Although my parents are Dutch and American, for most of my life I have lived in Japan. Belonging to an international community and my travel opportunities over the years have opened my eyes to global perspectives from different countries. While a lot of my travel has been in western countries, I have been on a few trips to other Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. One trip that I found very interesting was my visit to Qatar in ninth grade, as it was my first visit of an Arab country, and there were several aspects that differed from Japan. Because Qatar is such a small country, I didn’t know much about it before visiting and therefore did not know what to expect.
I went there to visit one of my friends that moved to Doha after middle school, but while there I did some sightseeing with my family as well. One of the most notable differences between Qatar and Japan is its religious association. As the majority of Japan’s population is non-religious, it was a new experience for me to be in a country whose population is predominantly Muslim. While in Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism are tied to traditional culture, this is not that obvious in the modern city setting of Tokyo or Yokohama. However, it was clear from my visit that in Qatar, Islam plays an important role in defining the country’s culture. For example, it is expected that foreign female non-Muslim residents and visitors respect the cultural expectations regarding clothing by wearing garments that cover both the shoulders and the knees. This contradicted my personal views about freedom of expression, but was a difficult conflict to resolve as it so clearly established unity in the country. I think that my visit opened me up to trying to understand this practice rather than simply judging it as something foreign. I considered the fact that many of these women had never had the opportunity to publicly express themselves through their clothing, so for them it might not be a nearly as noticeable issue than it was for me, as I had to adjust from the “normal” of my life while staying there. This forced me to view things from a new perspective, acknowledging that something I had before only considered restricting could also bring unity to a nation and that it was not just black and white. Ultimately, the best conclusion I could draw was that it is important to respect the home culture when visiting a new country and temporarily set aside personal beliefs in an attempt to form understanding.
Qatar, with the highest GDP per capita in the world, is a very rich country due to its oil resources. This means that most natives of Qatar are economically privileged, and while this is also the case in Japan, which has the 24th greatest GDP per capita, Qatar’s is more than three times the amount of Japan’s. As a result, there was a noticeably high consumption of luxury goods in Doha, with high-end clothing stores and amusement parks in the shopping malls, for example. This was interesting, as the country seemed to be the product of both traditional culture and modern influence.
Another aspect that I found drastically different between Qatar and Japan was safety. Japan has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, and I have cherished growing up in an environment in which safety is not an issue. I feel in some ways, however, that I have been sheltered because of this, and that being exposed to my friend’s life in Qatar has made me more aware of this. She lives on a compound which has very high security and is constantly monitored by guards. Her family also said that it is unsafe to trust all taxi drivers or go places on foot as teenagers, so they always contact one driver that they know well and trust. Despite religion uniting the country, Qatar does not feel safe, especially as a foreigner that stands out. My community in Japan is very international, so it is rare that I feel ostracized because of my nationality. What I noticed most as a contributor to the impression of danger in Qatar is the fact that it has many poor, migrant workers that are not accepted by the country’s society. This then contradicts the feeling of religious unity, which only really includes Qatari natives, viewing immigrants as outsiders. This brings issues of cheap labor which I think strongly contributes to Doha’s crime rate being higher than Yokohama’s. Despite the fact that Japan is more secular by comparison, it is still unified in its culture and traditions, which leads to more overall satisfaction and hence safety. The safety in Japan allows me to have more power over where I go, and this is a privilege I had overlooked until I had something to compare it to.
Despite having visited several countries prior, I feel that my trip to Qatar especially opened my eyes to a part of the world I had never before visited. It also showed me that despite the differences between Japan and an Arab country like Qatar, it is not as exotic and foreign as I expected it to be based on my little prior knowledge. My experiences and observations allowed me to compare the country to Japan, which in turn made me recognize some of the privileges of my everyday life that I had overlooked. This trip gave me a lot of respect for cultures that differ drastically from my own, encouraging me to understand before making judgements. In general, it pushed me to acknowledge perspectives other than my own and question the origins of my own beliefs as well, which I have started to consider in my travels since then as well. Different areas of the world developed differently over time, and the result of this is an array of cultures that may conflict with each other but can also be learned from and shared in the age of globalization. I think that this visit really emphasized that fact for me, because of course we had studied other countries and cultures in school, but having a firsthand experience made it all more real. I really enjoyed my visit to Qatar, not only because I got to see my friend, but also because it gave me a broader perspective of the world than what I had already been exposed to, even in an international school.