Saturday, March 20, 2010


This week marked the midpoint of my semester in Amman, and I figured I should write a super-long blog post about how I feel. So here it is. (Also, it turns out I didn’t travel this weekend.)

This semester in many ways has both confirmed a lot of my expectations and surprised me in unforeseen ways. I chose Amman as a study-abroad locale for two reasons: to learn spoken Arabic and to get a handle on Arab culture. I liked the idea of studying in Jordan for a number of reasons, such as safety and the quality of the program, but particularly because the Palestinian dialect predominant in Amman is the Arabic dialect which will probably be most useful for me later in life. I chose a language-immersion program because I figured, hey, I’m going to be there for four months, and I better maximize my opportunities to learn the language and really challenge myself.

For the most part, I’m happy with my decision and am getting my fill of Arabic and cultural immersion and all that stuff. But looking back, there have been lots of things that have surprised me:

  1. Language > politics: I figured that all the kids on my program would be studying international relations and politics and such, but most of the students on this intensive Arabic program, appropriately, are primarily interested in just focusing on language. On top of that, my host family isn’t into politics at all. I pick up hints all the time of the conflict and refugees and frustration, but it’s usually just because I pay attention to the way a taxi driver talks about the news or if there’s an anti-Israel flier or protest on campus. I wish we talked about politics more, but oh well.
  2. Oh yeah, I’m in a Muslim country: Living with a Christian family in a nation that’s around 95 percent Muslim has its blessings (literally) and drawbacks. Often, I’ll learn an expression in class that uses the word Allah, God’s name – a saying like “alhamdulillah” (=praise be to God) – that the vast majority of the population and the Arab world in general uses in daily speech. But when I walk through the doors of my home, it’s like some phrases are thrown out the window. “Alhamdulillah” becomes “neshkor ar-rab” (=we thank the Lord), while my family never uses the ubiquitous “wallahi,” which uses God’s name to mean “I swear,” which they’re opposed to. It’s fascinating witnessing and learning how a small minority religious group seeks to assert itself through language and lifestyle, but I’m really surprised at how little I’ve learned about Islam since I’ve arrived here. Still, I feel very lucky to have a window into my host family’s world. Actually, as my host grandparents would say, there’s no such thing as luck – everything is predetermined by the Lord. Welcome to my life.
  3. Amman is a great Arabic classroom: More often than not people will gladly acquiesce when I speak to them only in Arabic, happy to help an American learn their ridiculously complex tongue and to teach me a few useful words, which usually relate to food. A strong command of English, however, is generally a Jordanian’s ticket to a good job – in fact, I think some subjects at the university are taught exclusively in English – and as a result everyone above maybe the level of taxi driver is guaranteed to be able to, at the very least, communicate with you in basic English and to want to practice their English with you. Many, many people are bilingual, and I constantly hear spoken Arabic laced with English words and expressions when university students and others talk among themselves. Two days ago, I bumped into a kid at the University of Jordan campus and said, “Asif” (=sorry). He responded, “Mish ‘asif’ – ‘sorry’” (=Not ‘asif’ – ‘sorry’) – saying that the English word “sorry” was more appropriate than its Arabic counterpart. Except he pronounced with a strong Jordanian accent, saying “surry”… Members of my host family – particularly the younger ones – pepper their speech with tons of English words, like “goodbye,” “goodnight” and “please.” I expected all of this, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how I can kind of remove myself from all this English hilariousness and actually have (or attempt to have) Arabic conversations with people.
  4. <3: To repeat again for posterity, I’m unbelievably lucky to have been placed with my host grandparents, who are so nice and who literally love everyone. On Sunday, my host grandmother told me that they love me like their own son, which was so wonderful to hear. And I’ve been having some very long conversations in Arabic with them, during which I’ve actually been able to get some complex ideas across (i.e. about Arabic culture, their time growing up, the different countries they’ve lived in and wars they’ve experienced, religion, Jordanian society today and even the conflict next door a bit). Still, I’m slightly terrified of “family day,” or Fridays, when an average of 10 family members of all ages gather in our apartment for lunch. While my host uncles and aunts and cousins and whoevers don’t really make me feel awkward when I just sit in the room barely understanding much of their conversations, I still don’t enjoy the few hours every Friday when it feels like I’m thrust into a family’s weekly tradition without the ability to fully participate or belong. And I believe it’s almost 100 percent because of the language barrier; everyone’s really super nice and welcoming (my host grandparents raised them well).
  5. Entrenched social structure 1, Ben 0: I’ve made very few Jordanian friends my age. Social interactions here tend to be based largely on family ties and preexisting groups of friends. At the university, for example, cousins might hang out with each other all day and even change their classes to stay together. To a large extent, it’s because Jordanian society has very tribal roots; not to mention, the population is divided between ethnic Palestinians from the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and “East Bank Jordanians,” or those who are considered to be original Jordanians but who are outnumbered by the Palestinians. I realize that I’m only here for four months and that it’s probably hard to make lasting friendships on semester-long study abroad programs anywhere around the world, but it would be nice to meet some more students my age.

Some solutions/goals:

  1. Explore East Amman: Get out of the ritzy, upper-middle-class West Amman bubble, and visit the more “sha’abi” places where a significant chunk of the population of Jordan lives. “Sha’abi” loosely translates to popular/people’s/traditional/regular/typical. I hope I’m using that right… I’ll try to learn more about Jordan’s refugee camps and neighborhoods, too.
  2. Make a greater effort to better get to know my “peer language tutor” and the university in general: My program assigns every student a Jordanian peer who gets paid a bit and meets with us up to three hours a week. My partner, with whom I meet every other day between classes, is a bit awkward and hasn’t been too proactive in terms of starting conversations, showing me around the university or just interculturally communicating in general. We also seem have different interests – throw in the language barrier and, voila, I’ve come to see our meetings as a burden, or time I could be spending using the Internet or doing homework. But I realize this has been kind of stupid on my part and that I’m wasting an opportunity. My partner even mentioned at the beginning of the semester that he’d invite me over to his house for mansaf! Gotta get on that. As for getting to know the university better, I recently realized that after two months I don’t really know too much about what the University of Jordan is like through the eyes of a Jordanian student – what professors are like, how academically challenging courses are, if student groups do, in fact, exist, and – most importantly – whether there’s a such thing as a University of Jordan Naked Quad Run. This world seems harder to crack into, but I feel like I just have to meet more people and actually seek these activities out.
  3. Hang out with my host family more: I did this a lot at the beginning, but as I’ve become more comfortable here I’ve slowly gotten into a groove of going out with friends more, traveling and just generally following a regular routine of my own. But there are some fascinating people living in my house – my grandparents and their kids – not to mention a bunch of cute grandkids running around. I need to try to have more one-on-one conversations with people, as it is usually too intimidating to talk when everyone joins together for big family meals.
  4. Write down Arabic words in my notebook more often: I used to write down new words and phrases all the time, but I’ve gotten lazy recently. Gotta change that.
  5. Not write any more really long blog posts like this one: Instead, maybe do some homework or something.

In short, I’m very happy with the way this semester’s been going. My host family’s great and so are the other kids on my program. I’m (really, really, really) well fed, too, and there’s plenty of hot water to go around. I feel guilty complaining about anything because some of my friends have pretty crazy/confused host families or other legitimate things to be upset about, like sexual harassment.

That’s all for now! I’ll try to post again in the next few days. Let me know if you have any questions!

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