Culture Contrast Ambush!

Last night, I got to karate a bit early, so I sat in the car listening to the radio for a few minutes. A car pulled in to one of the spaces in front of me, and I watched as the people got out. The woman who got out of the driver’s seat was tall and thin, wearing a short, slinky, kind of tango-looking skirt; a spaghetti strap top made of a couple layers of dark, semi-sheer fabric, with a flower print, over one of those bras with the “clear” plastic straps that don’t fool anyone; and purple flower-patterned platform-heeled ankle-tie sandals. I thought she was going into the restaurant next door. Certainly, she looked like she was dressed for some sort of date.

But no, then her husband and three kids, all normally dressed in jeans and t-shirts, walk into the karate school to find out about classes. Into the karate school… full of Muslim mothers who all wear the hijab, waiting for their children to finish class. (The instructor is from Egypt, you see, and that area of town has a lot of immigrant families.)

I winced. I wondered what they would think. I went in and sat down with them to take off my shoes and get ready for class; none of them said anything, of course.

The interesting thing I’ve been thinking about today is why exactly I winced. It wasn’t really because I thought all the mothers would be shocked, I’ve decided. It’s because I felt bad for the woman, for entering a situation of culture shock where she wasn’t expecting one. The first time I went to the school, I was wearing yoga pants and a modest tank top, and I found myself wondering if bare arms were possibly unseemly. I can only imagine how a woman who looked like she was dressed for work at a Japanese hostess bar would have felt.

-posted by Dana


3 Responses to Culture Contrast Ambush!

  1. One of the refreshing things about living in the U.S. is that women can dress however they chose.

  2. Matthew Sayre says:

    It’s not really true that women can dress however they choose, though. Whether or not you agree with it, there are expected societal norms for dress (and conduct, too, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). You don’t go to church in your pajamas. You don’t go shopping in your underwear. You don’t go to work (depending on your job) in a t-shirt and jeans.

    If you violate these societal norms you may be looked at strangely, you may be asked to leave, and unless you are doing it on purpose, you will probably be very uncomfortable. I think what Dana was trying to point out was that the visiting woman was wearing dress she thought would be appropriate, but found herself potentially in a different social setting than was she expected. Regardless of how she felt about Islam and its clothing restrictions for women, she may have felt that she was glaringly standing out and possibly being offensive.

  3. Dana says:

    Yeah, Matthew gets closer to what I meant. Indeed, it is great that women in the US can dress however they want, from choosing to wear the hijab to wearing skimpy skirts with platform heels. But the even better thing is that in the US, we can also find ourselves in a far different cultural environment than we had anticipated, and it can make us think about the choices we make, and why we make them, without ever having to travel very far. The Muslim mothers at the karate school see other American women dressing in many different ways every day; it was likely this other woman’s first time to be surrounded by a majority of women who choose to wear the hijab. So I winced in sympathy for whatever discomfort she might have felt in this unexpected situation, but I was hoping it would leave her feeling like her day had been enriched somehow, if that makes sense.

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