As I mentioned in Part I Truth, Lies, and Laundry, during the summer I was 19, I became a camp counselor
in a hiking camp for adolescents, in the French Alps near the Italian border. I was primarily hired to serve as an English-French-English interpreter for a group of 10 Kuwaiti boys ages 16-18, among a group of campers which also included 10 French girls, 10 French boys, and 3 French boys who had survived the streets of Paris as runaways.
The 10 Kuwaitis of course had their own individual personalities, beyond their shared nationality. They were of varying sizes, shapes, and colours, had varying levels of English language skills, varying degrees of comfort and shyness; some were more athletic than others, and some more happy about spending the summer hiking while some were less so. One was an excellent portraitist, which gave him an extra mode of communication and socialization with others.
Cedars of Lebanon
Amongst them was a Lebanese teen whose family had moved to Kuwait a few years earlier. He emphasized his sameness with the group, but in fact he was different. A big part of his difference was his language ability which was excellent in English and surprisingly good in French. In a way this was unsurprising as Lebanon had been a French Mandate from 1920 to 1943 with the French leaving formally in 1946, and French remains a favoured language. Yet his French was surprisingly good, given that he had now been studying in Kuwait for a few years. He was also more at ease with himself generally, and particularly with me and the other French teens of both genders. In fact, he generally seemed more at ease in a European environment, and different social circumstances, perhaps because he was better traveled than the others, perhaps because he had already experienced a major adjustment by moving from Lebanon to Kuwait, or maybe that was just his personality.
Because of all this, he was better able to form personal relationships than many of the others, and more a hit with the girls--as where there are teens, there are hormones, and budding romance, or at least flirtation. Come to think of it, all were very well-behaved overall. Must have been all that good Roman Catholic upbringing (the French teens were from a conservative Catholic part of France), and good Muslim upbringing-- or maybe they were just worn out from the hiking.
Still, groupings would form based on athletic abilities, chat groups (real ones not virtual ones), shared interests, where one found oneself in the hiking group (I was one of the first up and the last down because of a fear of heights, go figure), or at lunch, or the after lunch smoking groups (no wonder they were winded!). One day we were all sitting on an Alpine meadow having lunch, or avoiding lunch, (rillettes, bleh).
The Lebanese fellow and one of the French girls were deep in conversation and laughing, enjoying each other’s company, even in the presence of a smaller group and the larger group just beyond their orbit. He reached for a sandwich and ate a couple of bites. Then suddenly, it was as if an alarm had sounded. Some of the Kuwaitis told him he was eating pork. He didn’t believe them, as he sincerely thought he wasn’t, but eventually was persuaded that it was ham, perhaps because some of the French teens confirmed it, not fully understanding what the big deal was. When he did realize his error, he was mortified, truly aghast, as white as a ghost, and totally in shock.
What happened next took the rest of us very much by surprise, perhaps because until then religion, Catholicism or Islam, had not been a focus or issue. Presumably prayers were performed together during times around group activities, and privately. Food was a combination of what they brought (mainly fruits and biscuits) and what was provided (salads, cheeses, as well as meats). A few bites of ham sandwich, unintentionally eaten, innocently mistaken for something halal, distractedly consumed in the course of a "flirt", became the catalyst for a quite open display of religious repair. The Lebanese fellow began a fast, the others were supportive of this, and saw it as the only solution to repair the offense, along with prayer.
He and the others began to pray more publicly and to withdraw more into their own group rather than mingling as much. This seemed to me to be in part at the instigation of the Kuwaiti counselor who seemed to resent (politely) both my involvement, and their involvement with the other teens. In part, it was also a natural back pedaling that is a common phenomenon in the course of cultural immersion--after an initial effort, people often "rebel" and reassert their difference.
As part of this process, the next afternoon at lunch the Kuwaitis suddenly appeared as a group, all in traditional clothing--12 brilliantly white thobes, ghutras, with black and gold agals, against the green of the meadow, the brownish-purple of the peaks on the horizon, the blue sky, and a strong sun. It remains one of the most impressive visual images I have ever experienced. It was both a stunning display of culture, and solidarity, and a silencing. The rest of us were at best bewildered, and at worst dumbstruck. The group ate apart from the rest of us that day, as apart as their traditional clothing was distinct from their own usual jeans and t-shirts.
Although everything seemed to go back to normal afterwards, there was never the same sense of ease and intermingling as there had been, and the Lebanese fellow just faded back into the group. We all had other adventures together, and more clear groupings of 4 or 5 formed. These groups tended to be more homogenous in terms of nationality, socio-economic status, origin, and gender, although there were mixed groups and reasonable fluidity among groups.
Leave-taking after this month in the Alps was particularly difficult for me, as there could be little illusion of ongoing future real life relationships for me with any of the teens. 2 of the 3 street survivors did visit me though, at the home of the proper French family with whom I was staying. Was the sight of a stocky muscular African-French teen, and a miniature Jean Gabin (minus the guinea pig, who was roaming free on a far off Alp) a contributing factor to the family’s seeming haste to see me off? No, surely not.
What is your impression of the food faux pas described, and the reaction to it?
Have you ever had cultural misunderstandings specifically around food?
Food is a big part of culture, and religion, but how much attention is paid to it in cross-cultural learning?
Have you had a similar "rebellion" against a cultural immersion experience? Or, as an expat, even after years?
How much do travel and living abroad contribute to greater openness and ease with others?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?