By David Blanco, MPIA 2014

My last post was about some of the experiences I had while abroad and now I would like to discuss the impact that those experiences had on me.

In mid-December, just barely beating a snow storm heading south, my plane from Doha touched down in Houston. My trip through customs was a breeze. I didn’t get stopped, even with my declaration of “animal products.” At the luggage pick-up, I was greeted by my family with big smiles and warm hugs. My eight months abroad were done. I was home.

David Blanco in front of the A&M seal in TAMUQ’s lobby David Blanco in front of the A&M seal in TAMUQ’s lobby

Being home transformed my experiences from events to memories – ones that reflected more truth than anything else could have. The Middle East offered me more than regional experience and language practice; it offered me room to grow. I’ve come to realize that the most important takeaways of my trip are the ways that it changed my personality and my perspectives. Since being back, I’ve found myself answering the question, “How have I changed?” without it being asked. I know I’m not alone in this; countless pamphlets, books, and blogs have been written on this same idea before. However, the musings I will present were new for me, and because of my destination and the times, I may be able to offer something new.

Before I left, a friend and mentor of mine told me how travel changed him and how it could affect me. When you go abroad, into a different culture with a different religion and a different set of values, you will likely find yourself becoming a caricature of your own culture. It is because you are different, and your hosts remind you of that fact – sometimes openly and sometimes subtly. This was true for me. The more time I spent in the Middle East the more I conformed to the American stereotype. For example, my views on gun control lean more towards the need for reform, yet in the Middle East I would get caught defending the status quo. I was once confronted by an Iranian student who argued with me on the issue of gun rights. He painted the U.S. and the American people as immoral for “permitting murders” by allowing gun ownership. He didn’t even ask me my opinion on the matter before he lobbed his grenade at me to catch.

Had he done so, the conversation might have turned into a discussion, where the goal would have been an exchange of ideas. Instead, because the suggestion was an accusation of immorality and I was painted as such, I dug in my heels and defended policies with which that I actually disagreed. The lesson here is not to “be prepared to fight” if you go abroad, but be prepared to listen. I don’t believe it was the Iranian student’s intention to have an argument, but that’s what he got because of the way he approached me. Of course, at the time, these thoughts did not occur to me, but after reflecting on them I understand now that diversity of nationality is just as pervasive as diversity of thought. Now I know I will be much more mindful of separating the individual from the policy when I discuss issues. Forcing someone from a different country, culture, or religion, to choose between an abstract principle and his society, will quickly turn an exchange of ideas into an exchange of fire. It may sound obvious, but its power comes from its simplicity. The fact that it was condensed and expressed makes it a tool rather than a context. This tool, then, can be used build relationships and gain understanding about those from other cultures without feeling like your own values are being attacked. As was once said, “It is the mark of a wise mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“Aumee Sam” the Arabized version of Uncle Sam hung on my housing’s entry wall around September 11. “Aumee Sam” the Arabized version of Uncle Sam hung on my housing’s entry wall around September 11.

There was another side to the “American” label that did some direct good. Being known as an American forced me to act like the best version of what I thought an American should be. For all intents and purposes, I was an ambassador not only for my school but also for my country. When I interacted with other students and faculty from other cultures their impressions of me translated into their impressions of America. How I dressed could get people thinking, Oh so that’s how Americans really dress. How respectful I was of their culture could dispel a stereotype. I had to be what I wanted them to believe of me.

I also gained a better appreciation for what America stood for. As the son of a refugee from communism, I grew up with stories about how good I had it, but it wasn’t until I saw the differences for myself that the truth of my father’s stories hit home. One morning, I was eating breakfast with another student from Egypt. I asked him where he wanted to work after he graduated and without any hesitation he replied, “America.” When I asked why, he said because “over there, you have freedom of religion.” I felt like I was in a commercial. He explained that he was Bahia, which is a minority faith that is heavily persecuted in Egypt. Since Egypt puts your religion on your national ID card, being caught with the “wrong” religion means you’re marked, if your religion is recognized and you’re allowed to get a card at all. He divulged that because of his family’s religion, his father was unable to get an ID card. This, in turn, made him unable to register his marriage with the Egyptian state. Once my friend was born he was categorized as a bastard child because the state did not recognize the marriage. Recalling his story certainly made me a little more grateful during this past holiday season.

My trip gave me an excellent opportunity for reflection – on my beliefs, who I am, and where I am from. Given the chance, I’d do it all over again.