Author Archives: Charlotte in Jordan

About Charlotte in Jordan

Charlotte is a junior at the University of Rochester studying Chemistry, Mathematics, and Arabic. She will be spending this semester in Jordan to better understand the Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture.

Pop-Tarts and Traffic Laws

The water pressure in my shower is glorious.  The hot water is, indeed, hot.  And the internet– it’s so fast!  It’s everywhere!

Why did I ever leave?  The United States are great.  There are traffic laws.  And pop-tarts.  And American coffee.

Being able to go barefoot around the house?  For the first time in four months?  Because I’m no longer living in the Middle East?  Awesome.

Telling people I’m vegetarian?  And having them know what that means?  And not debate me about it?  Awesome.

Public transportation being regular and timely?  And having set routes?  That I can actually look up online?  Awesome.

We might as well be the United States of Awesome.  So I’d like to take this opportunity to express my great appreciation for the US.  In the less serious ways, and the more serious ones– personal liberties, freedom of press, etc.  I’m grateful to the four months away from it to remind me of the big things and make me, for the first time ever, really think about the little ones.


(You knew that conjunction was coming, didn’t you?)

But there’s a lot to be said for Jordan as well.  For the call to prayer, a beautiful, ethereal sound to punctuate the day with moments of reflection.  For the ability to find a taxi anywhere, any time, and make it all the way across town for less than $7.  For the fact that there’s no such thing as nosy, so you and a complete stranger will go from “Hello!” to “So why don’t you have children?” in five seconds flat.  For the family-oriented culture that reminded me to appreciate my own.  Even for the strict social rules, since they helped me to become more conscientious, polite, and professional.  Jordan was beautiful, in so many ways, and I am honored to have experienced its culture.

I love the US– more than when I left, even– but the magic thing about love is that it’s not a finite resource.  Coming home and realizing the amazing things I’ve taken for granted in no way diminishes my love of Jordan.

And, really, that’s why I left in the first place: to find someplace I love, be it a new place or new appreciation for an old one.  Next year is senior year, so I’ve got some downright terrifying decisions coming up, and a big one for me is– do I want to live in the Middle East after graduation?  Stay to work in the US?  Return to North Africa, where I first discovered my love of Arabic?  And now, I think I know– but that’s for me to occasionally agonize over in sleepless nights, and you to find out.

Suffice it to say, being in Jordan has taught me about Arab culture, American culture, and myself.  And trading four months of really, really amazing showers and speedy internet for that understanding was totally worth it.

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Pushing Your Limits: The Value of Study Abroad

Here’s a graph about culture shock, which should seem familiar since it pops up on this blog a lot.


I’d really like to start this post with: I hate this graph.

“Hate” is a strong word, I know.  If you’d like, I have other words I could use to describe my relationship with this graph: loathe, despise, abhor, detest.

Not any better?  Alright, we’ll stick to hate.

I’m a math major.  And I’ve tried really, really hard, y’all, to spare you from hearing about that.  For example, fun story I almost wrote about: I had the same taxi driver two days in a row, and we ended up becoming friends! The way I was going to tell it: I literally calculated the odds that I would have the same taxi two days in a row– a little under 4 ten thousandths out of 1, for the curious– and then nestled that into a story about Pi Day because it happened in March.  (You’re welcome for changing that up.)

But now I have to write about a line graph, which is so solidly in my Mathematics Zone that there is no way to go about this without a little bit of SCIENCE.

Ahem, sorry for the caps lock, I got excited.

This is a line graph.  While the axes are unlabeled, the x-axis (along the bottom) is pretty obviously time, and the correspondence of “high points” with emotionally positive things, and vice versa, can lead us to guess that the y-axis is “happiness.”


And now, my dear reader, let me add a straight line, marking “constant happiness” from where you began, pre-study abroad.


And now, my dear reader, what do you notice?

You finish below the line of constant happiness.  You end up less happy.  Study abroad is a net negative.


(Disclaimer, it’s not just me: I showed the original, unmarked graph to Juliana, my roommate, for whom– and I quote– even basic math is difficult, and she still immediately asked, “So life will never be as good as before?”)

