There's a couple of shortcuts to local culture, ways of immersing yourself instantly without fussing around with assimilation or genuine cultural understanding.
One fast track is public transportation. Get on the most crowded, incomprehensible buses or minivans in the country of your choice, and suddenly you find yourself competing with locals for a seat instead of staring at them from the top deck of a tourist bus. You wanted to see how locals live? This is it. Friendliness optional. Note: Remember how you are when you commute to work in the morning back home. The last thing I'd be looking for when taking the N/R from World Trade to Prince Street was cultural interaction with a tourist. Be forgiving. The friendly locals you are so keen to interact with need to be gently approached so they don't snap at you before they've had their morning coffee.
The other express lane to immersion is the salon, called saloon here in Kuwait. I think it's different for men, who go to barbers and probably have their own experiences to relate. I know Sven has a cultural adventure every time he goes to the Salmiya barber with the giant Paul Mitchell sign outside--last time he had his eyes rubbed. But for women, going to the saloon is a day-pass into a hidden world.
I don't have a clue what most Arabic-speaking women are saying to me in Bneid Al-Gar's La Rouge saloon, but the conversations I have with them are usually accompanied by a lot of smiling, nodding, and laughing while I pretend to understand. The Filipino and Indian women are much more in-depth, as their English is usually better than their Arabic. Last night I learned that Dolly from the Philippines was rubbing my feet while Melanie from Kerala washed the tint out of my hair. Melanie is the hair color apprentice to Salwa, my Lebanese hair colorist that sealed my loyalty early on when she gently teased me about my nervousness. "Um, you can do blonde, right?" She'd giggled and patted my knee.
Dolly spent an hour giving me a pedicure (which kind of freaked me out as she sawed away with a giant file at the tough spots on my feet, leaving a disturbing pile of shavings on the floor) while Salwa and Melanie worked on my hair color. When I wasn't amusing the staff with uncontrollable giggling (I have ticklish feet), I was watching the clients come and go.
A woman would enter, totally covered in black cloak and headscarf. She'd start slowly, first removing the scarf, then the black cover, then hop a little as she'd pull off the loose-fitting black trousers beneath. I giggled to see one woman reveal leopard-print pedal-pushers and matching top underneath, with tiny high-heeled sandals topping off the outfit. She looked like Rizzo in Grease. There are no men in the saloon, not even tea-boys, so women are free to comfortably let it all hang out. And they do! Kuwait has one of the highest per capita rates of obesity in the world, thanks to the invasion of fast food and the car culture. Lovely eye-batting Rizzo was easily equal to at least two Stockard Channings.
Kuwaiti style is way more formal than US style—that is, what we consider a little make-up would not even register here. Magazines show photos of women with Elizabeth Taylor eye makeup and carefully sculpted hair. Leopard-Rizzo had a series of small mountains on her hair that finally cascaded down to flowing tresses. It seemed a shame to me when she covered it all up to leave. And as for hair, the saloon's staff are always trying to get me to do more.
"Surely you want a few stripes?" They'd ask.
"No, please. Simple. No stripes."
"Some layers then?"
"No layers. Simple. I am very lazy. Nothing that takes work."
Last night a wise-cracking Arabic woman with a cigarette advised Salwa at length about how she thought I needed highlights. I fled in the end, saying I'd think about it. But I won't. My hair is damaged enough from years of coloring it. The last thing I need is more damage. People can see that my hair is dry and flyaway just with a casual glance.
Maybe these women who cover up are onto something.