...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.
None of that learning comes without growth, which is often hidden in the challenge of building relationships with people you may be initially skeptical or critical of...
In the Dubai airport that July night last summer, I waved at the Malaysian group. We smiled, laughed. "Apa khabar?" they asked tentatively. "Baik. Baiklah!" I replied, and we all laughed. We had something in common after all. Trading greetings in Bahasa, and then Arabic, we closed on 1am, and our exchange counteracted the dreary, generic boringness of the gray-blue lighting and waiting-room chairs. In the moment, I couldn't believe my Bahasa was coming back to me, and I think they were thrilled to find such a link with a completely random person. We continued chatting, and all the while I was reminded of how my time in Malaysia had greatly impacted my life. I stopped worrying so much about my friend finding me at the airport, and thought back to how I had ended up in Malaysia in the first place.
I can remember choosing the Southeast Asian country from a map of the many locations included in the U.S. Fulbright fellowship. Why Malaysia? And my answer to that question, to any why, has always connected to how far I am willing to go to learn about myself and others. My central motivation in my anthropological and linguistic research is to drive myself to learn something new, and impact those I come across with a sense of possibility and reflection, as I share in their optimism and knowledge. When I ventured to Malaysia almost ten years ago, I was motivated by the possibility of going somewhere deliberately unknown, and through that experience, build a repertoire of experience unavailable to me elsewhere. None of that learning comes without growth, which is often hidden in the challenge of building relationships with people you may be initially skeptical or critical of, or feel you have little in common with. The true surprise is that we are all much more alike than we are different.
Departures & Closing Words - 1:22am
Terima Kasih. Even if there are few words I retain in a language, I always want to know how to say thank you. I used those words in the airport that night with my friendly counterparts. As it neared 1:30am, their local contact arrived, and came in to usher them to a van. And then they were gone, and I was snapped back into reality. Realizing this, I saw that in the last hour or so I had momentarily stopped obsessing over my rendezvous to take notice of the people around me, and reach across a perceived intercultural void to connect, if only temporarily. Because I had been able to fully inhabit these moments, and focus on our exchange, my visit had been enriched, my perspective on Dubai enlarged, and my past learning was made relevant once more.
I did eventually see my friend that night, but that was the result of yet another adventure on the Dubai city expressways. I'll save that story for another time.
The true surprise is that
we are all much more alike
than we are different.