For years before the eighth grade, my dad had told me stories about growing up in Lebanon. Some were funny, like the story where my dad and his brothers pooped on their neighbor’s doorstep after she unjustly accused them of stealing her chickens. Some were sad, like the story where my dad was injured in a bombing that killed one of his friends. What a strange country Lebanon seemed to me. I led a privileged life in California far, far away from wars and the culture of third world countries. Then came the eighth grade and all that changed.
My parents decided I should spend a year abroad in Lebanon so that I could meet my relatives and appreciate the culture. I had traveled to Europe and Canada with my family. This was the first time they would board the plane back to California without me. The first month it was hard not to cry; I felt abandoned in a hostile land with different customs and a different language. I spoke no Arabic and was staying with my taxi-driver uncle and my Lebanese cousins, all of whom spoke little or no English, in a working-class neighborhood in an industrialized section of Beirut.
When I finally dried my tears so as to get a clearer look at the strange world around me, I found poverty and pollution as well as hospitality and diversity. I went to a Lebanese middle school where I made friends and studied Arabic. In my spare time I roamed the streets of Beirut with my 11-year-old cousin. We communicated with gestures and occasional help from bilingual passers-by. She showed me beggars whose homes were destroyed in the war and riverbeds that had run dry leaving only a white layer of froth behind. In the mornings when I looked down on Beirut from my hillside school I saw a blanket of smog issuing from unregulated urban sources, as well as burning of developed nations’ refuse, such as tires.
I was disturbed by the sight of such pollution. No one seemed to realize the environment was in danger because the Lebanese society did not educate and focus on these issues. I, in turn, did not grasp local customs and traditions. I dismissed my teta’s (grandma’s) teachings on religion and predictions, such as big ears foretelling long life, as superstitious.
As time wore on, I began to recognize the importance of keeping an open mind. I taught myself to take culture into consideration when determining the rationale behind others’ actions and ideas. I like to think that my year in Lebanon matured me intellectually, so that when I flew back to America alone I came with not only priceless memories and a foundation in the Arabic language and middle-eastern culture, but also an international mindset.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.