Being Uniquely Me and the Curiosity of New Friends

Learning together can be fun! A Core AM student learns about animals while EFL Fellow Mecca assists with a maze.

Learning together can be fun! A Core AM student learns about animals while EFL Fellow Mecca assists with a maze.

I arrived in Nablus having lived in an Arabic-speaking country and having lived in a more conservative environment before. Whenever I am placed in the aforementioned environments, there is a tendency to want to conform. However, the most the liberating of options is to just be me and welcome all questions about my differences and individuality as a opportunity for an unique kind of cultural exchange.

Since my arrival to Nablus it has been clear to me that I sometimes stand out for a number of reasons and that is ok because I was raised in culture where I was taught to celebrate differences.

Sometimes when local folk comment on the differences in my appearance, it comes in the form of a compliment or in the form of genuine curiosity. My natural response to these comments is usually to engage in conversation about my culture and my identity and hopefully open the door to ask those same individuals about theirs. The result is that I am oft times in a very unique position to engage in an amazing cultural dialogue.

Last week, myself along with the other fellows were standing just outside of the old city of Jerusalem preparing to travel back to Nablus. We were all standing in line to buy crepes from a street vendor when a group of about 5 girls and boys much younger and much shorter than I began to form a semi circle around me and stare pensively at the top of my head.  I could tell that they were curious about my hair, not being accustomed to seeing someone with my specific hair style and texture.  I then saw 10 different little hands reaching to grab handfuls of my hair to do their own on the spot empirical research.  Having a good height advantage, I just took a slight step back to evade their curious grip. I then smiled and said, “Please tell me all of your names.”

One by one they proudly shouted out their names: Chaiyma, Huda, Rania, Mohamed and Ahmed.  After closer inspection I noticed that they were all holding some kind of certificate. I asked them all to see their certificates and them congratulated them each one at a time. At that moment, their little pensive faces relaxed into smiles of pride. I then decided to open up the conversation to them asking questions about me including my country of origin and the texture of my hair, but with every question they asked me I countered with a question I had about them. It was after all my first trip to Jerusalem and here were 5 natives of the city already involved in conversation.

After 20 minutes all the crepes for our team were purchased and we were ready to go. The cool thing for me was I now had 5 new friends. I was no longer just a person standing out looking different and that made them curious. I was somebody who knew all of their names and had congratulated them on their awards. They had offered to share their iced coffee with me and in the end didn’t care so much about my hair or the things that made us different. I felt lucky to have been able to make five new mini friends in Jerusalem.

EFL Fellow Mecca plays with the children of a Core AM class before the lesson begins.

EFL Fellow Mecca plays with the children of a Core AM class before the lesson begins.

Upon returning to Nablus I had a very similar experience working with the Core Child program students at TYO. I was assigned to work with 20 plus students ages ranging from 4-5 among the youngest at TYO. I have to admit I was a bit nervous when I entered the class. I hoped that my presence wouldn’t disrupt the overall class chemistry or cohesion. After all, I am from a foreign place where we speak a different language and have a very different culture.

Upon joining the class just as they were finishing up snack, the youngest of them all, 4 year Husun, pointed to my hair and smiled. I looked back, pressed a piece of my hair on my top lip to form a makeshift mustache, smiled back at her and said, “Shu [What]?” She then erupted into laughter as her classmate Initisar mimicked me by pressing a few strands of her hair over her top lip as well, we all laughed and the ice was broken. I was so relieved in this moment and all of my initial nerves just melted away.  We went on have a great class where we studied animal names in Arabic and English and practiced all the sounds that they make.

Afterwards I reflected on both interactions in Jerusalem and Nablus and thought if we all looked exactly alike, we would never have engaged in conversation at all. So the best approach is to engage across cultures is always to embrace my individuality and see it as a unique way to connect with and learn from new people.

– Mecca, Fall 2016 EFL Fellow

The English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program is part of STEP! II, a youth employability, empowerment, and community leadership initiative supported by Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.