What People Think of America

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It’s been a while since I posted, and that is basically because I haven’t quite finished the fall semester.  At any rate, I want to put down in words some of my feelings about the way Americans are perceived, or rather how people voice their perceptions of  America.

On the one hand I get it, it’s human nature to have stereotypes about the “other.” Television and news media certainly play a big role in this,  much of that media coming from the US itself.  For example the number of channels showing American films is absolutely daunting.  It’s been my experience that the Egyptians I’ve met know a lot more about American movies than I do… (on second thought, well, I guess that isn’t saying much).

As result, I understand when they make jokes or actually believe or ask me questions about violence in the US.  it’s not just about Egyptian perceptions either, Over the Christmas break my cousin in the UK asked me if life in the U.S. was accurately portrayed by the cop series “The Wire.”   People really do think that Americans walk around with concealed weapons.

It also does not come as surprise to me when people think that Americans are not nice people.  If all you see are criticisms of America’s foriegn policy then it can be easy to confuse America the political entity with the not-so average American who happens to come to your country to study your language.

Lastly, while it certainly rubs me the wrong way, I understand why people assume Americans to be super-liberal socially and to fully support things that more traditional societies do not such as pre-marital sex, gay marriage, women being allowed to wear whatever they want, a much wider definition of freedom of religion… etc.

HOWEVER

What Gazelled absolutely will not stand for is rude transmission of these assumptions.  And that is what I have trouble with here.   It’s not just in the streets with random people it’s in the classroom and in people’s living rooms.

In some ways it’s an absolute de ja vu, the same thing happened in Qatar.  The same people who wanted to beat me over the head with the mantra “don’t believe what your media says about us, we are terrorists, we don’t hate the American people, we are not violent ” etc.  Are the same ones who will in the same breath make sweeping, and quite frankly offensive and hurtful commments about America, American culture and the American mindset.

This of course is a little hard to deal with sometimes, but I have been a good girl for the past 4.5 months.  That was of course until yesterday.

We have a discussion club, just to practice speaking in a formal-ish but not classroom enviroment.  I attended this meeting and the topic, initially was the controversy surrounding selling organs, you know is it morally right?  can we put a price on a vital organ etc.

Somehow the subject moved to the topic of rape.  My instructor the man leading the discussion and someone who from what I gather probably considers himself an open-minded person  tried to explain the Egyptian woman’s perspective on the issue.  That was probably mistake number one.

Between his attempts at a non-demeaning representation of how the “Egyptian woman” feels about the topic and my point blank questioning, he admitted that rape is seriously under-reported here.  (Like many places including the US  unfortunately the blame seems to fall on the woman.  But this “she deserved it because she should have known better than to do/to wear/ or go to x, y or z” is compounded here because of the stress on maintaining a woman’s honor— that of course is another blog post).  For most (his words) or at least many (my words) Egyptian women they would rather be killed than raped.    The extremely problematic nature of this mindset aside, the main point was that because of the social ramifications of such an act being know to the wider community, women tend to not press charges.

********At this juncture I would like to point out that I listened to my instructors words and didn’t place a value judgement on it per se.  It’s not a surprising piece of information given the context, and it’s not a phenomenon specific to Egypt or even the Arab world.  My reaction greatly contrasts with that of some of my other classmates who are appalled by this mindset.****

My instructor then went on to make what he probably thought was nothing more  than a factual, benign statement that we all could not dispute.  he claimed that because of people adherence to their religion, rape was not a serious problem in Egypt and that the cases of rape in America are soooo Much more higher than what we have in Egypt.

What the instructor said next struck a nerve with me and although it wasn’t my intention, I let out a loud, quite angry rebuttal to his claim.  I asked him how could he make such a claim when we just established that rape is seriously under-reported in Egypt?  I probably said a few other things too…

at that point the sole Egyptian woman in the group spoke up and took the middle road between what the both of us were saying.

This particular incident struck a nerve with me because it happened in an academic environment.   I felt like the instructor was talking about the US as if it was some civil war zone with women getting pulled away left and right and attacked because of the lascivious natuer of American culture.

Aside from being an unfounded ridiculous statement, it also bothered me because it is indicative of the mind-set of many.  He is ignoring what is a serious problem, the issue of victims of sexual violence being able to seek justice. And instead states as if it was absolute fact, that as most Egyptians are Muslims, must mean that there are fewer rape cases here.  Once shown the fallacy of his argument, my instructor sort of grumbled his way into the sunset.

I don’t know if he’s actually right, there are no stats that can prove it.  But it seems to me judging from the rampancy of street harassment and the physical/sexual nature that it has taken on here (i.e. men/boys touching and rubbing against women inappropriately— I wonder how my instructor rationalizes these instances with Egypt being a religious country?—- this is certainly not Islamically appropriate behavior at all)  compounded with the fact that they know that a woman who has been raped will probably not say anything, plus the fact that women are most likely to be raped by someone they know (family, friend, neighbor)  I just can’t be as sure as my professor about things being rosy.

At the end of the day this incident is  just one instance out of many where people show of a lack of tact.  Right now, I am trying to find the balance between telling them off as I did with this instructor and grinning and bearing it as I and so many classmates have done and continue to do.

I’ve never considered it my duty to represent the US of A while abroad, but I know its sort of part of the job description.  But how do I deal with people saying things like: “I know you are American and don’t have any morals, but that’s ok”  or “you’re not like other Americans, you’re so nice” (how many other Americans has this person met before me?  zero)  in a diplomatic way? Especially when talking to people who I like for the most part?

I think I just need to tone it down, not be as visibly perturbed as I was with this instructor while still trying to get people to see the fallacy of they are saying.  hmmm easier said than done, that is for sure.

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