My midterm in Modern Standard Arabic was a little over a week ago, and since that time I’ve been to a wedding, gone to a bowling alley on the 4th of July, and just got back from camping in the Empty Quarter. I have a little over two weeks left in Oman before a period of 24 hours where I will be flying almost nonstop. In my last post I talked about the difficulties of identifying yourself and how from Hopkins to the Strait of Hormuz the way you choose to identify yourself will never tell the whole story. As move-in day for the Class of 2016 draws ever closer, I remember one of the biggest worries on my mind this time last year was that I was really weird compared to my new classmates. I wondered if I was going to leave my high school environment and come to a place where I wouldn’t fit in because I came from a weird town and I looked fourteen and I really, really liked watching dubbed Disney movies. But as I met more and more of my fellow classmates, I noticed something: everyone was both very interesting and very interested in their new classmates. There was never a quiet moment at meals or in our rooms as we tried to learn everything we could about our roommates, suite-mates, hall-mates, classmates, and de facto Chipotle-deliverers. Things I thought would be considered strange were barely questioned, while things that were normal to me raised some eyebrows (and I’m not talking about “Vegas normal” here where slot machines in grocery stores make sense.) I said that my family didn’t decorate with wreathes on Christmas, and my roommate confessed that she really loved opera. There was a mutual respect in the fledgling Class of 2015 and the established Hopkins community that let you realize two things: 1. you did some things that other people thought were weird 2. everyone else did really weird stuff as well but it was just so interesting.
In a way this experience has repeated in Oman. Even before we board our plane from D.C., thirty Americans ranging in age from 18 to mid-thirties had to quickly get to know each other. Even within the same country we’re all so different, so weird, and so wonderful. ”Why are you calling a soda a pop?” ”You lived in Morocco for how long?”
When we landed in Oman and met the university students who would be speaking to us every day to improve our Arabic, the questions continued. ”You live in Maryland? Is that the same as New York?” ”What is supposed to be fun about an Easter egg hunt?” The questions always made you think about things you’d never thought about before, like why on Earth people hide eggs on Easter and make small children hunt for them in some strange Hunger Games-esque competition to win the egg hunt and eternal glory/a chocolate bunny. We also got to ask our own questions, like “What do you do for fun?” “What’s the deal with all this frankincense?” We were asked to describe things (in Arabic naturally) about ourselves, our hometowns, our families. In turn, any questions we had about Oman were answered. Things I’ve learned since coming here:
Camels are the leading cause of traffic accidents
There are no napkins, only tissues in boxes.
In Arabic you don’t play the drums, you knock on them.
There are two types of dates: young dates (called rutub and I’ve never seem them before in the States) and older dates (caller temer and better than any I’ve seen before in the States).
It is common to signal “Wait a minute” by pinching your thumb and other fingers together and beckoning by moving your wrist toward yourself repeatedly. This is not at all the same gesture I’ve ever seen used in America (where you put up a finger or a hand.)
Western pop music is huge here., which lead to an Adele sing-along en route to the Empty Quarter this past weekend.
"Spicy tomato sauce" is salsa. Also the tortilla chips were Doritos.
Things by Omani friends have found strange:
Peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches. They do not even sell grape jelly in supermarkets (they do sell rose jelly, though!)
The concept of tortilla chips and salsa. There is a sauce they serve with rice that is exactly like a thin salsa, but tortilla chips are pretty scarce.
Tanning. In general Omanis find pale skin attractive, so much so that most beauty products have whitening agents built into them. Several of the girls at the university were shocked to hear that Americans will use-self tanners and lay out on the beach in order to get darker.
Maple syrup on pancakes. They have honey but it’s just not the same.
Swag. Swag certainly exists in Oman and is exhibited, most notably by one of our professors, but any attempt to accurately define “swag” is complex so we have taken to just saying “swag” at every applicable circumstance in the hopes that the word will be as etherial in meaning and as overused as it is in English.
Me in an abaya and hijab after a traditional wedding we attended.
While my previous blog talked a lot about changing identity, I think it’s also important to realize that even if the way you identify yourself changes you’ll still run into situations where you think things might be strange. Maybe it’s your first day at a new office, maybe you just moved, or maybe you mispronounced a word and ended up being driven to a post office instead of a beach. It’s going to be awkward at first to try to interact with people when you think you might not have a lot in common, but I think everyone (not just the Class of 2016, although this advice will be helpful come Orientation) could benefit from both recognizing their own weirdness in the eyes of another person and being genuinely curious about the different habits of others. In a diverse group like CLS Arabic or Johns Hopkins Class of 2016 it’s bound to be awkward at first, and there will inevitably come a time when you can’t wrap your head around something (like “swag” or being handed a box of Kleenex at a restaurant) but as long as you keep an open mind you’ll learn some interesting stuff and hopefully make a new friend or two in the process!
I was walking out of lunch when one of the students at the university approached me. She’d been sitting at the table next to me and asking the American students about American colloquialisms because we’d been asking her about Omani dialect compared to Modern Standard Arabic. As she drew level with me, she told me that one of the Americans had taught her Janoobi (Southern) American Dialect and that she thought it sounded awesome. As a West Coaster descended from two New Yorkers, all I could do was tell her that it was very different from my accent/dialect (I didn’t want to get into an explanation of that beloved West Coast adjective known as hella) and I felt like I probably wouldn’t know enough about Southern accents to really understand what she was saying.
She smiled back, stuck out her hand, and said, “What a’ do?”
It was weird. It was wonderful.