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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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Filed under Charlotte in Jordan, middle east

Mi Llegada

I have been planning for this day all semester. I dreamt up many imaginations about Guatemala as a place where I could escape my everyday life and learn to truly live in the moment and trust God to help me navigate my way around. That has been true to some extent. Some things are easier than I imagined and others are more difficult. I knew before I came that I wanted to prepare myself for the culture by brushing up on my Spanish and practicing a little each day. However, life did not go as I planned and eventually all my time had slipped away with work and travel.

I have realized how crucial preparation is. As soon as I got off of the plane at the airport, I knew that I needed to hurry outside because my program had arranged for a shuttle to pick me up immediately. I rushed off and thought I should exchange some money first, in case I needed to tip the driver or buy something on the way (honestly, I thought, that I would be taken advantage of otherwise).  Then I had to collect my bags, which felt like it took an eternity. Several English-speaking people and others from my plane were waiting to pick up their bags, however, the place they told us to wait was not the right one. I finally decided to search further away and found my bags on another conveyor belt. I was a little frustrated at this point because I had wasted so much time waiting and not knowing exactly where to look or how to ask. Then, I rushed outside to look for my name as I was told by my advisor.

Outside, it felt like I was on a stage and everyone was watching me pace back and forth looking for my name on a piece of paper. Honestly, I felt rather silly squinting at people and carting all my bags around. In my mind, I thought the shuttle would never leave without all of their passengers, especially since I had paid for my ticket in advance. Unfortunately, I was wrong! A Guatemalan gentleman speaking English asked if I wanted to call the shuttle agency, so I gave him the number and he made the phone call. He spoke to the person on the phone but muffled my name and did not let me talk. Afterwards, the man said that they would be there shortly and then wanted me to tip him for the service. I told him I had no money and thought that it was rude of him to expect payment for a service that I would have gladly offered to do for free in America. He sulked and walked away.

I anticipated the driver arriving at any time. The more I waited, the more anxious I grew. I had faith that I would be okay, however panic situations will make you forget that truth. I silently said a few short prayers in my head as I waited and finally asked an airport employee to let me make a phone call to the company myself. Thankfully they spoke English, otherwise I would have been in trouble and the call would have been useless. They told me that the driver did not see me at 11:00 am and left shortly after. At this point it was 1:00 pm in Guatemala. I finally became assertive and requested that a shuttle pick me up immediately because I was outside around 11:30 am. He agreed and said the next one would come at 2:30 pm and told me where to stand.

All in all, I spent the whole first day in a confused state, mainly because I was not prepared. I realize that one is never going to be prepared for everything that happens in life, and for me this strengthens my faith. However, I do know that I had ample opportunity to work on my Spanish and to read more about the culture. If I could give any advice to someone preparing to embark on a journey it would be this:

1. Please buy a book about the country you are traveling to. As much as you hope to discover it all on your own, knowledge is essential to pointing you in the right direction.

2. Learn the language. Sounds simple enough right? I found that by preparing for some conversations, writing down questions you may want to ask helps make those awkward silences go much smoother.

3. Have a purpose and a goal in mind. For me personally, my purpose here revolves around my faith and beliefs and I hope to help others around me, including: the family I stay with, the group that I am a part of, and the community who I live among. It is surprising how easily one can be diverted in an unfamiliar place. The purpose and goals do not have to be faith-related of course, as not everyone shares the same religious beliefs, but having a goal for your time abroad and reflecting on how the experience may help you reach goals, develop talents, and broaden your horizons is essential.

On my long shuttle ride to Guatemala, I was fortunate enough to ride with two other English-speaking students. Both were here independently, but one came on a whim and told me many stories about how he had traveled and did not make many arrangements ahead of time. All of them concluded with him being miserable and only vaguely enjoying where he went. This is so common for those with no prior arrangements and it can make for a frustrating time. Now, I am spending my evenings planning out my next day and asking many locals about good places to see. So with a little preparation, let the adventure begin!


My weekend in Antigua in front of La Merced.

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by | June 24, 2014 · 7:37 pm

A Whole New World

For someone that has never left the United States of America, studying abroad should seem like a frightening concept.  I came to the conclusion that books, documents, and online tutorials were limited in their educational capacities.  Rather than trying to build up an expectation for what this experience would be like, I consciously decided to go into this culture with an open mind – completely ready for the challenge ahead.

Upon arrival,  my group clamored to baggage claim, breezed through customs, and hopped on a bus that would take us to the Elon University Center – where the thirteen of us would be studying for the next four months.  We had half an hour to relax before our Costa Rican families arrived to retrieve us.  Excitement overwhelmed me as I imagined my home-stay family.  All of a sudden I was a kindergartener again, waiting for my mom to pick me up in the car pool line – except I did not know a single thing about her.  Tales of her cooking glory had been passed down to me as I waited, so naturally my excitement grew.  Finally, she arrived.  The traditional Costa Rican greeting is to lean in and kiss each other on the cheek.  The language was a huge barrier because I did not have the vocabulary to conduct a casual conversation, but she understood.  We called for a taxi, and were on our way.  The bright red taxi was caught in traffic for the majority of our excursion, and the driver would honk at fellow taxi-drivers when they would pass us on the opposite ends of the road.  Although I did not understand what he would shout out of his window, I could tell they were friendly exchanges.  The roads were not the most elegant site as they appeared to be gashed open in part due to plumbing replacements.  My eyes were darting from one thing to the next as I took in my surroundings.  Hooters and McDonalds should not have surprised me, but I was caught off guard by the immediacy of their presence.  Another disturbing sight was the barbed wire and metal gates encompassing every house that we would pass.  I had just entered an entirely different world.  The taxi driver made his last left into my neighborhood, and finally, we had arrived.

As Noemy and I approached the jailed entrance to her home, my mind began to gallivant across the possibilities that could lie at the heart of this place.  The final key turned, and we crossed the threshold into her humble abode.  There were tile floors, pleasant furnishings, hardwood ceilings, and multiple rooms that seemed to be puzzle-pieced together in a somewhat methodic manner.  At that moment, I learned that Noemy was lending her home to three other students as well.  I would be living girls from central Costa Rica, Japan, and Peru.  I was overjoyed at the chance to take in so many different perspectives.

Currently, I have been living here for two weeks, and have never felt more at home in a place that was not my own.  This house has a summer camp feel to it, and the area is much different than any I have ever experienced.  Throughout the afternoon and into the night, sounds of cars accelerating, sirens ringing, and dogs barking are fully audible through my paper thin walls.  When I glance out of my bedroom window at night I can see the city lights from the other side of the mountain that San Jose sits upon.  During the day, my view is composed of  a mismatched conglomeration of colored tin foil roofs that are without separation.   Doña Noemy, cooked a delectable meal of arroz con pollo with beans and vegetables the first night, and has continued to amaze me since.

In a matter of fourteen days, I have witnessed certain universal constants.  Whether it is something commercial, such as Hooters or McDonalds, the relational nature of people, or the simple interactions that make us quirky as individuals – some things are noticeably consistent. The differences that are so apparent (ex. language) are so minute compared to the nature that brings us together. Once upon a time, I heard a the phrase, “Growth is always two steps outside of your comfort zone,” and that could not be more true.  The diversity that should separate us appears to be bringing us together, and as we all strive to learn more about each other, we grow.


Filed under Central America, Dan in Costa Rica