So today is all about cultural misunderstandings! Ahhhh, who doesn’t love those blushing, awkward, unforgettable moments by which we learn about a place the hard way? Indeed.
It was in Egypt, when I thought I was in fact “culturally safe.” You know, several months later, after you think you have learned all the tricks and chuckle or shake your head when newbies aka tourists commit “the [cultural] atrocities.” Yeah, that! It was toward the end of my second semester studying in Egypt, around the 8-month mark. I was taking the school bus to the American University in Cairo’s new campus in Katameya as usual. This morning however, I forgot to do a little plucking to the eyebrows as I was running late. So, when the bus arrived, I sat on the most discreet, dark corner of the mini bus. I then kind of hid behind the front seat, and started the beauty ritual.
I was almost done at this point, around 5 minutes later, when I just felt a pair of eyes piercing me. You know what I’m talking about: When you just feel a glare, when someone is downright staring at you.As I finished brushing my eyebrows a bit with my fingers, my eyes met an evidently-angry hijabi. This, my friends, is a woman that is veiled. Well, she looked like she could be my grandmother, but meaner and a bit younger, which made her even scarier. Literally, I feared for my life. I was so embarrassed, as if I would have been stopped dead in the middle of the red carpet by a famous ET commentator saying “omg honey, no offense, but that’s like a hideous dress!” yeah, right there in front of the spotlight, when you thought you were the last Coca Cola of the desert, when you think you are “It”
After the hijabi thought she had punished me enough with her eternal, one-to-two-minute stare, she said to me, in a very firm, offended tone: “You should not be doing that here. That’s private and intimate and it’s offending.” Then, after punishing me with another good 30-second mean glare, she slowly, painstakingly turned over to the front again.
And so I learned my lesson: Plucking your eyebrows or doing anything you normally do in your house is considered offensive and too intimate to do outside of it to a hijabi (or at least that Egyptian lady). Basically, it is almost like the American equivalent of changing your shirt in public: No woman, it is not ok to show your bra and change your top in public, even though it does look like a bikini top. Still, it isn’t the beach (although I recognize some guys might defer). Remember buddies: We never know it all!
What’s been your most embarrassing cultural mishap?
I’m not sure I’d pluck my eyebrows on a bus for fear of poking my eye out, but I wouldn’t think it would offend so much. Good to know. Don’t do THAT in Egypt!
I can see how publicly offending someone in that way must have been very embarrassing for you. It’s so tough to know what to do in a country whose customs are very different from your own. We were lucky on our recent trip to Jordan that we had a great guide we could ask endless questions of, including what to wear and what sort of American customs would be inappropriate there. At the same time, you still have to be true to yourself: Despite the fact that it’s considered rude in Jordan to refuse a coffee, I know I personally can’t sleep if I have caffeine after noon. So, at some point, I just had to say a very polite but firm “No thank you.” And Mary and I still held hands occasionally. That’s a hard habit to break…