Dreams of Jordan and Struggling With the Meaning of Home

It is half past midnight and I am sitting in my favorite cafe in first circle finishing up an overdue blog post. The music shuffles between soft Arabic music and covers of random American songs, and the whift of Turkish coffee programs another three hours of energy into my body. My best friend is blowing up my phone to come outside so we can start our night. I close my laptop and say goodbye to the waiters I have grown close with, and the graphic walls that have witnessed many tears, laughters, and creations. The best part about late-night blogging is the adventures that start afterwards: the shawerma runs, the chai karak stops, and the blasting of disco Turkish and Arabic music as we ride through all of the circles that make up the great city of Amman.

Or at least I wish.

It has been three weeks since I have returned to the States, and having to reflect on being back is something I hoped to procrastinate for as long as possible. I am currently sitting at a Starbucks on 35th and State Street in Chicago, as I try and talk myself into a state of satisfaction. Amman spoiled me with their intricate and unique cafes, and this cookie cutter coffee shop is far from an environment that induces writing creativity.

Reverse culture shock hit me the second I got through customs in O’hare airport and not a single person came to help me as I struggled to load three overweight luggages onto a cart. Sixteen hours before I was at Queen Alia International Airport, where no Jordanian man let me lay a finger on any of my heavy bags. Chivalry definitely fought against the perpetuating stereotype of women treatment in the Middle East. Coming out of baggage claim, the first thing I see is my mom waiting nervously for me, and immediately, the waterworks hit. But these tears weren’t just because I was happy to see my mom after nine months, there was something unnerving that vibe against me. Feeling like a stranger in a city you grew up in, to this day, is hard to explain to anyone who asks. Going home to a place that no longer feels like home was not something I was able to put into words as I cried the whole ride home while my mom wondered why I was so unhappy to be back.

I felt terrible to have my very excited mom question how I could be sad after being away from her for nine months, but there was no dictionary in the world that had the word bank to string together the confusion and tangled up emotions I was feeling. I spent months creating a new life and a new home for myself. I wasn’t just studying abroad anymore, I was living abroad. It was hard to close this chapter of my life, but it was even harder to say goodbye to everyone and everything I was leaving behind: my host family, my teachers and staff, the owner of the mini market next to my house, my doormen and his cute family, the coffee stand I went to every morning, and most importantly, my best friend Laith. Jordan witnessed a lot of growth from me, and I am thankful for each and every person I met along this journey that taught me love and strength.

I don’t want to get into a long spiel about the deteriorating capitalistic lifestyle we lead in America, but I miss the simplistic way of life that I lived in Jordan. There is nothing better than knowing that purchases I made from mini markets or small shops downtown went to supporting a local family and a local business. A sight that hit me the hardest was seeing the vast homeless population in Chicago again. People sleeping on the streets, begging for a meal, is not something you see in Jordan. Arab culture has a very strong sense of community that leaves little to no room for one to be without a pack. Jordanians are very hospitable people: always welcoming others and making sure, very thoroughly, that no one is hungry in the slightest bit. It is disheartening to come back to a place where the economy is much better, but the value of life is seen as much less.

One thing I will say I am happy to see again is public transportation. Jordan is still working on an effective method of public transportation, but it is a difficult topic to juggle with when taxis provide a good income for a significant percentage of Jordanian families.

It is hard to compare two things where they don’t compare, and even though I have begun to adjust to being back in the States, Jordan will always hold a big place in my heart. Now, as most students do when they return from abroad, I am looking for ways to go back. I have two more years left of undergrad, and after that, I plan to return to the Middle East; whether I am advancing my Arabic studies again, teaching English, or doing research, the journey does not end here.

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The Dive Down Under

I stand on a distant land 

A continent of wonders, where the beaches sparkle and the plains glow with red sand 

This country is an undiscovered alcove far removed from people on this Earth 

I spend my days surfing, my nights walking through the streets eyes alight in mirth 

Here in Sydney I have seen myself change

I no longer shuffle along through life, worried that my lack of stress is strange 

And when I floated amongst the waves at the Great Barrier Reef 

The sun shining, my scuba diving gear a comfortable weight upon my shoulders,

I breathed in the salt and thought back to my first two years of college 

How I waffled along the streets of New York, blinded by my spanning to-do list

Study all night, get a job, go to graduate school, buy a house, plan for retirement, know my every life step, 

I realized I don’t need to know everything that is coming 

All that mattered was the soft inhale-exhale of my first scuba dive 

All that demanded my attention was the bright coral and the sea turtle waving a slow hello,

I was so happy that I had done it, checked something off my bucket list 

And proud that I allowed myself to sink and put my faith in my training 

When I got out of the water, I called my father and saw his tears of joy 

This boy from a tiny island in the Caribbean had seen his immigrant father’s dreams fulfilled 

On that day I learned how simple it could all be 

If I just step back and allow myself to be free 

Perhaps studying abroad didn’t create a new me 

Instead, it pulled back the curtains on the type of life I could not see 

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Reverse Culture Shock and the Journey Back Home

Coming back to New York City after my grand Australian journey has affected me in many ways, mainly in the form of reverse culture shock. Reverse culture shock, best described by Dean Foster of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, is what happens when “returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer”. The feeling is especially jarring since I proudly proclaimed New York City as my new home after accepting my offer to attend NYU two years ago! 

