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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Thought #3: I’m just a girl and packing is a nightmare!

I’m allowed one checked bag and one carry-on. Rationally speaking, this is more than enough space for nine weeks of travel in Morocco. Irrationally speaking, I’m wondering how the heck I’m going to fit everything I need into such a small number of cubic inches. In light of limited room in my REI backpack and Timbukt2 Messenger bag, here’s what I’m not bringing:

  1. Shampoo. Everyone knows lemon juice and baking soda work just as well, and are cheap and easy to buy when I get to Tangier.
  2. My grandmother’s macaroni salad. While it does contain a small amount of vinegar, it would spoil if left unrefrigerated. It’s my favorite summer food, so this is a little bit sad.
  3. My laptop. Her name is Delores and she weighs about 50 pounds. It’s time for an upgrade, but don’t tell her that. Instead, I’ll be packing a touch-screen Asus tablet to use for Skype and blogging.  
  4. My favorite cargo jean shorts. Not only are they incredibly unfashionable, they don’t meet the dress code requirements of “mid-calf length” and “loose-fitting.”
  5. English. While participating in the CLS Program, I will be speaking Arabic at all times—with classmates, conversation partners, and new friends I meet in Morocco. Looks like I can say goodbye to being teased for my Minnesota accent! 
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Thought 2: Stacking Tangier up against North Branch

According to Wikipedia, there are about 700,000 people living in Tangier right now. That makes Tangier roughly 70 times bigger than my hometown. I’m from the rural “village” of North Branch, Minnesota. If I remember my 6th grade history class correctly, it was founded in 1861 by some Swedish potato farmers.  Since then, it’s expanded and contracted with population and industrial changes as a small northern suburb of the Twin Cities.

This contrasts with the history of Tangier—it was founded in the fifth century by some Carthaginian colonists. (Don’t worry–I had to Google “Carthaginian” too).  In the last 25 years, the population has quadrupled due to a rural-urban migration. The culture and diversity (not to mention the Mediterranean climate) have attracted writers, playwrights, painters and musicians.  Even the great American Jack Kerouac visited Tangier.  The city served as a “playground” for wealthy folk and a “meeting place for secret agents and all kinds of crooks,” especially during the Cold War era of espionage.  Sounds pretty glamorous for a small town girl like me.

Tangier relies on tourism and investments in tourist infrastructure to sustain its economy.  There’s a port at the Strait of Gibraltar which manages people and goods. There’s lots of artisanal trade, including leatherworking, handicrafts made from wood and silver, traditional clothing, and shoes.   

North Branch relies on all sorts of things to keep its economy going. Life is tough out in the boondocks, but we rely on agriculture (corn and soybeans), education (ISD #138 is the largest employer in the county), and small shops (Outlet Mall, Shopko, and Main Street shoppes).  North Branch isn’t a center for tourism or travel—unless commuting to the cities for work constitutes travel. In my lifetime, a lot of new shops and infrastructure has popped up; a new bridge was completed a few years ago to manage the increasing traffic flow on Highway 95. 

The trademark of North Branch is the people. The reason you should visit is the smallness, the closeness, and the “ruralness” of the community. We complain about gossip, about gas prices, and about the way our school district never has enough money. But we also mow our neighbor’s lawn and plow his driveway, we show up when tragedy shakes a local family or business, and we will always cheer the loudest under the Friday Night Lights. We might not have Mediterranean weather, but we sure do pay attention to the way the seasons change. 

When I land in Tangier, I might not miss North Branch right away. I’ll be too busy figuring out how to use an ATM in Arabic, making new friends, and discovering the museums and mosques. But I suspect after a bit of observation and summer of experiences, I’ll discover that Tangier and North Branch have the same heart—the people. 

 

Want some more information about Tangier? Need to know where North Branch is on the map? 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangier

http://www.usaid.gov/where-we-work/middle-east/morocco

http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_975.html#country

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Branch,_Minnesota

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