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Published:December 4th, 2006 12:00 EST

Teens in Lebanon, U.S. Strive for Cross-Cultural Understanding

By SOP newswire

Washington -- When secondary school students in Beirut, Lebanon, and Lansing, Michigan, spoke recently via videoconference, they discovered that their similarities outnumber their differences.

The videoconference brought together students and their teachers for a wide-ranging conversation about war-related tensions in Lebanon, U.S. politics, Arab and Western cultural traditions, academic pressures, career ambitions, family and pop culture.  Sponsored by the nonprofit EmpowerPeace, the November 30 videoconference was the latest in a series of events the organization has arranged to promote cultural understanding among youth worldwide.

Commenting on recent warfare in Lebanon, which pitted Israeli soldiers against Hezbollah fighters, a Lebanese student made it clear that he and his peers do not support violence to achieve political ends.  “We believe war is never the answer," he said.  “Here there have been lots of deaths and mutilations [because of war]."  As a result, “we have trouble concentrating on our studies," he added.  (See Lebanon Assistance.)

Lebanese students wanted to know if family problems, as depicted on U.S. television shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil, accurately portrayed the dynamics of a typical American family.  “No," said a Michigan student.  “The role of a family in our society is [that of] a support system, a guidance system, teaching morals and values" to children, she observed. 

A Lebanese student asked her Michigan peers to offer their perspectives on U.S. technological innovations.  “I think the worst one would have to be an iPod [MP3 player]," replied a Michigan girl.  “People listen to it, tune out from their surroundings, don’t connect with their communities." 

As the subject turned to cultural traditions, a Michigan student asked his Lebanese peers what they think about Arab Americans.  “I believe they live typical American lives and have abandoned their Arab traditions," replied a Lebanese boy. 

This view was challenged by one of the Michigan teachers, an Arab American who described himself as the product of two sets of different, but not entirely incompatible, customs.  "I’m able to navigate both cultures.  I grew up in Saudi Arabia and in California," he said.  “My family raised me with Arab values and American values.  I’m very proud of my Arab heritage."

Students in Michigan also wanted to know whether dating is accepted in Arab culture.  “It depends," said a Lebanese boy.  “There is less dating in religious, conservative families.  In our culture, it usually doesn’t go beyond friendship." 

A Lebanese girl, who attends the American School in Beirut, added:  “We have to take religion into consideration.  [But] in my school dating is more encouraged, and it’s a big thing."

A Michigan girl said U.S. teenagers, whether dating or not, usually have curfews.

The Arab-American teacher in the Michigan classroom offered his views on dating.  “I don’t date casually; I’m very careful," he said.  “In fact, I recently asked my parents for permission to ask a woman to marry me."  This announcement was greeted with applause by the Lebanese students, who warmly congratulated him. 

The teenagers traded information about their academic lives.  “Our teachers are true friends," said a Lebanese student.  “They care about us and we share … our problems" with them.  “We look forward to sports" as part of the curriculum, she said. 

A Michigan student cited sports as one of her favorite activities as well. She asked the Lebanese teenagers, who all spoke English fluently, if English was taught as a second language at their schools.  “It is taught in some of the schools," although most classroom instruction is in Arabic, said a Lebanese boy. 

“It depends on the school," said another Lebanese boy, who identified himself as a student at the American School in Beirut.  “In my school, English is the main language."

“We have a lot of diversity" in Beirut, the Lebanese teacher remarked.  “I think it shows us that the world is smaller than you think."

Finally, the Lebanese students were asked if they could list any misperceptions about Arabs that they would like to correct.  A Lebanese boy replied that he would like to dispel the notion “that Arabs just smoke bubble pipes, ride camels, and want to kill Americans and Jews."  In fact, “we are very peaceful people," he said.  “Let’s not judge Islam just because [a group of radicals] blew up two towers" in New York on September 11, 2001.

“The people here are not closed-minded," said a Lebanese girl.  “We are not anti-American.  Most of us live like you do, just in different places.  We support a lot of the things you do.  We’re very much the same."

As the teens discovered, Arab and U.S. families even celebrate their major holidays in a similar fashion.  In the United States, “the biggest holiday is Christmas," said a Michigan girl.  “Families get together, bond, exchange gifts, go to church, and there’s a lot of food." 

A Lebanese girl described similar experiences: “On holidays, we always get together [as a family].  We have a lot of fun, and it’s very special." 

“We have a lot in common," said the Lebanese teacher.  “We might not celebrate the same holidays, but we celebrate our holidays the same way."

Finally, participants in Lebanon and in Michigan expressed gratitude for a stimulating dialogue.  “I think I can speak for everyone here in saying this has been really fun, to learn about your culture," said a Lebanese boy. 

The Arab-American teacher in Michigan responded by offering a salutation in Arabic.

For more information on U.S. society and values, see Population and Diversity.

More information on EmpowerPeace is available on the organization's Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

Source:DoS