Culture shock doesn’t have to be, well shocking, sometimes it’s more of a gentle adjustment. My recent trajectory took me from Thailand, where I lived for several months, to Jordan, a country I had never visited in a region I had also never visited.
A read through Jordan’s Wikipedia entry before I left Thailand yielded some new perspectives and political understanding, as did a look at the internal Jordanian news sites and a read through the blogosphere. In short, I knew what to expect, but still had some fun encounters and adjustments I’d like to share – these moments, or vignettes if you would rather, were my firsts introductions into the Jordanian culture and I’d love for them to be yours too!
A Sincere Thanks, Learn it, it Will Take You Far
The sun was just rising as we touched down in Amman and the weak morning light washed the traditionally white sandstone buildings in warm saffron hues by the time we arrived at our hotel. My bags were effortlessly whisked away by the doorman at the Four Seasons Amman (easily the best views in the city) and I was ushered inside the hotel. The glossy floors and high ceilings were a stark contrast to the airplane interior where I had just spent the nine previous hours of my life.
Before I had fully adjusted to the moment, the friendly man at reception read through my jetlag and handed over my keycard. In the delirium, instinct took over and my body reacted before I could stop it.
A quick bend of the torso, hands clasped just under my chin, and head slightly bowed as I wai’d the man in a traditional Thai thanks; a gesture as natural to me as my smile after four months spent living in Northern Thailand.
I glanced back up as my hands settled at my side and the man across from me was smiling heartily, but not wai’ing me in return.
Whoops! I giggled awkwardly, though the awkwardness was very much more my issue than his; the international hotel has guests from all over the world, so although he might not be accustomed to a clasped-handed thanks from a painfully obvious Westerner, it didn’t phase him.
As I rapidly explained the situation to him, having just come from Thailand, he taught me my first word in Arabic.
Easy enough. Now onto the second task – deliver a shukran without the bow!
A Smile is Worth a Thousand Words
Sitting down to a large breakfast buffet is, without a doubt, my favorite way to say hello to a new morning. I am one of those annoyingly chipper “morning-persons,” as they call us, and although I greet my day with coffee, it’s really not necessary.
So it’s with that attitude I wore my effusive breakfast enthusiasm like a cloak over my shoulders – very visible. As I wandered through the buffet tables of new foods I found myself dabbing samples of every new dish I couldn’t recognize onto my plate, and a even few I knew I’d love. Onto the plate went labneh, hummus and falafel, halloumi, cold veggies and pita bread. I couldn’t stop. The server nearby eagerly indulged my questions.
What’s in this big pot?
Ah, foul. How about this one? Moutabel, yum.
Each time I shot him a huge and unrestrained smile.
With my plate piled high I made my way back to the table and started sampling the new flavors and indulging my palate in foods markedly different from the curries and chili spice in Thailand.
Moments later my server approached with a plate of za’atar and pita bread. Another hearty thanks from me and he scurried away.
Then he came back, unprompted, with a huge dish yogurt and fruit sorbet.
And then more coffee.
Cue the orange juice.
And now a “just checking up” visit.
He was attentive and sweet, but Jodi was the first to point out that although it was all harmless now, perhaps I was being a bit too effusive considering we were hours into a new, and much more conservative, culture.
My tendency toward enthusiastic smiles created some stories in India two years ago (two men asked for my hand in marriage…on the same night) and then a week later in Jordan when my unrestrained familiarity resulted in the Bedouins good-naturedly informing Jodi and me that it wouldn’t take too much for us to be taken as Bedouin wives.
The familiarity and public interactions between men and women in Thailand is markedly different from the Middle East. I knew this leaving Thailand but it took a good bit of time before my smile adjusted. In understanding Jordan, I also had to adjust to the baseline norms for single women in the country. What are the new boundaries? Do women wade into lines, throwing elbows and pushing like they do in China? Are they smiling and demure like the Balinese? Familiar and touchy like the Indians?
To better understand Jordan I pulled myself back to a more innocuous level of friendly…at least most of the time. :)
Holy Jitters Batman! Now That is Strong Coffee
Coffee in Thailand over the past several months tasted a wee bit north of terrible. It’s generally just not that tasty and Thais often prefer serving a steaming hot cup of Nescafe rather than brewed coffees. And even when I ordered my standard latte, the old beans produced a cup of weak and barely caffeinated coffee.
Which means I resigned myself to three or four coffees a day in Thailand. Why not, right? Unless it was at one of my two favorite shops, you were guaranteed nothing more than a gentle buzz. Fast forward to day two in Jordan; my driver, Rami, has a love for street-side coffee. Jodi and I also adore a good cup of coffee so we gave him carte blanche rights to coffee-stops as we explored the country.
And stop we did.
As Rami pulled up to the small wooden stands on the roadside the coffee-man would already begin lighting the gas-burner and heating up water.
In goes the Arabic coffee with a dash of cardamom.
As it bubbled happily on the stove the smells filled the small room. Out came four small cups. Two medium-sweets for Ali and Jodi, no-sweets for Rami and me.
Fast forward 30 minutes; it may be served in small cups but it only took a day to realize that three to four tiny cups of Arabic coffee pack quite a punch! I spent my first days in Jordan humming on a delightful coffee buzz before I opted for an occasional tea on our stops just to vary it up!
First Impressions and What’s Coming Next
These three small snapshots of my first days in Jordan are just the beginning; I loved my time in the country and have dozens of stories and ideas percolating to the surface of my thoughts.
The Jordan Tourism Board put together an amazing itinerary over my ten days that included every major site you’d expect (Petra and Wadi Rum) as well as home-visits, cooking classes and several wonderful sustainable eco-programs rapidly surfacing in the country. The itinerary was varied and fast-paced and far too short. This is just the beginning; in the coming months I will share the experiences and places that stuck with me most and have already inspired me to plot my next trip back to Jordan.