Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Afraid Abroad

My favorite quote in Arabic is one taught to me by my Macalester professor:

".الخوف لا يمنع من الموت لكنه يمنع من الحياة"

In Arabic, it means "Fear doesn't prevent death, but it prevents life". The quote itself is from Naguib Mahfouz, who was a famous Egyptian novelist and the only Arab to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

I have something of a conservative personality, but I try to push myself to live life as the quote suggests. Before going to college, I really failed to do that at all. I was repeatedly invited to study abroad, but declined. To high school me, the thought of being in some other country with zero friends, zero family, zero knowledge of the geography, and zero understanding of the language was just too terrifying.

In college, I've tried to force myself out of this mentality. I moved to St. Paul, and have enjoyed spending time out and about there. Summer after my freshman year, I moved to Washington DC for three months, exposing myself to a totally different facet of American culture. I took a job as a river guide a last summer, where I often faced new risks every time I went into a rapid. Along the way I have found part of myself still kicks and screams every time I do something outside of my comfort zone. I had small, private meltdowns before moving to DC or taking up my job river guiding, usually consisting of me spending several days immediately before my departure convinced everything was gonna turn out horribly.

Mahfouz was absolutely right of course; fear makes living and learning hard. I've learned loads from all the experiences that I spend a lot of time being afraid of. And yet somehow my personality has not changed. I still spend a lot of time in Amman being afraid. Case in point: A few days ago I was on the bus, and considered asking a couple girls sitting nearby what the Arabic word for "button" was by pointing to the button to stop the bus. I didn't, because I was afraid. What would two Jordanian girls in hijabs think of a random American asking a question? Is that against social rules here? What if my Arabic was so bad and they didn't understand the question? Fear stopped me from acting, and thus from learning.

It's interesting, because I think some Jordanians also suffer some fear when dealing with Westerners. My barber here asked me if I could teach his cousin some English because he didn't know any. We agreed, but then he canceled on me once, twice, and eventually altogether. Sometimes taxi drivers here seem hesitant to speak to me in English (or maybe they just don't want to speak to me altogether). Could it be that the Jordanians here that don't speak good English are afraid to speak it to people who are natives?

One might think that simply coming to Jordan was enough to defeat this fear. But really, it's not. Thanks to the marvels of globalization and the fact that Amman is the country's largest center, it is perfectly possible to come to Amman and not really leave America. Go down to Rainbow Street, go to the clubs, go the CIEE study center near the University, and go home to an apartment you share with other American students. There's American programs on TV. Even most of the homestay families speak decent English, including mine, so if you don't want to speak Arabic, you don't have to. All you really need to know is enough Arabic to deal with taxi drivers and order food, and if you want to stop with there, you can.

In the past, my primary way of dealing with fear has been to irrevocably commit myself to something. I couldn't drop out raft guiding, I'd signed the contract. I couldn't back out of moving to DC, I'd signed the lease. In this respect, I wish I had decided to study in Irbid like one of my friends, because everything I've heard from her suggests that one has little choice except to learn Arabic there since nobody speaks English. For anyone reading this blog thinking about studying abroad in Jordan, I'd strongly suggest you sign up for a program there instead of an Amman based program, especially if your primary goal is learning Arabic.

My way of dealing with my fear has been to try and commit myself to every opportunity to hang out with native Jordanians that presents itself. Peer connections wanna go somewhere? Let's go. Random Jordanian guy at UJ wants to do a language exchange once a week? What day? CIEE gives us a little window into the average Jordanian's university experience by setting us up with Jordanian peer connections, but most of them speak fluent English. But I've done my best to leverage those connections into opportunities to speak as much Arabic as possible.

Sometimes Arabic is just awful. The grammar is complicated and arbitrary. The pronunciation is hard. Native Arabs speak it extremely quickly. After a particularly frustrating day a couple days ago, Samira asked me: "Why you are not happy?" Of course, I didn't know the Arabic word for "frustrated" (still don't) so explaining myself was hard. I encourage myself by comparing where I currently am to where I was three years ago. Before coming to Mac, I couldn't write a single letter in Arabic. Now I can greet people, order food, shisha, direct taxis and receive directions. I can write and read simple, short stories. A little self-congratulation reminds me that I am, in fact, making progress.

With just about forty days left in my study abroad experience, I certainly wouldn't take back my decision to study abroad in Jordan. But I've redoubled my commitment to learning this language and making new connections to people here.

Read also: A people, a language, and thoughts on learning it.

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