I’ve studied abroad before, thanks to the US Dept. of State NSLI-Y scholarship, and I can assure you that my life improved significantly.  That summer in Morocco altered my goals in life, political views, interpersonal relationships, perception of myself, America, and Arabs… and all for the better.  Were there low points, both during my trip and during reverse culture shock after?  Of course.

But were my happiness and life, overall, improved?  Of course!

And now, with the amazing opportunity to study abroad a second time with the Gilman Scholarship, yeah, sure, I identify with this graph on some level.  I had a week there in month two where I just wanted to see my friends, the ones I’ve been friends with for years instead of all the ones I’d just met; I anticipate some absolutely terrible reverse culture shock next month, when I want to take a taxi to downtown and listen to live Arabic jazz, and realize I’m in Kentucky where nothing interesting happens ever; of course I’ve had some local minima– er, I mean, “downs.”

But I still hate this graph, and I want you to all know that it gets things so so so so so wrong with regard to the most important part: where you end should be way higher than where you began, because studying abroad is awesome and will make your life better.

Brought to you by your not-so-local math major.

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The 28th Rule

I finished “40 Rules of Love” by the Turkish author Elif Shafak last week.  The book is named for the 40 Rules of Love formulated by Shams of Tabriz, a famous Sufi (Muslim mystic).  He was most famous for his relationship with the poet Rumi, another Sufi, who began the tradition of the whirling dervishes.

I say I finished the book, but I really mean that I read through the English translation; I’ve just started it in Arabic.  I’m a full 9 pages into the Arabic version, which may not sound like much, but I’m proud of it.

Arabic is a difficult language– it’s commonly accepted as one of the four hardest languages for native English speakers to learn, in fact.  Some days I stare at a page of Arabic conjugations, realize that I’ve forgotten to shorten a long vowel to a short one on a third-person irregular feminine plural, and curse my younger self for not choosing Spanish or French.  But if you gave me the chance to go back and pick again?  I’d stick with Arabic, because I really do love it (even if the grammar is a wee bit obnoxious).

Being in Jordan has shown me just how much more I have to learn.  It’s easy to get into your fourth or fifth Arabic class, start reading news articles, and think, “Man, I’ve learned so much!”  But the day-to-day struggle to direct taxi drivers or order coffee is a stark reminder that I’m not even close to where I want to be.  Not yet.

It’s also made me more committed than ever, though, to reaching that level.  I’m constantly exposed to new, beautiful aspects of the language and culture, which inspires me to learn more.  I’m finding new reasons to learn Arabic every day– a book I want to read, a beautiful song to play, or a really neat person I’d love to get to know, but can only do so in Arabic.

Thankfully study abroad is the sink-or-swim of language learning, so I get a little bit better every day.  I’m also better able to appreciate the skills that I do have– and being 9 pages into a novel, believe it or not, feels like an accomplishment.

I understood all 9 pages.  Sure, I had to look up quite a few words… but I didn’t have to look up any sentence in its entirety.  Arabic grammar is different enough from English that occasionally I’ll know every single word in a sentence, and still not be sure what it’s saying; that hasn’t happened so far.  9 pages in, and I understand what’s happening.

It’s 8 weeks into my time here, and I’m starting to feel the same way about Jordan.  I’m still occasionally confused by something, but overall I know what’s going on.  I understand the world around me.  I can read the street signs well enough to navigate home if I’m not sure where I am, I now generally have pleasant chats with people I meet. I feel comfortable here.  It requires more effort than being in the US, but it isn’t exhausting, it isn’t overwhelming, and it’s incredibly rewarding.  I’m genuinely enjoying day-to-day life here.

I’m also really enjoying this novel.  I liked it in English, and the prose sounds even more beautiful in Arabic.  I’ll be sad to finish it, when I make it through it the last 493 pages (so, um, maybe in like three years?).  Before that happens, though, something else will end: my time in Jordan.  I’m already starting to worry about the fact that I’m halfway done– half of my days here, my short and sweet four months, are gone.

But I shouldn’t worry.  The whole point of the novel, which draws heavily on Sufi themes, is that we only have now.  We can worry about the past or the future, but– in this instant– neither one exist.  I only have myself sitting in the afternoon sun writing about this book, and you only have yourself, right now, reading my words.

