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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Traveling is SHOCKING!

Jumping head first into a cold swimming pool is never at the top of a list of things I want to do, yet coming from Arizona and Texas, a summer without swimming is not a summer at all. The shock of cold water is in many ways compared to the culture shock of jumping into on an airplane to travel to foreign lands. Many people have had this same shocking feeling that seems to have different levels of effect on each person.

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While here in Senegal, I have experienced culture shock. One would think that after 3 months of showering with a bucket, the faint squeal that escapes my mouth would soon become a natural part of life; it hasn’t. The culture shock of Senegal comes in different forms and although I have learned to cope and love some traits of the culture, other parts of the culture just never seem to get to the “comfy” level.


So here’s the chart! After reading it, I would agree that it’s fairly accurate. Fortunately for me, it is not my first time traveling abroad, and I feel that the more often a person travels, the smoother and straighter the line becomes. The best part about this chart is that it gives a general emotional roller coaster to an experience that has several more ups and downs. I felt with each characteristic of the new culture, I was excited, then annoyed, then accepting. For example, the food was so exciting to begin with. I loved eating rice and fish and everything Senegalese. After a few weeks of eating the same things day in and day out, the food lost its luster. However, I am sure when I return home, I will get cravings for a good poulet yassa or ceebu jen for as long as I live. The timing of the food culture shock was different from the timing of the culture shock with my family.

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Just like jumping into the cold water prevents people from going swimming out of fear, traveling scares people from going to foreign soil. Especially with misconceptions of the current EBOLA outbreak, travel to the country of Senegal is ceasing. The fact is that EBOLA doesn’t exist here. One case was cured and the country has an extensive health and sanitary department that promotes healthy living and combatting the EBOLA virus. Don’t be the person who spends each summer of life outside the pool due to your fear of the shock. Travel. Be uncomfortable. Expand your horizons.

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Just like you know it’s time to get out of the pool as your fingers start to wrinkle and become prune like, I feel that my time in Senegal is soon coming to an end. It’s bittersweet to leave, but I know that I will get to jump back into the shivering cold pool of culture shock and travel soon. Bottom line: I love jumping feet first into adventure and every time I do, the culture shock shocks a little less.

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Stop Panicking: A Gringa in Chile

Mucho Gusto! My name is Lindsay, and normally I’d introduce myself as an Elementary/Bilingual Education and Spanish Student from Southern Connecticut State University. However, this semester, I’ve traveled all the way to the remarkable city of Valparaíso, Chile to study at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso.

I am most definitely a crier. I cry when I’m angry or hurt; when I’m touched by an act of kindness; when my contacts irritate my eyes. But when I said goodbye to my family and boyfriend in the airport, I didn’t cry or feel sad. I felt nervous about getting through airport security by myself, but not about leaving everything I know behind to be swallowed-up by an entirely new culture.

I wasn’t anxious until I finally boarded the plane at 1:30 in the morning, after a five-hour delay. I managed to find my seat, and began scouring for an overhead compartment to store my mint green carry-on. I struggled to understand the instructions the flight attendant described to me in Spanish.  I finally burst out, “I don’t speak Spanish!”

I sat down in my tiny blue airplane seat and began to shake in panic. Thus began my immersion into the Spanish culture and language. Announcements were delivered in Spanish, the flight attendants attempted to speak to me in Spanish, and the emergency warnings scattered along the plane might as well have been written in Sanskrit. Due to the language barrier, during the first few days of my stay in Chile I was in a constant state of panic and confusion.

I feel that this frightening experience of being completely immersed in a language you don’t know, is something you can not truly understand until you have experienced it. It is something so different than anything I have ever felt before.

I felt inadequate every time I couldn’t remember a word and became frustrated with myself when I couldn’t follow a conversation. I pressured myself to suddenly gain the ability to understand the entire Spanish language, as if I thought that learning an entire language in one day was a possible feat.

I panicked every time someone spoke Spanish to me until I finally expressed my concerns another student. She consoled me and calmed all my fears by explaining to me, “We’re all in the same boat. Everything will come in time.” I honestly think that is some of the best advice for any study abroad student. If you tend to be an anxious, intellectually competitive stickler like I can be, this is the time to let go and stop competing.

You will adjust in your own time. There will be a time where you can finally understand. That time will come, but now is the time to let go and just roll with the waves. Do not pressure yourself to know everything at once because no matter what, at the end of this marvelous and terrifying journey you will have flourished and grown into a stronger, more intelligent, adaptable, and independent person. Let this fact be your hope and have an open mind during this remarkable adventure.

