Study Abroad: Postcard from Amman, Jordan

A young woman in cap and sunglasses is seated atop a camel, in the desert.

Here I am riding a camel in Wadi Rum. The design on my hands is henna, and my "hat" is the Jordanian kufiyeh.

International relations major Rachel Calandro has studied Arabic five days a week for two years in preparation for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity she is experiencing now: a year of study in Amman, Jordan. She describes the shock of finding words for the most basic requests, the hair-raising art of crossing the street, and some major cultural shifts on clothing and gender relations, below:

How has it been like to live here in Amman, Jordan? Well … Different. Just so different.

The first couple weeks were just complete puzzlement and amazement—and not in a bad way. Coming here after having two years of Intensive Arabic (aka five days a week…), I assumed that I would be able to communicate at least at a decent level with the other students I met who were in the same situation. However, there were two massive flaws in this plan. One, the Arabic we learn in America is the Modern Standard Arabic, and differs from the local Jordanian dialect in several important aspects such as common words and even conjugation. We found that we could not understand anyone who talked to us, which was confusing to say the least. The second big flaw was that our curriculum in America taught us all sorts of useful words like “The UN,” “Office of Admissions,” “chess,” and “army,” but we quickly realized that we did not know how to say the very necessary phrases and words such as “Can I take a shower?,” “The food is delicious,” “Can I wash my clothes today?,” “sink,” and even “excuse me.” There were SO many phrases we hadn’t been taught. To be fair, the reason they did not teach us those phrases was because they differ from country to country …. Still, it made the first few weeks frustrating. “First few weeks”? Ha. I am still figuring out the different words they use.

However, communicating became much easier as we learned the most commonly used vocabulary here. Spending lots of time with my peer tutor and all of her friends helped a lot. : ) Now I can communicate pretty well. As far as understanding conversations, though, maybe I’ve just gotten used to having people talk around me without understanding it. That used to bother me a lot, but now it doesn’t. I’m going to have sensory overload when I return to the States and can actually understand every snippet of conversation I overhear.

I have gotten used to the rhythm of life here for the most part. I have a long commute to school due to my decision to use public transportation instead of taxis, but it is a nice period of time that I use to think. During breaks between classes, I usually hang out on campus with my Jordanian friends. Sometimes I understand the conversations, and sometimes I don’t. : ) Evenings are usually family and homework time. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t learn something entirely new about how life works here. It would be enough to wear out my brain entirely if I weren’t enjoying it so much.

Dead sea at sunset.

The Dead Sea at sunset. Beautiful!

As for other thoughts, I have just recently been realizing the depth to which I’m becoming accustomed to the culture here. Now, I know that of course I am not completely “embedded” in the culture, but after three-ish months here, it’s amazing how much the thinking of the culture is impressed on me. I knew this in my head, but one instance in particular this past week made me start thinking about it more.

In my Jordanian dialect class, our teacher sometimes shows us videos and we pick out the words that we know from it. Well, this particular lesson was on clothing. The class sat in horror, shock, and awe as she played a song for us. The words must have been about clothing, but none of us wrote down a single word, because we weren’t paying attention to the words. The premise of the music video was some guy interviewing girls who wanted to be models, and we watched with jaws dropped as girls with bare arms and short skirts pranced in and out of the interview room. At the end, we reacted in outrage.

“What was that?!?!” we asked. “What does that have to do with clothing!?!

Our teacher asked us, “Do you want to watch it again?” (We normally watch the video two or three times.)

“NO!!!!!” we responded emphatically.

She was clearly slightly taken aback. “Why?”

One of the girls in class spoke the words that were in everyone’s minds: “Mish moonaasib!!!” (= “inappropriate!”)

“What??” the teacher asked.

We all responded in agreement with the girl: “Because of the short skirts! The immodest clothing! What was that? Inappropriate! We don’t want to see it again.”

I was so surprised, because this response was coming from a group of students who I knew would have no problem wearing the same type of clothing back in the U.S. But we were all so genuinely upset about the film.

Our teacher tried to redeem the video: “But the song mentions clothing! Listen again.”

So we went through the video again, with the teacher pausing it at every line to point out that the words were talking about skirts and dresses and such.

