Dominick Giovanniello attended the 2016-2017 CET: Intensive Arabic Language in Amman, Jordan program as a Third Year. He studies Middle Eastern Language and Literature and Global Security and Justice. As we prepare for break here in Charlottesville, let’s look back a year ago to his experience celebrating Thanksgiving abroad.
Out of all the holidays, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite. We celebrate it simply back home, but I still love gathering friends and family together and gorging myself on delicious food. However, I’ve never considered Thanksgiving a real holiday or celebration of anything meaningful to my life. To me it’s just a good excuse to bring people together and eat. And for that reason, explaining Thanksgiving to my Jordanian friends was rather difficult, since Jordanian families tend to be closer and don’t need a non-religious holiday as an excuse to gather.
Nevertheless, this past week we held a Thanksgiving celebration at the CET building, complete with all of the traditional Thanksgiving staples like turkey (probably the best I’ve ever had) and mashed potatoes. The day started early, with a couple of students slaving away preparing dishes while the rest drank and milled about. Although most of our language partners, teachers and Jordanian roommates were present, I noticed that they largely stuck to themselves, in large part, I suspect, due to the presence of alcohol. And as the day wore on, I noticed that the separation between the two groups became more acute.
Although none of the Americans were belligerent or exceedingly annoying, it was obvious that many were intoxicated and that the Jordanians felt uncomfortable because of it. Additionally, none of them could relate to the topics of conversation or to the shared cultural knowledge of the Americans, for lack of a better term. For example, when “Country Road,” the ubiquitous song in all American college parties, came on over the speakers, practically the entire group stood up and began to sing along lustily, while the Jordanians looked on in confused amusement.
To be entirely honest, I didn’t enjoy Thanksgiving this year. Although it was fun to let loose and enjoy some of the comforts, activities and foods I associate with home, I felt like I was under a microscope and that the Jordanians were judging us the entire time. In my opinion, opening up and celebrating or discussing your culture in a foreign country induces a considerable amount of pressure and makes you feel incredibly vulnerable. I think a large part of it is due to having lived overseas before and being one of the only Americans in a school full of Italians and Brits at the height of the Iraq war when anti-American sentiment was really common in Europe.
To me this Thanksgiving was a reminder that cultural dialogue and exchange are not something that just happens, nor is it an entirely innocent process. You have to make an effort to share your culture and be open to learning about another person’s, but at the same time you’re also aware of your own role as an unofficial ambassador, which inserts a tremendous amount of pressure into interactions and events that you would never notice normally at home. For this reason, living overseas can be really exhausting and stressful, even if you’re just going to the grocery store or doing something mundane like that.
I wonder if immigrants in America feel this way, especially immigrants from non-Western cultures. Because no matter how welcoming or accepting another culture is, there’s always a pressure to conform and change your behavior to the cultural norms of your host country, while at the same time challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. And if I’m feeling this kind of pressure as an American student in Jordan for a year, I can’t begin to imagine how tough it must be for Arab immigrants in the U.S. (or for anyone who gets lumped in the same group), especially in light of our post-9/11 society and attitudes.