Op-Ed: One Detainment and Two Marriage Proposals, Or My Study Abroad Experience

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When I was selecting a study abroad program, I found myself torn between programs in Jordan and programs in Germany; I studied both Arabic and German. In Germany, I would enroll in university classes and stay in a dorm with a mixture of German and foreign students. In Jordan, I would take classes with a small program and live with a host family. After pouring over program descriptions, I finally decided on Jordan because I’d already been to Germany. I’d never been to Jordan or anywhere in the Middle East.

During my four months in Jordan, there were certainly times when I desperately wished I was in Germany. There were times I felt uncomfortable, awkward, and downright strange.  Overall, however, I had an amazing experience that is difficult to describe in words. I tried to immerse myself as much as possible: I lived with a host family, played tennis weekly with Jordanian youth, and practiced my Arabic with strangers as much as I could.

There is one story I feel I should share as a gentle warning to other students studying abroad. I was lucky enough to do research abroad because my program devoted the last month to an independent study project. One day I was passing out anonymous surveys with a friend at the University of Jordan when a security guard approached us. He asked me what we were doing and I tried to explain in halting and broken Arabic that that we were conducting anonymous research. He frowned and got on his walkie-talkie. I asked if I could leave but he said no and continued to talk rapidly into his walkie-talkie. I called my program director because I was getting a bit concerned. He told me that I needed permission from the president of the university to conduct research, otherwise I could be arrested! I put him on the phone with the security guard, but alas, this did not work.

A campus security car pulled up and we were told to get in. The car took us down a winding road to the security office, where we were led through into a small office. The head of security entered and motioned for me to sit closer, next to his desk. I looked back at my friend and cautiously approached. He asked us questions about our research and took copies of our surveys. He was quite pleasant, but I found myself sweating. After we were done, we were driven to the university gates and told we could not come back until we had gotten formal approval from the university president. Seeing as how that would take at least one month and we were only there for two more weeks, I waved goodbye to the University of Jordan. Very strangely, the next day, campus security called our program director and told him we were involved in inciting a riot on campus. This was amusing; it was so blatantly untrue. But we were lucky that we didn’t get into any serious trouble. It is important to be aware of research policies in different places, especially if you are in a different country.

When I was in Jordan, I also spent a week with a Bedouin family, which was an experience that very few programs offer. At times, it was an incredibly frustrating and unnerving experience. I covered my hair, wore a typical robe (thob), ate with just my right hand, and attempted to learn some of the dialect. I went to a school one day, which was an absolutely terrifying experience. As I walked in, about 200 kids just stared at me. I felt like I had descended from an alien spacecraft into a crowded schoolyard. The kids started showering me with questions: one little boy asked me why I had blue eyes. I didn’t have a good answer for him, I just smiled. I showered once during the five days, which involved pouring a bucket of water over my head. I probably met about fifteen new people a day and had to communicate in my limited Arabic. I received two marriage proposals in one week (I think they were kidding…). During that week, I ate a lot, I talked a lot, I laughed a lot, and I cringed a lot. There is no doubt that I felt awkward at some points. But at the end of the week, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Spending time with strangers is absolutely frightening, but it is worth it. I met some of the most generous people I will ever know and I became part of a family I will never forget.

Op-ed submitted by Kelsey Johnson ’13


    • This comment is unconstructive. Instead of calling attention to any specific issues with the article, you vaguely critisize the whole thing. How can issues of privilege be addressed without productive conversation?

  1. i too leave catty comments re: privilege on someone talking honestly about culture shock and dealing with being in an environment where you barely know language and customs

  2. Interesting that your comment – “Sad, it seems like you let your overwhelming privilege cloud your entire study abroad experience.” – completely disregards this article’s attempt to illustrate the type of respect students’ should display for other countries’ customs and policies in regards to research.

    Wherever you choose to study abroad, you need to have this sense of awareness and recognizing that does not scream privileged. In fact, NOT being aware of culture differences is acting more out of privilege than anything else.

    Especially considering this student’s openness to experience and her ability to recognize first of all, the challenge but also the advantages of engaging with those cultural differences is pretty cool. So give it a rest.

  3. I just wanted to note that studying abroad is absolutely a privilege and I am grateful for the opportunity. In this article I tried to show the ways in which my casual approach to research was wrong and that I should have been more aware of the policies at the university. Though my article was perhaps a little (ok, probably a lot) on the corny side, I attempted to show how nervous and uneasy I felt at first in the Badia because I was an outsider with very limited Arabic skills. I had been told by my host family in the city to use only my right hand when eating in the Badia but I completely forgot and started using both hands. My host family in the Badia gently corrected me, but I was embarrassed by my slip up. They were my hosts and I did not want to offend the people who were allowing me to stay in their homes, eat their food, and be a temporary member of their families.

    I tried to show that spending time in a new place is scary but it was worth it because of the experiences I had and the people I met. This article is only a snippet of my experiences abroad, but I appreciate any constructive comments about my article. However, I agree with “how, exactly” that the comment “sad, it seems like you let your overwhelming privilege cloud your entire study abroad experience” is not constructive and will not be helpful to me or anyone else in the future.

  4. I also wanted to point out that this article did not in any way describe my “entire study abroad experience” like the first comment claimed. There is a lot about my experience that I did not share, like how I stopped playing tennis the last month of my program because I was assaulted by three young men one evening as I walked home from practice.

    Though it may be not be logical, I was freaked out and never went back. I never told the tennis director why, which I still feel guilty about because he generously allowed me to play for free. I did not share experiences like these because they are not what I remember most about Jordan. I remember my host family and my friends and rarely think about that night. However, it is a part of my experience so please don’t act like you know me or understand my experiences based on a one page article. I don’t think that is fair.

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