Coffee, Turkish and Otherwise

Oh, sweet merciful heavens, Starbucks.  I don’t even drink Starbucks in the US– I like plain, black coffee, so their concoctions aren’t my style– but at this point I’m desperate: It’s three in the afternoon, yesterday was a full 24 hours without my fix, and now Starbucks is an oasis in this coffee desert.

You thought Arab culture involved a lot of coffee?  Yeah, me too.  But my host family drinks tea in the morning (talking to other study abroad students in Jordan, this seems to be common), and while most cafes offer a Turkish coffee (think espresso but with a sludge of grounds in the bottom), it just isn’t the same.  If you desire “American coffee”, as the sweet black nectar of the heavens is called here, expect to pay 4-5 dollars for maybe, if you’re lucky, 12 oz.  What I wouldn’t give for an enormous Styrofoam cup of terrible gas station brew right now!

Although, to be fair, I’m glad I’m only wrestling with coffee demons; students who’ve given up smoking in the past are finding their own predicament harder to deal with.  It turns out that smoking is ubiquitous in Jordan: at home, in restaurants, on the sidewalk (in a box with a fox).  I might as well be a smoker, from the sheer amount of second-hand I’m picking up.  (On the plus side, I’ve been informed by a smiling tour guide that cancer treatment in Jordan is free if you can’t afford it.)

Even here, at the Starbucks in City Mall, someone is smoking.  And, yes, the mall; not a souq, or a bazaar, or some other collection of booths displaying scarves and “magic” lamps.  A mall with a Forever 21 and a glorious Starbucks, and even a small amusement park.  That’s where my friends are now, strapped into a machine that will spin them around, but I can barely think straight much less deal with screaming children without my — “Qahwa sawda’, lo smaht,” I order.  Black coffee, please.

And oh, is it good.

Now that I’m caffeinated, and therefore thinking, I decide I’ll pick up a bottle of instant coffee while I’m here (of course the mall has a full-size grocery store) thereby ending this daily frantic search for my next cup of joe.  Because, let’s face it, as much as I want to be open-minded during this experience and adjust to life in Jordan, I’m not about to give up my American coffee.

I’m sure I’ll feel the same longing for things unique to Jordan when I return home, such as the hospitality to strangers.  I ordered my textbook in a copy shop the other day, and the storeowner told me it would be half an hour.  I said I’d return then, and turned to leave.  “No, sit!” he stopped me.  “Please, make yourself at home.”  He served me Turkish coffee and offered to help me with my homework when I pulled out a list of Arabic drills.  Another assistant chatted with me about my studies and my home in the US.  Two young boys ran back and forth, stopping occasionally to peer from behind one of the adults.  I can’t imagine this happening back home, where I’d be told to leave or sit in a glossy waiting area, instead of among the employees, playful children, and clickety-clacking printers.

I’ll almost certainly miss this generosity of spirit in much the same way I’m now missing coffee; unfortunately, unlike Nescafe, it isn’t exactly something I can pick up at the mall.  I’ll just have to bring it back with me and hope it catches on, inviting people in for a chat and making them a coffee– maybe even a Turkish coffee, because, if I’m being honest, it’s actually pretty good.

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Culture Shock Progression – Not so Linear

What struck me when I first saw this diagram was how closely it resembles diagrams of the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Culture ShockThe griever feels at first denial, then anger, next bargaining, followed by depression, and finally acceptance. I really don’t like that resemblance, however superficial. It eliminates all the agency of the student traveler – disasters and loss happen to someone, they can’t control it, and that’s part of why loss is so traumatizing. They go through these stages as psychological compensations for a reality that they cannot change.

But contrary to grief, exploring a new culture is a choice. The person voluntarily (usually) travels to the new country, takes an active role in exploring and trying to understand the culture and people there. Through their actions and conversations, they can create their experience and in doing so have a considerable advantage over someone who is experiencing loss.

I think one of the most important things you learn during travel is how to master it, to ride it like a skiff with the ever-present knowledge that if you don’t stay of top of it you can get swept away. I don’t think anyone ever really manages to stay completely dry, but over time you can learn to at least keep the boat from sinking.


