Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Higher Powers & Making Plans

My summer started with a huge rush as my entire family arrived in Jordan for a two week adventure throughout the Levant. We drove up and down Jordan doing ever touristy or untouristy (and thus even cooler) thing I could think of. We flew to Lebanon and drove to Syria. I was determined for them to love this crazy desert as much as I do. Therefore, I even (gasp) planned in advanced so that my elaborate itinerary would not balance in the hands of people who did or did not fee like doing their jobs on those particular days. Well, guess what. Tons of things fell apart, like the van I had booked months in advance, the caters that flaked out (two different ones), and my Syrian visa that never came (even though I submitted everything well in advance).

This is the lesson that I have learned and relearned throughout my time in the Middle East: your fate is God's will (inshallah is the magic word). On one hand, it has been a tremendous release to ease my grip on the Western technique of obsessive-compulsive micromanagement. Things often don't work out the way you hope. Life goes on. But on the other hand, people in this region often take this to mean that they don't have to do anything (i.e. their jobs) to make sure plans/reservations/deposits are respected. Consequently, everyone is constantly yelling at each other that they need something NOW and that they are MORE important than everyone else. They will fight tooth and nail to get EXACTLY what they want. And then if it doesn't work out, then it was God's will. So living here has also shortened my already fairly short fuse. Everything from making sure my water is delivered on time to ensuring that my monthly paycheck is accurate to renting a car for the agreed time and price are always exercises in how firm, pushy and demanding I can be.

It's exhausting. I constantly strive to balance between detailed planning that inevitably falls through and lazy arrogance that culminates in making last minute demands. So the goal is to prepare as much as I can within reason, expect the worse, and when it doesn't work out, be firm and stand up for myself. Because no matter whose fault it was that things didn't work out, God is still watching.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

At the End of the Rainbow


Acceptance of legitimacy of another reality. Satisfying personal relationships with host nationals. Language competence. Thorough understanding and enjoyment and adoption of some of its ways. Ability to cope with stress.
The insane bureaucracy. The treatment of women. The lack of consideration for others in public spaces. Sleazy teenage boys. Scheming taxi drivers. I have a ways to go before I can fully accept these as a valid reality. Maybe I never will. Coping with stress is a case-by-case situation. I handle it better now than I ever did in the U.S. I hardly drink alcohol anymore and opt for yoga as a coping mechanism instead. Monthly trips to the spa and salon alongside more care in my wardrobe have made me feel better about myself and allowed me to blend in a bit more with the Jordanian women (who never leave the house without a fully accessorized outfit, blown out hair and full make-up). I have positive relationships with my coworkers (expats and locals) and stop to say hi to people on the street. I don't know if it is linguistically possible for me to become fluent in Arabic, but my English is now seasoned with Arabic slang and conversation fillers (yalla, yani, bas, halas, habibti)

Things I enjoy and have adapted in terms of Jordanian/Palestinian culture center primarily around food (no surprise there!). I prefer labneh and falafel for breakfast, I eat my biggest meal in the afternoon, I drink tea at least three times a day (with heaps of sugar), I feel like a sinner if I don't serve tea to anyone who enters my house, and I smoke argileh like it's going out of style. The only non-food custom that I can think of is that I kiss everyone I know hello and good-bye (once on the left, two on the right).Living as an expat is total-body experience. My weight, my emotions and my mindset all fluctuate regularly as I move through these stages of culture shock in jolts and out of order. But as long as I keep sight of the bigger picture and don't get too stuck in the moment, the highs and lows seem to balance each other out. The challenges, life lessons, daily routines, simple joys and amazing relationships I have found along the way make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

One Day at a Time

Gradual Adjustment

Crisis passes and the visitor begins to understand more of the customs and subtle cultural clues. Language skills increase. Humor returns. The culture seems more familiar and the visitor feels more comfortable and less isolated in it.

