Perspectives

Perspectives

I have a bad habit of inadvertently placing myself into awkward situations. During an extremely wintry day in my college town, I had tried to unlock my bike from the railing at a donut shop I had stopped at for breakfast. For some reason, my lock key didn’t work, so I had to disassemble the bike to pull it off the railing. To any observer, it would’ve looked as if I was stealing a bike. Thankfully, no one called the cops to report a bike theft.

 

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I had a minor security run-in at the Israeli Embassy. And again it involved my bike. The International Affairs group for TWC was visiting the embassy. I live 2.5 miles from the embassy; riding there seemed like a no-brainer. Formally dressed, I tucked my right pant-leg into my sock so the bike chain wouldn’t fray or dirty my pants (it’s unstylish, but effective), hopped on my bike, and off I went. Twenty minutes later I spotted our group and went to meet them.

Before I could even pull my pant-leg out of my socks, two Israeli security guards converged on me. They had a stern countenance, and I quickly realized there was a problem. The problem: my bike. The two guards told me I couldn’t bring the bike near the embassy and demanded that I take it elsewhere, which I was planning to do beforehand. I just wanted to take a break to pull my pant-leg out of my sock and make sure I was at the right place.

As I explained to one of them that I wasn’t going to leave the bike by the embassy and that I just wanted to pull pant-leg from my socks, the other guard inquired about an item on my seat post—so I explained to him that it was just my bike light. It was the first time my bike or bike light have placed me into a security situation. Once I pulled my pant out of my sock, I walked my bike about a block away from the Israeli embassy, locked it up, and walked back to wait in line for additional security checks. I was a little bit annoyed since I was planning on doing this anyways without being hassled. One TWC peer joked that the guards were suspicious because I was smiling so much.

In retrospect, I should’ve just immediately done whatever they asked.  One of the TWC advisors had warned us about the tight security at the embassy. Being told something is different from experiencing it. I expected a thorough background check and maybe a shake-down. Given past attacks on Israelis outsides of Israel, most notoriously the 1972 Olympics attacks in Munich, the security level was understandable. Surprisingly, security was less stringent once I actually made it into the embassy. And I had the opportunity to hear a different side of current and past Middle East issues—albeit, a side that I completely disagree with—from one of the embassy’s representatives.

A few weeks prior to the embassy visit, I had another lesson in understanding perspectives. My organization hosted delegation of students and professors from Pakistani and American universities. During our meals, I observed that the Pakistani students either didn’t sit at the same table with their professors or didn’t speak much when sitting next to them. I asked one of the students why this was the case, and she explained to me that Pakistani students and professors interacted differently than U.S. students and professors. It was interesting to watch this dynamic play out during the two-day conference. There were times when a Pakistani professor would quietly reprimand a student for talking out of turn.

At first I thought this hierarchical relationship was limited to just students and professors. But it even occurred amongst the different levels of professors. At another meal (we weren’t eating during the entire conference) I sat with a group of Pakistani professors. As we all conversed, the most senior of the professors (he was actually one of the most prominent people at the conference, I found out later) commented on Americans’ consumption of ice and cold drinks. He made some erroneous statements, yet all of the professors just listened and nodded, even supporting his comments. When someone tries to present incorrect opinion as fact, my tendency is to challenge them immediately. However, aware of the dynamics at the table and that I was representing my organization I kept quiet until the senior professor left the table. Then I made a veiled remark about how he was wrong. The entire table laughed in agreement.

Before we all departed the table, I told them about the museums in D.C. One of the professors specialized in cultural anthropology, so I listed all the cultural museums I could remember. The senior professor asked about science museums, at which I told them about the Air and Space Museum. He replied that it would be the most beneficial museum to attend. Again, they all nodded in agreement.

 

I didn’t write about these experiences to criticize Israelis or Pakistanis. I just appreciate the opportunity to encounter such diverse contexts within the same city. Meeting people from different backgrounds is a good learning opportunity. It isn’t necessarily always pleasant, as I experienced at the Israeli embassy, but it is nice to be shaken out of your comfort zone a little. As I told someone, it’s not every day that you get to visit the Israeli embassy or meet a Pakistani professor who has founded several universities in the developing world.

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