As I got on my flight, I suppose I embraced the first level of the shock, excitement! I kept thinking about all things in New York City that I’ve missed, including eating my standard bacon and egg sandwich at the bodega near my apartment, or thrifting with my friends in Brooklyn. I was excited to see all of the little markers that signified home for me: my family, my friends, the block festivities the line the streets of Harlem, and even the crazy crowds during NYC midtown rush hour! But then, as the plane pulled into the tarmac and I sat with my cousin in her apartment in Harlem I started to feel the second stage: the loneliness of having such a monumental experience that only I witnessed. My family asked if I wanted any refreshments and upon my request of tea with milk, I noticed their quizzical looks. Even down to the littlest things, I had changed. As I walked the Manhattan streets I started to miss how in Australia the people walked slower, as if enjoying the environment around them. In New York, anything less than running is deemed unacceptable. I craved the beaches that so easily dotted the Sydney coastline, the cheeriness of the people I had met in Australia, and the laid back lifestyle where flip flops and board shorts was the extent of high fashion. 

While in Australia, my Aussie friends were always so curious about life in New York. I educated them on the pure energy the city oozes, the life in one millisecond pace, and the loads of different people living incredibly different lives. I realize, I never told them how tiring it could be at times. While in Sydney, my life was slower paced, and my biggest worry was whether I would purchase strawberries at Paddy’s Market or Wooly’s (Woolworths). Now, as a rising junior studying business, I am back to worrying about jobs, internships, and resumes. 

But even though everything has changed, I find myself trying to reach the final stage of reverse culture shock: integration. My Australia life and my New York life don’t have to be so different. I can drink my tea with milk while gorging on my bacon egg and cheese sandwich. I can smile at kind strangers instead of the gruff New York thank you. Perhaps I still won’t wear flip flops in NYC, because that would be a nightmare, but board shorts and a plain white t-shirt can be my SoHo fashion statement.

What is next for me, you may ask? The next frontier. My web searches have been for internships in California: the booming Silicon Valley, expansive Los Angeles, and the laid-back lifestyle of San Diego. These places are destinations I’ve never been to but nevertheless places that my friends who studied abroad with me said reminded them so much of Australia. Who knows I may yet still find myself back on that plane to Sydney, with my flip flops and board shorts in tow. If there is one thing that Australia taught me, however, it is this; whether I’m in NYC, California, or somewhere else in this huge world, I need to stop, breathe, and appreciate the world around me because after-all, the grass is greener where you water it. 

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A Shift in Perspective

I started my journey in Melbourne both nervous and excited about this new venture in my life. I discussed my thoughts and expectations in my first blog post titled, “Home is Behind, The World Ahead”. Now that I’ve been living and attending university in Melbourne for the past few months, it has now become a familiar place to me. I have made a group of friends, study partners, and discovered some of my favorite spots in the city. I now feel more like someone who lives in Melbourne and less like a tourist or visitor.

Another thing that has changed is my perspective on living and studying abroad. My academic and professional goals are the same as they were before I left for Melbourne, and they will be made possible with the help the Gilman Program has provided. Along with the financial support from Gilman Program, the Program also supplied me with resources such as the Gilman Alumni network. The information shared by this network combined with my experience abroad has me considering attending graduate school abroad. My experience in Melbourne has exposed me to the difference in academic institutions throughout the world, and what these unique differences can offer me.

Studying in Melbourne has provided me with more academic independence, collaborative opportunities, and ways to ask for help strategically. Specifically, at the University of Melbourne there are fewer tutoring resources and help outside of class than I am used to at my home institution; especially for my math and computer science classes. This has resulted in me building relationships with my classmates and professors, as well as required me to do a lot of independent work and research outside of class.

I wouldn’t say that my time abroad has changed me as a person, but it has changed my viewpoint, increased my skills, helped me meet amazing people, and gain new experiences. I now no longer feel limited to the United States and realize that I can go anywhere in the world to work or study. As a member of the Gilman community, I know that I will have Gilman’s support to make that possible. This perspective change is what differs the most from my initial thoughts. I started my study abroad experience expecting a new and exciting time and will be leaving with a new outlook on this area of my life.

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Finding Self-Love and Growth in the Middle East

A frazzled me August 12, 2018 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport!

