Unhinged in Jordan

Dominick Giovanniello spent the entire 2016-17 year studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, participating in CET’s intensive Arabic language program. He shares an experience navigating social norms.

In an effort to compensate for all of the carbs I’ve been eating and the hookah I’ve been smoking, I decided to get a gym membership a couple of months ago and to my surprise, I’ve found that I actually really enjoy it. The gym I go to is called Troy 24/7 even though it doesn’t open until 5PM on Fridays and Saturdays. It sits on the main street, right on top of a hookah store and a barbershop staffed entirely by Syrians. The gym itself can politely be described as worn…for example, all of the pads on the machines are ripped and several pieces just seem to be held on by black electrical tape. It’s not the cleanest gym in the world, and the owner’s attempts to spruce it up, like painting blue triangles on the wall, only serve to emphasize that fact. Nevertheless, the staff are super nice and helpful, and the gym members – a weird assortment of foreigners, mostly Koreans; out-of-shape older men, and tattooed gym rats – have become a familiar community for me.

The other day when I went to the gym; however, I had a weird experience that left me a little wiser. And although I generally tend to hate blog posts where X-encounter taught me Y-valuable lesson about myself/culture/life in general, I really want to talk about it since it helps me simply articulate a concept that I’ve been struggling with.

Usually when I go to the gym, I bring a bottle of water; however, this time I forgot and so I went to the front desk, paid for a bottle of water, and watched as the owner used his fingers to unscrew the hinges on the door of the broken refrigerator where the water bottles are stored. No big deal. The next time, I also forgot to bring a bottle of water, so I put some money on the counter, went to the fridge and started to unscrew the hinges. The employee on duty, Abu Noor, an Egyptian working in Jordan because the economy is better (which tells you all you need to know about how awful the situation is in Egypt), saw me as he was walking past and cried out, “Stop! What are you doing? You can’t do that!”

He marched up to me and I started to explain myself, but he cut me off, “No you can’t do that. It’s not your place. When you go to the store and there’s something you want but can’t reach, you don’t climb the shelves, do you? You ask whoever’s working there.” Abu Noor kept getting more and more agitated as he tried to explain this concept to me. “You weren’t doing anything wrong. But it’s not your fridge, just because Muhammed (the owner) did it doesn’t mean you can!”

At this point, I was extremely confused and could not figure out what he was getting so worked up about. I’d apologized, it was an innocent mistake, and not even a big deal to begin with! Realizing this, Abu Noor grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “I know you’re a respectable guy, studying Arabic, and that you want to learn as much as you can. But you need to know that when you study a language, you’re actually studying three different things: language, culture, and behavior.” It then dawned on me that he wasn’t actually mad at me, rather he was offended by the way I had just assumed that I could go about something, which in his mind wasn’t my place to do.

Although those words aren’t innocent, particularly “behavior” in a patriarchal society, I think that they’re really insightful. Learning a language, especially when you’re overseas, isn’t just about grammar and vocabulary. The ultimate goal of language learning is to be able to use that language to communicate with and connect with other people. Additionally, every word, phrase and interaction is shaped by an enormous amount of implicit cultural, historical and social knowledge. We take it for granted, but every time we interact with someone else from our own culture, we’re drawing on an entire lifetime’s worth of interactions and operating within a very firm, defined set of social norms. It’s a reminder that you need to get out of the classroom to gain a full understanding, and it doesn’t just apply to language learning, but to every field of academic learning.

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First impressions of Jordan

Dominick Giovanniello is currently studying abroad in Amman, Jordan participating in an intensive Arabic language program. Below is his initial post while abroad.

Nothing compares to the feeling of stepping off the plane in a new country. It’s a strange cocktail of relief, exhaustion, trepidation, and most importantly, excitement. Right off the bat, you’re confronted by new sights, smells, and sounds. From the signs in a different language, to the accented English of the customs officers, to the building itself, everything is just familiar enough for you to navigate, but so foreign as to overwhelm you and key you into what’s about to come.

This isn’t my first overseas adventure. I was born in Germany, lived in Mexico and Bolivia as a young child, and spent my middle school years in Italy. But this is the first time I’ve lived overseas on my own, and the first time I’ve ever been to the Middle East (it’s also the first time I’ve tried writing a blog post).

It’s hard to say what exactly compelled me to exchange my friends and life at UVA for nine months of living and studying in Amman, especially considering that I’ve never been exposed to Arab culture or the Middle East outside of the classroom. However, as much as I love UVA, I was hungering for an adventure and I know there’s no better way to master a language than to actually live in a country where it’s spoken. So…for the next nine months, I will be studying Arabic full-time at the University of Jordan with CET Academic Programs and calling Amman, Jordan my home.

Everyday here poses a new challenge and a new adventure. Whether it’s learning how to play Jordanian card games, having an in-depth political discussion with my professors after class, getting a haircut, or simply ordering food, I’m constantly pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to set aside my own habits and ways of thinking. I may seem like a total idiot most of the time, but I’m gradually becoming more comfortable speaking, moving around and engaging with Jordanians. Just the other day, for example, I was literally pulled off the street into the wedding celebration of a random stranger. The man noticed me and my friends photographing the gaudy glowing tent that had taken over the street, but rather than chasing us away, he welcomed us into the party, where we listened to live music and dubke-ed (the traditional Arab dance) hand-in-hand with a large circle of men and boys until the late hours of the night.

More than anything else, it’s these small interactions (and occasional victories) that making living overseas so fun and rewarding. Not only do these experiences provide a window into the cultural differences and unique perspectives of others, but they also illustrate the universal normality and mundaneness of everyday life across the globe. Oftentimes, our only exposure to other cultures and ways of life comes from the news, and we don’t realize that beneath all the problems and conflicts, most people want the same things from life, even if they conceptualize them differently. At the same time that living overseas exposes you to other cultures, it also makes you more aware, critical and appreciative of your own.

In this blog, I’m going to try to record my experiences in Jordan and my impressions about Jordanian culture. I don’t want this to be a journal or a litany of my activities, but rather more of a place where I can grapple with and hopefully articulate the contradictions, challenges and joys of being immersed in a foreign land.