When I was in Jordan, community was all around me. The taxi driver was worried about me when I was sick. The people at the grocery store said hi to me and asked me how I was (and it seemed like they actually cared). It felt like everyone was worried about me, cared about me, wanted to know how I was doing and what they could do for me. Over there, it’s not strange to tell strangers all about your problems, and for them to give you advice. It’s not weird to talk about politics or religion with people you don’t know. In Arabic, there was no word for privacy. It actually had to be made up by Europeans.
When I came back to the US, the thing I noticed the most was that everyone seemed so lonely. People sit down by themselves and watch TV on their own laptops, with no one around them. People don’t talk to each other in the same way that they did when I was in Jordan. You’re only supposed to tell the people closest to you about your problems, and you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion with anyone, not even at your own families’ dinner table. It feels like Americans make it a point to be separate from each other.
I don’t think it’s better this way. When the community cares about you, and you can talk to anyone you know about your problems, it feels safer. It feels like you’re not alone. It feels like you don’t have to handle everything by yourself, even when you’re in a strange place and you don’t speak the language very well. It feels better than it does here when you can walk through the streets, go to a coffee shop, sit down, drink your coffee, and never talk to anyone beyond a hi. I miss the way everyone in Jordan wanted to know more about me and wanted to be friendly with me. Here, we put a premium on friendliness; we’ll only be friendly if we think there’s a benefit to us.
If we care about a person, it’s usually because of some reciprocal relationship. My best friend supported me through my break up, so I’ll support them through losing their job. In Jordan, there was no expectation when you helped someone get through something. There was no reason to expect that you would ever see this person again, but they still cared about you. It was the most amazing thing to experience.
What does community mean in the US? To me, it feels like we’re lacking community. There are interest groups, like the outdoors community or churches, but we don’t have a true community the way they do in other places. Here, we will only care about each other if there’s a reason to care about them. If there’s a stranger crying in public, we don’t ask them what’s wrong, we walk by them and look down, embarrassed by their public show of emotion. We don’t help our neighbors, and we care about our friends but only because we expect them to care about us as well. If we weren’t so stuck in our own self-interest, America would be a much nicer place to live.
What does community mean to you? What do you think we could do to encourage a greater sense of community?