It takes time, mistakes to learn a culture


There I was, sitting with an Arab friend, about to indulge in a feast prepared in my honor.

The kitchen staff had brought a traditional meal of roasted lamb legs on a huge bed of biryani rice. Tea had been served beforehand, the individual plates of cucumber and tomato salad had been set in front of our plates, as well as the customary spoon and knife to eat the dinner our with. So, with the meal hot and ready for consumption, we sat there, doing nothing.

I had no idea what to do. My subconscious, familiar with my own American culture and customs, told me to wait for directions, so that's what I did. And when no directions came, I sat there. Awkwardly.

After at least five minutes of bad jokes and hopeless salivating over food going cold my host kindly leaned toward me and said softly, "In our culture, we wait for the guest to serve himself first."

That's all it took. Just a small bit of information shared got the dinner rolling and could have saved us all from those overwhelming awkward moments of cultural ignorance.

Not knowing what to do, nor when to do it, is like being in grade school all over again. That feeling deep in your stomach informing you that you are on the verge of getting in big trouble, and yet you have no idea what will get you in trouble this time.

(Yes, that is a personal confession of my regular meetings with principals in grade schools. Those offices became like a second home to me.)

Unfortunately these moments of cross-cultural childishness are not isolated to this one event. They have become a daily occurrence in my life. I am actually thinking about referring to them as "a hobby" from here on out.

The truth is that without making these mistakes, I would never learn the customs of such a foreign culture. And after all, that is my goal, to create and make friends in their own context and not simply sticking to what is familiar to me.

Living so far away from home and surrounded by such foreign customs becomes overwhelming at times. I wish culture were something I could just switch on and off. Like I could turn off my American customs and simply adapt to the Arab ways.

The reality is our customs and cultures are so deeply ingrained in us you can't really figure out where one starts and another begins.

Learning a new culture and a new language is like becoming a baby all over again. I can't put full sentences together when I want to, I don't know how to act around certain people or what to say (or not to say) around others, and when I don't know how to express my personal needs crying seems like a viable option.

The hope in midst of the perpetual humility is the graciousness of the Arab people. It is almost as though my neighbors feel honored even by my failed attempts. They are kind in correcting me, and loving in their jokes toward my behaviors.

Their welcoming arms and gentle teaching is motivation enough for me to keep going despite my regular failures. They are reason enough to keep trying to assimilate and learn what it means to acquire a new culture.

Micah Studer grew up in Walla Walla and worked for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation before moving to the Middle East in November 2010. He maintains a blog about his life in Jordan at


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