It’s hard to think of customs and immigration as being comforting, but going through that process Sunday in Chicago, it occurred to me how nice it is not to be the stranger.
My trip to Jordan was wonderful – and so educational! – but there’s no doubt that being American in the Middle East comes with a certain sense that you’re sticking out like a sore thumb. From the language to the dress to the daily customary practices, the Middle East just feels more foreign than, say, Europe.
The good news is, virtually everyone I’ve encountered in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan is happy that Americans are visiting, and they go out of their way to welcome us and make us feel comfortable.
Realizing that, you have to ask: Do we do the same?
The reassuring feeling I had when I entered immigration at O’Hare reminded me that no matter how much I travel, I still have a lot more to learn about the world. I was happy to be in the shorter line, for US citizens, and I had a sense that I was back among my own kind.
Yikes. I don’t like that I felt that way. I’m embarrassed, honestly.
What about the many American citizens and residents who have immigrated to the US from the Middle East? How do they feel each day?
In downtown Amman, I felt obtrusive because I was wearing a skirt. I had this sense, probably wrongly, that all eyes were on me. That feeling lasted for maybe an hour. What must it be like for the Muslim woman raising her family in the Cincinnati suburbs and facing down stares at the grocery because she wears a traditional scarf to cover her hair?
My trip, sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board, was for Christian journalists. Two of us were Catholic, and the rest of the group included members of Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist and non-denominational churches.
More than once, I had a sense that I was representing the entire scope of Catholicism. It was all in the name of education and understanding, but in certain conversations, I found myself trying to offer some degree of apologetics, basic theology, personal spirituality and random points of trivia. Frankly, it was terrifying!
I definitely felt the weight of having to stand up for my faith and my Church. To be clear, no one was attacking either one! They were just curious, and a few comments were evidence to me that the reputation of the Church precedes itself, and not always for the best.
Again it hit me: This is what Muslims in America might feel like all the time. In some cases, a US Muslim might be the only Muslim his neighbors or co-workers know. He knows he’s the alien and he knows that, to many Americans, he’s also the predator.
That’s a huge burden to carry, to feel concurrent and perhaps contradictory needs to justify one’s different-ness, all the while trying to blend in and be as “normal” as possible.
A great thing about travel is that it helps change our perspectives. It also reminds us that being uncomfortable from time to time is the best way to learn and grow.
We’re all responsible for representing our faith in our actions and daily lives. One way to do that successfully might be to cut each other some slack and realize that, whatever name we use for God, we’re all trying to do the best we can.