Waiting for Snow in America

Travel Blog  •  Terry Ward  •  09.12.06 | 4:50 PM ET

I know how it feels to be a 6-foot-tall blonde in Tokyo—or, from my first travels to the Middle East, to realize that showing a little kneecap can be tres risquÃ(c)—but I always find it more interesting to read about the culture shock foreigners experience here in America. For Somalian immigrants taking a recent crash course on American culture at a Kenyan refugee camp, one thing awaiting them in their new home proved particularly baffling: snow.

Writes Edmund Sanders in All About America in 3 Days in today’s Los Angeles Times:

Staring at pictures of snow-covered roofs and hearing stories about waking up to find a frontyard covered in white, the Somalis (who’d rarely felt temperatures below 60 degrees) peppered the instructor with questions.

“How do I save my family from this ... snow?” asked Hassan Mohammed Abrone, 41, a father of two who was already trying to embrace the American lifestyle by wearing a Statue of Liberty baseball cap and a pair of secondhand Nike Airs.

After hearing a description of coats, scarves, gloves and long underwear, another student, Lelya Yussuf, 23, asked: “How can we walk while wearing all that? Isn’t it too heavy?” In an effort to explain snow to people who have never seen it, the instructor asked students to imagine how it would feel to live inside a refrigerator. But the analogy fell flat for some, because they’d never heard of such an appliance.

Administered by the International Organization for Immigration, the U.S.-mandated culture class, writes Sanders, covers everything from mini-malls and microwaves to same sex marriage. One of the greatest hardships for instructors comes in dispelling the inflated ideas that Somalis have about life in America.

Continues Sanders:

Refugees often believe that life in the U.S. will be easy, that they will live in big homes with cars and television sets. Such descriptions come from relatives in America who sometimes exaggerate their prosperity, or from the U.S.-made TV movies occasionally shown inside refugee camps.

“I know all about America,” said Amal Nuradia, 27. “I’ve seen the Hallmark Channel.” She is among the thousands of Somalian refugees at Kakuma, most of whom fled their country more than a decade ago. More than 12,000 have resettled in the U.S. in recent years.

“What do you know about America?” Kassim asked at the beginning of a recent orientation class. Students yelled out their answers: It’s a superpower. People are always in a hurry. Neighbors don’t talk to each other. Dogs are treated like people. Gay people get married. All children go to school.

Perhaps the most poignant parts of the article are the most simplistic observations:

“Why must I hide behind the curtain in the shower?” one student asked.

“It’s to prevent the water from splashing,” Kassim explained.

It’s a fascinating read that gives a look at the Western way of life in general through very different eyes.

Terry Ward

Terry Ward is a Florida-based writer and a long-time contributor to World Hum.

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