How watching the U.S. Election in Jordan cultivated GRATITUDE: A tale of castles and smiles

The world didn’t have Facebook to trigger virtual solidarity on 9/11, but on 11/9 an air of mourning reverberations engulfed my newsfeed. I had endured 7+ nonstop hours of watching CNN and munching on maamoul with 15 pro-Hillary and/or anti-Trump-ists agog to see the status quo upheld or at least the exacerbation of social strife obviated. I witnessed an epic decrescendo of hope and energy emanating from the stunned faces of my party guests as their glazed eyes stared into oblivion and despondency—as if they were listening to Ravel’s Bolero in reverse—and the supposed-to-be celebratory cheesecake hid unfulfilled in the freezer hours after everyone departed. At 8 a.m. I finally gave in and took a power nap before heading to class. When I awoke, a glimmer of hope bounced through my mind trying to convince me that it was all a dream.


Then I checked my phone.

Sure enough, my classmates’ worst fears had nearly come to fruition: the biggest wild-card-of-a-president that America has ever known. Nobody could focus on studying Arabic vocabulary or grammar. Students were drowning in bitter tears and struggled to bridle their tongues. And all I could do was hand out leftover chocolate covered dates. For some unbeknownst reason, HOPE still lingered in my heart, and in the following days it morphed into GRATITUDE. And that’s what I seek to promulgate with this post during a season of THANKSGIVING.

As a bus brimming with BYU students, spouses and children departed from Qasid’s dusty parking lot, a 3-year-old voice from the seat behind me inquired coyly, “we’re going to Ajloun?” I thought, wow, this kid has an early start on exploring the world. Do you ever hear somebody a decade younger than you use an erudite expression or cite a far-off land that you just heard of a week ago? And maybe feel a bit insecure about your lexical or social development? And maybe be weighed down a bit by jealousy of somebody else’s experiences? Well in this case, I found myself decades behind this kid in walking the grounds of a 13th century Ayubbid castle fortified atop a central hill to protect Saladin’s realm against crusader incursions.


Although built to counter the offenses stemming from hostile forces across the valley at Belvoir Fortress, Ajloun likely required the manpower of the very stonecutters and artisans who labored on the opposing castle. As I walked through the dark hallways, I looked up unnervingly to the ceilings where greenery sprouted from the “murder holes,” where boiling oil and pitch was once poured on invaders. I was saddened as I realized, despite the inherent strengths of America’s two-party system, political opponents ofttimes scorch each other to a crisp with sizzling slander. Yet I am reminded of the stonecutters and artisans who built this nation on such a strong foundation that despite rhetorical divides, America has and will remain resilient.

Black. White. Male. Female. Gay. Straight. Muslim. Jew. Buddhist. Hindu. Christian. Mormon. Ex-Mormon. Pakistani. Chinese. Mexican. Native American. Affluent. Destitute. Educated. Illiterate. Liberal. Conservative. 95-year-old. 2-year-old. Bipolar. Autistic. Beauty Queen. Prostitute. Country Bumpkin. City Slicker. Diplomat. Refugee…

We have all of these figurative castles—moats and machicolations, parapets and portcullises, crenellations and concentric fortifications—all machinations of mankind to keep them out and us in. For whatever reason we humans often try to circumscribe ourselves with Venn diagrams. Maybe we all should revisit Barth’s seminal theories to refresh our understanding of how different cultural traits that ethnic (and by extension other types of) groups are inclined to display may actually be the result rather than the cause of society erecting such social boundaries.

I vividly recall an overcast and over-polluted day: while moseying through a hagglers’ market in a back alley of Shanghai, I glimpsed a tiny toddler roaming into a street teeming with moving objects, animals and people. A driver nearly ran over the tyke unawares as I heard the screeching cry of his mother as she miraculously snatched him out of harm’s way. Her bursting tears of worry evaporated into gratitude as she returned to her street side vendor with her still-sentient son. I couldn’t help but realize that this woman wants the exact same things for her kids as my loving parents sacrificed so much for theirs: physical protection and upstanding underpinnings, then eventually self-sufficiency and a supportive spouse. As I have watched kids running around the potholed streets from Medan to Amman, I have observed this same thread binding humanity together. It reminds me that there is only one category that I think we should group people in, because we all fit in it together: children of God.

When I see stats thrown about claiming that 70% of white people in America don’t have any black friends, I recall when I would have been lumped in that statistical cluster during the decade of formative years I spent in Port Angeles and Rexburg—beloved towns that both happen to be 90% white. I spent the first eighth of my life sans black friends, not to mention even knowing a single black person—the opportunity literally did not exist as far as I was aware. Regardless, I am appreciative of a childhood in such delightful towns where strangers regularly said hi to me on the streets, I rode my bike around with my neighborhood friends, and many families were supportive and encouraging during hard times. I was enthralled to meet our exchange student from Port Angeles’s sister city of Mutsu—probably the first Japanese person I have met—and I likewise witnessed open arms from the broader community to welcome the beaming smiles of the delegation. Writing this reminds me of my missionary days trekking through neighborhoods in Surabaya when dozens of Indonesian youth would ditch their football game and repeatedly chant Bule, masuk kampong! (White person enters the village) while following mysterious men around in astonishment—possibly the first time they saw (and will ever see) a blond haired and blue eyed person in real life.

