Love in an Over-Sized Bird

This week I learned about love.

Eid Al-Adha was October 24-28th. It is a Muslim holiday that celebrates the day Abraham was to sacrifice Ishmael. I have never been more excited about a Muslim holiday. Not because the streets of the Arab world would be flowing with the blood of sheep, but because it meant school was cancelled. And what does a study abroad student do when school is cancelled? Go to Istanbul, Turkey, of course.

My mum has always told me she wants to visit Turkey. I never understood. How exciting could a country be that shares a name with an over-sized bird? But when I started looking for a safe place to go for break, suddenly Turkey began looking very attractive. Turns out Mum was right (as usual). Istanbul has stolen my heart.
Bosphorus Sea Breeze. Autumn leaves. Chattering of languages. Call to prayer. Fresh bread. Squawking of sea gulls. Cobblestone streets. Towering mosques. Palace ruins. Green grass. Glowing fountains. Turkish delights. Rooftop terraces. Friendly felines. Delicate houses. Colourful buildings. Tram bells ringing. Waves hitting the shore. Rocking of the ferry. Glimmering lights on the water. Flowers in hair. Children laughing. Carriage rides on an island. Biking in the shade of trees. Bargaining for Arabian trinkets. Sea food by the Black Sea. Moments, glimpses of another world. An escape. This is love.
Istanbul was just what I needed for break. It was an oasis from my desert. It is the perfect mix of history and modern. A mass transit system can take you almost directly to the very door of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It’s the crossroads of the world. The city itself is spread between Europe and Asia and reflects every aspect of the cultures. I couldn’t help but feel it is one of the world’s best kept secrets. All this time people dream of visiting Europe and Turkey gets forgotten, especially by Americans. I can’t encourage you enough to visit. I’m in love.
I found one particular aspect fascinating about the city. Istanbul appears to be the Arab World’s honeymoon destination of choice. At first I was very confused. I was frequently seeing Arab couples where the man would hold the hand of a woman in a burqa and walk with her through the crowd. My stomach churned at the sight. I was confused by my response and then it hit me. I turned to my friends and asked, “When you see these couples holding hands, do you think of it as she’s more on his leash or that they are romantically holding hands?” I had realized that, without even considering an alternative, I had assumed she was being forced around.
I am so disappointed in myself that I continue to make this mistake. My assumptions are exactly like my baggage I took to the airport. Heavy, excessive, and holding me back. Just because I can’t see that she’s smiling, doesn’t mean they aren’t the happiest they have ever been. Young couples holding hands by the waterfront are the very picture of freedom and love. And I was viewing it as a prison – the woman trapped by the man. I have so much to fix in my mind.
The last day I was in Istanbul, I saw this couple standing by the water. They were surrounded by beauty. Maiden’s tower a few yards away. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in the distance. Boats dotting the Bosphorus. And yet, they only had eyes for each other. I found myself watching them and realizing that their love was one of the most beautiful things I had ever come across. Not only because they were clearly taken with each other, but because it cemented something in my mind. Even though we dress differently, speak differently, and eat differently, we still love the same – fully and completely.
Move aside, Paris. Istanbul is my city of love.
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I’m a Barbie Girl in a Veiled World

When I started telling people that I would be studying abroad in Jordan, I was usually asked a series of three questions:
 
1)  Where is Jordan?
2)  You’re gonna get blown-up. You know that, right?
3)  Are you gonna have to wear one of those scarf-things?
 
In response to the first, I began introducing the topic by saying I was studying abroad in “Jordan-in-the-Middle-East” before anyone could ask. To the second question, I would just smile and say, “There are worse ways to go.” And to the final question I would respond, “Umm.” In truth, I had no idea what to expect concerning veiling in Jordan. BBC News had failed me on that front. I figured as an obvious foreigner I’d be able to get away with a lot. Turns out I was right about that, but it also turns out that I had a lot of misconceptions concerning the hijab. I realized that my outlook of not only the hijab (the veil), but my view of women in the Middle East had been greatly confused.
 