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Friendship

How the heck do they spend so much time talking?! It’s ridiculous! Parties last from 2 o’clock on a Friday afternoon to 5 a.m. Saturday morning, and they’re talking the whole freakin’ time. Blah blah blah, yak yak yak. And they’re always smiling – you’d think they had a surgical implant that left them with permanent grins. And I have homework to do, blog posts for a scholarship I need to write, a future (really really important) career to plan….RIGHT NOW. They’re too happy…it doesn’t make sense. Something must be wrong underneath it all, right?

Wrong. So very, very wrong.

I’m honestly ashamed that those were some of my thoughts about Danish social life after being thrust into it for a couple of weeks. The complete change in my attitude towards them and towards friendship thankfully has, I hope, left me a better person, and such a complex shift is no easy notion to convey using mere words. I won’t attempt that here. But I think that a start is to give you some candid vignettes of my feelings and thoughts throughout the change. I realize that what I’ve written can seem choppy – but I think it’s the closest I can come to accurately describing the change. Each paragraph represents a fundamentally different mindset I was in towards the Dane’s focus on social interaction; I’ve written a short conclusion to try to give them some context. It’s an unusual format, but I hope something of value comes through…

 

Late October

Nate, come on. This isn’t so bad, I think you need to slow down. Sure partying with your fraternity brothers at Oktoberfest was fun, and you unexpectedly ran into friends from your program in Salzburg and explored with them. And it felt wicked classy to view the innumerable masterpieces in the Vatican with Jeffrey the art history major you met at DIS. But you enjoyed those times because you slowed down. Because you made time to get to know the people you were with. Isn’t this the same? Didn’t you come to Denmark to explore their culture? This is part of it! So let the worries about your work go…it doesn’t matter as much as this.

 

After the Studytour with My Core-Course to Sweden and Estonia

Wow you’ve missed these guys. Your host mother Dot can be such a control-freak but it just means she cares, and the family interrupts you working for the same reason! You know, I think you made pretty good friends with Ryan, Dan, Rachel, and Saman over this break. Sure, you’re not best friends, but it was fun to hang out with them. And once again, you weren’t worried about working. It’s stupid to say but I really think you’re better at interacting somehow. You’ve always been a bit socially awkward – case in point you used to bounce your leg and fidget when talking with anyone. But you felt so much more relaxed when talking with people during this trip! And more confidant, and even clever? I think you’ve been too focused on what you need to do; you haven’t been appreciating the fun people around you.

 

3 a.m., A Neighborhood Birthday Party

God, this celebration is still going? It’s so late, and everyone here is WIDE awake. And they’re just talking! Well, I guess the family over there is dancing and Anton is playing a game with his friends…this is really cool. I really want to be interested and interesting enough to be able to hold a conversation for this long! It’s incredible. Ok go talk to that guy, you haven’t met him yet.

 

Last Day in Copenhagen

Well, this is good I’m hanging out with my friends but I’m worried. They’re so new to me but I feel like I know them better than my friends, even my brothers, back at F&M. I guess I became friends with them back home by doing things together; Ryan and I did the relief trips to the south, Allen and I were roommates, Josh and I explored town. But do I really know them? Do I really know these four degenerates (and of course they’re not actually that bad) sitting around me and talking? Man, I haven’t been a good friend to my buddies back home at all – I’ve always put work first. How am I going to make it up to them in a single semester?

 

One week since coming home

I can’t believe this. I feel like I just got off the Tower of Terror at Disneyland – my body is back on familiar ground but my mind is still pumping with adrenaline and excitement. How can I possibly understand everything that happened in the last four months? How can anyone else? But being so worried about not being a good friend was stupid – of course I know my buddies! I think you just got tossed too quickly into having to worry almost exclusively about who you were socially. It’s incredible how much the Danes care about friendship – but it’s got to be both a blessing and curse though! For sure, that guy who just got divorced must have hated having to act so happy at the dinner. And it’s such a drain to have to be “on” all the time, to be ready to immediately put aside what you’re doing to laugh or comment. But it’s good too, right? They’re showing they care about each other, and it’s got to be part of their Janteloven precept that no one is better than anyone else. I don’t know, I definitely like just talking more than I used to.

