The first of many reflections

After much journaling and chatting with friends and family about Morocco, I have finally decided its time to post a few reflections about my summer. 

This post is the first of a few that will reflect on my experiences and thoughts “post-Morocco.” I’m hoping to express some thoughts on reverse culture shock, readjustment, and conversations that have been sparked because of my experiences in Morocco. 

The reverse adjustment has been a struggle for me mostly because I didn’t have much time to sit and process. I had a family reunion to attend, friends to catch up with, an apartment to move into, and school to start. The last four weeks have been a blur! 

Below are a few initial questions I’ve spent the last four weeks answering–my “most-asked” questions about Morocco, so to speak. 

What were the most overwhelming things I experienced upon returning to my Midwestern home?  What was the adjustment period like? Is cultural shock even real?

  1. Supermarkets. Morocco has them, but on a smaller scale.  Nothing is labeled with the price, and the selection is basically nonexistent. I went to my local County Market within a few hours of being home—and it was too much.
  2. Prices. Gas, entertainment, and food are expensive in the states, and upon returning home, I realized how little I was willing to pay for a quality meal, a full tank of gas, or a movie ticket after a summer of being treated so well by an exchange rate.
  3. Monolingualism. An overwhelming number of Americans only speak one language. It was (and still is) hard for me to communicate to people the challenges and rewards of learning Arabic and immersing myself in Moroccan culture, especially if they’ve never studied another language or traveled abroad before. While most Americans understand the value of multiculturalism, we often forget the risks and difficulties it entails, especially those associated with travelling abroad.

 

Culture shock is real. To be honest, I didn’t have a lot of it in Morocco—I expected a lot more difficulty than I actually had. A lot of my time in Morocco was characterized by me asking questions and experiencing things I had never heard of or seen before—but I think I avoided cultural shock because I had so much curiosity. The situations that ended up being the most challenging were difficult because I had closed my mind, because I was tired, or because I simply didn’t want to deal with people.   In general, the most surprising situations were the ones in which I saw something that wasn’t completely different than home. For example, most cars in Morocco are made in Europe—however, there are a few Fords on the road. Every time I saw a Ford, I’d stop and stare because it was so familiar and it seemed strange or out of place in an unfamiliar country. Same thing with Dannon yogurt—common brand in the US, and for some reason, seeing it in a Moroccan supermarket seemed strange.

The worst part of culture shock is its reversal; the return home resulted in a lot of culture shock for me.  I went from Tangier, Morocco, to rural Minnesota in 56 hours. It was a leap, and for the first few weeks of being home, it was hard to explain to people why I was uncomfortable, or what I was thinking about. It took a while to break my English language skills back in; I had gotten used to using a lot of common phrases to express myself in Arabic and I still catch myself using them sometimes.  (For my Arabic friends—I say, “mumkin” or “Yaa Allah!” or “La Bess” ALL THE TIME!)  Particular subjects and experiences were really hard to translate when I got home. For example, I learned a lot about Moroccan history and culture in Arabic this summer. It is still really hard for me to explain these subjects in English because they’re stored in the “Arabic side” of my brain. Some words don’t have translations, like holidays or clothing, and it has been really hard to capture what I mean with just English words.  

In general, I’ve found it most helpful to tell stories in bits and pieces. Pictures have aided me the most—its easier to explain a picture than to start from scratch and paint one with words. Explaining similarities, rather than differences between the two cultures has also been helpful for me.

Stay tuned for more reflections! Next topic: religion, stereotypes, and lessons learned! 

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Unwinding and winding down

In seven days, I’ll be on a 747 zooming across the Atlantic Ocean. Its crazy to think that eight weeks have already passed and I’m about to say goodbye to Tangier, Morocco, and everything I’ve come to love about them. This morning our resident director conducted what was called a “re-entry” workshop. We talked for almost three hours about strategies to combat culture shock and re-entry difficulties as we head towards home. The journey home after an intense program like CLS isn’t just about making my connecting flights on time–its also about figuring out how to share stories, keep up with my Arabic, and re-adjust to life in the US. During our workshop, we brainstormed things that we miss about the US, and anticipated things that we will miss about Morocco. Here’s the list I came up with:

Note: Friends and Family go without saying–I can’t wait for hugs and kisses from them all! 

1. I miss cooking. Not just the food (mashed potatoes, hamballs, macaroni salad, and chocolate brownies) but the feeling of the kitchen(s) I’m familiar with. What I miss is the fact that I know where everything is in my apartment at school, the way my Grandma organizes her cupboards, and the fact that my mom never runs out of flour, butter, or sugar.  

