As I was thinking about the way Americans can misperceive danger elsewhere in the world compare to where they live, I was reminded of something amusing that happened the last time I was in Israel and the West Bank with students. One of the students had noticed an “X” hanging from the rear-view mirrors of cars, and had only seen them on cars in Arab areas. And so she wondered whether it might be something that Arabs were expected to have in their vehicles as a way of keeping track of them, or related to their permission (or lack thereof) to travel in various areas. And so we asked the tour guide about the “X” and what it signifies.
It was an air freshener.
It would be easy to laugh at the student’s question and perception, especially after the fact. But her suspicion about the possible significance of the objects in the cars was not unreasonable. Arabs in Israel do face discrimination, and those who reside in the occupied territories do need special documentation to travel from there.
And so I offer this as a humorous example of how all of us, when we find ourselves in a different context, can make wrong guesses about what things we see signify.
And so if there is a lesson in this, it is to travel and explore, with an openness to learning.
And when you’re not sure, don’t just guess. Ask.