Last weekend when I was in Madaba (for the Biblical Jordan trip), I purchased two barbies. These two barbies wear a full hijab. When I was a young girl, playing with my barbies was my favourite thing to do. I had at least a hundred of them and furniture for every room of their imaginary house. As I look back on it, I realize that I got a lot of my ideas of beauty and fashion from my barbies. I changed their outfits and played with their hair until they fell apart. Spending that much time playing “house” with the “perfect image of a woman” has to alter how we view beauty.  Seeing these barbies in a full hijab made me stop and consider how different a girl’s view of beauty and fashion must be in this part of the world. How much different would we view a woman’s image if suddenly her body and hair (and sometimes her face) weren’t even part of the equation? Suddenly, the hijab doesn’t seem as oppressive, does it?

My friend, Kevin, sent me a link to a website the other day. It was a link to a piece of art entitled, “100 Barbies in Burkas,” by a German artist named Sabine Reyer. I love to look at art, but I’m really not the best at analyzing it. However, this piece screamed meanings to me. When I looked at the pictures, I found myself immediately looking for the differences in each barbie. They all seem so similar, so conformed, so orderly. What I found most interesting though is that, instead of being caught up in this reality, I was overwhelmed by how easily I saw each of their differences, like the colour and shape of their eyes. If they had been real people, would I have not suddenly been more interested in knowing the biggest difference – the personality within? I then thought about what they would have been wearing if it had been an American Barbie display. Short mini skirts? Bikinis? What’s really worse here? Why is it liberating to wear a mini skirt, but oppressive to wear a hijab? Suddenly, the hijab doesn’t seem as oppressive, does it?

On my university’s campus,  I can probably count on one hand the amount of girls I see not wearing a hijab. Before coming here, my feminist-side was absolutely horrified by the hijab. The idea of a society forcing women to cover themselves seemed like some sort of strange fairytale. Then I got hit with a dose of reality. Religion and culture here are inseparable. They are smothered together like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Knowing this fact alone explains so much. A hijab is a kind of ‘religious’ accessory here. Walking around campus this becomes abundantly clear. Girls match their scarves to their outfits so perfectly that I often look at my clothes and feel silly for not having colour-coordinated. Purple scarves to match their purses and shoes. Green scarves to match their jacket. White scarves to match their pants. That’s just how it is. Real life. Not some sort of oppressing factor, just woman living life and being fashion-forward. Suddenly, the hijab doesn’t seem as oppressive, does it?

The other day as I made my way to one of my classes, I heard a strangely familiar song.

“I’m a barbie girl, in a barbie world
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!
You can brush my hair, 
Undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation
Come on Barbie, let’s go party!”
 
Ah, good old American pop that’s ever so slightly inappropriate. Perhaps if it had just been the music playing I wouldn’t have been as astonished at hearing it. However, not only was it the music, there were some girls singing along to it. Every single one of them wearing a hijab. Do they have any idea what they’re singing? I wondered. Whether they did though, is neither here nor there. Since moving to Jordan, I have had one of those glorious light-bulb moments. 

My culture is just as ‘oppressive’ as their culture. 


American culture continues to sell ideas of what ‘beauty’ really is and how we should aim for it. This definition of beauty affects every aspect of our lives from movies and music to food and toys.  There is no escaping it no matter what country or culture you run to. And this is oppressive. Yes, there are aspects of the hijab that are still oppressive, but it is not as clearly cut as I had first assumed. Being here has taught me an invaluable lesson. I must not be so quick to judge an aspect of someone’s culture simply because it is different. I thought I already knew this, but I’ve realized my heart wasn’t listening to my mind. 

So, Reality Check: I have a lot to learn.

The Brink of Uncertainty

Sometimes, we teeter on the brink of uncertainty.

