Saturday, October 27, 2007

Et Tu, Wierdo?

Lately, I’ve decided that I need a new definition of the word ‘weird.’ I’ve seen so many wacky things in my short life that can only be described as such, that I’ve come to really question my concept (and use) of it. I mean, how many times can you single something out as weird before it falls back on you? That is, perhaps it’s not those things that are weird, it’s that YOU ARE? And it’s not necessarily a derogatory word, but nonetheless, you are still definitely: WEIRD.

Case in point, I’ve been working closely with our grants accountant on a project since I arrived on Monday, and thus, he has been the nearest source of cultural “weirdness”. Two days ago, we were poring over a spreadsheet.

“Elon,” I said, “Who gave you these numbers?” I was flipping through the excel files on my computer.
“I just was been looking at this tab, here,” he states, pointing to the first workbook.
“But where did those come from? Did the operations manager give those to you?” I kept scanning.“uh-uh,” he said.
“I’m sorry, he gave them to you?” I made a point to look up.
“uh-uh,” he shook his head yes.
“Wait, is that a yes or a no?”
“uh-uh, it’s a yes.” He looked at me strangely, nodding his head up and down.
It took me a moment, but I started laughing. “Elon,” I said, “in the US, ‘uh-uh’ means ‘no’ and “uh-huh” means ‘yes!’!”
“Oh – I’m sorry!” and I swear, he turned red.
Of course, I rushed to explain – it wasn’t his fault I didn’t know this. I felt so bad for making him explain himself – and was once again reminded that I’m the “weird” one here.

Another “weird” thing is being non-Muslim in a Muslim country. When traveling in a Muslim country, I try not to do the big no-no’s, like eating with my left hand, pointing the bottoms of my feet at anyone or running around naked. One of my best friends from college (hi Anthro Girl!) is Muslim and she’s forgiven me for some of the bigger faux pas’ (like taking her to a pork tenderloin restaurant), so I’m not all caught up in the Ameri-stereotype of the crazy Arab who will bust open a can of jihad on my ass if I screw up. Still, I try to be atleast somewhat culturally sensitive.

However, that being said, I think my trip to Azerbaijan this May dropped my guard. Even though it’s a largely Muslim country, the whole darn place felt like a nightclub – even at 10am on a Wednesday. Here in Indonesia, many many women are veiled (and such pretty veils! Some are adorned with pretty embroidery, or sequins – I think I even saw one that might have been ‘bedazzled’). There’s a prayer room in our work office, in a quiet corner, with the rugs facing east (strangely enough, I even saw a rug in the stairwell). I love hearing the call to prayer from the muezzin every afternoon – it is so soothing to me.

And then sometimes, I totally forget where I am. Like when I asked the omelette guy at breakfast if I could have ham and cheese in mine. He squirmed uncomfortably until I realized what an idiot I was. Whoops.

But the weirdest is thing is something I like to call “The Conversation.” Our comptroller the other day, who is the sweetest old man, asked me if I didn’t have a hard time getting a visa to come. “Why would that be?” I asked. “Because we are so many Muslim, here” he said, “I think the US doesn’t want to travel to Indoneeeezia.”

Oh Riiiiiiight. Mortal enemies and such.

To me, this is the biggest weirdness. To have to explain, somewhat painfully, that yes, my government has declared a new Crusade on your religion, but it’s not me personally that feels that way. I’ve had this conversation with students, attorneys, customs agents, taxi drivers and now, comptrollers. It’s like the enormous pregnant elephant in the room.

To me, the strangest thing about it is that most of the people I’ve had “The Conversation” with are almost, timidly, embarrassed about it. Like, they intercepted a note in math class and found out that everyone else thinks they have bad BO and you’re the best friend they ask to find out if it’s really true. And then, you, you have to play it like you know nothing about what other people are saying about them and swear you’ll come over to play house this weekend even though you TOTALLY know that the whole school, the whole town, hell the WHOLE COUNTRY thinks that they really do smell like BO.

Aside from weird, it’s also awkward. I don’t much like being the representative of hatred (as in “why does your country hate us?”) because I don’t really know or understand or agree and yet, I’m still asked to explain.

So yeah, weird.

…And now something funny:
I was walking back to my hotel from the office the other day. There is a big gaggle of ojek (motorbike taxi) drivers that gather around the entrance of an office building next door, so of course I garner a lot of attention (blonde, tall, alone, you name it, I’ve got it). Anyway, they always call out to me, and this day, one of them came up with a good double entendre – “Hey baby, let me take you home!” Hmm…business AND pleasure! I had to laugh.

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