19 January 2017

On Relationships, Travel, and Implicit Exoticism

When I was in Iran, I made a friend. He was a traveler like me, and even though we weren't traveling together, we met each other multiple times, in different Iranian cities. Visitors to Iran more or less travel along similar routes, especially in the cities in the middle of the country. Anyway, we ended up staying in touch, and after parting ways in central Iran (he was taking a bus to head northwest, while I wanted to continue southeast into the desert), we ended up meeting again a couple of months later, in Germany. We both live in Germany, albeit in different cities. Anyway, when he visited us in Berlin, he told me some good news; he met an Iranian during his trip, and now they are dating. That was good news, of course, but I have to admit that I needed a few moments to process that. Later on, I realized that I might have been implicitly exoticizing Iran when it comes to relationships.

The thing is, I realized that if it were any other Western country, I probably would not be surprised. Have you seen the movie Before Sunrise? There was this American backpacker, visiting Vienna, and while in a train, he meets a French girl, and they eventually start a relationship. I am not surprised by that. Heck, even my first boyfriend started like this; he was visiting Berlin when we met.

I think what made me scratch my head was the fact that it happened in Iran. Perhaps I was exoticizing Iran too much. As if I was a visitor in a bubble, looking into Iran and its "natives" while protected by my bubble. As if I were in a safari looking at wild animals from the safety of my 4x4.

So I started coming up with scenarios in my head. Would I find it weird to start a relationship if I were visiting Mali? Papua New Guinea? Pakistan? I started thinking how wide the cultural differences should be before it is not surprising. And in the end, I realized that I might be implicitly imposing an "us-versus-them" mentality on things.

See, why is it easier to imagine a French-Belgian couple than a Lebanese-Israeli couple? It's because implicitly about whether one is in the same "team" or not. And Iran is very easy to be seen as the "opposing team". What this made me realize is that as much as I have tried destroying my Iranian stereotypes when I visited, there is still work to do.

Of course, I asked my friend questions. How is dating? How about culture clashes? And so forth. In any case, my friend was happy, and even though he's European (and therefore Western), it seems to be working, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters. There is no need to put peoples in hard and fast categories.

I suppose my take-home message for this thought is that I should be more open-minded, and ready for surprises. In my future trips, maybe I should interact with the locals more, instead of simply coming in for a few weeks, looking at the place I am visiting in a sterile manner, as if I were viewing things in a museum, secluded behind thick glass.

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