...sometimes the greatest challenge comes from striking up friendships with people you think yourself the least likely to befriend and engage.
I shifted into my designed-to-be-uncomfortable seat at the airport. There were a few other folks still around, though they had mostly cleared out. I didn't know anyone, but the airport's one coffeeshop, a Starbucks, was still open. I reached into my wallet and pulled out Emirati Dirhams to get what I sensed was a $5 bottle of airport water.
Little did I know that the friendliest people I would meet that first night in Dubai would be a group of women from Malaysia.
Stuck in an Airport - 12:25am
Darn. My iPhone was starting to die. But thanks to Whatsapp and friendly airport wifi, I had already begun to realize I might be in for a long wait. Her last text intimated she had gone to the wrong airport, my friend. Or the wrong terminal, to be exact. It could be another hour before she found me.
I had come in from Jordan. Specifically, from Amman, where I had just completed about 5 months of glorious, challenging, thrilling fieldwork. In this work, sometimes the greatest challenge comes from striking up friendships with people you think yourself the least likely to befriend and engage. "Why shouldn't I learn from them?", you ask yourself. And then you go about trying to learn from them by participating with them in the things they care about, sharing a meal with them. A day with them.
Plugging in my Phone - 12:32am
But in the airport terminal that night, there wasn't anyone I thought I had anything overtly in common with. Getting up to plug my phone into the nearest wall outlet, I did a cursory scan of the waiting area. Across the way, a group of some nine women sat together patiently chatting. Their headscarves were tightly pinned at the neckline with brooches. The fluorescent lights of the terminal dulled the shine of their brooches, but not the bright colors of their scarves. A songkok distinguished the head of the only man in their group, an elder. Like me, they also seemed to be waiting on a local contact to fetch them.
We caught each others' eyes as they looked around the waiting area, too. Suddenly, I was so much reminded of friends from my time in Malaysia years ago. I like to think that my time with the U.S. Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship program propelled me on my path in cultural empathy, field research, and people-intensive collaboration, because I saw such value in our countless moments of intercultural learning.