Felix Baumgartner knows this sensation better than anyone. Last night, the Austrian skydiver fell faster than the speed of sound from the astonishing height of 128,100 feet. I sat on the floor of my host family’s living room and watched history being made. As I watched, I couldn’t help but compare the two of us and our separate adventures.

Felix:
In order to leave the atmosphere, he prepared himself. He perfected his skydiving techniques, said “see you later” to family and friends, and put on his special suit. He then sat in his balloon that would transport him up to the jump. I imagine the entire ride there was a tumbling and somersaulting of thoughts spinning through his head. As the miles passed, I’m sure the pressure built in and outside of him. I came out to watch right as the door to the balloon opened. My eyes were glued to the screen as he pulled himself out onto the ledge. The earth stretched out for rounded miles beneath him, while a canopy of dark space hovered above him. It was time. Mission control told him to unplug the oxygen and prepare to jump. Despite the helmet, you could tell there was a brief moment of hesitancy. But then, with sure hands, he unplugged it. He had nine minutes of oxygen remaining. There was no going back now. He pulled himself further out and we heard his labored breathing. The entire world held its breath and then – he fell.

From camera to camera, we watched as Felix fell miles and miles to earth. No longer was it his thoughts, it was his body tumbling and somersaulting through the heavens. Four minutes and 20 seconds he fell. What was only a short time must have felt like ages to him. A few thousand feet before the ground, he pulled his parachute and floated gracefully to the dusty, New Mexico land. Once safely on the earth, he knelt down and breathed in his moment of success. He is forever a changed man.

Grace:
In order to leave home, I prepared myself. I reviewed my Arabic, packed my clothes, and hugged my family goodbye. I surrounded myself in a cocoon of the familiar as a safety suit. I boarded the airplane with nervous excitement and watched out the window as I left home behind. My thoughts were tumbling and somersaulting. What am I doing? Why am I leaving what is comfortable? Is this worth it? As the miles passed, my nervous excitement heightened as I sat in the pressurized cabin. After 12 hours of flying, we finally began to descend and I saw my new world under me. The desert stretched out for miles, with a canopy of hot sun and endless blue sky. I gathered up my carry-ons and walked down the aisle. It was time. No one told me to jump, but I knew that was the next step in this journey. There was a brief moment of hesitancy when I simply wanted to go back to my seat and head back home. But the oxygen was running out. There was no going back now. It was time to step off this brink of uncertainty. And so – I fell.

The fall has been terrifying and exhilarating. My body has been tumbling and somersaulting, and sometimes all I want is stability. However, the reality is, sometimes you just have to let yourself fall. Three and a half months I will fall. What is only a short time has already felt like ages. But, it is already passing more quickly than I realize, and it was watching Felix that reminded me I will never have these moments again. What was the scariest moment of his life, will be something he will willingly relive the rest of his life. I see now that it is time to enjoy the fall and pull the parachute to enjoy the view. As I look ahead, I want to end my journey like Felix Baumgartner. I want to breathe in that moment of success and know I am forever changed.

I am so grateful that sometimes we teeter on the brink of uncertainty. If we didn’t do so, we would never learn, change, grow. Thanks, Felix, for the inspiration. And thanks for giving me the chance to experience history in Amman.

Speaking of history….

On Saturday, our program took us on a day trip to see “Biblical Jordan.” It was a truly mind-blowing experience. First, we saw where John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Followed by seeing Mt. Nebo, where Moses saw the promised land. Finally, Madaba for lunch and the ruins of Herod’s Palace where John the Baptist was beheaded. Okay, honestly, I’ve always found these “landmarks” a little suspect considering the amount of time that has passed, among other things. However, once I was finally standing in each place, I realized I didn’t care anymore. I was close enough to the place that even the concept was overwhelming.

Standing on the bank of the Jordan River, gazing out at the promised land, watching sunset over the Dead Sea from palace ruins reminded me of the reality of where I live right now. I am in a crossroads geographically, historically, and politically. I am here at a fascinating time and I still get to enjoy the history of it. Yeah, it’s cool.

