An American in Foreign Lands
by Ed Sawicki
From 1980 until the early 2000s, I traveled outside the United States to conduct seminars, speak at conferences, and teach classes. That travel helped shape my worldview. It showed me how the rest of the world thinks of the U.S. and of Americans. It inspired me to represent my country in the best possible light.
I kept notes that I thought would one day be useful. Here are a few samples of what I have.
In the early-1990s, I taught a class in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A feisty young Puerto Rican woman stayed after class to scold me for my ignorance of Latin American history—and perhaps for just being an American. Apparently, I had made a remark that was incredibly stupid or naive. We talked for about two hours, and she filled in the gaps that my privileged and selective U.S. education had left.
She taught me about the impact of colonialism and capitalism on poor places like Puerto Rico and Cuba. About how the United Fruit Company, backed by the CIA, was evil, stealing the best land from local farmers throughout Latin America. About how I saw American presidents like John F. Kennedy through rose-colored glasses. And much more. Throughout this assault, I paid close attention and asked questions. That seemed to please her.
After an hour, I asked if we could continue this in the bar. I wasn’t trying to put the moves on her—I had been talking all day and was thirsty. She lightly punched my shoulder and said, “No, I want you to pay attention! Keep your mind on this. We need more people to know about real history.”
As the years wore on, I realized that much of what she said was true. We see the results of what she was talking about in the Northern Triangle of Central America—the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Conditions in those countries have become so terrible that people are leaving and heading for the United States, where they’re being treated as criminals.
She was one of my best teachers—and I had the wisdom to listen. Returned Peace Corps volunteers have also written that their successes were through listening (not that I compare myself to those brave Americans who sacrificed far more than I ever will).
In the mid-1990s, I conducted a seminar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during Ramadan, a month during which Muslims fast during daylight hours. I perceived Malaysian society as somewhat of a caste system and I was higher up the chain than my students. The catering department had placed a fabric-covered board at the front of the room with my name spelled out in 8‑inch carved wooden letters. They appeared to have been made of teak.
This made me uncomfortable. My usual, informal “Call me Ed.” didn’t work there. I needed a cultural icebreaker.
We broke at mid-day for a one-hour lunch despite it being Ramadan, and students were not going to have lunch. About half of the students stayed behind in our meeting room. I was at the front of the room preparing for the afternoon. The catering manager appeared and asked what I would like to have for lunch and said he’d prepared a small room across the hall for me. I knew my students were listening. I said, “I’m not going to have lunch. We’re fasting.”
The catering manager gave me a menu in case I wanted to order a meal later. I thumbed through the menu and asked my students about the meals. Then I asked them what they would have that evening after the sun went down. They answered with the names of native foods and then explained what the food was for my benefit. I asked how some of the food was prepared, and a few women talked me through simple recipes. I got the impression that traditional family gender roles were firmly in place. I mentioned that I sometimes cooked, and some were surprised.
When we ran out of food topics, I segued into talking about our families and pets. I learned that it doesn’t take a lot to get along with people of other cultures.
They still weren’t going to call me Ed, but I had made quite a bit of progress in flattening the social strata in the room—and it started with skipping lunch.
I taught another class in another Muslim country–Indonesia–around the same time as the Malaysia trip, but it wasn’t during Ramadan. The class had lunch together at rectangular tables, each seating six people, that were set up outdoors alongside a walkway to a public shopping area. It was a nice sunny day. There were about 10 tables.
The class had self-segregated, with women at their own tables, most wearing headscarves that did not hide their faces. I arrived last when there were few empty seats. I noticed an empty seat at a women’s table and another at a men’s table.
I pretended not to notice the seat at the men’s table and asked the women if I could join them. I was aware that most students were watching me. The women smiled and looked delighted that I would want to sit with them. Although smiling, one woman looked around as if she was looking for a ruling on whether having lunch with a Western man was permissible. I didn’t sense that from the other four.
We talked about the subject of the class (computer networking) for a while, but they wanted to know about life in the United States. They asked questions, and I answered in ways that did not make it sound like it was better than life in Indonesia. I’d say things like, “Of course, the food here is much better.” I remember one woman responding with, “You have pizza pie.”, emphasizing the pie as if that was the most absurd thing she had ever heard of. We all laughed.
I told them that I was glad to see so many women attending a class on computers–that in the United States, women had just started to hold jobs in significant numbers that were traditionally male. One woman was surprised to hear that, saying that the same thing was happening in Indonesia and that perhaps it had started earlier there. They were the pioneers of a gender revolution in the workplace. I told her it was about time, given that women tended to do as well or better than their male counterparts, given the same opportunities. I got the impression that they didn’t hear this kind of talk from males in their country.
During the meal, one of my young male students walked over with a young woman dressed in western clothes and wore no headscarf. I stood. He introduced her as his sister and said she worked close by at a restaurant in the shopping center. I said hello to her and extended my hand, not knowing if it was a social taboo. To my relief, she took my hand and did a slight curtsy. It/she was adorable. I wasn’t sure what to say next, so I said, “Are there more like you two at home - young, good-looking, successful professionals?”