2. I miss time. 8 weeks in Morocco made me realize just how important time is in American culture–and how unimportant it is elsewhere. I miss knowing just how long everything is going to take–it takes 6 minutes to drive from my house to the grocery store. It takes 9 minutes to walk from the Pentacrest to my apartment. Morocco is “ala al-aks” (just the opposite) in that it could take 6 minutes to get to the souq–and an hour to find everything you need. Finding food, buying gifts for family back home, and even taking a taxi somewhere is unpredictable to me because I don’t know the system. I don’t speak the language fluently, and I haven’t acquired enough experience with Moroccan culture to anticipate the way that things fit together in a city of 700,000 occupants. I’ve definitely come a long way in understanding Morocco–but its a vast culture that would take years to integrate myself into. 

3. I miss Henry–he’s my family’s energetic black lab and my favorite running buddy. Speaking of–I miss exercise. Specifically, I miss running down long stretches of dirt road with him. 

4. I miss the radio. I really miss knowing what the popular hits are right now–I’d appreciate some KDWB or K102! Even further, I miss reading the headlines of the Des Moines Register and the Daily Iowan–I read the newspaper here, but I genuinely miss easily accessible media. 

5. I miss phone conversations. I have a Moroccan cell phone, but I rarely use it to communicate with people–most of my friends live at the American School and they’re a shout away. Texting is really popular with my Moroccan friends–and its cheaper–so its my preferred method of communication with them as well. 

My last week is going to be bittersweet. Its going to be busy with exams and final group activities. I’m going to say goodbye (and thank you) to some phenomenal professors and teaching assistants. I’m going to plan for one more semester of Arabic class, purchase gifts for friends, and photograph everything I don’t want to forget. I’m looking forward to hugging and kissing friends and family I haven’t seen in eight weeks. At the same time, I’m sad to leave behind the beauty and hospitality of Morocco. She and all of her people have been incredible hosts, teachers, and influences on my summer. 

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Humility

Its easy to find adjectives to describe Morocco. She’s colorful, she’s hot, she’s windy. She’s traditional and vibrant, imperial and simple. Morocco is easy to fall in love with.  She has a certain air about her–and I don’t mean the pungent odor you find in the souq–I mean she’s regal and comfortable and inviting. 

Morocco is also humbling. Its been four weeks since I landed at the airport in Tangier, and upon reflection, a major theme of the first half of this trip is humility. I’ve spend 28 days soaking up sights, sounds, and feels from Tangier, Asilah, Tetuan, Fez, and Meknes. I’ve been to a few beaches, some Roman ruins, and I’ve seen a lot of countryside (a few mountains, too).  I’ve been complimented and catcalled on the streets, I’ve been cheated at the market and I’ve been chased down by a shopkeeper because he realized he forgot to give me my change. I’ve seen heartbreaking poverty and watched brand-new Mercedes-Benz cruise through roundabouts in the center of Tangier.  I think a fair summary of four weeks in Morocco is this: Humility. 

I was humbled when I went to the literacy class at the American Legation Museum a few weeks ago. Every week about 40 women gather in the museum to practice reading and writing in formal spoken Arabic. Most of the women are over the age of 50, and their just beginning to put their letters in order. All of them have families and children and grandchildren. All of them are strong leaders and dedicated members of their family and society. I stepped into the room and realized that I, a woman with most of a college education, was the most ignorant individual in the room. 

When I took a seat in the classroom, I made conversation with the young lady in the seat next to me. She was maybe 7 years old and wearing pink and cheetah print from head to toe. She tapped me on the shoulder and said, in perfect English, “You’re American. Do you know Rihanna?” She was disappointed with my answer (“no”) but impressed with my desire to learn Arabic. “See, this isn’t too hard”–pointing to the papers from the day’s lesson–“even you can read it. Just try. And if its not good the first time, I’ll help you. That’s how I learned English, you know. I just tried. And watched movies.” Morocco humbled me when a 7 year-old reminded me how to conjugate verbs. 

And then I went to Asilah. And Meknes. And Fez. And there are no public restrooms in these cities. In the US, we are very comfortable with our free public bathrooms. We might criticize them for being dirty, or inconveniently located in department stores, but at the end of the day we’re thankful for their existence because they save us from some pretty uncomfortable alternatives. Like squat toilets. Squat toilets might work for men, who can use them standing up. But they’re not made for women. I can attest to that after several attempts that resulted in near death experiences. I learned its all about the strategy–placement of hands for balance, muscle control, and ability to juggle purse, long skirt, and toilet paper. And in the middle of a five hour road trip between Meknes and Tangier, there are no alternatives to squat toilets–so you march into the stall, pretend it doesn’t smell, and you squat. Somewhere between realizing that the water on the floor wasn’t water and nearly soaking the edge of my maxi skirt in it, I was humbled. 