As I enter my last few weeks in Amman, I ponder the important questions of return: What will I eat for lunch when there is no 1 JD shawarma or 70 cent hummus options? Where will I go for sporadic 5 JD for 2 Mall Pharmacy ear piercings? Who will I drive around with during the late hours of the night while listening to music and drinking chai karak?

This semester, I was growing excited to return home. I have been in the Middle East since the middle of August, and it has almost felt like my real life has been on pause for a second while I have been living out this sort-of fake life. But, as the days draw in closer and closer, I have become extremely sad, anxious, and hesitant to return to the States. It has been nine months, and within these nine months I have built a whole new life here.

With study abroad comes many adventures; traveling with friends and exploring hidden parts of the city, meeting new people and finding unique items, but the adventures that are less often talked about are the ones you take by yourself. Before coming abroad, I was very co-dependent on friends and family. I hated being alone, and actually feared being by myself. I came on this journey due to the ever-so overbearing need to find solitary contentment, and I can truthfully answer that I have accomplished that goal. Whether I pass time playing with the colorful art of makeup or the intricate science of fashion, try out different handwriting as I write timeless poetry or indulge in historical fiction, it is time just for me where I get to explore the realms of my creativity. The people you meet during your time abroad all shape you in many different ways, but, the person you find in yourself is always the person you least expected to meet.

One of the most important skills I have developed while being abroad is my confidence in speaking and using my voice. Because I came to Jordan with very broken Arabic, it took a lot of confidence to use my voice to talk to people and ask for things on a normal day to day basis. But, one does not acquire a language by being shy to speak it, and because my desire to be able to speak Arabic is rooted in deeper identity reasons, I took it upon myself to always practice no matter how much I failed to express myself. The best part about this was that because this country grew to feel like home to me, I became extremely comfortable speaking Arabic. Even Jordanians will agree that Arabic is an extremely hard language to learn, and because of this, instead of laughing at you for saying or pronouncing something incorrectly, they are proud that you are learning Arabic and politely correct you. Furthermore, I decided to take it upon myself to improve my general public speaking skills. I began performing in poetry slams and stomping on my anxiety. Coming from marginalized backgrounds and having an identity that is undoubtedly politicized puts you in many situations where having a strong voice is not a skill, but a requirement. Being told by friends and colleagues that they admire how confident I am is one of many rewards in the arduous journey of building my voice.  

Additionally, I have always had the plan to go to law school straight after undergrad. But, since being here, I have come across many people who have graduated undergrad and are doing a year abroad, either taking their language studies to the next level, teaching English, or doing research. I have become aware of so many post-graduate opportunities that exist that I would love to indulge in to provide myself with more experiences and more knowledge before entering law school. That being said, studying abroad as well has strengthened my desire to be an international human rights lawyer. In regards to visiting several neighboring countries in the Middle East, child labor and access to education has become a consistent developmental issue I have noticed, especially in areas that are more poverty stricken or refugee populated, and it is my career and personal goal to be able to make a change in that area. 

Being a runner in Amman, Jordan, meant having to run on very hilly streets. As a runner from the Midwest, the first few months here were inexplicably hard. I tried to find flat land that I could run longer distances on, and after realizing that that is actually impossible to find in this city, I had to activate my quads and work my runs up those hills. As well, since the running scene here is borderline non-existent, I had to accept the fact that not only was I going to be stared at, I was going to be harassed by cars passing me on the street. Of course this was annoyingly frustrating, but persevered, and most importantly, proud of myself for not succumbing to the discouragement. I ran my 2nd official half marathon while abroad in Petra, Jordan, and, my 1st official marathon in Bethlehem, Palestine!

Accomplishing my goal of running my first marathon abroad shaped my experience here in a very unique way. This semester I was in an intensive Arabic program, where I had Arabic classes for six hours a day on top of hours of homework at night. This meant that I had to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning everyday to train for this marathon. Training abroad taught me diligence and made me physically and mentally stronger.

As I look back on my time here, there is not a thing I would change. I am beyond grateful for every bad and every good experience I have had here. The other day, I was reading over my journal entry that I wrote while sitting in the Frankfurt International airport during my layover on my way here. The last lines of the entry wrote:

“It was now time to board my next flight. This flight lead me towards nine months of growth and an unimaginable amount of knowledge. The only thing left that I had to do to get there, was simply scan my boarding pass and cross the gate.”

With tears in my eyes, I now unwillingly have to close this chapter and continue trekking forward. Adjusting to life back home is my next big task, and until then, I will be giving all of my last love (and money) that I have left to give to Jordan. My time here is up, and as astounded as I am, I am not surprised at how fast these nine months went by.

It is ma’a salama for now, not forever.

-Sofia

Me nine-months later in my 2nd home, Jordan!

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