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Hujambo! A first glance at preparing for, and living in Tanzania

The two weeks leading up to my study abroad program were a complete whirl of excitement and anxiety. Preparing to leave the country for four months was one thing, but preparing to spend a significant amount of time in the wilderness of was a completely different challenge. Thirty-three nights of camping in the African bush is a part of my upcoming program, and that’s not exactly something I could slack on preparing for. However, between balancing time with friends and family, and taking care of numerous pre-departure tasks (vaccines, banking business, and the like), I had almost no time leftover for all the other things I needed to prepare for. My last days in California were spent racing around town buying tents, compact sleeping bags and sleeping pads, water purification tablets, and malaria medication. I was up until 3:30 in the morning the day before my flight, as I struggled to cram all of my gear into one 55 Liter pack (I ended up being unsuccessful at fitting everything in one pack and was forced to check that bag and add a second backpack…not the most ideal setup). I spent the rest of my night being nervous about adjusting to a new culture – at this point the excitement had yet to sink in.

Two full days of travel later, I stepped off my plane and into the warm night air at the Kilimanjaro airport. I finally met my fellow wildlife conservation program students. After our group went through customs, we are all shuffled into Safari trucks for a two hour drive to our campsite at the Ndarikwai ranch. We scramble to set up our tents in the midnight darkness, but soon found ourselves drifting off to a chorus of frogs and the low snort-grumbles of impala.AA1

I awoke at sunrise filled with excitement (which was surprising considering the terrible jet lag I was feeling), and was amazed as the real beauty of this area came into full view. The silhouette of Kilimanjaro loomed over us in the distance to one side, and mount Meru towered on the other. A troop of baboons played in the trees as fiesty infants jumped on their mothers to alert them of morning, and the birds provided a soundtrack to the start of the day, with hundreds of species announcing their presence.



We were introduced to our program director Baba Jack and the rest of our Tanzanian staff before going on a long hike through the Ndarikwai area–a ranch turned conservation reserve, where Maasai herders live side by side with zebra, wildebeest, and many other wild animals. It is one of the few wildlife areas in the country where you are permitted to walk the area, instead of being forced to remain inside of your safari car. This made for a unique experience walking in the savannah under acacia trees and next to herds of grazing mammals.



Camping in a secluded natural environment for one week was one of the best ways to welcome our group into beautiful Tanzania. We had a chance to connect with fellow students, get to know our director and staff members, and even chat a little Swahili with our camp cooks. It was certainly a great way to ease into being orientated to a new country and culture.


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Dear Google: My Flight’s On The 24th, If You Don’t Already Know

By the end of December– a full month before my flight to Amman, Jordan– YouTube was suggesting that I watch “How to Dabke” (Arab folk dance) and a video walkthrough of making Knafeh (Levantine pastry).  An advertisement on Facebook prompted me to sign up for traveler’s insurance which, it assured me, works “great for the Middle East!”

Google Chrome had figured out my itinerary.  Of course, I hadn’t exactly made it difficult.  Facebook and Netflix were stubbornly lodged in the display of most-visited tabs shown whenever I open a new browser window, but the Jordan Times, BBC Arabic, and Google Maps had joined them.  My search history included such gems as “Culture of Jordan” and “Are harissa sauce and harissa cake related?” (but actually, one is hot chili pepper paste and the other sweet semolina cake… what in the world do they have in common?)  I had watched videos of Jordanian dancing, Jordanian pop stars, and Jordanian comedy.  I’d zoomed in on Google maps satellite view until I got the closest, grainiest view of Amman available, and read through every entry by previous Gilman scholars in Jordan (thanks for the advice, guys).

It’s easy to chalk up my mildly obsessive internet research to nerves, but I don’t think that’s quite it; after all, I didn’t feel nervous.  I was confident I would be in a good program, surrounded by wonderful people.  I was downright eager to improve my Arabic fluency (which, despite a few semester of previous study, falls somewhere between “mediocre” and “passable”).  So why was I looking up the total land area of Jordan (34,495 mi2)?  The average hours of sunlight per day (almost 10)?  The national flower (black iris)?

