The horrific attacks on September 11, 2001 brought to the forefront of my attention that there was something terribly wrong- Something I had been previously unaware of.
I never would have imagined that something like that could happen to us. My peaceful fantasy world was shattered that day.
I knew I had to do something, so I tried to better understand the geo-political situation by learning about history as well as keeping up with current events.
I really cannot be sure of whether or not I had ever heard of Islam before September 11… but obviously with that abhorrent attack came the knowledge that there was this other religion out there called Islam.
If you recall in my introduction I mentioned that I was not very fond of religion, so although I didn’t really ever believe that the attacks were actually driven by something inherent in Islam, my disdain of religion was really validated when I thought about a religion being related to this atrocity.
I felt so disturbed by this new reality that I decided to take some time off from college and after that semester I flew to Australia. To be honest- I was running away.
As part of that trip I also travelled through Southeast Asia. Although it was over all, an amazing and interesting trip, I think there are only two points that really are relevant to my journey to Islam.
The first point turned out to be very significant, though I never could have imagined at the time how: The person who sublet the apartment I stayed in was Israeli. Through this person I heard things I wouldn’t have otherwise heard.
I became intensely curious.
I was left with the feeling that I needed to know what was going on in the Middle East. It all sounded so confusing. There seemed to be contradictory accounts and descriptions of the situation in Israel.
Each side seemed to have a completely different story. Not only that, but people who talked about it were always so passionate and often emotional.
I knew that what was happening in Israel was related to the terrorism which had just hit home, literally. That meant it was crucial knowledge for me; something I really needed to understand.
The other significant part of my trip was that I suddenly experienced being a foreigner for the first time, which was extremely humbling.
In Australia, although Australians speak English, I felt shy to speak, because my accent sounded so strange compared to what was the norm there. Whenever I spoke it was obvious I was a foreigner. It was a little stressful not being able to blend in and just exist amongst the people.
In Asia, where I travelled through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, not even being able to communicate properly in the native languages was really quite an experience. I tried my best to learn the basic phrases mentioned in my travel books, but even with that it was still impossible to understand what was going on a lot of the time.
Imagine trying to get on a bus going to a particular place for a certain price, but because virtually no one actually speaks English you are never really totally sure that you are in the right place, going the right way and not being taken advantage of in some way.
Believe me, being a foreigner is not easy! I was in Asia for about a month, and though the trip was enjoyable, by the end I was exhausted!
Being in a foreign land also meant getting other people’s perspectives on America, Americans and the geo-political climate. Really, here at home we have not many ways of knowing how people in the rest of the world see us, our government, military and world happenings. I spoke with many people, from the locals, to other travelers from various parts of Europe. It was also enlightening seeing other Americans outside their comfort zone.
It really brought about the question of identity and forced me to deal with things I had previously taken for granted. Sure, at home we are all Americans and comfortable being American; but once you leave your country and are in someone else’s, being American is very different.
You are seen by others sometimes by their negative stereotypes, sometimes with honor.
At home you are yourself, but overseas you are predefined.
Some examples of stereotypes that people have about Americans are that we think we are the best and always right. Some believe we are arrogant and think that whatever is different is lesser. Actually many people look down on Americans, for being pompous, ignorant and uncultured, speaking only English while many people around the world speak multiple languages. Many people also believe that Americans don’t really know what is going on in the world.
This was all pretty surprising to me.
I will never forget being in a national park in Australia and hearing this very boisterous voice, with a very clearly American accent exclaiming, “Oh my GOD! You put MUSTARD on your hamburgers?!” I remember feeling embarrassed as if I had said it myself, because it seemed to play right into those stereotypes.
In Laos there is a small rural town which became a popular stop for many tourists. Many restaurants have popped up to cater to the growing tourism- which in ways has helped their economy- but I couldn’t help but notice how the tourists tended to trample on the Laotian culture and how they were being taken advantage of for the low value of their money.
One foreign-run restaurant boasted on a huge banner, in English, that you could get an enormous hamburger for a dollar. This was literally thousands of their own dollars (Kips).
When I tried to experience a more authentic Laotian cuisine in a local Laotian restaurant, a group of native people approached me and demanded that I “speak Lao”. They were testing me and showing their animosity for the lack of respect they get from tourists, who come into town to party without any interest in, or respect for Laotian culture and Language. I went back to my hotel room and cried after that.
I cried and cried.
That town had a cultural center for tourists which I visited after the restaurant incident. I went there daily for several days and during that time there were virtually no other tourists coming in to learn more about Laos and it’s culture.
Perhaps you can imagine that in Vietnam and Laos, there are some people who still have enmity and resentment toward America; lingering since the Vietnam War.
There remain to this day signs of the war on the streets; people born with birth defects caused by Agent orange- the defoliant dropped to expose the fighters during the war.
It was hard for me seeing them, begging on the streets, living a life of suffering to this day, because of a war waged before I was even born. I don’t know how to describe the feeling, it’s like guilt… I didn’t even really remember much about the war- if it was a justified war or not… but just seeing, in person, the suffering humans can cause one another- that’s a profound experience.
This itself did not lead me to Islam, but it sort of primed my heart I guess. Before all of this I was pretty arrogant, but slowly through these experiences my heart softened and my mind expanded.
My perceptions and understanding shifted and matured.
Visiting the war museum in Hanoi, Vietnam was also humbling. I walked through, looking at the war from the Vietnamese perspective, while all the Vietnamese patrons stared at me!
I was surprised when some people approached me in the museum and expressed reconciliation and forgiveness. It was very emotional for me.
I genuinely felt sorry for what had happened to them during the war and being able to connect with those people without even having a common language, to reconcile such a long lasting rift on a human level – it was amazing.
I felt a deep sense of culpability being abroad… It was the weight of responsibility to represent my country and the American people in the most positive way possible- To somehow express our diversity and general goodness.
It weighed very heavily on me.
I suddenly felt shy to be seen as someone who would be disdainful of other people and cultures because they are different from my own. I felt ashamed when I walked into that Laotian restaurant unable to speak Lao. It didn’t seem right to be taking advantage of people by enjoying one dollar hamburgers and three dollar gourmet meals they could not afford themselves….
It really struck me being on the other side- But it was very enlightening to see myself and our country from a different point of view and I think it is very important to know that there are a variety of attitudes and opinions about us out there. That was truly an unforeseen aspect of my travels, but I am grateful to have gained a deeper perspective.
I think it helped me understand that we people are all so much alike. Sometimes we have our barriers and we hang on to our American identity with pride and zealousness, which is fine, but I personally decided that I did not want to allow myself to believe that just by being American I am somehow better than anyone else; or that everyone else in the world should dress as I do and shop as I do and eat hamburgers just the way I like them.
I think it’s great to be happy to be American and truly I am very grateful to have been born in the USA and I love my country. I can with all honesty say that today I am more grateful to be American than I have ever been, but foremost I am a human being, in many ways like every other human being on the face of this earth.
If I go somewhere else, I am a foreigner and that is why foreigners in our country are foreigners, because they were born in some other land. They are people, and it is a stressful experience being a foreigner. I know that now. That stress must only be compounded when we treat them as lesser than us, or if we only see them through our own stereotypes of them without realizing they are individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and fears.
I always try to remember that myself and the majority of Americans have great grandparents or great, great grandparents, or grandparents who were foreigners to this land. I try my best not to be closed-minded and fearful toward other cultures and people who are from other lands. Laughing or jesting about their different clothes, accents or food.
This country would not exist, nor would it have become so progressive and influential had it not been for the great diversity of our own peoples’ backgrounds.