It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn by heart this semester, enjoying each of my days here, but not counting.  Maybe I don’t have two more months– maybe I’ll get struck by lightning and die today (knock on wood) or maybe I’ll return and be in Jordan for years in the future.  It’s impossible to know.  But today?  I have today in Jordan, today to enjoy sunlight and reading and maybe even a lazy weekend nap.  It’s very in-line with Arab culture, which is slower than at home, less concerned with where you’ll be in five years, more about enjoying where you are right now.  So I’m going to take some deep breaths of the sandy Jordanian air, and think about  the 28th Rule of Love: “The past is an interpretation. The future is an illusion… If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.”

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Frowns and Bidets

The Gilman Program gives me a topic to write about for each post (sorry if you were mislead about the level of my creativity before now, this is literally just guided rambling), and this week’s is, essentially, about friendship.  Coincidentally enough, I’m writing you from the bedroom of the first friend I made in Jordan!  Who… isn’t actually Jordanian.

She’s a Palestinian, living here to attend college.  She’s funny, clever, and loves to read.  We talk about Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes (we both like detective novels) and guys and chocolate (come to think of it, we have a lot of common interests).  I’ve spent the past seven hours here, with her refusing to let me leave when I ask if I’m overstaying my welcome, because Arab hospitality is no joke.  We ordered Chinese food and watched American television and talked about a Turkish novel we’re reading together and dipped German cookies in our English tea.

So, you know, it’s been pretty perfect.

I’m not particularly surprised I made a Palestinian friend before any Jordanian ones: partially because approximately half the population of Jordan identifies as Palestinian (with over 2.1 million registered refugees from there) and partially because of al-Keshra al-Urduniya (الكشرة الاردنية), the Jordanian Frown.

I have a friend from school, Shurouq, who has lived here and campaigned pretty heavily for Jordan when I was picking my study abroad program.  Whenever something strange happens, I’ll often message her to ask, “3aadee?” “Is this normal?”  The first week she helped me figure out better ways to hail taxis; a few weeks later she explained the great mystery that had been bidets (want to talk about super duper cultural awkwardness?); and in the fifth week I asked her why all the nice people I’d met turned out not to actually be Jordanian.

I met someone unbelievably sweet who invited me to her home for a meal later that week, and during dinner with her family, I learned about their forced migration from Syria.  A hilarious taxi driver, who literally had me in tears of laughter by the end of my half-hour ride, shared his own struggle to find some place safer to live than Palestine.  A British tourist, of all people, saved me when my infamously terrible sense of direction got me completely turned around at Petra.

I was sure plenty of nice Jordanians existed, especially considering that my host family and teachers are all great.  But judging only by initial interactions with strangers, by the time week 5 rolled around, every single person I’d labeled as “nice” wasn’t actually Jordanian.  So I went to Shurouq to ask, “3aadee?”

“Oh!” she answered. “Didn’t I tell you about the Jordanian Frown?”

Apparently, Jordanians are famous for their unhappy appearance.  Shurouq sent me a comic about it: titled “Jordanian Expressions,” it showed the same frowning face four times, labeled in turn as “sad,” “angry,” “happy,” and “the peak of happiness.”  After the topic came up in my Arabic class one day, the teacher gave us a listening exercise on a segment from a Dubai news channel investigating why Jordanians seem so outwardly unfriendly.  (They finally decided that “Jordanians’ smiles are on the inside.”)

Coming not only from America– we learned in our cultural orientation that a solid portion of the world finds Americans obnoxiously and overbearingly friendly– but from the treacly-sweet, tip-your-hat American South, I found it rather difficult to accept the sheer number of people literally averting their face as we passed each other.  It’s one thing to leave all your friends at home to study abroad; it’s another thing entirely to feel unwelcome when you do.

And so it was with great relief that I met Haya, whose outward appearance is as welcoming as her personality turned out to be, completely by chance in a coffee shop.  We giggled and exchanged phone numbers, met up to practice English and Arabic, and at some point quit pretending to have “lessons” because we really just wanted to eat those cookies and watch TV together.  (The upshot: if you want to avoid all the awkwardness of figuring out, “how do I make friends?” then language partners are the perfect excuse to meet with someone and chat and pass that weird proto-friendship stage.)  I was so happy to finally have someone to look forward to hanging out with, even if her nationality had me asking Shurouq what was up.

