September 20, 2006

Worlds Apart

A TV program Milady and I have started to watch regularly now is Worlds Apart, a National Geographic Channel series that, ironically, doesn't play on Singapore's NG Channel but another called AXN. The series takes American families and places them in various countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I find the show interesting for several reasons. One, of course, is because the show gives a brief but interesting look at different cultures around the world. (I grew up reading NG and loved their stories about foreign cultures; it's one of the reasons why I became externally focused on life outside the U.S. instead of being so withdrawn and isolationist, like many Americans.)

Second, I find it very interesting to see how the Americans react, trying to adapt to the various cultures and (frequently) failing miserably. It's amazing to see how quickly these people undergo culture shock; for some, the breaking point is only a few days into the visit (the families stay with a host village for ten days at the most). This post is about some of my observations with regard to these reactions, especially as they relate to gender and family roles (father, mother, child).

Of the five episodes or so that I've seen so far, most of the men seem to enjoy their experiences abroad. I think this is for two reasons. One: The cultures these American men find themselves in are much more patriarchal than American culture. (You can really see how feminism has affected (afflicted?) American culture with some of the families being very egalitarian if not matriarchal. One wife warned her husband not to think that he could continue to enjoy his new-found independence when he returned to the U.S. She planned to rule the roost once more as soon as they got back home.) Two: In many of these societies, the men are required to do a fair amount of physical labor, and I think the American guys are enjoying the work, using their bodies. Many developed economies now rely heavily upon work that is sedentary in nature. I remember the first job I had that required me to sit at a desk for my entire shift: my body hated it. I had worked for a number of years prior doing jobs that required me to stand, walk around, or do heavy physical labor (e.g., delivering furniture). Now, as a lecturer, I have a job that requires both sitting (often preparing for classes on a computer) and standing, walking around a classroom during class. I think these guys are doing heavy work once more and saying, "Wow, this is fun again." (Of course, whether they would say that after years of labor would be another question.) The only guy who didn't seem to enjoy his experience was a black man from St. Louis on last night's episode. I think there were a number of things he didn't appreciate about Mongolian culture at first, although he seemed more comfortable toward the end of his stay.

Many of the women don't do as well away from home as their husbands. That's not to say that all of them have done poorly. So far that I've seen, two women seemed to have positive experiences: the wife of the St. Louis family mentioned above and another woman (from Massachusetts?) who went to Panama and looked like she absolutely loved her experience (her sister, who came to visit for the second half of the stay, was the complete opposite). However, some of the women have broken down and suffered from severe culture shock. This doesn't surprise me as it jives with my own experiences observing American and Canadian expatriate women here in Asia. Many (but certainly not all) of the expatriate women I've known haven't done well overseas, and most have gone back home within a year or so. (Many, but certainly not all, expatriate men seem to last longer overseas, frequently staying for a number of years if not getting married to a local woman, like me, and becoming a PR.) I think many of the wives (and two girlfriends) on the show are shocked not only by the patriarchal society they've found themselves in, with their designated gender roles, but that they have significant work loads of their own to do, whether it's butchering the animals that their husbands have just slaughtered, cooking the food over a fire (no doubt a first for many of these women), or wielding a machete to cut down small trees to build their own huts. For these women, the shock leads to a very sudden nervous breakdown although, to their credit, the women often recover quickly and cope well with the remainder of their stay.

The kids have been a mixed bag. According to the Worlds Apart website, they will accept families that have children between the ages of 6 through 18. Perhaps not surprisingly, the children who have adapted the best are the younger ones, the pre-teens. They're still in child learning mode and take the new cultures in stride. Chop down that tree with this machete? No problem. Climb up this tree to get some betel nuts? The boy struggles for a while, learning how to climb, but perseveres and makes it all the way to the top. The teenagers (mostly girls) think more like adults. They're not terribly interested in learning or adapting, but trying to make the time pass as quickly as possible so they can return home to their friends. I'm more optimistic for the younger kids, that they will have learned deeply-ingrained life lessons from the trip: a respect for other cultures and countries, less arrogance in a belief of American and/or Western superiority, an understanding that people around the world have different values and ways of living. The teenagers I have less hope for.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is how the Americans react to native food. It's not just that the Americans are exposed to foods that they would almost certainly never eat back home (e.g., armadillo), but that the native peoples slaughter and butcher their own foods, sometimes using body parts in very practical ways (the Mongolians packed a sheep's stomach with a home-made cheese that, as a container, would keep the cheese fresh throughout the upcoming winter). Of course, the slaughtering and butchering has come as a shock to many of the families. (It wouldn't surprise me if many Americans - and kids in particular - have no idea where the meat they eat comes from.) One woman (the woman who came to visit her older sister's family in Panama), who ran a vegetarian restaurant back home, reacted strongly when her brother-in-law speared a wild pig that had been caught for a celebratory feast. Still, there have been some amusing moments. In Mongolia, a young black boy looked askance at the idea of eating a sheep's eyeball, but gladly ate the eyelid. "Tastes like chicken."

I've thought about how Milady and I would fare if we were on a show like Worlds Apart. I think, for the most part, that both of us would do decently in that type of situation. Granted, life in Korea and Singapore is much, much more modern and sophisticated than the places where these families are sent. Most of the living conditions on the show are very primitive. And I think food would be an issue for both of us to a degree. As Muslims, we would find some of the foods offered to be haram, not only due to the issue of pork, but also because, for every animal I've seen slaughtered on this show, the killing has been done in a non-halal manner. On the other hand, Milady is more gastronomically adventurous than I am. :) She likes her "spicy beef lungs," and I say "yuck." ("Tastes like chicken," I'm sure.) I walk by the big container of decapitated fish heads (used for "fish maw soup") at the grocery store, and I say "yuck." I see the back half of a fish (that's been chopped in two) sitting in a small bucket of water at my mother-in-law's place, and I say "yuck." But I wouldn't be surprised if Milady could slaughter (in a halal manner), prepare and eat most halal food that would be offered to her in another country without batting an eye because I think she's more down-to-earth than many of the women I see on Worlds Apart, and I love her for that.

BTW, according to the website, Milady and I wouldn't qualify for the show because we don't have any kids yet (insha'allah). However, that didn't stop me from suggesting to two of my sisters that they try to be on the show. Now that would be a hoot. ;)

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