You hear a lot about culture shock while you’re preparing to study abroad. Some get it worse than others. I think the most determining factors are preparation and openness. Meaning, it is absolutely necessary to prepare for living in another country for a semester by reading up as much as you can on societal and cultural norms there. However, it is also necessary to accept that once you get there, you will spend each minute trying your best to understand a completely different society than the one you’re accustomed to, and you’ll leave feeling like there’s so much more to learn.
The key is to keep trying. Never stop asking questions and visiting new places, just like you shouldn’t stop trying to meet new people. Settling into a comfort zone is a mistake and a waste of the experience you’ve been afforded. It’s a mistake I almost made halfway through the semester, when homesickness and stress hit me hard. The thing that pulled me out of that hole was a desire and decision to continue learning and exploring. I knew there was more to Amman than what I’d experienced thus far, but I had no idea just how much.
When adjusting to another culture, it is necessary to see yourself, or at least carry yourself, as an expat resident of the place you are living, not a visitor. It is necessary to accept that for now, this is home. You must focus on the present, not on the past. You can’t be distracted by what the future will hold once you get back. Otherwise, you’ll be distracted from the whole reason you studied abroad in the first place.
It is necessary to change your behavior to fit in in a new culture, while simultaneously keeping your identity and holding true to your ideals. Here, I’ve had to change the way I dress, and adjust to what my friends and I affectionately call “Arab Time” (late nights, late mornings). I’ve had to adjust to the difference in consumer structure from the US. I’ve learned to be mindful of the fact that not all, if not most, of the residents of Amman aren’t actually Jordanian. Many are from Palestine, or refugees from other parts of the Middle East. Learning about the aspects of the regional political climate that have resulted in this demographic is paramount. Despite this preexisting diversity, you’ll always be an outsider, and you’ll probably always stand out. That just means that you have to try extra hard to let locals know that you respect and admire their culture. Your desire to learn will always be awarded, and will oftentimes impress people who have rightful preconceived notions about Americans. Try to speak the language in the taxis. Learn the “slang”. Order something random off the menu. And never stop asking questions. For me, the greatest challenge is overcoming fear of seeming ignorant, sheltered, or orientalist (Also the fear of mispronouncing words, ha.) You just have to realize that there are no stupid questions, and if you don’t ask, you can’t learn, and you can’t grow.
Finally, the most important part of cultural adjustment is the acknowledgment that there are exceptions to all of the “general rules” you learn from google or study abroad orientation. For example, I dress differently when I go downtown than when I am walking around in my neighborhood. It is necessary for me to take several factors into consideration when deciding how formally I should speak with someone. It is safer to engage in conversations about politics (what I am studying) in some circles than others. There is a huge range of differing opinions on various social and political issues to be mindful of, much more so than the United States, as a result of the more significant impact of globalism, politics, economics, and international relations on the daily lives of people that live in Amman. It is necessary for me to learn about the family and background of the people I meet to better understand them. The social structure here in Amman is multi-faceted, complex, dynamic and important. Life here is just as complicated, and just as beautiful. Don’t make the mistake of assuming, or grouping people together under broad assumptions. Explore, and let the city and the people show you all there is to appreciate, adknowledge, and respect.