I touched a boy in class one day.
This was months ago, not too long after I’d arrived here in Oman. He was sitting in a row of boys at desks, all facing another row, and as I leaned over to grab one of the distant student’s papers, I must have brushed up against him.
‘You touched me!’ came indignantly as I leaned back again.
I casually dismissed it, thinking it was no big deal. In fact, this very same movement is one I’d done a hundred times in the 8 weeks I’d been here. There is no other way to reach the boys on the other side of the desks. And not once had anyone protested.
Until that day.
After class he stayed behind, telling me that in Islamic culture women cannot touch men. Ok, I said, I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean to. I was confused as to why this was suddenly a big deal, when I hadn’t even noticed I’d done it.
If I made a mistake I’ll own up to it, particularly when I know I am experiencing culture shock in Oman, where everything is so unfamiliar to me and I understand so little. It’s inevitable that I will do things wrong from time to time and unintentionally offend someone.
But why now? What was different about this time? Was it that I got closer than usual? Was it not simply my arm that brushed up against him, but god forbid, my boob? Or had it happened before and bothered him and he said nothing, but on that day he was simply in a bad mood, and it was the last straw?
I pointed out to him that in a small classroom with 25 students, we’re in close quarters, and it’s difficult to not brush up against people. It’s bound to happen again. He repeated the same thing. Women in Oman cannot touch men. Perhaps I didn’t know, no one had told me, so he was telling me now, so that I would know.
I mentioned that if it is such a problem, perhaps he should just pull a lone desk up to the front, and sit by himself, where I could not possibly brush up against him. He simply repeated himself. Women cannot touch men.
I gave up trying to explain or defend myself, apologized again, and went to my office.
The thing is, men and women in Oman do touch. I’ve seen it myself in Nizwa goat souq, where it’s so crowded that of course they’re going to brush up against each other. I have had other male students tap my shoulder or even grab my hand when they wanted my attention.
I asked a foreign colleague who’s been here a long time about it, and she wasn’t surprised that he’d decided to say something. As with anyone, different students have different tolerance levels for such things, and it’s possible that this one is just more pious than the rest. Perhaps this boy was just tired of my inappropriate behaviour!
She also said that Omanis find necks really sexy.
Now I know necks can be sexy, for sure, but I hadn’t thought of them as especially sexier than some other body parts.
Then she said an even more astounding thing, that sometimes noises we make can be construed as sex noises. WHAT?
Yes, so when I say in class ‘The boy went ___ the store.’ And I want them to fill in the blank so I make that sound you make when you want someone to fill in the blanks, and they think it’s a sex noise. WHAT? How much are they constantly thinking about sex that that noise is sexy? (Well, ok, they’re 18-19 year olds….so probably a lot!)
And if I am in class and I get too hot, I cannot take off my cardigan, even if whatever top I am wearing underneath completely covers my chest, back and arms all the way down to my wrists. The students (particularly the females) will freak out and tell me it is haram (forbidden). (Disclaimer: I have never tried to take off my cardigan in class, but I have been told by at least three other foreign female teachers that I definitely should not do this.)
What’s that about? Is it the simple act of removing one item of clothing that is sexy or tempting? Are they worried that I will forget that I am in a classroom and not in my own home and I might suddenly start taking it all off? I assure you, there’s no way that I will ever forget that I am standing in front of a class!
While for me these are definitely all elements of culture shock in Oman, I guess it’s all normal for my students. They grew up living in a society where every little thing from an exposed neck to sounds made in English class, or the removal of an extra layer of clothing to an accidental brush up against someone can be sexy and therefore offensive. So none of these things happen, ever. I can’t imagine.
In my next class I inadvertently made a different kind of noise, which I would never have thought anything of previously but this time I couldn’t help wondering if they were all thinking it was a sex noise. And when I leaned over next to a male student to help him with his writing, was he thinking that I was too close, that this was inappropriate?
I’ve made a habit of carrying a pen around with me, so that if I needed to get a student’s attention I could tap their shoulder with that instead of directly with my own hand. I arrange the desks differently, so I don’t have to lean in between the boys to reach them. And I remove my cardigan before I go to class and just take it with me, because putting it on is not a problem.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about all this. I mean, it’s fascinating to learn about, but to live it is a different thing. Having to change my clothes just to take out the garbage or get something out of the car in front of my own house is annoying, and being careful about every little thing I wear, do or say and even the noises I make can get tiring.
We all make cultural faux pas when we arrive in a new place, until we learn what the norms are and even well beyond that sometimes. I’m more than nine months in and still adjusting to what’s expected of women in Oman, still learning what’s appropriate for me and what’s not. I know this is just part of being new in this part of the world, but I feel like it might take more time than I will spend here to figure it all out.
What kind of culture shock have you experienced? And what cultural mis-steps have you made because of it? Tell me in the comments below! And if you enjoyed this post, please pin it!