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10 Culture Shocks Studying in Cairo as an American

posted on: Oct 5, 2022

American students visiting the Pyramids of Giza, Photo Credit: Caroline Umphlet

By: Caroline Umphlet / Arab America Contributing Writer

I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad for an entire semester in Cairo, Egypt in 2022. It was the most fun I have had in college and I was truly heartbroken to leave. As an Arabic student, I knew more than the average person about what to expect about Arab culture. I packed clothes that were a little more conservative than what you would see an American college student wearing to class or to dinner with friends. Professors told me about how generous Arab people are in general, how I would get stared at, and that alcohol was not sold as frequently as in the US. However, here is a list of culture shocks I had throughout my semester.

1. Driving/Traffic

Cairo congestion, Photo Credit: Asharq Al-awsat

I do not think anyone would truly be able to understand driving in Cairo without experiencing it. There is almost no regard for the lines on the roads or stop lights. Egyptians are truly skilled on the road to be able to not crash or scratch anyone among the sea of cars during rush hour. I was in an Uber two or three times where, unfortunately, my driver did bump into someone. The only outcome is he would stop the car wherever it was on the road, get out, exchange a few words with the other driver, and get back in and apologize to me! Being a passenger was more-so entertaining than nerve-wracking. 

2. Asking for directions from anyone

Walking down the street or even while a driver is still in their car, it surprised me that Egyptians will ask ANY stranger for help with directions. As someone from the South of the US where people tend to be much nicer to strangers than in the North, this was still so interesting to me. The stranger would always try their best to help give detailed directions, and if they did not know, would even help find someone who did. I have had American friends go back home and give up on finding a restaurant or store, or drive hours on end while lost because their ego was too big to ask someone for help. 

3. Getting asked to take pictures

Egyptians taking photos of a foreigner, Port Said 2015, Photo Credit: Photos Al Agnabi

This was the most shocking encounter to me. The US is so diverse and, growing up, I have seen people of every type of race, ethnicity, background, etc. I did not really think about how some countries are home to people of one “color” or look. It was very interesting explaining this concept to my Egyptian friends, that I could see someone walking down the street that may look like they are from any country, but I can still fairly assume they are American. Mostly when visiting monuments because there were Egyptian visitors from outside of Cairo, my roommate and I, both tall, white, blonde haired, and blue-eyed, would get people asking to take pictures with us. Of course, we were happy to do so and they were very kind. 

4. Paying for each other

Facebook post talking about Arab culture to fight over paying for the bill, Credit: Rex Venard Bacarra

Expect to quite literally fight for the check if you grab coffee with an Egyptian person. It is an act of respect to pay for your friends or families’ meal or drink when out together, but people get very serious about it. People commonly pretend to go to the bathroom just so they can get the check without resistance! 

5. Using cash for everything

Egyptian pound bills and US dollar bills, Photo Credit: Egypt Independent

Most people do not carry cash in the US, if so it is not more than $20-$30 at most. In Egypt, you use cash all the time, everywhere. My friend even told me he used to carry around thousands of Egyptian pounds in his pocket every day until putting his money into Cryptocurrency! It is much harder to split the bill at a restaurant with 15 friends in cash than it is with a computer, especially when we are all political science majors and are terrible at math. 

6. Spending long periods of time together

Late night cafe, Photo Credit: Africa24

I quickly learned that going to grab coffee with a friend is not an hour long interaction, but rather five. Arabs really value time with friends and family, and therefore spend a lot of time together. 

7. Staying up late

I also learned about this topic before coming to Egypt, but did not realize the extent to its accuracy. Egyptians will go to sleep when the sun is coming up and wake up in the early afternoon. It really surprised me that some stores (such as grocery or phone/internet) do not even open until around 10 am. It is logical when the weather is scorching because it is much more comfortable to go out when it is cooler at night. Nonetheless, it shocked me quite a bit. 

8. Living with family

I tended to make friends with people around my age, but found it interesting the differences in norms of when we move out. As a college student at a state school, none of my peers live with their families, rather with roommates around the same age. Egyptians, on the other hand, usually do not move out of their family home until they are married. Some families, if they are able, have multiple apartments in the same building for privacy and a growing family, but still being close together. 

9. Men being affectionate

Photo Credit: Gilman

A slight culture shock to see was that men and boys are more comfortable being affectionate with their male friends than in US culture. I found it very heartwarming to see men holding hands or having their arms around each other walking down the street. It is very normal to be more touchy in general and completely platonic and has no sexual context.

10. Eating more than you thought was possible

Homemade Egyptian meal, Photo Credit: Caroline Umphlet

I had the pleasure of being invited into some of my friends’ homes for incredible dinners. My host would fill my plate for me and ask if I even enjoyed the meal because I could not finish it entirely. I apologetically explained that the food was delicious, but I can only eat so much! As a guest, you have to politely decline continuous offers of more food because the host wants to be sure you are not hungry.

My semester in Egypt was a great experience that I am so thankful for. Despite any cultural differences, the country and people’s charm and generosity is unlike any other. Differences are what makes traveling interesting and I hope to return in the future. 

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