How I Got Schooled


I had an inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence recent­ly that brought me abrupt­ly back to the sub­ject of cul­tur­al (mis)appropriation. It was one of those moments when an out­sider pre­sumed to school me about my own reli­gious and  cul­tur­al tra­di­tions.

The woman was a patient, some­one I haven’t met before. She seemed appre­hen­sive when I entered the exam room. I inter­viewed her about the side effects she’s been expe­ri­enc­ing with her cur­rent chemo reg­i­men. I tried to ease her appre­hen­sion by ask­ing about her fam­i­ly.  She showed me pic­tures on her iPad of her home in the coun­try, her kids, a sun­set.  Then she asked me about my fam­i­ly. Specif­i­cal­ly, she want­ed to know if my daugh­ters cov­er their hair as well. I answered in the affir­ma­tive, offer­ing eye con­tact and an hon­est easy smile as it is at this point that peo­ple often become uncom­fort­able because they think that per­haps I might be. I’m not…ever.  My years of apolo­get­ics are long past.  The rest of the con­ver­sa­tion pro­ceed­ed like this:

So the scarf is part of your cul­ture?”

I shook my head. “No. My scarf is a req­ui­site of my reli­gion.”  I didn’t expound and say that as a fel­low born and raised Amer­i­can my cul­ture and hers are essen­tial­ly the same.

There are a lot (I assumed she meant Mus­lims) who come here for treat­ment.”

Oh yes.  This is true. This being an inter­na­tion­al­ly renown can­cer cen­ter peo­ple from all over the world come here to receive what they believe will be the best pos­si­ble treat­ment.”

Well you know, the thing that I find so sur­pris­ing is that you’ll see these men push­ing their wives in wheel­chairs.”

At this point I no longer had to assume. I knew she was refer­ring to Mus­lims. I knew where she was head­ed, and despite the warn­ing voice in my head, I asked her to elab­o­rate. So I said, “Oh? Why is that sur­pris­ing?”

Well, usu­al­ly the women walk ten feet behind the men.”

Exact­ly ten feet? I thought is was six. Just kid­ding.  


Sté­fan via Comp­fight

I was dumb­found­ed and shook my head. “Uh, that’s not true.”

Yes it is and I see it all the time.”

Are we liv­ing in the same world? Why is it that I nev­er see this? And since I’m an obser­vant Mus­lim, I sup­pose I’m break­ing some age old law because I walk where I please with­out fear of an hon­or killing (I am being face­tious) or being sent to hell by Allah. I want­ed to ask her if she thinks that these men love their wives any less than Amer­i­can or non-Mus­lim men love their wives, if she believes that even rid­dled with can­cer these women would be expect­ed to trun­dle along exact­ly ten feet behind their hus­bands even after the expense and time of being flown to the USA for expen­sive can­cer treat­ments.

This was not the appro­pri­ate venue for me to school her about the dif­fer­ence between cul­ture and reli­gion, to divorce her of a stereo­type as old as dirt and as wrong as sin. She was my patient and it would be inap­pro­pri­ate and unpro­fes­sion­al for me to enter into a debate. So I said in a way that I hope sound­ed light-heart­ed, “Well if you see this, it’s not a pre­cept of the reli­gion (my reli­gion), but more like­ly a cul­tur­al prac­tice.”

The look she gave me, this pity­ing poor fool­ish igno­rant girl look, made me want to scream. Of course I didn’t though. Not out loud, in any case, but there was def­i­nite­ly tight ten­sion in the room until I left.

But hon­est­ly, where does she get off school­ing me about ME? I know where she gets off, because as I’ve already men­tioned, she and I do come from the same cul­ture.

There is this thing we west­ern­ers are guilty of… think­ing we know bet­ter, that we are the benev­o­lent teach­ers of right, that we mere­ly tol­er­ate the rest of the world’s back­ward cul­tur­al prac­tices. This is an unfor­giv­ably arro­gant atti­tude and it’s ram­pant.

But even deep­er and more sig­nif­i­cant, and per­haps this is my igno­rance here, how can any­one with access to tech­nol­o­gy liv­ing in this glob­al world be so incred­i­bly out of touch? Okay I sup­pose she can be. I mean as glob­al­ly savvy as we in the west like to think we are, we’re often just about as provin­cial and insu­lat­ed as we can get, as evi­denced by her obvi­ous igno­rance. The most aggra­vat­ing part though was her arro­gant per­sis­tence that she was cor­rect, that she knew bet­ter than me.

I believe there is an old no longer prac­ticed Japan­ese cul­tur­al tra­di­tion where the men walk ahead of the women.  Tra­di­tion­al­ly this was so that the men could serve as pro­tec­tion. This was not intend­ed as a means to sup­press or oppress the women. I have nev­er met a Mus­lim woman, who because of her faith, walks behind her hus­band unless she just hap­pened to end up there.

But that is all beside the point. I real­ly want­ed to talk about writ­ing. I want­ed to impress how impor­tant it is for writ­ers to be tru­ly glob­al thinkers. We can not afford, if we care about our craft and our read­ers, to lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn. We all make errors and assump­tions, but when faced with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn the truth from the source, unlike my patient, we don’t have the lux­u­ry of shak­ing our heads and shak­ing off infor­ma­tion in favor of hold­ing on to erro­neous pre­con­ceived ideas.

This woman is not a writer, her words won’t like­ly be dis­sem­i­nat­ed via the inter­net or some oth­er form of media, but let’s pre­tend she is a writer, a very pop­u­lar writer… Imag­ine the affect.