In the time since, I’ve made Jordanian friends too.  I figured out where the girls on campus hang out between classes, and have become close enough to some of them to not feel awkward just showing up.  The Peer Language Assistant for the study abroad program and I have gotten to where I meet him to practice Arabic, sure, but also to joke around and gossip like old ladies (Jordan’s national pastime).  I’ve slowly gained a community that I know will welcome me and a friend who’s willing to let me hang out in her room for seven (or make that eight, now) hours, and that makes everything exponentially better.

It’s true: Jordanians are smiling, even if it’s only on the inside.  I still ask gregarious taxi drivers where they’re from, since I have yet to find one who answers Jordan, but knowing more Jordanians makes me not mind the hard expressions so much.  It isn’t a reflection of who they are or how they feel about having you around, it’s just one of those cultural things– initially tricky but no worse than my earlier dilemmas of taxis or bidets.

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I’m Not Saying My Breakfast Was Better Than Yours, But…

One of the most obnoxious things you ever have to deal with is someone returning from a study abroad and comparing everything in America (especially food) to whatever exotic, fantastic place they visited.  “Oh,” they’ll sniff, “the burgers were so much better in Germany!”  Or perhaps they’ll sigh at lunchtime, “If only I had some French cheese!  They really know to make a meal there…” and then launch into an extended lecture on the superiority of some foreign cuisine.

To avoid becoming that person– because nobody likes that person– I’m promising right now that when I get back to America, unless directly asked, I will not mention how much better x, y, or z was in Jordan.

I’ll never say that the sunset is prettier.  Or that the stars are brighter.  Or that the air is airier.  Or talk about, oh man, how good the food is.

Breakfast at home is a granola bar eaten on the way to class– if I bother with anything more than my coffee.  Today, however, I had cake for breakfast.

In Jordan, this is an acceptable choice. You can totally have cake with breakfast, which doesn’t differ from lunch and dinner like it does in the States.  My host family usually serves pita with cheese, olives, oil and spices, dinner leftovers, and even dessert.  Add in the instant coffee I bought for myself, and breakfast is officially my favorite meal of the day.

Way better than that granola bar, is what I’d say, if I were going to say anything.

Lunch doesn’t have to be any different than usual; Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King, and all your other major fast food chains are within walking distance of our school.  The downside is that eating there will cost you 7 or 8 dollars– expensive even by the standards of home.  Comparing those prices to 45 cent falafel sandwiches at Ibn Batuta restaurant, it’s no wonder most students opt for something with a side of hummus, not french fries.  But of course, I won’t complain about food prices in America, when I can no longer budget $1 a day for lunch.

The most popular option is Bab al-Yemen, which serves up communal dishes you probably can’t pronounce.  Part of the experience is that everything is served with bread– not as a side dish, but as your plate and silverware.  Since it goes without saying that this is a better way of serving food, I won’t say it.

And I promise, when I get home, not to sigh as I shake my silverware from its napkin wrapping, in the hopes that someone will ask what’s wrong.  I promise not to then wax poetic about the sense of community you get from sharing dishes with the table, and literally breaking bread with friends.

There’s always food on the table when Juliana, my roommate, and I get home, thanks to our host family.  Our host mom is an amazing cook– responsible for that cake we had with breakfast.  She’s also responsible for the cheese, olives, etc., since she believes in making everything herself.  So not only is everything good… everything is really good.

Better than home?  Well, you’ll never know.  Because I’ll never take a conversation about cooking as a chance to humble brag about my awesome host mother.  Or about how great it is that Jordanian culture really values home-cooking.  Or about that cake, which, seriously, I couldn’t adequately describe even if I were to try.

I promise never to talk about shakshuka, my favorite dish so far, which consists of eggs and peppers and… um, other things.  (Someday my Arabic will be good enough to ask what those other things are, but today is not that day.)  Suffice it to say that shakshuka’s fantastic… or to not say that, because there’s really no reason to mention how good it is.  Or to add that between our host mom’s cooking and the fact that Jordanians don’t seem to stress about avoiding “bad” foods like Americans do (chocolate, bread, etc.), I feel like my diet contains about 100% more carbs and 200% more deliciousness than usual.

Thankfully our university has a gym to run off some of what I’m eating because, to put non-pretentiously, totally honestly, and without any bragging: the food here is pretty good.

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