COOK- When Sharon Beatty and David Stanton suggest that international travelers should try to immerse themselves in local cultures for a more authentic experience, they speak from a unique and …
COOK- When Sharon Beatty and David Stanton suggest that international travelers should try to immerse themselves in local cultures for a more authentic experience, they speak from a unique and well-informed perspective.
“Each of us has lived about 30 years or more in other cultures outside the United States,” Beatty said.
Beatty and Stanton shared experiences from more than 25 years of living in Yemen at a Feb. 5 meeting of Northern Progressives at the Crescent Bar & Grill in Cook.
The Republic of Yemen is a country on the south end of the Arabian Peninsula, home to 28 million people living in an area more than twice the size of Wyoming. It is the poorest country in the Middle East, Stanton said. Contrary to common beliefs about the Arabian Peninsula being a flat desert land, Yemen has numerous mountains over 10,000 feet and has days chilly enough for ice to form on standing water.
“Where we lived was 2,000 feet higher than Denver,” Stanton said.
Beatty, an RN and pediatric nurse practitioner with a master’s degree in International Health, went to Yemen as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1977 after becoming involved in a boycott of multinational foods giant Nestle. The corporation was heavily pushing sales of baby formula in impoverished countries, and poor mothers were unknowingly and tragically diluting the formula and often using contaminated water to mix it.
“In the end millions of babies died because of this,” Beatty said. “I wanted to see if what I was saying was happening was actually happening.”
Stanton also used the Peace Corps as a ticket overseas, volunteering in Botswana before moving to Yemen in 1991 to teach in an international school.
“Sharon’s and my entries into the country were completely different,” Stanton said. “She went in her 20s in 1977 and worked in total immersion in the culture in a village that was very isolated from the capital. I went 14 years later to a big city as a dependent of a teacher in an international school. I had time to get used to things.”
Beatty was mesmerized by her introduction to rural Yemen and life in a mountaintop village.
“My first impressions were chaos, romance, dust, and entering into the pivotal pages of history,” she said. “You would see everyone walking around in long robes and headdresses, there would be shepherds with their sheep and goats, women spinning wool by hand. The architecture was mud brick. It looked exactly like an illustrated Bible. It was charming.”
She also was somewhat surprised by how safe she felt.
“As a foreign woman I could walk in the streets in the middle of the night and feel completely safe,” Beatty said.
Stanton’s experience was similar.
“My first impression of Yemen beyond the airport was basically that I’d landed on another planet,” he said. “I couldn’t understand anything anyone said. The men were wearing skirts and dresses. I hadn’t been to a place where they wore futas (wrap-around men’s skirts). All the men were wearing daggers on an embroidered belt. It was dusty, it was chaotic, it was noisy, it was bizarre. I didn’t find any of this threatening. I found it fascinating.”
Adjusting to daily life was challenging for Beatty and her Peace Corps group. Fifty percent of the women who came with her left before the end of their assignments.
“Everything is so different you have a hard time grasping on to anything that you truly understand,” Beatty said. “You have very little language, you can’t say much, you can’t understand much, and you don’t know the rules.”
Beatty took cues from local women in adapting to the modest, drab standards of dress for women, discarding all her brightly colored clothing and adopting the practice of wearing pants underneath her skirt. She learned that when men looked down as she tried to smile at them, it wasn’t because they were being unfriendly.
“This is a sign of respect,” she said. “To be friendly to a woman meant you did not respect her.”
Stanton’s early life in the port city of Aden, formerly controlled by the British, was a bit more familiar and quite different from Beatty’s village life. For one, it was more friendly. Other men would frequently call out “sadiq” to him as he walked down the street.
“It means friend,” Stanton said. “That was their way of greeting me.”
Getting used to cultural norms was just the first step in transitioning to living in Yemen, Beatty said. Next came a life-changing decision.
“You can choose to live situated in the culture, or as an expatriate,” she said.
Expatriates were foreigners who essentially lived separately from Yemenis, living in compounds with their own food and furniture and associating mostly with colleagues and other foreigners.
“On the other end were the people that they called ‘going native,’” Beatty said. “They wanted to be Yemeni, they loved the culture so much they lived a totally Yemeni life.”
“I saw myself as different,” she said. “I felt an affinity for them, but I didn’t feel a bond where we were like each other. I wasn’t initially able to cross that barrier.”
The difference for Beatty was in changing how she perceived herself. She left Yemen for a number of years to pursue her education, but eventually returned in a professional role and as the wife of a Yemeni man.
“When I went back to Yemen the second time, I quickly became integrated and I felt we were people just living in the same country,” she said. “You stop noticing the externals and you start noticing the internals. You start to recognize who has a good character, who has intellectual curiosity, who you can trust, even though the manifestations outwardly are very different. It’s no longer us and them at all, that just falls away”
Stanton said he never felt a desire to “go native,” but he still developed a strong connection to the country and its people.
“I think I was hardwired to fit in with Yemeni culture,” he said. “A lot of the characteristics of the people I saw and met there and befriended were in many ways like me.”
That was reinforced by an encounter Stanton had with a taxi driver.
“I got into a taxi once and I looked at the driver and he was the textbook caricature of a terrorist,” he said. “He had a beard that made mine look like a 5 o’clock shadow. I thought, ‘OK, here it goes, he’s going to berate me for being an American.’”
What came next was unexpected.
“He just smiled at me,” Stanton said. “He looked more like a garden gnome than a terrorist.
“He said, ‘It’s simple. You live, you die, you look in the book, and whatever is in that book determines the hereafter.’ Basically, what he was saying is that everything that you do matters.
“He was just the kindest, gentlest soul I could imagine in spite of the stereotypes.”
Beatty and Stanton met in 1996 when she separated from her husband and moved to Sana’a, where she enrolled her children in the international school where Stanton was teaching. After Stanton and his wife separated three years later, he and Beatty became friends, and then a couple.
They weren’t full-year residents of Yemen. Beginning in 2002, they made annual summer trips to Beatty’s childhood home in Cook, where they worked on renovating a historic barn that is now their home. But they always looked forward to returning in the fall to their second home, Yemen.
Beatty and Stanton left Yemen for Vietnam in 2014, and after five years there traveled to China for two months before moving back to Cook to stay. In some ways, Beatty said, it’s not all that different from Yemen.
“Small town America feels very much like Yemen in terms of the feel of how people interact with each other,” Beatty said. “In Yemen, when you go to a shop to buy something, the shopkeeper will first engage you as a human being, and then as a customer. They’re just friendly, they want to talk and hear what you have to say. I find Cook, which I left when I was 18, very much like that, very different from being in a big city. For me, this is what I want right now.”
Stanton said that people planning international trips should first consider their comfort levels with experiencing different cultures.
“We haven’t shared a lot of anecdotes, but I could share some anecdotes that would make your hair curl in terms of what we would expose ourselves to because of our comfort zones,” he said.
Both Beatty and Stanton encouraged travelers to stay away from tours and major tourist attractions in favor of experiences that bring them into contact with people and their daily lives. Simple activities to accomplish that include eating at local restaurants, staying in hostels, and using public transportation. Online resources such as Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor can provide tips for less-visited areas.
“Look at the way local people live and try to do some of those things,” Beatty said. “People are generally very, very nice. You might feel like you’re taking a bit of a risk, but it’s unlikely you are.”
“Learn a few words of whatever the local language is and talk to people,” Stanton said. “Don’t be afraid of them. By interacting with local people you’ll have a much richer experience.”