It’s only been a week since I arrived in Amman and of course, as with any program, I have been subjected to a rigorous orientation schedule where all students must listen to a litany of program directors try to parcel all we need to know about Amman and the University of Jordan in five days. Many of us (students) have yet to explore the city because of orientation, which is slightly maddening when you can see from your window a whole unexplored terrain, and hear echoes of the city on your terrace.
But as much as we students “secretly” complain about the length of orientation and the amount of information covered, we all recognize the importance of attending these sessions. My program, CIEE, has hosted so many students in Amman that they were able to create many, many, many power points with scenarios we will likely face.
For example, what do you do when taxi drivers try to overcharge you for a cab ride? Who do you call in your apartment when something breaks or you need help with an appliance? When does your water tank refill? Can you run out of fuel for heat? Did you know you were not supposed to flush toilet paper? What happens if you’re in an emergency scenario where you need help immediately?
All incredibly important questions!
However, during all these pertinent orientation sessions I noticed both a physical and mental divide amongst the students who would stay in apartments and those who would stay with host families. I understand the physical separation within orientation because my program had to present different lectures for our different living situations. However, I was bewildered by the mental separation amongst us.
To understand this mental break let me recount a conversation I had at dinner with a homestay student.
Like most orientations, our program gave us free meals from the hotel restaurant during the first days of orientation, which became the perfect medium to meet other students. Our conversation began normally enough. “Hi, what’s your name?” “What state are you from.” “What school do you go to?” “Oh, do you know x person or y person?” Finally, she asked the question “Are you staying with a host family or living in an apartment?” I answered, “Apartment.” This student who chose a host family then went around the table trying to find where everyone else was staying. Randomly four of the five people sitting this table were also staying in apartments. The number of people who chose apartments over host families seemed to throw off this host student. She then said with a curled lip and exaggerated voice, “You chose apartments, why?” [Excuse me for some dramatic license; I want a clear visual of this conversation]. When we all listed our own reasons she then said, “Well I want the REAL experience of living in Amman,”
That immediately struck me, “the “REAL” experience?” What? Will my experience in Amman somehow be any less real because I chose to stay in an apartment rather than with a host family?
A week later and I can firmly say my study abroad experience is not diminished just different. I will still be immersed in the culture even if I don’t live within a Jordanian household.
Unlike host family students, students who live in apartments have to almost completely depend on themselves because they don’t have a Jordanian family as a resource. We see and experience Amman differently.
For example, after we settled into our apartment my roommate and I could not figure out how to work our appliances like the washing machine, the water heater, or the showerhead. We had to call our buildings Harris (which is like a super) and tell him about our problems completely in Arabic. Mind you, we knew none of the necessary vocabulary and this was only four days after summer break so our language skills were pretty rusty. However, we still managed to communicate with Muhammad, a first step into building a relationship with our Harris.
Moreover, while all these host family students had their host parents or siblings write directions to their homes or stores, I have to rely completely on myself to tell my cab driver how to get home or get to a specific restaurant. Furthermore, unlike my friend Shai, who can call her Baba (father) when she is lost in her taxi, I have to drive around Jordan until I find a landmark that gives me a sense of direction. Also, taxi drivers do not use official street names here, making my map and address almost completely useless and my trips so much more interesting. Let’s also add my limited Arabic vocabulary to the mix and I end up having some very complicated cab rides.
On my first day returning from the University to my apartment alone I ended up spending 6JD on a ride that would normally at most cost 1 JD because none of my landmarks were unique enough for me to remember one street from another. For example, I live right beside a Masjid. However, almost everyone lives right beside a masjid, so that did not help. I live beside a construction site, but everyone lives near a construction site. Well this ride which would normally take 15 minutes actually lasted an hour and in that hour I talked with my cab driver about his family, his plans for the weekend, my life in the United States, my plans in Jordan, his son’s first day of college, and what he had for dinner. That entire interaction is just as “real” as if I went home to a host family and asked them about their day.
Unlike host family students, I also have to figure out my meals myself, meaning I do a lot of grocery shopping and restaurant sampling. Every week I have to go to Carrefour (our local grocery store chain) and use a new set of vocabulary to ask for items ranging from garbage bags to milk and eggs. I have interactions that some host family students do not have to face regularly.
My experience of Jordan is REAL. I am being immersed in the culture even if I go home to an apartment with another American student. In the morning I hear the Athan (call to prayer) from the masjid that is not even 50 yards away from my house. When I leave for school I take a taxi with generally inquisitive drivers who are excited to learn I an American student studying Arabic. When I return home I normally have to visit local stores for food, minutes for my Nokia phone, or the laundry mat. I talk with little girls who play at the playground near my apartment. I will occasionally pray at our local Masjid and speak with my neighbors who attend. I am getting the “real” experience, whatever that means.
I am not writing this to diminish host families. There are a ton of benefits in living with a host family. You get to see the inner dynamics of a Jordanian family, every day, for four month. You are forced to speak mainly in Arabic constantly, thereby, improving your Arabic skills faster than I could ever hope. Host families can give you great information about how to experience Jordan, who to meet, where to go, who to know. Some of my friends’ host families also help them with their homework and explain Jordanian culture whenever a question arises. Host family students have just as real an experience as apartment students. Again, our living situations are just different, with each providing opportunities to experience Jordan.