x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Emiratis abroad should be ready to be cultural ambassadors

When young Emiratis go overseas to university, they need to understand the cultures they are entering. The alternative can be unfortunate errors or even confrontations. Ministry of Higher Education, please take note.

A few years ago I accompanied a friend from the UAE on a visit to the United States. I paid most of the restaurant bills, but one day after a meal at a Dallas restaurant, he insisted on paying the bill.

When the waitress came to pick up the bill, she looked at the money, and then at my friend with amazement. "Sir," she said, "what remains is only $6 [Dh22]."

My friend replied: "And so what? I gave you more than you deserve."

The waitress responded with some anger: "Sir, you can keep this $6 because it seems that you need it more than I do, but if you look carefully at your bill you might realise that the amount of the tip should not be less than $15."

At that point I had to intervene to clarify the misunderstanding. My friend wasn't familiar with tipping conventions in restaurants in the United States, where customers have to pay at least 10 to 20 per cent of the total amount of the bill as an additional tip. The gratuity is an accepted charge to pay for service in a restaurants and not just an act of generosity.

It's an unusual habit for people who live in a country with a different tipping custom, but if my friend had been aware of it, we would have been spared an embarrassing situation. The same lesson can be applied to our students who are sent to study at American universities and in other western countries.

Often students leave without receiving instructions about the most basic habits and concepts of American culture. How can boys and girls who just finished secondary school, at the age of 17 or 18, avoid awkward situations such as the one experienced by my friend?

Last year I accompanied my younger brother, who was 17 at the time, to Los Angeles where he is studying at a university. I arranged the different requirements that he needed to complete, such as the registration at his university, other details related to the UAE Embassy in Washington DC and accommodation.

Part of the same responsibility was to guide him around and show him how to deal with the general public from different nationalities and cultures that are present in Los Angeles. Of course, he was more interested in his portable PlayStation game and probably did not pay me much attention.

But he was lucky to have someone from his family accompanying him and teaching him about a community that was totally new and strange to him. This was preparing him to cope with a new culture. But you might wonder how many students from the UAE who are also 17 or 18 are lucky enough to be accompanied by members of their families to help them adjust to a new culture that is completely different from their own.

Definitely this experience can cause more than a few to feel homesick. Last year there was a bad experience when one student disappeared in Los Angeles for a period of time, which deeply worried his family as you might imagine.

Students who receive government scholarships to study abroad are our ambassadors who represent the UAE, and they need to know a lot about the countries where they are going to study. Sometimes this is as simple as the habits of the people but it also involves respect for those habits so students do not get in difficult situations.

Students have to be mentally prepared before their departures. Otherwise, there is a chance that they will return home after a short period of time because they cannot adapt to the new culture. In that situation, the Government is the loser because it paid to send the student abroad, and so is the student who wasted his or her time and failed to complete a degree.

There is a message for the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research: students on scholarships need a comprehensive and extensive course about the culture of the country that they will visit. The typical one-day information session is inadequate.


Dr Salem Humaid is an Emirati writer