All this time I had imagined the Jordan as a huge river that pours into the Dead Sea. In reality, it’s little more than an over-sized stream. This was really interesting to witness as it meant that on the bank of one side was the Arab World and only a five yard swim separated it from the bank of Israel. The contrast of the two sides was stark. Tourists wearing outfits that would be completely haram (forbidden) were spotted on the one side, as well as large groups of people waiting to get baptized in the water. That same side had beautiful churches, flags, and cement steps leading into the water. The other side had a wooden shelter that stood above the water and a couple broken steps leading into the river. One side had huge groups of people singing and praying. The other side had silent observers. There was one likeness between the two, though. This was that both sides were highly militarized. If I had tried to make that five yard swim, I would have been told to turn back or shot if I had disobeyed. A peaceful river trapped between two conflicting worlds. It was heavy reminder that they are conflicting worlds stuck on the brink of uncertainty.

Culture Shock: A Reflection

I vividly remember when I moved to Mongolia. I was the most excited nine year old girl you’ve ever seen. I was practically bouncing in my seat as our Korean Air plane landed in the valley in which Ulaanbaatar is located. I had been dreaming of that moment for years. I didn’t care that the ground was littered with broken glass or that the weather was going to be the most bitter of cold. It was my new home. As I look back at my transition to the nation, I note the ease with which I did so. Sure, there were bad days at first. Days where I missed my friends or worried that I would never make any new ones. But, for me, I was just so thrilled to finally have a place to call home
 
When we were unexpectedly uprooted and sent back to the States, I did not have the same transition experience. I experienced culture shock for the very first time. It was this feeling of not belonging. A feeling of being lost in a sea of people. I remember when it hit me the worst. My grandmother needed to stop by the grocery store and I had offered to go with her. We walked into the condiments aisle of a Safeway grocery store and I just stopped and stared. I had never felt so overwhelmed in my life. There were at least 13 types of jellies and at least 4 companies for each type. It may sound silly, but it was simply my last straw. I could not comprehend the contrast between the lives I had been living. I felt so foreign. I wanted a home again.
 
The past week or so has been a déjà vu from my time readjusting to the States. I had really thought that I was so much stronger. I told myself there was no way I was going to struggle with moving to a new culture. I certainly wouldn’t struggle with disliking a culture that I have been studying for so long. But, here I am, the foreigner once again. I struggle with getting through the every day. I am exhausted of the cab rides, the men, the food, and the language. The exhaustion makes me feel so heavy that I am sure I won’t be able to get through the day. I loathe myself for feeling that way. 
 
In response to recognizing this in myself, I have decided to identify ways to fight culture shock. I am not a victim of my situation or circumstances. I am an active participant in a a purposeful adventure. Culture shock is certainly not exclusive to living in a foreign nation. We all go through these periods in our lives where life has changed and we must adjust. I have decided the key is to have a plan of attack. So, ready for this? 
 
My step-by-step plan of attack:
 
Step 1: Don’t Isolate 
Sitting in your room, stewing about your problems, is not the answer. Trust me, I have tried. Multiple times. I promised myself that I would go out after I get more work done. I told myself that I was canceling on my friends because I was tired. But let’s be real, I am reveling in my depression. I’m pretending that being away from the culture is going to make me feel better. The reality is I just end up feeling more alone. 
Example of success: Last night my friends and I went out for our friend Tasha’s birthday. I had a lot of homework to get done, but committed to going anyway. I am so glad I did. We ate at a beautiful roof-top restaurant and gazed out over Amman as the sun set. I was reminded once again of the gorgeous city I am living in and of the wonderful people I am surrounded by. It was the best kind of medicine for an aching heart.


