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birthday recap

May 16, 2011

On Friday I turned 23.

I am not a big birthday person. I’m not good at remembering them, I’m not good at celebrating them, and I am kind of indifferent towards my own. Despite that (or maybe because of that??), I am always overwhelmed with gratitude by how much love people show me around this time each year.

In life in general but especially during my stay here, I’ve fully embraced the policy of having no expectations. Letting yourself be surprised no matter what happens is kind of a great approach to life. Case in point: for my birthday I wasn’t expecting anything at all, which made every little thing I got feel that much more special. Some highlights:

-I woke up to a phone call from one of my very sweet (adult) students, who somehow remembered it was my birthday and called me before she went to work, singing into the phone as I rubbed my bleary eyes.

-Later that morning, I helped chaperone some teens on a trip to a bazaar/fundraiser-thing that turned out to be a bit of an adventure, as rainclouds rolled in halfway through and caused a bit of a commotion. Anyway, the photo below is not a particularly great one, but I love it because…see that little boy in the blue running straight towards me? He’s just starting to talk up a storm, and he was yelling my name at this point in gleeful recognition. “Ste-fun-EEE!” Oh do I love him. (He’s the son of a friend/student/neighbor/hero.)

-My mom called me while I was at the bazaar too. It’s been so difficult this year to find a time when we are mutually available to talk on a regular basis, so that was kind of great.

-When I came back, I headed to the girls’ meeting at my church (where I help out each week), which concluded with a surprise homemade carrot cake (for me!), secretly dropped off by another incredible friend before I arrived. Yum.

-On Thursday, as I’d left my tutoring session with the family who has basically adopted me into their home, they’d told me to come back the next day in the evening so we could eat a little cake together. So after girls’ meeting, I headed over there with my friend J by my side. But when we arrived, we were greeted by extended family members who had stuck around from an earlier visit just to meet me/celebrate with me, as well as some other mutual friends of the teenage girl variety. And I had not realized that by “cake,” they meant two cakes, five kinds of homemade sweets, chicken and potatoes, and tabbouleh. [I really should’ve known.] I was speechless. J and I spent a few hours with them, goofing off and taking pictures and eating. A lot.

-On my way back home, I ran into another good friend with her mom, who greeted me by wishing me an enthusiastic Happy Birthday right there on the street. They are precious to me, and just seeing them made me grin. Then when I saw her today, she gave me a present! What. I never give presents. I’m a terrible friend.

-I also received a few other little gifts from people who had no compelling reason to give me anything other than the goodness of their hearts…the women in my life are just the sweetest. I love them.

-Bonus birthday present: on Saturday, one of my Arabic teachers told me I was “gifted” at Arabic, and I better not give it up when I leave. She said, “It’s not just that you know lots of words, it’s your accent and intonation, the way you listen and learn to talk like us [what I find most difficult!]. Lots of people spend all their time mixing with Arabs and don’t sound like you do. You are unusual.” Be still my ecstatic heart. That’s the kind of compliment that could keep me warm on a winter night in one of these unheated stone houses. Learning/speaking Arabic often makes me want to punch myself in the face and I’m not nearly disciplined enough about studying it…so that might have been the best unintentional present of all.

There was a lot of other stuff that made my birthday special–these are just the highlights, after all. But do not fear. I treasured every detail. And I am thankful for…everything.


mall-exploring and future-planning

May 12, 2011

Today I made a trip to Mecca Mall in West Amman with my roommate–I’d never been there before, and when she informed me that there was a proper frozen yogurt place there I immediately forced her to make a fro-yo/mall-exploring date with me. I love that stuff. Along with Mexican food, it’s one of the few things that I both don’t have AND crave here. (Mexican food exists in Amman–just like fro-yo–but it’s not readily available given my chosen lifestyle.) Anyway, my mall trips are few and far between, so I love any chance I get to visit that foreign world of skinny, shiny girls who make me feel like a slob and mysterious food court smells wafting through the air.

We also found a Forever 21 where everything was at least twice as expensive as it would be in the States. Wandering through those racks of quirky clothes was, weirdly, the first time I felt a twinge of excitement about coming home. I guess it made me feel just close enough. Mostly, though, I am dreading my departure. I know I have a lot to come home to–

Family. Friends. Moving to a new city/state. Law school. Chipotle. Harassment-free streets. Fresh clothes.