Coda

As you can probably tell from the intro, in the first month of my study-abroad program I felt annoyed, frustrated, fed up with and confused by the huge investment of time and emotional energy my host family placed in their social life. Of course I wanted to get to know my host family, but it seemed that I couldn’t escape when I really needed to get work done. But fast-forward another month and I started to realize during my semester excursions abroad that I was missing my host family! Somehow through the thick-headed work-hard play-hard mentality I’d brought from F&M, they’d managed to get something through to me. Maybe it was their “hygge” notion of relaxing together with well-known confidants, maybe it was simply the comfort in trusting each other, but a very essential part of how it felt to be in the homestay with Dot, Jan, and Anton had grabbed hold of me at a fundamental level. Had I been too harsh, too quick to judge the time they spent together? Maybe it was more valuable than I’d thought…

The birthday party and study-tour were turning points for me. I started to really appreciate the art of conversation that my host family practiced whenever possible. And I was learning to really treasure the friends I was slowly getting to know in Copenhagen. I was coming to realize that without them, being in a foreign country would have no meaning. And I began to question myself and my other friendships – was I a good friend? What did that even mean? Another month and now I’m back home in the U.S. If nothing else, Denmark taught me about the importance of building strong friendships – and that you really do have to construct them, shape them with care and time and effort. As I said before, I look back at what I thought at the beginning of the program with guilt and even a bit of disgust, but hopefully it can help someone reading this to avoid my mistakes. To really appreciate whatever culture they’re visiting, open themselves to thinking and acting like the “natives.” And, of course, to talk with them.

Nathaniel Haycock - friendship

My friends from the DIS Program

 

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Culture Shock is a Real Thing

I’ve heard talk about culture shock many times in the past. I don’t think I ever understood why it happened, though, or why people didn’t just get over the “shock” of being in a new culture and place. Shouldn’t it be exciting and fun? Didn’t you want the completely different way of life?

The answer is yes. Yes, you wanted this, and yes, it’s exciting and fun. For a while, at least. To be honest, and maybe a little scientific too, there are actually multiple stages to culture shock. The first of these phases is feeling that everything is new, interesting, and exciting. I identified with this for a short two weeks during the first month of my time in Ecuador. I was intrigued by the different people and delighted by the array of new things to do and places to see. However, as it is for most people, that stage didn’t last, and I hit the next couple pretty quickly. Differences become apparent and irritating. Problems occur and frustrations set in, and, You may feel homesick, depressed, and helpless. These ones were a big theme throughout my semester, actually. I’ve struggled with a lot of homesickness – more than the average student does, in my mind. And that has been something I haven’t been able to understand about my own journey. Why me? Studying abroad has been my dream since I began high school. But now that I’m here doing it, it has turned out to be a bigger challenge than I had imagined it would be. The challenges, such as being alone across the world or trying to learn the new language completely, have led to some frustration. But, I think it’s important that students studying around the globe understand that that is normal. They aren’t the only student who has ever missed home before or gone through unexpected difficulties. Knowing that just might help bring them out of that stage a little bit sooner. Once a student learns that they can overcome their homesickness and the other problems, they really do learn that they can conquer anything, anywhere.

When moving on, you develop strategies to cope with difficulties and feelings, make new friends, and learn to adapt to the host culture. What sticks out to me here is the new friends part. I’ve said for months now that my Ecuadorian friends are the best thing I have here. It’s true. They are the ones who have made my experience and with whom I have my greatest memories abroad. Whether those experiences are playing volleyball, climbing up a volcano, grabbing lunch together, or just sitting and talking in Spanish, my new Ecuadorian friends have been the highlight of it all. I’ve adapted, and I’ve learned how to make it work navigating this different culture for 4 months.

You next accept and embrace cultural differences; you see the host as your new home and don’t wish to depart or leave new friends. I can identify with this stage the least. Yes, it is true that I’ve had a hard time dealing with the fact of likely never seeing these people again once I leave. However, I haven’t experienced the part of that fact compelling me to not want to go back to my home country and stay here instead. I know it definitely happens, as I’ve heard a number of other international students here saying how much they want to stay in Ecuador forever and never go home. As for myself, I’ve kind of jumped to the last step on the culture shock timetable and really experienced how you are excited about returning home. This country has been a great host and has taught me more than I’ve ever learned just living in the U.S. But the States are my home, and my heart and mind are looking forward to coming back and being a part of my country and my people again. For many reasons, I don’t think I’m alone in having that sentiment. Once again, it’s just another normal step in this entire process.

After all of that, and as much of a whirlwind that it can be, there is also this thing that exists called “Reverse Culture Shock.” This part comes into play once you’ve stepped foot again on your home soil and return to your life previous to going abroad. I can’t say I am an expert in these stages quite yet, but I just might be in a few weeks! Although I haven’t been there myself yet, the phases go something like this: 1. You may feel frustrated, angry, or lonely because friends and family don’t understand what you experienced and how you changed. You miss the host culture and friends, and may look for ways to return. 2. You gradually adjust to life at home. Things start to seem more normal and routine again, although not exactly the same. 3. You incorporate what you learned and experienced abroad into your new life and career.