 
Step 2: Treat Yo’self
I crave things sometimes. Not only do I just crave things, but I obsess over them. I talk about the things I am missing all the time. I have a list a mile long of the things I want to do and eat when I get back to the States. Just to name a few: eat honeycomb cereal, take a bubble bath, drive a car, stand outside in the rain, drink hot chai, and catch up on all my Hulu shows. How do you deal with this longing to have normal life back? I would highly suggest treating yourself to something you are missing every once and awhile. Just to get over that painful speed bump on the way to adjustment.
Example of success: I purchased myself cocoa puffs and milk. I ate three bowls of cocoa puffs in one sitting. Judge all you want. It fed my soul.
 
Step 3: Paper Towel It
A good friend and professor of mine taught me one of the most important things I have ever learned. He taught me the idea of “paper towel-ing.” Paper toweling is when you try something new and if it doesn’t work you just…get over it. You tear off that piece of paper towel and you throw it away. When my professor taught me this phrase, it was in the context of acting. However, I have found it to be endlessly useful in my every day life. You just can’t take life too seriously. You have to be willing to laugh and throw away that mistake. That way you can just keep smiling. 
Example of success: If you know me, you know that I am absolutely neurotic about being on time to things. I try my best to be at least five minutes early to class, and usually arrive even earlier. It’s a problem. Like on a massive scale. A Kristen-Bell-obsessed-with-sloths-sized problem. (If you are not sure what I am referring to, please youtube Kristin Bell + Sloths right this moment.) But, Amman is teaching me to paper towel it. Our normal ten minute taxi ride took forty-five minutes due to an obscene amount of crazy Jordanian traffic and an even crazier taxi driver. I ended up walking into class twenty minutes late. But you know what? I paper toweled it and walked in with a smile.
 
Step 4: Focus on Fun
Whether you are working or studying, it’s altogether too easy to forget that there are good times ahead. In my depression, I started drowning in my deadlines, tests, and routine. I felt like the desert that surrounds Amman had turned into a sinkhole and I was quickly losing sight of safety. But, then, I was thrown a branch that pulled me out. We need adventures out of the ordinary that make us feel alive once again. 
Example of success: This saturday, my program is taking me on a tour of Biblical Jordan. I will get to see things like the baptism site of Jesus, Mt. Nebo, St. George Church, and Madaba city. I could not imagine a more exciting use of my Saturday. And, in less than two weeks, I’m leaving with a fantastic group of people to Istanbul, Turkey for 4/5 days of exploring the beautiful city. I am definitely out of that sinkhole.
 
Well, there you have it. My plan of attack against the evil that is culture shock. Jordan may never be home to me, but I am learning day-by-day that a home is what you make of it. Throwing out the negativity in my life is the only way to begin embracing something so new and different. So, here I go, paper toweling my negativity. I leave you with this quote, 
 
“Optimism is the faith that leads to Achievement.” – Helen Keller
 
Smart lady.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away

I’ve decided it’s time to take off the I-love-Jordan-all-the-time hat. I usually prefer that hat because writing about your feelings? Yeah, that’s tough stuff. However, I am feeling particularly brave today. So here you are: my unfiltered feelings.

LANGUAGE
Living in a new culture is hard, but studying in a new culture is even harder. I took Modern Standard Arabic class for two and a half years. I worked really hard at it and always got good grades. Can you imagine my shock when I landed in Jordan and no one understood a word I was saying? The dialect here is nothing like Modern Standard. After living here a month, I have now learned that Modern Standard is equivalent to Shakespearean English. I have no doubt my face would be a mirror of theirs if they said to me,

“How malicious is my fortune,
that I must repent to be just!
This the letter he spoke of,
which approves him an intelligent party to the advantages of France:
 O heavens! That this treason were not, or not I the detector!
I guess it makes sense that when you speak like this people are gonna look at you like you’re walking around not wearing any clothes. Suffice it to say, my frustration knows no bounds. I still take around ten hours of MSA a week and also three hours of colloquial a week. It sometimes feels pointless and I feel hopeless. I imagine that it’s how I’d feel if I was learning how to snowboard living in the Gobi Desert. Just worthless. Those are the bad days though.
MEN
Let me set the scene.

