Just like learning a new language is a life long process, so is understanding and adapting to a foreign culture.
We are constantly learning new aspects of Lebanese culture and shifting our actions or attitudes in order to fit in or not offend. Sometimes, even though we’ve intellectually understood how the culture works, our first reaction to a situation is still very American – understandably so, as this is our default. Other times, we find ourselves responding as any Lebanese would. And sometimes we leave a situation or conversation and wonder, “what in the world just happened there?” as we haven’t quite figured out culturally what is going on.
The concept of public space is one of those cultural phenomena that is easy to see and yet I often struggle really understanding. A few months ago, I read a blog by mexicaninbeirut commenting on the issue of public vs. private space. She explains it really well:
I recently talked with a Lebanese friend who happens to be an anthropologist, specialized in Lebanon. She was telling me that one fascinating thing about the Lebanese is that the concept of public space doesn’t really exist. It is more of an inside/outside phenomenon, where inside (my home, my relatives’ homes, my people’s space) is to be protected, cherished, polished and cleaned (indeed, Lebanese houses are gorgeous, spotless and tastfully decorated… on the inside) and outside doesn’t really matter. Outside is not mine, so why bother taking care of it?
This explains why the public park is literally falling apart (as in, when we were there this past spring, the swing set collapsed while a dozen children were swinging and playing on it!) Why people throw trash out of their car windows. And why our balcony is the resting place for our neighbor’s brooms, used up insect repellent cartridges, hairballs, cigarette butts and dirty Q-tips. (For the record, I think the broom was an accident. :))
Even though I sort of understand the mentality of private vs. public space, it is still hard for me to imagine my upstairs neighbor cleaning his ears and then deciding the best place to throw his used Q-tip is out the window. On to my balcony.