This study abroad experience doesn’t end the moment you step off the plane on your flight back home. It continues. It goes with you and will always be a piece of you. The good and the bad – it is all part of how the experience has helped shape you and remake you.

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Interning it up in Dakar

This past semester I have had the privilege of working at an NGO (Non-governmental organization) called Culture D’Enfances (in English-childhood culture) that serves children in less fortunate economic backgrounds and gives them an opportunity to explore artistic and creative outlets that are usually not part of their daily routine.  We run activities at a cultural center that is situated in a “rougher” neighborhood and also visit many orphanages and schools.

The excitement of the vision of the organization keeps us motivated to continue and improve this start-up NGO. I have been able to write journals about the different work environment and work attitudes that contrast from that of America and see the difficulties for funding a non-profit organization.  I get to use a variety of skills (that I may or may not have had before) to create theater skits with kids, create and edit videos, paint, and even create logos for the organization.

My internship has molded my career plans by showing me the difficulties of running a NGO and the necessity for NGOs to help fill in the gaps of the state. Although I don’t feel that my particular NGO is having a great influence on the whole world, I do love to see the smiles it puts on each child’s face. It reminds me a lot of a short story about a starfish thrower (author unknown). It goes something like this:

A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water.

Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean.

As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water.

The man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, “I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen. “But”, said the man, “You can’t possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can’t possibly make a difference.”

The boy looked down, frowning for a moment; then bent down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea. He replied,

“I made a huge difference to that one!”

I’ve realized that no matter what I choose to do in my career, I need to focus on helping individuals and that a difference can be made. Although it would be cool to say that you cured cancer or solved the problem of world hunger or helped alleviate poverty, helping one person at a time is what counts most.

I am attaching a photo of a painting we made at an orphanage that translates to say, “Our future paints itself with the hands of our children.”

Josh Boatright - culture d'enfance

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Goodbye and Hello

I’ve been stateside now, back in Idaho, for one week. It’s really great to be back at home with my family and friends. But there’s also a feeling of sadness or emptiness too, as I’ve left my other home and family.

Goodbye is such a trite expression. But when we actually have to say it, and really mean it, it’s profound. It hurts. Saying goodbye to Barcelona, my host-family, and the new friends, it’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But that’s the bittersweet moment of study abroad I suppose. To know that you’ve done something incredible.

So onto the topic at hand, reverse-culture shock.

As I stepped off the plane, the first thing I see are the rolling barren hills of the surrounding horizon. Not more than a hundred yards from my town’s tiny airport is the familiar site of rundown trailer parks and uninspiring housing. There is no architecture. There is no art. There really is no culture to speak of in that regard. Because where I’m from is a simple place. Its history is brief compared to that of Barcelona. So it’s not really fair to even compare the two. But I would be lying if I said if I wasn’t just a tad shocked to remember that I was just in one of the most bustling and beautiful cities on the planet and now here I am in something so mundane and simple.

I was also surprised to see enormous vehicles again, and not a moto-scooter in sight. I suppose what adds to the emptiness of my home is that there are no people just walking about or casually sitting at street-side food and bar establishments. The culture here in the States, even in our largest cities, is for everyone to own a vehicle and drive it. So despite my city of 35,000 being literally 1/20th the size of Barcelona, the traffic felt just as bad.

The day after I got back, I went to the grocery store with my girlfriend. It wasn’t my usual street-front fresh produce stand, but instead a big box store, another icon of American culture. As we perused the isles, I was awe-struck for just a moment that I could understand every single conversation happening around me. No longer was I bombarded with Catalan, Spanish, Chinese, German, etc.. just English. I haven’t decided if I like that or not — but at least now I can be certain I’m not being teased in a language I don’t understand! :)

My girlfriend and I are hosting a little dinner with Spanish and Catalan style cuisine at our house, in an effort to maybe bring some of what I experienced abroad, home with us. That’s all we or anyone can do really. By bringing some of it back with you, using it in your life, you can hold on to some of those memories.

In the coming weeks I am applying for graduate school. I definitely believe this study abroad experience will benefit my application and make me standout from others. This truly is a unique and life-changing experience. I look forward to encouraging others as I go on in my studies and career to study abroad — take advantage of opportunities like the Gilman or the Fulbright and a host of others.

A sincere thanks comes from my heart to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Gilman Scholarship Program, and to my family and friends (wherever they are in the world).

Be excellent to each other.

¡Salud!

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