FADE IN: 

EXT. CITY STREET – DAY

A girl (early 20s) walks down the street darting between cars, broken sidewalks, and oil spills. The background music is a chorus of jeers from the men who see her as they pass in their cars. She frequently glances over her shoulder at the traffic, her eyes searching anxiously for an available taxi. None are to be found. She sighs and continues walking. 

(ENTER GOLD SUV) As the girl walks, the SUV passes her, the driver inside staring her down. He pulls off to the side and waits for her to walk past him. He passes her again in order to keep watching in a sick game of “visual leap frog.”

(ENTER WHITE UNMARKED CAR) The white car pulls over to the girl who is walking.

Man: You need taxi? Here, come in!
Girl (in horror): No. (WHITE CAR DRIVES AWAY) 

The girl hesitates on the sidewalk, not wanting to walk further due to the SUV and not wanting to stand still and be seen by more drivers. She checks her outfit. The only skin showing on her body is her face, neck, and hands. With a confused look on her face, she looks again out at the street. Immediately, she spots a man hollering and blowing kisses at her.

Girl: I. Just. Want. A. Taxi.

END SCENE.


This is daily life in Amman for me. It makes me feel objectified, devalued, and dirty. It makes me think of that Dove Soap commercial where the British lady goes, “I couldn’t rinse enough.” …I can’t rinse these memories away anywhere near enough. I came home so upset yesterday because I was just tired of it. I can’t understand why it just won’t stop. What blows my mind is that this, this cat-calling and creeping, is nothing compared to what men do to women in other countries of this region. And here I am complaining. 

Between the language and men issues, I was feeling spent. Every comment from a man, every new word I was taught in colloquial made me feel a little smaller and a little more exhausted. I would fix a smile on and collapse on my bed at the end of the day. I needed a fresh start. I needed to get out of my mind’s desert wasteland of negativity.

And then — it rained

RAIN
I love rain. I live for rainy days. I’m not sure if it’s my semi-Seattle blood that runs through my veins, or simply something deeper that longs for what rain gives me. What does rain give me? Memories. I remember one afternoon when I was six, I sat on my porch in Portsmouth, Ohio and watched the rain fall down on our driveway. I loved watching the rain bounce off the pavement, because, to me, it looked like thousands of little ballet dancers prancing and leaping around a stage. As I grew older, I loved rain for the smell. That scent of freshness and earth. The noise of it hitting the leaves or a window pane. The idea of life being restored. Last night when it rained here, I was sure I had never been so happy in my life. God knew exactly what I needed right as I had hit my limit. I needed to be able to “rinse enough”. I needed to be able to water my “wasteland of negativity.” And He gave me that chance. 

I have also realized that rain comes in many, many forms. People and places can even be my personal rain. A figurative rain shower: I was able to go to church the other night. It had been so long since I’d been able to go because of not knowing where to go and busyness with my program’s excursions. Let me tell you, it has never felt so good to go to church. They sang songs I was familiar with, the pastor was fun and interesting, and I got to sing the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic thanks to Dr. Wright. (She taught it to me back at Cedarville.) The service was all in Arabic, but there were headphones with a translation. The headphones didn’t really work, but I was actually able to keep up pretty well with what he was saying. I was thrilled. All in all, it was completely uplifting and I cannot wait to go again.


I realize that my post this week is not terribly positive or humorous, but I hope you can appreciate my honesty about living abroad. Sometimes adventures aren’t always fun. My dad, brother, and I hiked a mountain this past spring and it took a long, long time to get to the summit. It was frigid, we weren’t prepared, and I was sure we were never going to make it to the top. But we did. And the sight was magnificent, but you know what was the best part? Being able to say we had done it, because that meant we were strong enough to even conquer a mountain. So, that’s why I’m sticking this out. That view from the top is going to be magnificent, and gosh-darn-it, I am strong enough to conquer this mountain.

That’s all, folks.