Class ended before we could get all the way through the video again, and everyone was glad. Everyone’s discussions as we scattered from class focused on #1, shock and amazement that we had to watch it, and #2, amazement at the realization that we found it shocking.

By the way, this would not really have been a bad music video in the U.S. I mean, it had short skirts, but that was the worst thing in it ….

It’s going to be odd going back … I’ve gotten used to so many things that are normal to me now.

on-top-of-the-castle

A quick pose in Petra near the monastery, in an enclave for a god.

I’ve gotten used to eating pita bread with every meal. So much so that when I made myself eggs the other night (we eat scrambled eggs for supper, not breakfast), they tasted incomplete until I realized I was missing pita bread. So I went to the freezer, got out the pita bread, and heated it over the stove, using a lighter to light the stove, because most stoves here don’t light automatically.

Crossing the busiest roads is an art. All major intersections are roundabouts, and when crossing them on foot, the point is not to cross one leg, then another, then another. No, I cross until halfway into the middle of the roundabout, then wait (standing in the middle of traffic) until a line of cars gives me enough cover to cross. Or I just cross anyways, playing Frogger with the cars. And this is how everyone does it…I’ve learned that a little beep by a car means he’s not going to stop; flashing his lights means he’s going to give way to me.

Thursday evenings are times to sit with extended family in the grandma’s apartment. I enjoy that time.

I’ve gotten used to the kinds of sweets they make here—so different than the sweets in America, but so good.

I’ve grown to love the taste of zait wa-zatar  (oil and thyme) on flatbread (called manna-eesh), and its delicious smell too.

My standard of “chivalry” has changed. Instead of chivalry being something like a guy opening the door for me, it is now things like a guy giving up the front seat of the shared taxi to sit in the back so I won’t have to sit in the back next to guys. Or if I do sit in the back with guys, a chivalrous guy is the one who scoots way over so as to allow a good six inches of space between us (which is quite a sacrifice, since there are three adults sitting in the back of a small car). Or, the chivalrous guy is one who stops and scoots over to a narrower part of the sidewalk, or even onto the street, so we don’t have to walk too close to each other.

I instantly change into pajamas as soon as I get into the house, because no one wears anything but pajamas in the house unless company is over. The thought of not wearing dress clothing to leave the house does not occur to me.

In all my conversations, I unconsciously talk with my hands and use gestures and non-word noises to get my point across. This will be hard to get rid of when I go back.

I know that I shouldn’t be smiling when walking around the city by myself—only if I’m with other girls (although I still often break this rule…). So as soon as I leave the house, I put my serious face on and look down. And I know that that will only discourage the majority of the male population; the others will still honk, yell, catcall, try to talk to me, bump into me, or may even try to touch me.

I realize that part of this is that I had no frame of reference in which to put Jordan before I came, so I knew that I’d have to learn to get used to all these things. But now I’m realizing that I’m going to have to get used to life back home.

And things like seeing legs and arms is going to surprise me.

As will the price of food (You can buy a HUGE meal here for under $6, and most of my meals are under $1.50).

I’m going to miss going to the salon and getting a haircut, blow dry straight, and eyebrow threading all for about $7.50.

I’m going to be surprised to see guys and girls hanging out together.

I’m going to be offended when a guy does not give me wide berth on the sidewalk, or does not squoosh himself into a corner so as not to sit close to me.

I’m going to be disappointed that all the guys don’t stare at me as I walk by (even though it just annoys or tires me now).

I’m going to also be disappointed that all the girls don’t want to instantly be my friend just because I can speak English.

on-top-of-the-castle

On top of Kerak Castle, looking down. The wind was crazy, and was blowing my hair straight up at times.

But overall, life here is good. So good.

I’ve made so many Jordanian friends with whom I spend all my free time on campus.

I was placed in the most fun host family possible, and they’ve taught me so much about the language and culture. They’ve really been my family away from home—they involve me in the family kung fu fights, they give me chores to do, they laugh with me about my Arabic, they are patient with my sometimes painful progress, they comfort me when my day has been rough, and just in general they have adopted me.

I learn so much every day, and am amazed every day. Not to say life isn’t sometimes hard, but life is hard anywhere. And the adventure of living here is a learning experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

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