I wrote this post as a journal entry yesterday for my Global Citizen class, and I’ve edited it a little bit so that now it’s a blog post.
Here, I have found happiness in people who I meet.
Many people are just so, so friendly and easy to talk to. I was waiting at the Tour Hassan tram station today, reading emails from my phone, when a university student next to me saw that my phone was in English. She asked me why I’m in Morocco, how I found the country, and where I’m from in the United States. She had to leave when Line 2 came, and I never got her contact information, but still!
I’m not usually late in the US. But here, I see familiar people in the streets and then I’m late to things because I stop to talk to them. Back home I feel terrible when I’m late, like I let people down by not being on time. In Morocco, time is fluid, and things just happen whenever they end up happening. We even learned in Global Citizen class that there’s a word for this—it’s called polychronic time.
But over the past two months, I’ve gotten the feeling that I’m not perceptive enough when it comes to people and culture. Without people having reminded me about nonverbal cultural differences between Morocco and the United States, I probably couldn’t have told you about any of them.
It’s not that I don’t pay attention to how people act; in fact, I’ve frequently walked around Agdal just to watch other people around me and learn the streets and landmarks. But when other exchange students talk about Moroccans’ nonverbal differences with the US, I have no cultural reference point that’s the “normal” for me. I don’t know what’s “normal” and what’s “not normal” for the United States. I hear the other exchange students talking to each other about their specific generalizations about Moroccans, and how they find them different from what they’re used to. I don’t relate to them. Why?? I don’t know!
I do sometimes pay attention to how people act, but I’ve viewed these actions more from an individual perspective than from a cultural perspective. Before having our discussion with YES Abroad and NSLI-Y through Global Citizen class, I’d never mentally categorized “Moroccan” and “American” actions. Even all the discussions we’ve had as a small YES Abroad group have surprised me. I’ve always viewed these discrepancies on the personal level, that certain traits never really affect populations as a whole. Which I now realize isn’t exactly the case.
So hearing about how other people study and perceive these cultural differences was a paradigm shift for me. It was definitely pretty cool, and also a completely new way of visualizing cultural differences that I hadn’t taken into consideration before: for example, people can be divided into a linear communication style (getting straight to the point, direct, logical) and a circular communication style (explaining a lot, giving lots of context, leaving the point up to interpretation by the listener). I hadn’t thought of strong culture-based differences before; instead, I’ve always thought that communication styles depended on people themselves and how their personalities just were.
And part of that comes with the privilege of growing up in a fairly diverse place in the US. Where I lived, and where I went to school, there wasn’t really an “us vs. them” mentality. I saw people different from me all the time, and I never really attributed their actions to their cultural backgrounds. And maybe my inability to recognize clear cultural differences has its own reasons? Maybe it’s because I grew up not really identifying with a culture. My family members are Chinese American immigrants and I’ve always been in between Chinese and American cultural patterns, not really belonging to anything.
Here, though, I’m a minority in a much more homogeneous society. And gradually, as I observe more and more, and as I talk to more Americans about their perception of Morocco, I am starting to categorize people’s actions into their own cultural groups.
Still, I think that I could be better at recognizing cultural differences. I’d been wary of categorizing people, and I still am—I’ve conditioned myself to think that everyone’s an individual! and that preconceived notions are bad! But now that I spend more and more time in Morocco, I’ve realized that this categorization does have some merit. It actually helps make sense of what’s going on. However, I do acknowledge that each system of thinking about culture comes with its own benefits and disadvantages, so I shouldn’t yet decide for myself; instead, I have to step back and be more perceptive with the lens through which I view people here.