(As a note, to respect the privacy of the people mentioned, none of the pictures are relevant to the content of this post. These photos are of other things I have been doing during the past week.)
After Qasid’s orientation two Wednesdays ago, my roommate and I went to the grocery store where a man walking by us called out saying, “You look like foreigners!”
The man was Jordanian, but happens to currently live in Vallejo near my hometown of Sonoma. He was back in Jordan to have his nephew do work on his teeth. His niece, Alia, was with him at the grocery store. After talking a bit with her I discovered that she spoke French in addition to English and had experience volunteering at the University of Jordan, her alma mater, with French students who were learning Arabic. We exchanged phone numbers and met at Sports City a week or so later where we sat in the shade with some drinks and talked.
I was very happy to have met someone my age with whom I could practice my Arabic. This is one aspect I have been finding very difficult in my program. The majority of students are from the States, and Qasid doesn’t organize events that would allow us to connect with local students, making it tempting and easy to stay in the comfort of the Qasid bubble, speaking mostly English and having little interaction with locals. I was expecting this obstacle, however I was a bit unprepared for the difficulty of juggling four to six hours of class and several hours of homework everyday while also trying to meet people.
Beyond simply being someone with whom to practice Arabic, Alia and I happen to share several things in common, including the languages we speak and our desire to work in an international setting. I felt comfortable talking to her about difficult subjects.
I have been struggling, as I expected I would be, with cultural expectations surrounding dress and gender norms here in Jordan. I wear long pants and shirts that I borrowed from my sister, and this does not represent the way I would dress normally. Although everyone I have met thus far has treated me with respect, I can’t help but at times wonder how that treatment would change if I were to dress as I normally would.
Would people think I am a bad person? I feel particularly paranoid about this because I have actually had this experience in the past with people who I thought would be accepting and open-minded but in the end were not. When I talked to Alia about this, she was very honest and told me essentially that yes, some people would think that way.
Then Alia told me about her experience visiting France as a women who wears the hijab. She was asked to remove her hijab in the airport, and in some areas opted to wear a hat to be more discreet. When she did wear her hijab, people sometimes reacted in ways that were negative and uncomfortable. It’s strange that this issue around clothing has to be felt on both ends of the spectrum. But for now, I am a guest and I’ll dress according to what is appropriate here. It doesn’t cross enough of a line for me, and this discussion is much bigger than my just wanting to wear a tank top.
I also saw Alia yesterday at a hotel where she introduced me to some of her friends. We sat outside and smoked shisha. Alia poured me half a cup of Turkish coffee, which is delicious, tar-black, and the consistency of mud. I tried to get them to teach me Arabic slang, which is very important to know in any language and culture.
My mom, who is from Japan, keeps a little notebook with her where she writes down English slang she learns from conversation, it is an endless source of entertainment for my siblings and me. I have opted to take notes on my phone, and I’m beginning to collect expressions here and there.
Alia is thinking of pursuing a master’s degree in the States, and asked if I could help her find and apply to a good university close to where her uncle lives. I think UC Berkeley would be perfect. Who knows, in the coming years I may see her when I am back in the Bay visiting my family.