There are glimmers of hope. Culture shock absolutely correlates to emotional stress in daily life. On good days, I love Amman. On bad days, I hate it. I don't see myself as a "visitor" anymore. I live here. I don't really have a home to go back to, and I've invested a lot of time and money into my newest (third) flat. I have found supportive female spaces and look to all the strong women (expat AND local) for inspiration. I appreciate all the men in my life that show me how wrong stereotypes can be. My Arabic skills are slowly improving. I walk around my neighborhood and try to imagine how it will look through the wide eyes of my family members who are coming in a week and have never been to the Middle East. I have my grocer, my tailor, my hairdresser, my shuwarma guy, my regular server at my regular restaurant. I have my favorite street cat, my favorite building, my favorite flowers, my favorite city views.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bring on the Drama…

Culture Shock

Focus shifts to differences that suddenly seem to be everywhere and are blown out of proportion. Sense of humor replaced by irritations, hostility, anxiety, disorientation, and vulnerability. Symptoms of culture shock may include the following: excessive amounts of sleep, compulsive eating and/or drinking, exaggerated cleanliness, physical ailments, marital/familial problems, stereotyping, chauvinism, fits of weeping, homesickness, boredom.

Culture shock bashed me over the head, threw me against a wall and left me for dead the moment I returned from Christmas vacation. After being in the U.S. for ten days, I had missed my friends and life in Amman and was looking forward to returning for a New Year's Eve celebration. Flight complications, lost luggage, arriving to an empty house, a fizzled party and a detached significant other all sent me into a tailspin. A small disagreement between my boyfriend and I escalated into an break-up, I became confrontational at school about the fact that I had yet to receive my residency and work permit, and I felt extremely homesick for everything American.

My friends supported me fantastically through the break-up by listening to my relentless psycho-analysis as I sucked on argileh hoses and stared at my coffee. My jetlag became torture and I barely slept for two weeks. I was never hungry. I got three ear infections in two months. I stayed in my room unless my friends dragged me out to go to a party or a bar. And when I did venture out, I realized how awful the lurid stares from the men on the streets really were. The thought of abandoning ship that had flashed in my mind when I first arrived in Amman was flickering again.

This stage comes and goes and correlates strongly to the emotional effects of other events in my life. The support of my friends during the break-up gave me a strong sense of kinship and belonging that I have treasured ever since. And I realized that my job was fulfilling, despite the bureaucratic nightmares and lack of organization, and that with or without a boyfriend, I wanted to stay. Since hearts know no logic, he and I soon reunited and I am continuously overwhelmed by the support and stability that exist now between us.

Yet despite deep friendships and a wonderful partner, I have become a royal brat in many ways. The hassling, whistles, lewd comments and lack of respect from so many men on a regular basis have pushed me over the edge. I yell back, I refuse to step aside and I gripe about it to anyone who will listen. This is the one place I am just so stuck. Well, actually, two other negativity-traps include the something-for-nothing mentality and the let-me-see-how-much-I-can-screw-the-foreigner game, which also have twisted me into an obstinate, finger-wagging, very angry bitch.

I've always considered myself open-minded and easy-going, and for the first five months I honestly was. But I have developed a very stubborn and angry alter-ego. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's bad. In the U.S. I never used to complain about customer service or demand respect when people were taking advantage of me. Now this is a regular occurrence. Good for me. But I also expect the worse from men I don't know and yell aggressively when I feel someone has wronged me. Shame on me. I am stuck in stereotypes and it's intellectually and personally maddening. That is the antithesis of who I strive to be.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Highs and Lows of Living Abroad

I've read from several sources, including my graduate school textbooks, about the stages of culture shock that someone living abroad will pass through. Yet no matter how much you read up on something, when you're entirely in the moment, textbooks don't mean diddly. Having lived in Amman for over ten months now (wow!), let me explain what this "culture shock" means in my daily life.

I've listed the stages below and will pace out my commentary since I have a lot to say!

Stages of Culture Shock
Initial Euphoria
Culture Shock
Gradual Adjustment

Initial Euphoria...yippeeee

Excitement, high (perhaps too high) expectations and energy, positive mindset. Everything new is intriguing. Focus is on similarities between home culture and new culture.

