Seeing the World Through Red, White, and Blue Glasses

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Still in Seoul, where monsoon season, which began on June 24, is predicted to end on Sunday, making this the longest rainy season on record. Unfortunately, the end of the rains doesn’t seem to promise the end of the humidity.

Seeing the world through red, white, and blue glasses

We used to have a favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Raleigh. We ate there so much the owner knew us; we barely even needed to look at the menu. But we never got used to the rhythm of the meal—food would come at random intervals. We, being westerners, and having always been westerners, thought it was weird. We saw the whole event of a restaurant meal through our customary lens of each diner ordering an individual appetizer/entree. It wasn’t until years later (and many meals in various Asian countries) that we realized the owner had a different understanding of the whole concept of eating in a restaurant. It was a different paradigm entirely.

Sometimes our American worldview really trips us up. Lee and I went to Luxor in late 2017, at a moment when Egypt’s tourism was still suffering badly after a series of violent incidents. We stayed in a small, independent hotel, several blocks away from the Corniche, where most tourists stay. Lee knew the owner from a previous trip, so we knew our tours would be top-notch, but it was the first time we’d ever been the ONLY guests in a hotel.

The manager, a very chatty young man named Ahmed, stayed on the property overnight; with tourism so battered, he was clearly starved for company. He went with us to lunch, and to pick up a few items from a pharmacy. When we went insisted on going alone for a stroll, he was quite concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back (we were fine). 

After darkness fell, he took us up to the roof of the building, to look out over the city (while we were there, he told us a joke that has since become one of Lee’s favorites: Marriage is like a portable toilet. Everyone’s dying to get in, but once they’re in, they can’t wait to get out.) He pointed out an engagement party getting started down on the street; chairs had been set up for the men, while the women were beginning to dance in a separate area, away from the men. I believe the bride-to-be was wearing a sequined miniskirt, but it was difficult to see from the roof.

We weren’t sure where in the building Ahmed’s room was, but after our trek up to the roof, he said good night, and went off to bed.

We retired as well, worn out from the heat and the dust, and anticipating the next day’s adventure to the Valley of the Kings. Around ten, as I was washing my face, noise erupted on the street, just below our second-floor room.

It was a LOT of noise. There was screaming and shouting, glass shattering, and crashing and banging noises. I moved toward the window, to peek out between the heavy drapes, but Lee told me to get down, in case of stray bullets. He sounded quite alarmed, which doesn’t happen very often, so of course my anxiety spiked as well. Stray bullets?? I crouched down and scurried to the bed.

He turned off the air conditioner—I assumed so that he could hear better—but then he said something about tear gas, at which point I grabbed my phone and started texting people, because it seemed to me that if we were going to die in a riot, we should probably let our children know.

It went on for half an hour or so. We lay still in the dark, getting warm in the stuffy room, listening for sirens. They never came, which was perplexing, but eventually the noise tapered off, and we decided it was safe to turn the AC back on and go to sleep. Lee was out like a light, as always, but I found it difficult to give up our vigil. The night stayed quiet, and I finally drifted off and slept until I was awakened by the muezzin’s call for early morning prayers.

We hadn’t died in the riot.

We rushed down to breakfast, bursting with questions and peering around Ahmed to see how much damage had been done. He laughed, shrugging off our shock.

The ‘riot’ that had frightened us so much was the engagement party breaking up. Someone had started an argument, and things had gotten loud. Ahmed seemed unperturbed. We were traumatized.

Sometimes I don’t even realize that I’m looking at a situation through a lens that is unique to my fifty-three years on the planet. I get frustrated or offended or impatient, but it turns out I just don’t understand. I realize that’s a cliche, but occasionally it’s made real, when my inherent cultural biases are shattered by something like an exuberant engagement party. I wonder—daily—what else I’m misinterpreting?

Take care,


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