Do me a favor: tell me where you’re living next semester.  Go on.  Picture it.  Tell me, will you need warm clothing in March, or will it be sunny and mild?  What will you eat for breakfast?  How will you get to school– bus, taxi, drive, walk?  What will you do for fun, to fill your nights and weekends?

You probably know all of that.  I don’t.

I don’t know if I’ll be taking a taxi to school… if I will, I don’t know how much it will cost, or how I’ll hail one, or how to talk to the driver, or even what currency I’ll be paying in!  Well, okay, I do know the currency, but that’s only because I’ve visited the Wikipedia article for the Jordanian Dinar a time or two.  Or ten.

And that, I think is the reason for learning about the history of Queen Rania, looking at articles about Jordan’s decision to recently reinstate the death penalty, and learning how kadaif noodles are made.  Everything– from my daily commute to their judicial system– is new and completely unknown.  I still don’t know where my residence will be; I’m going to get on a plane in a little over a week, and fly to a country I’ve never seen on a continent I’ve never visited, and show up without a clue where I’ll be sleeping that night.  Or how I’ll get coffee the next morning, which, let’s face it, is probably higher priority.

I am so incredibly-indescribably-amazingly-exorbitantly excited.  Incredidescribablamazibitantly excited.  See?  I had to make a new adverb, because I didn’t have one to sufficiently convey how excited I am.  I can’t wait to meet other students, to learn about the city, to have terribly awkward attempts at conversation in Arabic (scratch “passable,” my Arabic skills are definitely more “mediocre”), to try knafeh in real life.  I’m incredidescribablamazibitantly excited for the whole semester, even though I have no idea what’s waiting for me beyond the airport.

What I do know: the national bird is the Sinai Rosefinch; the national football team (soccer, my American friends) is called Al-Nashaamaa (“the Chivalrous”); a qirsh and piastre are equal and both 1/100 of a dinar.  And I know that this semester is going to be amazing beyond belief.

And so, armed with these facts, these few small certainties, I feel better facing all of the grand uncertainties awaiting me… except for not knowing how harissa sauce and harissa cake are related; that one’s really annoying me.  Seriously, anybody have a clue?  Even Google didn’t know.

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Gilman Scholar Dustin Ellis’ Daily Life – Homestay

Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Dustin Ellis. Dustin is serving as a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during the academic year 2014-2015 studying in Barcelona, Spain. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.


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Ba Beenen Yoon! (“Until next time” in Wolof)

Life back in America! I can’t believe I’m home already. The last four months flew by and were filled with many memorable and life changing experiences. It’s difficult to put into word the mark that Africa and Senegal has left on my heart.  It’s been a rougher adjustment than I planned.

Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal… “Reverse culture shock” is the proper name. And it’s just another opportunity to take my experience and apply it in terms of normal life. G.K. Chester said, “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” America is foreign to me right now, yet this is why I love to travel! I feel that my adventure to Africa makes me a better American and permits me to live life and be more aware of my surroundings. Traveling is what brings life- no wonder most humans enjoy traveling.

So now what!?!? In five short months I will graduate with my undergraduate degree. I will have some big life changes- graduate school, work, travel? Such big decisions, but my dream is to combine all three. I am applying to three graduate programs and working hard to achieve my dream of becoming a foreign service officer. And Africa? I WILL go back. I have to because it means so much to me.  It has taught me valuable lessons that I hope to integrate, particularly the power in community, the value of creating long lasting relationships, and understanding the precious truth that people are what matter most, not material things.

I already had a funny experience with my new “Africanized” self. In Brussels, I had a long layover, so my friend Nobi and I decide to go downtown and check out the Christmas market. We stopped at a waffle shop (because how could you go to Belgium and not get a waffle???), and I started talking with the waffle lady. “How are you?” “How is your family?”  She gave the strangest look and sheepishly muttered “OK.” I realized that we don’t ask people about their personal life in western culture. She was probably thinking that I was a stalker or I was trying to get a favor from her. I hope to be more open because of my study abroad time in Senegal. I believe deep down people enjoy this little piece of Africa, even though their culture might be screaming “Stranger Danger!” I’m grateful that my cultural blindfold has been lifted up for a few months to better enjoy the world around me.