Well, my airport debacle upon arrival quickly squashed any initial euphoria and I was pretty cranky and skeptical the first few days. As I began making friends and venturing out into the city on my own, however, I did notice that I was a much friendlier and more outgoing version of myself than I had been in DC. I had a great attitude about my new school and kept thinking how much better it was than teaching in the U.S. Less students, more freedom with the curriculum and tons of planning time. I even thought two hour staff meetings entirely in Arabic were a good way to force me to learn the language.

I moved flats and entered a new social circle in the fall, so I think my euphoria was prolonged. Also, I began a romantic relationship that made each day an exciting adventure and distracted me from the more challenging parts of my life. Heck, Ramadan even seemed romantic at the time!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

An All-Girls School in Amman

My students are called Dina, Sarah, Zein and Nour. They are beautiful girls with full chestnut curls and large almond eyes. Most are Jordanian, although within this majority, many identify as Palestinian. Although born and raised in Jordan, the Palestinian-Jordanians must carry different passports than those with Jordanian bloodlines. Those recently from Palestine are generally refugees from the Gaza bombardment. Those not from Palestine are Iraqi refugees, although several students are from Iran and Sri Lanka. All have seen oppression, violence and discrimination in ways that most Americans of our generations have not and hopefully will never know. They write about relating to Anne Frank because they also hid in basements during bombings. They ask me why Americans hate them so much. And yet they also know each word to every Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift song.

They call me "Miss," and whine it as, "Miiiiiiisssssss," whenever I assign homework or administer an exam. They love to chat with me and with each other and cannot make themselves stop even when they know they should. It drives me crazy, but on the scale of classroom management issues, I can hardly complain. They stay seated (usually), do their work (usually), and never challenge me in threatening or shocking ways. They are much more disciplined about academics than their counterparts in the U.S. Most girls study their English lessons after school every day and come with questions the next. They check well in advance about topics that might be on exams and they often turn in work early. Moreover, they bring unassigned presentations to class and beg to present to their peers. Considering that I must cram in an astonishing amount of curriculum and test the girls monthly, I sadly don't often have much time to let them.

We are coming to the end of the year and they will be moving across campus to the secondary building next year. They are growing so fast physically and emotionally. They look like little women now and not like overgrown kids, and their writings show that they have a lot on their minds. At the beginning of the year, they were terrified to write, but now they proudly present me with poems and essays that they have written in their free time. I'm flattered that they trust me with their thoughts and feelings. I remember the traumas of being twelve years old and in the sixth grade and I thank God that these girls are in such a nurturing and protected environment.

They wear ugly uniforms, are not allowed to wear make-up and must tie back their long hair into plain ponytails. Dating is so far into the realm of "absolutely not" that they focus on the normal friendship dramas of their age and willingly participate in their frequent family gatherings. They beg me to be helpers as I set up the classroom or carry stacks of books to the teachers' lounge. And they are so generous with hugs. I love that I can pat them on their heads or wipe their tears without fear of repercussion, where in the U.S. teachers literally cannot touch the children for fear of a lawsuit. Here, the parents really do respect and trust us as teachers. We communicate freely and never critically. They know we love their girls and will do everything possible to keep them safe, educate them and help them grow into the strong women that surround us at our school as administrators, teachers, and teenage students.

Friday, May 7, 2010

From My Bedroom Window

Twin pines

Divided by iron and time.

Upright, steadfast,


Pillars of proof

that Mother Earth

And Father Faith

Had an interconnected plan.

Watching over the world

As humans, like tiny ants,

Tunnel the soil around their roots

And build barricades

Between their branches.

Of the same seed,

Yet taught from first sprout

That this branch or that

Makes them indubitably different;

Learning as seedlings that it is God's Will

That they must gaze at each other


From a distance.

Yet tiny threads still connect them

From underneath

And the same sun shines on them

From above.

They sway uncertain,

Rocking for comfort,

As breezes whisper reminders

That their underlings separate them


And disobey

The true Laws of Life.