Immersion Through Interpreting Signs, Picking Out Phrases, Getting Lost, and Getting Help
My immersion experience started well before I began my first day of classes at the Ali Baba International Center. It started in the airport, as I awaited the arrival of my flight to Amman at the gate. Around me, I saw many people waiting with me; many of them spoke Arabic to each other or on the phone. I took out one of the sticky rice dumplings that my grandmother had prepared for me for the flight and munched on it while I listened in, to see if I could make out any phrases or words. Probably more important than being able to understand specific phrases was my mere being enveloped in an atmosphere of Arabic-speaking people speaking Arabic. Getting used to this atmosphere meant that gradually the throatiness of the surrounding vocalizations and observed cultural mannerisms would become less foreign and more familiar. I sat there, absorbing the environment; being able to do this was a relief after my hectic search for my gate. It turned out my gate’s number didn’t exist in the main region of the airport, and I had to ask multiple times before someone pointed me toward where the international flights are located. Then I had to go through security again.
After two more passport checks, I was able to board the Royal Jordanian. It was a very fancy aircraft, and the flight attendants all wore beautiful red suits and hats. My twelve hour flight was not as miserable as it might have been since I enjoyed the film selections available. Dinner and breakfast were provided with metal tableware, and each passenger received a free pair of earphones and blindfold. I easily passed the time with a combination of reading, movie watching, and sleeping. Toward the end of the flight, the passenger sitting to my left noted my excitement as the plane began to land, and we began to exchange conversation. I told him about my language studies and why I was in Amman, while he decided to give me a mini-lecture on the relationship between Islam and the Arabic language. I already knew much of what he said, but being a visitor, I felt more comfortable with underestimations of my knowledge than with overestimations. In the end, he offered to show me the way to the visa center as we arrived at the airport. He even asked an employee for me about whether or not my own currency would work in the purchase. Since, he had a connection to Saudi Arabia to catch, I quickly gave him my thanks and shook hands and he went on his way. I wondered whether this was a manifestation of Arab hospitality toward visitors or simply the gentleman’s personality.
Unfortunately, I stood around the escalator to the baggage claim area for 45 minutes, thinking that the two people who held signs with names on them meant that this was the area where I was to wait for the driver from the Ali Baba International Center. The fact that my cell phone did not have signal because of bandwidth issues didn’t help. I finally made my way to the exit, where I found my name on a sheet of paper held up by a man who stood among a mass of nearly a hundred sign-holders. I traveled with him and another student to his car, where he kindly helped carry our luggage into the rear. We drove for about a half hour with me gazing out the window trying to interpret every line of Arabic script that came past my eyes. I saw stores, some of which were those of multinational corporations such as KFC, and various signs and banners with Arabic everywhere. The pedestrians included veiled women and men with cloth headdresses and loose robes. I couldn’t wait to enter these stores and practice my Arabic. We eventually arrived at what appeared to be someone’s house, and I was the first to get off. The driver tugged my luggage into the house as I followed. It was the home of a Christian family, nice enough to provide me with breakfast and dinner each day as well as relaxed rules while in the house. At the end of the day, I was tired so I was quite ready to hop into bed and wait to explore the local area further the next day. So I did that.
I got to get out of the house early the next morning and see the local neighborhood. I had heard that Amman is rather boring compared to the tourist attractions that lie a few kilometers outside of it, but I still wanted to check it out. I tried finding my way to the Ali Baba International Center by myself with the help of a map that my house mate had drawn. The road was dusty and along one path was litter scattered about. The roads did not seem overly congested, probably since it was a weekend day (A work week lasts from Sunday to Thursday). I saw various small shops along with fast food restaurant chains such as MacDonald’s and KFC. When I finally located the study center, I was not surprised to find out that the office was closed and locked. Oh well; it was for exploratory purposes anyway. On the way back, I got lost when I tried to figure out which intersection I needed to turn into; I spent around 25 minutes walking around the area in the scorching desert heat before I realized that I had come across my house already. I failed to recognize the outside of the house. In any case, I was tired and sweaty so I spent the late afternoon relaxing at the home, trying to work out some issues with electronics. In the evening, a house mate who I had just met and was leaving tomorrow afternoon decided to show me around a business district in Amman as well as give me some helpful information about taxi procedures, popular shops, money matters, etc. I found such counsel extremely helpful and am grateful for last minute friendliness such as this. We shared a pizza at a favorite restaurant of his that was rather Western (One of the many alcoholic beverages served was named “Sexy Babe on the Beach” – another, the “Bin Laden”). The way back was pretty much the same route; I saw similar stores, cars squeezing by pedestrians, armed security guards at gates, etc. I also heard one car booming Psy’s “Oppa Gangnam Style.” In any case, my head filled with valuable experience and knowledge from the day’s walking, I headed to bed early and was eager for my first class day at the Ali Baba Center the next day.