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“Setting Foot on One’s Own Country as a Foreign Land”

Nearly every day of my semester abroad my colleagues and I would long for something we missed about the States, whether it be something as seemingly trivial as “real” ketchup, or something as abstract as the subtle pleasure of public anonymity. Now that I am back in the States, I am struck by the truth of the fact that we human beings never seem to be able to be content with the things we have in front of us—the grass is indeed greener on the other side of the fence, or in this case, on the other side of “the pond”.Xiahe

Right away, standing at the baggage claim at O’Hare airport in Chicago, I felt the pangs of reverse culture shock. Everything was in English! The intercom announcements, the signs, the chatter of the people around me. I had become so used to having to strain to understand even the most simple intercom announcement, and eavesdropping had become a learning activity rather than an automatic reflex. But the strongest shock of all was the overt physical difference of the people. There were people of all different shapes, sizes, skin-colors, and languages being spoken. I had become so used to the ostensible homogeneity of the appearances of the Chinese public. As superficial as this observation may be, it leaves a strong impression upon any “foreigner” who has spent time in China and does not fit this physical mold. Returning to the United States reminded me of the unique quality of our nation, which brings together people from diverse nations, language-groups, ethnicities, religions, and political ideologies. For that reason, it felt good to be back. Despite the long journey home, I waited for my bags with a big grin on my face.

A few days later, I found myself sitting alone in my apartment, eating Chinese takeout with chopsticks. It was only then that I became aware of how much I missed life in China, and how much of an impact my time there had on me on so many levels. I miss the cheap food, the snack carts that can be found on any given corner at any given hour, the fresh produce markets, the hot soymilk for fifty cents, no tipping, the men and women gathered in mornings and evenings in the local park, square, or parking lot, practicing tai-chi, ball-room dancing, roller-blading, or playing the Chinese version of hackey-sack (and the sense of community these scenes express). I miss the novelty of each new day’s experience, and the challenge that was sure to present itself in struggling to accomplishing even the most basic tasks. I miss the camaraderie of my colleagues and the intensity of my Chinese language course. And possibly most of all, I miss the WeChat stickers.

On the other hand, it is great to be back. It is hard to do justice to the joy of switching on my phone, and being able to open youtube, facebook, gmail, or perform a google search in a matter of seconds. Not to mention the ease of going online in general—I can actually upload photos and stream movies without having to connect to a VPN!! At times the Great Firewall was beyond enraging, particularly around mid-terms and finals when all I needed was to quickly access my email or look something up, but it takes over an hour for your VPN to connect, or the internet is operating slower than the speed of molasses and nothing will load.

The first time I went out to dinner with my family after getting back, I just could not decide what to order. Everything sounded amazing, and for the life of me I could not pull the trigger. Only in retrospect did I realize that this was in part due to the fact that for the first time in five months I could actually read and understand everything that was on the menu—no wonder I had trouble: there were so many options!! It’s also very nice to have hot water at any hour of the day, and to be able to drink water out of the tap without a second thought. And though it is so quickly taken for granted, I am so happy not to have to worry about checking the air quality index on a day-to-day basis, or whether or not I should wear a mask. The air here in Chicago may be freezing cold, but hey—at least it is clean.DSC_0524

At least for me, China is a place that you can’t have a fling with. Even a short period of time spent living there changes you. The cultural differences, the language, the food, the way of life—all of it gets under your skin and becomes a part of you. Its influence envelopes you and beckons you back. After I graduate this spring, I want to return for a longer period of time. I want to make more progress in speaking Mandarin. I want to continue to travel within China in order to experience first-hand its complexity and diversity. I would like to live in a city other than Beijing, just to get a feel for a different city with a different feel than the capital. I plan to take at least a year to travel and work there, before continuing on to graduate school. I am confident that the progress in language skill in addition to the experiences gained from traveling in a foreign land will become defining life-long assets. I can say that this semester study abroad, though it seemed to fly by, has definitively shaped my future goals and the course of my life’s path. I am infinitely grateful to have had the opportunity to study abroad, and encourage anyone with a similar opportunity to jump on it. You will not be disappointed.

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