It is exciting and we want to be able to enjoy Christmas thoroughly and completely. And so we’re clearing our schedules and that includes new podcast episodes. So this is a great time for you to write in or contact us with questions or ideas and you can do that by emailing me. It’s Hannah@servantgroup.org.
Colleen: Also Facebook. Their search Facebook international Instagram. Find us get in contact let us know too if there are things that you would like for us to change maybe about the style. Do you want more interviews? Do you want more question-answer kind of things? We do have some some things brewing for the next season. Yes that should be really beautiful including hopefully talking to my dad and talking to your sister and getting our families involved. Yeah, let us know. Stay in touch with us even though we’re not putting anything out. We’re taking a season of getting things put into our lives I guess.
Colleen: Sounds really smarmy,
Colleen: Smarmy smarmy. Well, Christmas is coming so warm and fuzzies all around.
Hannah: Whatever I thought I had went away.