They laughed, and he said yes, and named their brothers and sisters. She said she had never been described as a young successful professional before—leaving out the good-looking, and I didn’t mention the omission. She explained that she was attending university, and working at the restaurant helped pay for that. That led to a short conversation about her studies and her future career. She had to return to work, and I wished her good luck with her studies. I thanked my young male student for introducing me to his lovely sister. He seemed to be happy with himself for this successful encounter. It would probably be talked about at the dinner table that night.
At the afternoon break that day, I sought out a group of male students to speak with. Unlike the women at lunch who asked lots of questions about the U.S., the men were more interested in filling me in on their country. I learned how to pronounce names, the ordering and significance of given and family names, the demographics of the country, how business practices and advertising on TV in Indonesia are different than in the U.S., and many other topics.
There was a point in the discussion where some aspect of U.S. foreign policy was brought up. I don’t recall the exact topic, but it had to do with U.S. militarism. A few men in the group were clearly disturbed by this but seemed to be holding back so as not to insult me. I was aware of Indonesia’s history and its struggle during the Sukarno regime–I had seen the movie The Year of Living Dangerously and had done some research afterward–so I chose my words carefully. I said, “The U.S. is far too militaristic, spending an obscene amount of money on the military and not nearly enough on its citizens. And it can’t all be blamed on the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.” They seemed happy with my answer.
Dubai and Jeddah
In the early 2000s, I was hired to speak about computer networking at IT conferences in two cities: Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. This was to be my first time in both countries. Before I left on the trip, I learned that both countries were majority Muslim, but the UAE was about 80 percent Muslim and progressive while, Saudi Arabia was virtually 100 percent Muslim and authoritarian. My experiences there confirmed this.
Flying into Dubai was similar to flying into most other airports, except for how most people dressed. It was clear that Dubai was catering to international tourism and business–airport signage and advertising was multilingual. An English-speaking woman politely asked to demonstrate a wireless device that I remember being some sort of PDA (personal digital assistant) with a first-generation web browser. It rendered my own website back in the States reasonably well and did so rather quickly. Apparently, bandwidth was plentiful here–and inexpensive based on the prices the woman quoted me.
The conference was held at the same hotel that I stayed at. I realized just how progressive Dubai was when I rode the elevator with a provocatively-dressed young woman I assumed was a working girl. This was a 5-star hotel, and I probably rode the elevator with more than one billionaire during my stay.
Except for many men wearing white thawbs (robes), the conference was like most others. My presentation was in English, and most attendees didn’t need to use the available translation service.
There was about a one-week gap before the conference in Jeddah began. The conference organizers wisely assumed that I’d want to spend those days in Dubai instead of Jeddah. On the last day of the Dubai conference, I became quite ill. I saw the hotel doctor, and he suggested an antibiotic. A prescription from a doctor wasn’t necessary. The pharmacy near the hotel sold me the antibiotic without question and at a cost much less than I’d pay in the States.
I spent the next few days in bed. I had no appetite and lived on bottled water and bananas. On the day before I was to board a flight for Jeddah, I was feeling much better but I had missed seeing much of Dubai or putting my feet in the Persian Gulf. The conference organizer sent someone along with me on the same flight to assist me with entering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I was happy to have him.
Entering the Kingdom was intimidating. I was warned in advance that my passport should not have any indication that I had traveled to the Holy Land. I hadn’t. I watched as the arriving passengers had to file past men who grilled them about their travels and checked what they were bringing into the country. They seized any Western magazines and a few audio cassettes. When it was my turn, the man focused on the stack of CDs I had with me. He asked if it was music. I said that it was software and showed him my computer. He consulted another man, and they decided that I was OK.
Unlike the 5-star hotel in Dubai, this hotel was a star or two less. As an American, I was entitled to access the second floor, which had a bar. From the windows in my room, I decided that the city looked a little scary and had little appeal, so I never left the hotel but scolded myself for being a coward.
Following my presentation, a Pakistani professor conducted a session on getting IT jobs in the United States. He was responsible for placing many of his Pakistani students into U.S.-based jobs and was now teaching Saudi workers (who were all male) how to do it.
One young man asked why the U.S. was hiring so many foreign workers when U.S. citizens had access to the best schools. The professor said that it was generally less expensive for U.S. companies to hire foreign workers because citizens were too expensive. Also, U.S. schools had the latest in computer equipment while Pakistani schools were less well-funded. Pakistani students generally learned about computers using older hardware and free operating systems and software. They tended to be more skilled at the underlying computer technologies, so were better suited to, say, developing chips for cutting-edge technologies like VoIP (Voice over IP).
Another interesting presentation was from a vendor of satellite services. Their product allowed Saudis to bypass the local telecom infrastructure and access the Internet directly without being subject to the country’s firewall. All Saudi Arabian terrestrial Internet communications had to be filtered through a massive firewall located in Riyadh that blocked all content that was objectionable. The wealthy in Saudi Arabia used the satellite service and enjoyed unfettered access to the Internet.
The Saudi Minister of Communications and Information Technology was present at the conference. He was responsible for maintaining the firewall and he was a little concerned about the satellite service bypassing his infrastructure. We spoke during a break about techniques for effectively filtering Internet content. We got along well, and I sensed that he had a Western education. After about 20 minutes, he offered me a job. Needless to say, I didn’t take it, though the salary would have been incredible.