Written by Tomas Gordo-Churchill (Northwestern University), Student Correspondent for CET Jordan, Spring 2023
After two weeks in Jordan, I never thought my biggest test would be outside the classroom. The act of relocating to a completely different place, with unfamiliar customs and a language I could barely speak, was more of a test than my attempts at the ACT. Yet, culture shock isn’t something anybody can study for.
I had done listening drills in my second-year Arabic class, but trying to understand the taxi driver my first night only left me thinking I had spent the past two years learning Turkish instead. Even when ordering coffee my first week, I found myself practicing my phrasing and pronunciation for five minutes to avoid making a fool of myself. These are basic aspects of daily life in America; however, the simplest tasks are transformed into an exercise of patience and confidence in a foreign language.
All that mental work can be exhausting, especially the first few weeks. Adding upon that, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged and separated from the things I care about, from family to food. Searching for some form of comfort, something familiar, my classes and studies became a form of escape.
A parking lot in Sweifiyeh
In the classroom, I could learn in the safe environment of CET’s awesome teachers and my American peers above the chaotic streets and bustling traffic that define Amman. Afterward, I’d usually go to Dimitri’s café in Sweifiyeh village, one of the more Western parts of Amman. There I could study with the modern amenities I’m used to while sipping on a nice, overpriced latte. I was still learning, but I had a dilemma: I came to Jordan to explore a wildly different culture, to learn its language and about its people, not to bring my lifestyle from America over here.
It can be comforting to bury oneself in the books, to maintain that continuity of student life from before, the libraries and cafés
When it comes to a foreign culture, learning doesn’t just come from a textbook. It comes from the risks you take, especially the mistakes you make, which give the lessons you’ll never forget. That’s the whole point of immersion. Despite my fears of getting noticed as an ignorant American or being scammed by merchants taking advantage of my lack of reference on Jordanian prices, I knew I wasn’t going to get as close to my goal of breaking into Jordanian culture.
Luckily, CET Jordan offers many routes out of our self-created bubbles through their language partner program, so the first step was already there. While the point is to practice class material with a native speaker, the places and people we could meet along the way were more important for me.
The first stop was a friend’s graduation party, or a zaffe. I remember standing in the parking lot, full of Jordanian college graduates and their families, feeling like I shouldn’t really be there. I had no clue who these people were or what I should’ve been doing in that situation, yet thinking about the correct way to act or speak only took me away from enjoying the moment. The only real way to learn is by embracing one’s errors, so I pushed the self-doubt out of my headspace and joined the party around me.
As people formed a circle around the graduates, the drumbeat, singing, and dancing replaced worries from before. The celebrations entered its climax as they blasted confetti and tossed the graduates into the air despite their yelps of fright. To conclude, they handed out knafeh, a signature Palestinian dessert. The sheer quantity of sugar it contained made it one of the most delicious treats of my life while also immobilizing me for the next two hours.
Although I had tasted Jordanian culture, the most impactful part of my night was the people I met. After the party ended, we went exploring the neighborhoods of central Amman. The first stop was a church in Webdeh, where I met a seminarian training to become a priest. I brushed away my broken Arabic, struggled to understand his speech, and focused on this new opportunity. The mistakes didn’t matter. What was important was I found someone willing to listen and a community of people that my shared beliefs outside the classroom, contradicting my previous doubts that I could only find comfort separated from the people around me.
View from Webdeh
Finally, as we drove around Amman at night listening to a strange mix of Arab music and Dua Lipa, I spoke with another girl about dating and life as a woman in Jordan. She told me about her personal experience and the struggles of her friends when it came to love and sex in a Muslim majority country. It wasn’t politicized or exaggerated to draw attention. It was just someone sharing their life with me, which taught me more than any lecture or research report could ever.
This made me think.
If I didn’t take the risk of signing up for an intensive language program in an Arabic-speaking country, I wouldn’t be worried and confused about every little thing. At home, I would be quite cozy, but that is not why I came here. I came here to test my limits, and while the seemingly constant challenge of this new place brings doubts, the beautiful lessons that materialize afterward are its sweetest rewards.