It’s been two weeks since we touched down in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. As we descended to the airport on the outskirts of Amman, I noticed an odd touch of geographical irony in that the landscape of the Holy Land, when viewed from the air, is strikingly reminiscent of that surrounding Las Vegas: Sin City, Nevada.
The similarities stop there, though. Amman is a sprawling city of low-rise square buildings built almost invariably of limestone. The “white city” as it’s called seems to rise and fall like sand dunes over the seven hills on which it rests. Add to that the frenetic souks downtown; the blue-domed mosques that checker the cityscape; the
vexingly persistent heat; and I cannot help but feel dazzled at the reality of my location – I’m really in the Middle East.
My first week here passed in a blur of activity. After clearing customs (more on that later) we were met by four men wearing the CIEE logo and who claimed to speak only Arabic, though we later learned that that was just cruel joke. They led us in packs to a collection of white vans which took us to a nearby hotel. We would stay there for the two days of orientation before splitting off to our assigned apartments scattered
throughout the city. Having just endured a twenty-hour traveling day, I skipped most of the formalities and promptly fell asleep.
Around dawn on the day after our arrival, we one-hundred-or-so study abroad students found ourselves on a tour bus bound for the Dead Sea, about an hour south of Amman. The academic staff had elected it as the site of our orientation program, a decision about which none of us could complain. The Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, is so salinated that it’s literally impossible to sink. After intently listening to the
orientation presentation (read: sleeping), we were let loose on the beach where we all took turns marveling at our own buoyancy. I felt rather badly for the handful of tourists who had been enjoying the beach before our arrival, as I can’t imagine a less desirable vacation story than having your locale invaded by an hundred American college students.
Each of us slathered ourselves with gobs of Dead Sea mud, which we took from a large tripod near the water and then washed it off in the silky water. This apparently is a pastime of Dead Sea visitors, at least enough of one to merit a special tripod to display the stuff. The tripod was labeled, in English only, “Free Mud” presumably because only an American would ever expect to pay for mud.
The rest of our orientation was less glamorous. We transferred to our apartments a few days later, and began adjusting to everyday life in Jordan. Much of this has been no different than adjusting to any new city, whether San Jose or Beijing. But as I began trying to fit into normal Jordanian life, I couldn’t stop recalling my very first
experience upon getting off the airplane.
Those of us who had identified one another as fellow study abroad students while on the flight shared a momentary bout of panic as we attempted to navigate the Customs signposts which were written entirely in Arabic. We debated as to which line we belonged in as we each compared our interpretations of the various signs. Eventually we chose a line on the far right of the room filled by distinctively Western-looking businesspeople. We managed to come to a consensus that the line was labeled either “Investors” or “Foreigners” (I personally had thought it translated as “sandwiches”). In retrospect, our decision making process was something of a social experiment because what it ultimately boiled down to was: Follow the other white people.
Since being faced with solving the usual start-of-term problems at the University of Jordan ( e.g. where are my classes? how do I drop one? how do I drop two? how do I drop out completely without telling my parents? et cetera) I have had to make a conscious effort to find answers for myself rather than taking this same “easy” way out. In most casestrategy of seeking assistance from the local population has cost considerably more time and effort than simply sticking to the familiar. But consequently I feel much more at home at the University of Jordan – an institution serving over 35,000 students, the vast majority of whom are Jordanian – than do many of my peers.
The downside of this strategy is that acquiring this insider knowledge often comes at the price of looking extraordinarily stupid.A few days after arriving in Amman, I popped into a small shwerma restaurant (shwerma, by the way, is something like the Arab equivalent of a philly-cheese-steak sandwich) and stood to the side observing how
the method of ordering was supposed to proceed. After watching for nearly fifteen minutes from the corner of this restaurant – which, mind you, is no larger than a Campisi dorm room and packed with twenty or so people – I concluded that the man who worked out the process of ordering must be the same guy who organized the New York Stock Exchange. That is, the idea appeared to be to yell angrily at no one in particular while brandishing small slips of paper in the air. Unfortunately, how anyone was able to procure food out of that system was as much of a mystery to
me as is how anyone manages to procure money from the New York Stock Exchange. I waited another ten minutes, drawing more and more attention to myself as that creepy foreign guy just standing in the corner, before I tried my hand (a pretty pathetic hand) at some broken Arabic. I did my best to ask an employee-ish-looking man where to order. “Bis hatef” he answered curtly – “phone orders only.”
And so I came to realize that living abroad is mostly a matter of accepting ones regression into idiocy. One must accept that there is no way to know anything without going through the painful process of learning it. One has to take the subordinate role in many situations where, back home, assertive leadership would be quite easy. Ordering food is a good example. At home, I tell the employee what I want to eat, and how I want it. But here, ordering a meal is almost always a question
–Can I order this here? Do I pay for this here? Did you just say this is goat kidney?–and the usefulness of the response is determined entirely by the mercy of the employee. At home I am accustomed to having a pretty good idea of what, why and how things are supposed to be done. But here, attempting to shimmy oneself into that pose of comfort, without first experiencing the seldom easy and often awkward process of learning, is simply impossible.