Then and Now: What I’ve Learned

The first thought I had leaving Dubai airport, as I struggled to drag my old worn out suitcase and keep up with my driver as he escorted me into the parking garage was, “Wow, it’s really humid.”

My second thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

As a rambunctious and adventurous woman its hard for me to admit, but that first night was rough. Exhausted and alone I walked into a bare dorm room and just laid on the bed, the protective plastic crinkling underneath me. The silence was suffocating. I unzipped my bag and slowly filled in the empty spaces: carefully placing my picture frames, hanging my clothes, and laying out my bedding preparing for a relatively sleepless night.

Nearly four months later— and in the midst of my final weeks in the semester – I often reflect on that first night and why I chose the UAE.  When people think of study abroad they think of grand adventures and luxurious excursions, but as I sift through the memories of the last few months my favorite ones are the small and mundane moments. Going for karak down the road, coffee dates, bonfires in the desert, late night rehearsals, and conversations in simple and broken Arabic.  The biggest lessons and the happiest moments were where I least expected them, and when I stopped trying to seek them out and trying to plan for them. I had to learn to go with the flow, something that does not come naturally to me in the slightest. Time is more relative for Arabs culturally and letting go of my American view on time and punctuality was a great hurdle.

Academically this semester was similar to my previous one back home, except a few credit hours lighter. Another thing no one tells you about study abroad is that you still have homework to do, essays to write, and tests to study for. However, it is much more about what you are learning that what grade you get. I audited a course for the first time, Arabic linguistics. I begged the professor to let me take it, confident I was up to the challenge. If I recall correctly her email back started with “let’s be realistic” and ended with instructions for who I needed permission from if I wanted to audit it. As a student who tends to obsess over percentages and my GPA, it was both uncomfortable and relieving to sit in a classroom knowing that I could make infinitesimal mistakes and it wouldn’t matter. A feeling I hope I can carry with me when I return home.

I came to the UAE to get better at my Arabic. If I have to say I have one regret it is that I did not take enough risks and talk to enough people in Arabic because I was too embarrassed. That being said I learned so much more about the culture and world perspective of Arabs, each one different then the other. To look past superficial differences, at first I didn’t think we were that different and in truth we weren’t thanks to the internet and globalization. Honestly it was almost more fun to listen to what questions they had for me, a common one being what I thought about american gun control policy. But a lot of these people faced things I never had to deal with, including arranged marriages and parental pressure to get married. In the end I learned to listen to everything and never assume.

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