Morocco is noisy–Tangier is home for 700,000 people and I can attest that at 1 or 2 am, all of them are in the streets, celebrating the Iftaar (breaking of the fast of Ramadan). Even during the day, its impossible to find silence when the radio is on, people are chattering, and every restaurant is buzzing with people. Walking through Tangier, even at dusk or dark, I’m pretty confident. I know where I live, where the sweets shop is, and which tomato stand has the best deals at the souq. Its not North Branch, but I’m able to navigate about a 10 block radius.  There’s only one thing–I don’t speak enough Arabic to understand the news word-for-word, my Darija isn’t functional enough to understand music on the radio, and I certainly have no idea what the sports announcers are saying when Barca plays Madrid. This sounds normal at first–of course, I study a foreign language and I can’t learn everything at once. Its okay to miss the meaning of love songs or weather reports–and watching a soccer game comes with a live picture of the game–so I know that it was Barca that just scored the goal. But here’s the thing–if it were in English, I’d know exactly what was happening, just like all the other people in the cafe, or on the street, or in the taxi cab. I’d know more than just the headlines of the newspapers I read, or the restaurant menus I peruse, or the snippets I overhear from corner store radios. If all this information were in English, I’d be complacent about it. But its in Arabic, and I’m humbled. 

I’m from a long line of good cooks. My mom makes a living as a dietitian, and my Grandma makes a mean apple pie. Before her was Grandma Maymie–and I’m sure before her was a strong woman who knew how to make merangue and homemade bread and every other recipe I find in my mom’s Mennonite cookbooks. I’m confident that someday I’ll live up to the cooking heritage I have–right after I figure out how to avoid mixing up lard and cream cheese. When I stayed with my host family in Tangier, I was shocked most by the kitchen. It was a third of the size of my mom’s kitchen; it had two bunson burners, no oven, no dishwasher, and about three square feet of counter space. But oh, the delicious things that originated from those three square feet. My host mom whipped up fish tagine, hot bread, and omlettes without breaking a sweat. Where does she keep enough plates and dishes to cook? I don’t know. I munched on sweets and fresh fruit and pondered the fact that I can’t even get my sweet potatoes to taste right, and I’ve got four burners and gas stove to do it with. And a machine to wash the dishes afterward. Somewhere between the third and fourth cup of tea she served me, I was humbled.  

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Thought 9: Family

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to stay overnight with a Moroccan family and experience traditional Moroccan hospitality. It was incredible. Below are some things I noticed–a “compare-contrast” to American hospitality. 

1. Relationship matters more than time. Native Moroccans use the phrase “maybe” all the time–“maybe” I’ll pick you up at 8pm, “maybe” we’ll go to the beach tomorrow, “maybe” there will be a wedding party tomorrow night. My host mom said she would come at 8pm to pick me up–she showed up around 9:30 because someone in her family had gotten married and the party lasted longer than she thought it would. This is normal for Moroccans–relationship matters more than time of day and if your friend needs you at an absurd hour of the night, then you answer your phone and help him out. 

2. Family means sharing everything. The family I stayed with had three kids–in a two bedroom apartment. Everyone shared the same closet, the same bathroom, the same gigantic plate of food at dinner, and the same tv. There was nothing that belonged to only one person–it was about one unit of people doing life together. While American families are still units of people, by my observation, we do things just a little bit differently. For example, in my family, everyone has their own closet. My sister and I never shared a bedroom, and at dinner, we all ate off of our own plates. American culture contrasts with Moroccan culture simply because Americans value individualism and honor associated with personal actions. Moroccan culture values family honor and collective deeds over individual honor. 

3. Trust is important. On Saturday morning, my host mom charged me and the three other American girls to take two of her kids to the beach. We crossed a main highway and went swimming in the ocean with her kids–she had only met us the day before. She trusted us, as new members of her community, to take care of her kids, because she had other fish to fry. Literally–we had some amazing fish tagine for lunch when we got home from the beach. 

4. Greetings are important. This goes for Moroccan culture in general–its important to greet everyone you meet. I don’t mean walking down the street–but I do mean that every person greets every person that enters their home. When the four of us arrived, each child greeted us with three kisses on the cheek and a warm smile. When they returned me to school the next day, we said goodbye the same way. Throughout the weekend, we would all greet the doorkeeper, family visitors, and old friends we ran into on the beach the same way. The way you greet someone shows the respect you have for them. 

5. Some things are the same, no matter the culture. While Yousef and Nasser-al-Din may fight over who gets the last fig (just like Sophia and I fight over who gets the last oreo) they still need each other to play a proper game of tag. These two brothers showed no mercy to each other when all of us played UNO (Sophia can confirm that mercy in UNO is a weakness), but at the end of the evening, they still hugged goodnight. My host mom opened up her home, cooked a delicious meal, and went out of her way to understand our lives and studies. This reminded me of my own mom–a woman who often fed whoever I brought home from school with me, a woman who still cares a lot about how well Sophia and I do in college. 

This weekend was humbling because it showed me how far I still have to come in learning Arabic and understanding Morocco. This weekend was a blessing because I needed some time away from my textbooks to relax on the beach. This weekend was a challenge because I didn’t always know how to accurately communicate my thoughts. This weekend was informative because I had the opportunity to experience Moroccan family, hospitality, and culture in a new way.  

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