By Joanna Fuller, Friend of Simple Intentions
In 1992, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, I had the opportunity to spend a month in the West Bank, in the Palestinian territories. A relatively new college graduate with an English literature degree, I was there—ostensibly—to contribute to English classes at the University of Bethlehem.
But in the first class I visited, I opened the door to students jumping around the room and onto tables, staging a failed coup against Prospero in a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was clear they had a much better handle on the material than I did. I didn’t have much to teach them about the play, and instead found myself sitting back, enjoying their banter (all in English, rather than Arabic), amazed at how learned these students were, and how much they had to teach me about English literature.
I don’t remember much more about that class, to be honest. But what I do remember vividly is how one of the students, Fatima, approached me, introduced herself, and insisted that I visit her home for lunch that afternoon. She told me to bring along all of my American girlfriends.
A few hours later, six young women from America joined six young Palestinian women in Fatima’s home. Fatima’s mother had gone next door to ‘borrow a chicken,’ which she magically transformed into platters of shawarma, accompanied by stacks of warm pita bread, mounds of deliciously sour labneh, and overflowing plates of saffron rice. After lunch, in the privacy of her home, Fatima and her friends removed their hijabs, tied them around their (and our) hips, turned on the music and taught us to dance. They told us that all their neighbors would consider it an honor that we’d chosen to be guests in their home.
I was surprised, to say the least. Not only that someone would go to all that trouble for us, but without hesitation, or planning. That summer was the first time I’d traveled outside the West, and I hadn’t yet learned what hospitality can look like in other parts of the world. It was the first time I’d heard the belief that many Middle Easterners share: that you must always treat strangers well, especially those traveling from foreign lands, because they could very well be ‘angels sent by God.’ It was a wonderful new way of experiencing hospitality.
Twenty-two years later, arriving as a newly sworn-in Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, I experienced a different but equally surprising reception. I laughed and in truth, bristled a little, when I first heard how the people in my community referred to me: as манай Америк хүн (pronounced manai Amerik hun, meaning ‘our American’). Fellow volunteers across the country shared the same experience, and none of us were sure how we felt about it. It was both flattering and slightly off-putting to feel like a town status symbol, along with the Land Cruisers and modern apartments owned by the wealthier families.
Hidden in that designation, though, is something I failed to realize at first: манай Америк хүн wasn’t so much an expression of possession, but of responsibility. I’d chosen to come live in their community and my Mongolian hosts considered it their duty to take care of me and to make sure I had what I needed to survive—be it a bed, a pair of winter boots, or enough meat in my freezer.
Just like in Palestine, it wasn’t always easy to be an outsider in Mongolia. But if there was one luxury I came to appreciate, it was the special status my American-ness afforded me – one of acceptance. I could be completely different from the people around me, and it was not only OK, it was expected. There was a reason that explained all the ways in which I diverged from the crowd, and rather than causing people to reject or distance themselves from me, it instead somehow drew them in, and motivated them to take an interest in my well-being.
Today, it’s hard to believe I’ve been home from Mongolia for nearly six months. Since I’ve returned, people have continued to ask me how re-entry’s going. For the most part, I’d actually say it’s been amazing. (The WiFi! The paved roads! The bagels!) But it’s also been fascinating to find that I’ve been using the cultural integration tools taught to me during my Peace Corps training just as much here in America as I did during my time abroad.
In order to join the Peace Corps three years ago, I left a job of nearly twenty years and with it, the comfort of working at a place where I knew the ropes, and where my colleagues trusted and respected me. Looking to forge a different path upon my return home to the U.S., I took a new job in a new organization, with its own unique culture and systems and lingo and social dynamics.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been the ‘new girl’ in an organization. I don’t always know what I’m doing, and often have to muddle through first being bad at things (and people seeing that) before getting good at them. I’ve shown up, ready to dive in and get to work, only to first find out how much I don’t know and how much I need to learn from others. I’ve had to rely on people to show me how to do the simplest tasks, including how to make coffee and how to operate the copy machine. I’ve gotten lost trying to find the restroom. I’ve had to remember what it feels like to have people make assumptions about me based on my appearance, my age and my title. Not because they’re not enlightened or evolved—but because they’re human and that’s what humans do. I’ve had to catch and stop myself doing the same to others.
The biggest difference is that, here in America, I don’t get the benefit of the mini-celebrity status I enjoyed in Mongolia and the Middle East, the status that made people want to drop what they were doing and take shared ownership in my well-being. In America, people have a lot going on, which means that often, I’m left to my own devices, and to learning by trial-and-error. Some days it feels like much more error than trial, and that’s when I have to remind myself to:
- Take time to listen and observe; resist the urge to act immediately and instead focus on truly understanding the situation and how I can best be of service.
- Anticipate that in the beginning, anything I try will take three times as long as I think it should, and likely be twice as expensive. Remember this is normal.
- Be gentle with and extend myself grace when things don’t go according to plan.
- Avoid being an island; while my natural instinct might be to withdraw or turn inward to hide my mistakes or feelings of vulnerability, continuing to reach out to others is the key to survival.
And while it seems sometimes as if every single person in America is time-starved and under pressure, I’ve been so grateful for those who’ve surprised me by their willingness to stop, take the time to connect in a meaningful way, and extend a hand to someone trying to fit into their new surroundings. Our American culture isn’t one that always allows for spontaneous afternoon lunches or dance parties, but there are at least a few hospitality angels out there doing their best. I’ve come to appreciate what a gift they are.
More than that, I’ve realized how important it is to be one of them, and what a difference it can make to another human when you’re able to show up, unhurried, and offer them your time and presence.