Everything Comes Back to Nationality

Lives saved by seat belts and airbags
Lives saved by seat belts and airbags (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently my husband became a certified diver. This meant Friday morning trips with his friends to the waters off the north coast of Qatar. This past weekend he wanted me and our two year old to come along and enjoy the beach while the gang was under the water. I managed to convince a friend to join us – even though we left at 6:30 a.m. – and we did have a great time.

What struck both of us as we were setting up, however, were the spots of white tissue and blue bottle caps scattered over the sand. “Why can’t people take their trash with them?” I asked.

She was as dismayed as I was in taking in the 100 meters or more of beautiful sand, pocked with the remnants of breakfast, lunch, and dinner barbeques.

“We’ll enjoy the morning and then do some pick up,” I suggested.

“That’s karmic yoga,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

The two year old played, with a bevy of aunties, the title Asians use for older women, whether they are related or not, at the ready to make him the sand sculptures of his dreams. Airplanes, crocodiles, and birthday cakes were his structures of choice.

3 bags of trash collected in 15 minutes
3 bags of trash collected in 15 minutes

We had lunch and then got two trash bags each. One to collect trash and one to use as a glove. Everything from stale flat bread, to leftover shrimp pizza, went into one of our three bags. Within fifteen minutes we had collected plastic bottles, tissues, bags, discarded children’s shoes, and scraps of paper. Being social media hounds, we posted our findings on Facebook and Twitter. The comments we received on the photos were telling.

“What a great idea,” someone commented. “We do cleanups here in my home state. Wonder if that would work there. Of course it would be Expats to the rescue.”

“I explained to my son about Muslim absolution,” someone else wrote. “And he asked why they litter so much if they’re supposed to be clean.”

I’m not denying that many a time in traffic I’ve been behind someone who has tossed trash out their window. Or that I got into a face off during the recent Sports Day, with a girl and two teenagers (who were likely her cousins or brothers) for tossing a finished soda can onto the green space in the park. These people were all Arabs of some kind. But I could see that they were in my interactions with them. I didn’t assume they were.

The innocuousness of picking up of trash revealed that our friends thought that most of the people who litter in Qatar are Arabs. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. I do know of the twenty or so diving groups I saw that morning, only one of them seemed to be of Arab origin. In the four hours we were there, the majority of the people on the beach there were expats.

Switch to another big cause for me these days: children without seat belts, riding in the front seat or standing up in the backseats of cars. I started taking photos of these darlings last week at red lights. Again some of the comments revealed that everyone thinks this practice is done by Arabs. Even though the first photo was of an Asian looking child in the arms of his mother, showing me his toys through the open passenger side window, the association people had was that Arabs are the primary violator.

What struck me about both these instances is that assumptions about behavior based on nationality seems to come to the forefront immediately. Nationality and “why doesn’t the government do something” are knee jerk reactions to what we would otherwise consider civic responsibilities. Maybe it’s a system that pays people based on their passports – not their merit – that is to blame for the root of this ethnic divide. For the same job, it’s completely legal for companies to pay different wages to Egyptians versus Sri Lankans versus Americans. Is this where the root of mistrust begins?

I’ve been inspired by these instances to not wait for the civil authorities to decide to address the issue. After all their attempts to encourage recycling and better driving have not proved entirely successful. Rather than continuously looking to others, I’m interested in the power of individuals. Why can’t every person who sees trash on the beach pick some up? Not every piece, but whatever they have time for?

And every parent who sees someone riding without a seat belt, encourage them to use one?

In a place like Qatar, where mistrust abounds between groups, expat and national, Arabs and non-Arabs, it would be nice if we as expats could do something positive to give back to these communities which are our temporary homes.

Instead of always complaining about not being invited into Qatari homes, or never experiencing Qatari hospitality, could we pick up trash, regardless of who left it? Could we talk about the importance of child car seats? After all, we assume a certain cultural superiority when we say that littering is wrong, knowing we come from countries where this behavior is fined.  Ditto for children in car seats or seat belts.

Maybe we wouldn’t be ‘better’ people or more civilized if we didn’t have our home governments governing our civic actions.

What would we do if we didn’t have to? Who are we when laws aren’t enforced? These are the questions echoing in my head.

Next week, I’m taking this question on to another, more controversial question: the treatment of housemaids which also seems to vary according to nationality. Stay tuned.



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Americans are so nice

I’m currently on a cultural exchange trip with students from my university visiting a woman’s college in the United States. Over our arrival weekend as students from our host campus tooks us around the city.

The conversation between my students was fascinating.

"Everyone in America is so nice," they were saying, after a five hour layover in Dulles airport and a trip to the North Carolina state fair.

During a presentation during a Middle East history class at the state university in Raleigh, I could see the wheels turning all around the classroom as the American students took in the perfect English, confident poses, and professionally constructed Powerpoint presented by my students.

It was news to them that other people had negative stereotypes of Americans.

"Like what?" a female student wanted to know during the Q and A.

Her surprise and question is a reminder of how important exchanges like this are, for both sides.