DC is the only place in the United States where you’re in an elevator and the US Ambassador to Algeria coincidentally gets on next to you in the same elevator. In fact, that happened to me last Friday.
I just came back from YES Abroad’s pre-departure orientation, where I met the other sixty-four students who’ll be on program for the 2016-2017 school year. We stayed at the National 4-H center in Chevy Chase and spent four days together in Washington, D.C., attending seminars and workshops about culture and exchange.
For the most part, we spent the time with our respective country groups: the group of students who would be going to the same country. (There are thirteen YES Abroad countries.) While we were in the National 4-H center, we sat at our “country tables”; while we were traveling around DC, we went to country-specific places: the Moroccan Embassy, AMIDEAST (our implementing organization), and the Moroccan Cultural Center. Here’s a picture of our Morocco group.
Each group had a group leader: an alum who led our discussions and answered our questions.
At the beginning of PDO, the leaders talked about feedback they’d gotten from previous students. “PDO is too long and not long enough, at the same time,” they’d said.
Completely true. We spent the second day with our country groups in a windowless room, sitting for fourteen hours at a circular table with our group leaders and participating in seminars. But these seminars were about cultural identity, religions, and cultural values, topics that I like a lot. But also, PDO was not long enough for me to learn all that was necessary to learn, and to really meet all the other YES Abroad participants who were also attending PDO with me.
The leaders of the seminars had an easel pad in the front of the room. After they discussed each topic, they’d draw a picture or write a phrase that represented that topic on the easel pad. Then they’d rip off the sheet, and tape it on the wall. By the time a few hours had passed, the walls were full of images that represented cultural comparisons, different views on culture/language, and so on. Here’s one of the images:
What does this image mean? Each culture has certain ways of looking at the world. One culture represents blue sunglasses and another culture may represent yellow sunglasses. But when you look at an issue from the perspectives of both cultures, you get a different worldview—a pair of green sunglasses.
For example, I’m Chinese American, so maybe I wear a metaphorical pair of green sunglasses. I’m in a kind-of limbo between the two cultures. I look at the world through a mix of two cultural viewpoints.
For one seminar, we read an article by an anthropologist named Horace Miner, about a culture called the Nacirema. The Nacirema are barbarians that live “between the Canadian Creel, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles.” Here’s an excerpt from Miner’s article:
It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women’s rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.
The Nacirema are uncivilized and amoral. But we’re only learning about their culture from an essay on them. That’s one point of view. What could be some other points of view? (If you haven’t read the essay, you can read it here.)
What is Nacirema spelled backwards?
Lastly, the seminars at PDO helped me recognize what American culture really is. It’s hard to put American culture into words until you start comparing it to another culture. We had discussed other cultures as if they were strange and so different, but really, it is weird how teenagers in the US work and drive a car. And it’s weird how we are somehow more “independent”—to us, we’re proud that we give our kids so much of this independence, but does this mean that we’re necessarily better at parenting than those of other countries?
On Friday, each country group traveled on its own itinerary. So that means that our Morocco group did Morocco specific things. In the morning, we first visited AMIDEAST’s DC office: we skyped our in-country coordinators and conducted a question/answer session with AMIDEAST staff. Then we walked to the Moroccan embassy, where we listened to a talk and met the ambassador of Morocco to the US. Then we listened to a speaker at the Moroccan American Center. Later in the day, we all convened at the Department of State, where we spent the afternoon listening to a speaker and talking to members of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Finally, we went to the Lincoln Memorial and took lots of program pictures.
Miscellaneous PDO thoughts
Gosh, 4-H center food was really good.
A pleasant surprise: In our AMIDEAST-Morocco specific seminar, we received letters that the 15-16 participants had written at their re-entry orientation a few weeks ago.
PDO was also a time for reunions.
Lastly, here’s another picture of the 2016-2017 YES Abroad Morocco class. It’s an especially interesting group of people. Through my four days in DC I’ve realized that the YES Abroad participants tend to be very well versed in expressing themselves. It’s definitely an outgoing group of people who are eager to share their own opinions with others.
I am excited for how much I can learn from my Morocco peers. It’s great how we share different interests. PDO has cemented this whole exchange experience inside my head and right now I feel more ready.
See you later!