I recently hit my two year mark here in Jordan, and looking back on my journey-all of which has been spent in intensive language study-I can confidently say I am not where I thought I would be…and I am so grateful!
When I first landed in Jordan, I knew more Arabic than most expats who move to the Middle East. I did a couple semesters of Ancient Arabic in college and finished the Rosetta Stone program (I even played all the accessory games which were actually pretty fun and helpful). Even with this background, I experienced the strangest social occurrences when interacting with my newfound local friends. Every time I wanted to ask them a question or showed any sort of initiation in conversation, I would form the question or sentence from the Arabic I knew in my head, and then send it south only to find my mouth wired shut in fear, my tongue frozen like a clumsy glacier.
“What is wrong with you?” I would ask myself. I would become more and more shy, which is an adjective never before used to describe me. Finally, I realized what it was; I did not want to appear foreign. Although it was pretty clear from my appearance-particularly my shoes, my eyes and even my smell-that I was not “one of them,” I wanted to be identified as such. So I set my mind on accomplishing this through the way I spoke Arabic. I wanted to sound just like them in pronunciation, tone, cultural sayings and then when I discovered the melody of Arabic later on, I tried to plagiarize that as well.
This goal was not only ambiguous and unreachable, but it was completely off kilter. I was setting myself up for day-in and day-out frustration of falling short. This did not go away after the first month nor the first three months, but rather stayed with me until about a year into my studies. I finally came to this point where I realized that stress I was putting on myself to be something I am not-nor will ever be-was hurting my local relationships, not helping them. My friends did not appreciate it when I would mumble something really fast in order to appear fluent. Nor did they particularly feel accepted when they caught me rehearsing things they would say over and over again in order to get the accent “perfect” at the expense of responding to their heart they had just shared with me. These are techniques I thought they were unaware of. Nothing could be more foolish. Locals have an acute sense of being used whether it be for political, economic or even linguistic gain.
I came to a point where I looked at myself honestly in the mirror and accepted that this Cajun Texas boy was never going to be Arab.It was a big pill to swallow, but it was the best medicine I have ever taken for my language learning. What this medicine did was suppress the desire to copy them and release the space within myself to enjoy them! Oh the love I felt for them that I previously had been lacking! Where had it been? It had been stuck behind this traffic jam of impossible expectations I had put on myself. But once the traffic jam was cleared away, a highway of appreciation and gratitude came rushing in its stead from both directions on the two way street of relationships.
Now, a year later, where am I? I am not where I thought I would be. I still do not sound perfectly “native”. A taxi driver will identify me within seconds as an ajnabee, which means foreigner. Sometimes people will speak to me in English because they feel it would be easier for them.
Now, I do not let these things bother me, but rather embrace them and try to humbly enter their world as best as I possibly can. I admit when I do not know things, instead of pretending to know something when I in fact do not know it, I try to listen more than I talk, but when I do open my mouth, I speak slowly for the sake of being understood. And you know what happens? They love it, and they compliment my language more than they ever did before! Why? Because they feel the connection only humility can provide, and they appreciate the effort I have taken to understand them-which at the end of the day is far more impressive to them than a foreigner who has “nailed the accent.”
Throughout my time, I have experienced a great deal with my local friends in their heart language. I have provided a healing ear and listened to their heart break without correction or judgement but merely understanding, I have shared my own heart break with them, my own fears and concerns in the face of great hopes not working out, I have mourned the death of a loved one, grieved the state of my home country and the state of theirs, absorbed the disappointment of their government reform, economic opportunities, and spiritual dissatisfaction. I have also gotten unprecedented access into family life (the good, the bad and the ugly) that not even other Arabs have been privy to.
So am I done? Have I arrived? Absolutely not! However, looking back on my expectations two years ago, I would say that I have accomplished more than I had dreamed possible! Yet it looked far different from what I had anticipated and required far more of me than I knew to give. It has been more than worth every penny, drop of sweat and bad cup of coffee drank, and I am truly excited to continue my studies in understanding these amazing people.