After visiting Ajloun castle, we took a pleasant stroll down a country lane in the charming town of Orjan. So far, I have interacted mostly with people in Amman—a city not lacking in people-to-people culture and language exchanges. In contrast, I could tell the humble folk of Orjan were more than ecstatic to see us as the children waved to us from the rooftops. Chainsaws buzzing and training wheels spinning—I was brought back to the days of living in Idaho where I would wake up at 3 a.m. to go logging with my father and the next day ride my bike through endless miles of green alfalfa until my backdrop morphed into fields of golden wheat. Families full of smiles sat perched on their verandas and motioned for us to join them while shouting fadal! My promenade through Orjan served as a needed reminder of the authentic gems of joy that are found in the hinterlands of the world, not to mention a spirit of innovation necessitated by the need to survive without city comforts… i.e. clotheslines on rooftops doubling as trellises for grapevines.


While the media paints the villages of rural America as geographic armpits sparsely populated by backward bigots, I know that the pundits are completely missing the picture. These towns have amazing people who are invested in their communities and not so mired in the bayou of superficiality that seeks to permeate metropolitan life. Just as town folk may have much to learn about inclusiveness from those of a more cosmopolitan upbringing, urban dwellers could learn from them a thing or two about civic involvement. We all need to do some more listening; not merely to the media, but more so to the people who probably don’t dominate our newsfeed, if we truly want to discover ways to make mutual progress for ALL of our American countrymen. I am full of gratitude for everyone who voted; the next step of citizenship is to stay spirited by serving and loving one another and standing up for our principles in our family, professional and civic lives.

While I exhausted most of my childhood swinging in parks where less than 1% of the kids were African American, my 4-year old compatriots in Fresno were sitting on the teeter-totter with their Hmong friends and learning how to say Nyah xiong, law no le cha? But that doesn’t matter. Not every 3-year-old needs to utter the word Ajloun because every experience and perspective has value. Even the extreme ones on the fringes of “normality” or “acceptability” count because they remind us that we are all in the same boat, no matter how much others (or we) try to rock it. For it needs be that there be opposition in all things. Without it, how would we learn, grow, and change? Sure, disavow the sin, but if you’re passing harsh judgment on the alt-rights or ultra-gauche humans on the planet, let he that is without sin among you cast the first stone at them. I impart that this is not the season for casting stones; rather, it is the season to embrace one another, a time of real need for us to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”

Yet I am beholden to my current circumstances… you’ll often see me sporting my yellow Team Samake shirt. In the second eighth (hopefully) of my mortal life, I have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with people from practically every aforementioned category society labels us with. I hope I’m not sounding like a braggart—not everybody has access to a diverse range in human connections—I am truly grateful and humbled by these relations that stripped away the thin veneer of ethnocentrism that may or may not have ever camouflaged my psyche. I have spent more than 3 years of my life as both an ethnic and religious minority (I.e. Caucasian & Christian) while living in Indonesia, Hong Kong, India and now Jordan. Being a minority changes how you view the world, your place in it, and your relationships with other people. If, after this election, you are asking yourself “what is the bubble I have been living in? What needs of another group of people have I been completely oblivious to while the sommeliers of Napa Valley have been satiating my palate with Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc?” Well, you might consider how many 54 year-old non-college-educated white men from Harrison, Michigan who dropped out of the workforce you see posting rapid fire on your Facebook feed about their electorally induced elatedness…

Small town folk are acutely aware of the pundit tainted lens that the big world envisages them through, but the big world has no idea how the small towns self-ascribe their identity within the context of an increasingly interdependent global community. As 6-figure incomes for big data geeks skyrocket in Silicon Valley, the livelihood of hundreds of Snowflake, Arizona breadwinners is simultaneously truncated by a paper mill closure due to market pressures. I remember the glory days in middle school when I was nearly oblivious to the rancorous stories floating around in cyberspace, and just lived a simple, happy kid’s life. I am indebted to a childhood of working in potato factories, playing jazz in restaurants and sandblasting log homes in order to earn my keep. It was real then. And although I maintain zero desire to pursue a livelihood of nailing sheet metal to rooftops, as I jaunt through the big world of investment banking, strategy consulting and government service, I interact frequently with the urban change makers of the world, but my heart will always be rooted in the reality of the rural grind. Don’t get me wrong, I love the buzz of the city, whether it be Paris, San Francisco or Dubai. I am so blessed to live in Amman. But whenever I need a breath of fresh air, I know of a little corner on this planet with dozens of families waiting with outstretched arms: Orjan. A quaint little town with so many sincere smiles.


My post-election excursion infused a renewed inkling of hope and I am exhilarated at the challenges and opportunities ahead to overcome the myriad obstacles our country is traversing through. Unfortunately it is difficult to see through the political facade to the true nature of candidates as they play the dirty election game. But, as with any new administration, the reality of diametric forces will surely kick in—the citizens are the 4th lever of checks and balances—and Insha’Allah we will recognize that neither domestic nor foreign policy is foreordained to be a zero-sum game but that self-reliance and utilitarianism can actually happily coexist. This election was a wakeup call that necessitates some dignified domestic diplomacy among disparate groups of Americans so that we never neglect the “other” citizens again. If it is an antidote, I recommend trying life sans Facebook’s spoon feeding and the New York Times’ pushy notifications—for at least a day, maybe a month. You might just find more laughter and cause for compliments at the Thanksgiving dinner table. And, I hope, as you return to the real relationships that matter, you will find true gratitude in how they buoy you up, one day at a time.