A Story About Cross-Cultural Interactions
April 29, 2000
Brian and I often speak of our trips with Semester at Sea, a semester abroad program where students sail aboard a ship to 10 different ports around the world. For both of us, this semester provided an introduction to other cultures and a brief experience of life in another country. The books on the SAS suggested reading list are all about the histories, cultures, and societies of other countries, but there is also required reading about cross-cultural awareness.
When we travel to different countries and write about them for the Odyssey website, we often overlook the fact that we are foreigners in each country, and, each time we visit a new country, must relearn different methods of behaving. For example, we must learn how to speak to others politely, how to eat, how to dress, how to use the toilet and how, in general, the society functions. Luckily, we trekkers all come from diverse backgrounds, so we're all sensitive about how to react, at least to each other... but the bottom line is we are Americans. We have American values and ways of behaving that are ingrained in us, just because we're from the United States.
We had many tasks to do once we arrived in Tehran, Iran's capital. First of all, we needed to get visas to India, because it isn't a country where you can just show up at the door! Secondly, we needed to buy airline tickets to our next stops: Mumbai and New Delhi. Thirdly, we needed to extend our Iranian visas because we'd be overstaying our original 30-day tourist visa to this country.
Easier said than done.
For the last week, we - our team, plus our guides Hadi, Louie, Amir Reza and Sayed Ali - have been challenged, sometimes beyond our limitations, to do business together.
- In the very beginning of our trip, one of our contacts promised that he could take care of all our Indian visas, as well as our Iranian visas. Hadi believed him, so we did too, because we know that Iranians are sensitive to relationships. We thought this contact would take care of all that for us. We were wrong!!
When we arrived at the Indian embassy, they wouldn't accept our visa applications without a letter confirming our status as American citizens. However, the United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980, and there is no US embassy here. The old one is still called the "den of spies" and has lots of anti-American murals on it. So, we had to go to the Swiss embassy, where the Foreign Interests section takes care of some limited items for Americans. They were helpful and wrote a letter confirming our status as citizens, which we took back to the Indian embassy.
- When we went to buy our airline tickets - two to Mumbai (Jasmine and Abeja), two to New Delhi (Kavitha and Monica) and one back to the United States (Brian) - the money that was transferred from our stateside office to an Iranian account was late! This is due to restrictions that both countries place on each other, and is a problem for us because, for example, our credit cards won't work either, since they were issued in the United States. We eventually had to change lots of U.S. dollars into rials to buy the tickets, but not without headaches, stress and lots of raised voices. As Americans, we tend to want to get things done "on time and under budget," so you can imagine our frustration being in a culture that doesn't value those as much. As I said, Persians value peace and quiet more than the outspokenness and aggressiveness Americans value.
- The Swiss embassy warned us to make sure our Iranian visas were updated and valid, since we would be departing the country past our allotted time. Doing this, however, entailed getting new photos taken, visiting the Foreign Affairs office and dealing with the whole process. Hadi insisted on taking on this task himself because relations between Iran and the U.S. at the moment aren't exactly wonderful. He didn't want us walking around speaking English too loudly because it might draw negative attention. Although he finally did get extensions for us, his group-mindedness and roundabout actions directly challenged our notions of individualism and straightforwardness. "Don't worry about it; it's all taken care of," he'd say, all the time- even at the most stressful moments.
Now, keep in mind that it's the holiday season this whole time. Both No Ruz and Imam Hossein day happened while we were here in Iran. Consequently, offices like the airline ticket office, banks and the visa extension office close early. There's also a huge amount of traffic in Tehran. Just a few more things we had to deal with.
While most things eventually worked out fine, we will always remember our experience of doing business in Iran for its stress factor. We had many differences of opinion with Iranians and different understandings of situations. We trekkers are continuing to learn the lessons that I first learned at Semester at Sea: be sensitive to the culture that you're in, and don't assume that its values are the same as yours.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
A Tour Through the History of Emam Khomeini
Kavitha - The Tragic Tale of Mahraz
Brian - Taught to Fear, Told What to Think: Revelations in Iran
Abeja - Songs To Iran
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