Fear of the World: Unrealistic Vs. Healthy Apprehension

Paying close attention to the news, it is easy to be paralyzed by reactionary terror. My students in the Middle East were afraid to visit the US for fear of

a) anti-Muslim hatred;

b) mass shootings.

I assured them they would mostly likely be safe. I told the female students that they could visit most parts of the US for a couple of weeks wearing a scarf and they would not encounter hostility. As part of a tourist group, they would likely encounter curiosity,  hospitality, and invitations to share a meal. Upon departure, they might have to ward off hugs or even kisses from Americans, as public displays of affection, or even touching in public — especially between the opposite sex — are inappropriate or de rigueur in their culture.

If they wore their national dress — black abaya with head covering or hijab — yes, they would get fishy stares and possibly fearful or angry responses, just as my wife received when she wore red shorts in a conservative Muslim city in Turkey. We all need to make cultural adjustments when we travel. Most of my female Emirati students had traveled in Europe and understood this.

I was planning to escort a group of Muslim students to a university in Manchester, England in 2017 until an Islamic fundamentalist blew himself up at an Ariana Grande concert, killing 23 and wounding 139. Our trip had to be cancelled. The university would not sanction it, and I could not risk it. The students were very disappointed; some were angry and I certainly understood their anger.

I know, rationally, that terrorism succeeds when fear wins, and that the safest time to fly or visit a place recently attacked is when everyone is on high alert. But the power of suggestion does create anxiety. I remember how anxious I felt when suitcases were not x-rayed or checked before loaded onto a bus in Israel. I, and certainly parents, and at least some of the students, would have been extraordinarily anxious if we had continued with plans for the trip to Manchester.

Sometimes, getting too comfortable and relaxed in a foreign environment can lead to misreading the potential danger of the situation. One must remain vigilant and aware of crossing sometimes invisible lines in any culture. Problems arise, however, when lines or unwritten cultural rules suddenly change, often as a result of external stimuli or  autocratic behavior of which you are mostly unaware.

I have visited, and even lived in countries that many people consider unsafe. I visited the former Soviet Union for three weeks during the Cold War; Ireland and Northern Ireland during “the troubles” between Catholics and Protestants; Israel, Egypt, Turkish Cyprus; Jordan, Qatar, Oman during a period of so-called Islamic terrorism; Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines when bad news from those countries was not infrequent. I lived in Turkey for two years and the United Arab Emirates for six. People back home would always tell me to “stay safe” but for the most part I felt that I was safer than I was back home.

I would gladly become a tourist for a few weeks in an authoritarian country without free expression or the rule of law because there is so much you can learn.  Even from countries like Iran and North Korea. (Relax. I will emphatically not visit either one anytime soon unless there is a dramatic political thaw, despite Rick Steves’ recommending video on Iran and Australian student Alek Sigley’s “fascinating” experience at Kim Il Sung University in North Korea and running a tourist agency. I do think that a Westerner living in a country like that, as Sigley discovered, would sooner or later have a run-in with authorities.)

And then there are the countries one chooses not to visit out of principle, objecting to their human rights record, aggressive foreign policy, not wanting to support their economy, the current political regime or just because you are repulsed by what you know of their way of life. You would refuse to trade with them, slap tariffs on their goods and services, seek a boycott, place economic sanctions, declare them to be international outlaws, hope to bring them to their knees economically so that they feel forced to change their policies or way of life.

Currently I would put about five countries on that list. Others, seeking a more moralistic or judgmental approach to foreign policy, might put 50 countries on the list. The problem is that the more countries you refuse to engage with, the less you understand about them and the less they understand about you, the less chance of change occurring, and the more international economic instability such attempts at banishment create.

An acquaintance teaching in Myanmar (Burma) self-deprecatingly says he’s clearing or saving about $1,500 a month but he feels like he’s working for the Nazis because of the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. But if he is not directly supporting the regime or involved in the persecution, think of his fascinating cultural experience and what he is learning. It is a difficult dilemma. Is he a collaborator with genocide?

What do you think?

Can you think of some cultural misunderstandings that you’ve experienced? Realistic or unrealistic fears? Healthy or unhealthy apprehension?


Student Activities

1. Write an essay of at least 500 words on a country you would choose NOT to visit and why. Are your reasons based on cultural stereotypes and outlier media reports or actual dangers. Discuss and debate your essays with fellow students.

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