But I also have a lot to leave behind. New friends and family. Falafel. Streets filled with familiar faces. Gorgeous sunsets. Arabic conversations.

Anyway, I almost bought this hilarious necklace while I was there, but I refrained because I couldn’t justify the seven bucks (living here has made me a cheapo). It was definitely a “wait a second, is this considered fashionable in America right now” moment. Just looking at it makes me laugh. [But just so we’re clear: if I did buy it, I would SO wear it all the time.]

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I still get startled at the way people react to my news that I’m leaving in the summer to attend law school in America. “And then you’ll come back?” they always ask. I say something evasive about how I would love to work in the region again once I have my degree. How I’m interested in human rights, and particularly the rights of women and children. “So you’ll come back to help us.” A statement, not a question. The Palestinians say this, expecting me to return to advocate for their rights. The Iraqis say this, expecting me to help them move abroad. Women say this, expecting me to help them find more protection under the law. Even children say this. “We have no rights here,” one of my tutoring kids proclaimed after his mom explained what “rights” meant. “Our teachers are allowed to hit us in school, and we can’t do anything about it.” I would be lying if I said I didn’t let out a little giggle at this point. Not because I support corporal punishment in schools, but because I was impressed by how speedily he processed everything to get to that sentence.

Even tonight, upon hearing my plans for the near future during a quick visit, my old neighbors (the Armenians) gave me a serious order to “keep in touch” after I leave, as they are getting involved in a new human rights organization that’s starting up in Amman. And here’s the funny thing. While I’ve never had serious plans to live extensively outside the U.S. at any point in my life, I have this funny feeling that my life here isn’t coming to a close just yet, even though I’m going home this summer. [I can only hope…] There is something keeping me tethered. At least in part. I’m just not sure what.

Sometimes I keep notes on things I want to blog about. These are the only notes I found from recently:

-Remember when that pickup truck tried to tell me it was a taxi
-It’s hot and there are tourists everywhere and my allergies suck

I mean, do I even need to say any more?

jackie chan and me

May 4, 2011

Whoa. It has kind of been a long time, no? I’ve missed you, old blog.

Truth is, I keep starting to write, feeling overwhelmed, and giving up. Maybe the problem is that I always want to give you a real, solid glimpse into my daily life here, but it turns out that’s basically impossible. There’s too much that can’t be put into words, too much that isn’t worth being put into words, and too much for which my words could never do justice.

But here I am, trying anyway.

Example: it’s hard to explain what it feels like to be an Asian-American in the Middle East. My experience is tangibly different from what both white foreigners and Asians experience (who make up the majority of my expat acquaintances). And it’s not like I devote a lot of time to thinking about it, but my race definitely weighs more heavily in my mind here than it usually does at home.

How can it not, in some ways? While other girls get called lettuce and Barbie (don’t ask), I get called Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Or China or Madame Japan). One of my very favorite students once asked me if I could fly. As in, fly from building to building…like in the kung fu movies he sees on TV. And since my arrival here, I’ve been told at different points to: stop calling myself Korean if I only speak English, stop calling myself American because I look Asian, and stop calling myself American because I speak Arabic. I could pause here to go into my further thoughts on ethnic politics in this part of the world and how that influences these sorts of comments…but I won’t because I want to go to bed soon. Anyway, you get the picture.

Some more examples of how things play out for me in this country:

Most immediately–after sharing some conspiracy theories and warning me and a fellow Korean-American (crazy!) classmate that we shouldn’t speak English for a while until we knew we were safe from any post-bin Laden’s death backlash, my Arabic teacher mused, “Actually, you two should be fine, because no one here would ever think you were American.” We both fought grins and murmured something about how this was probably the first time this was playing to our advantage around here.

Also recently. I visited the King Hussein Gardens for the first time last week–some ajaanib friends and I had a little picnic to say happy birthday/goodbye to a member of our crew who headed home that night. We shared an amazing spread of everything from fresh cucumbers to carrot cake as we relaxed under the late afternoon sun. But at one point a group of shebab walked past, and one of them said excitedly, “Hey, look at the Americans and the Japanese girl!!

As soon as he walked away we all looked at each other and just burst out laughing. He had no idea how off he was: in that group, I was the token American. The others were from Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. And not a Japanese among us.

Or what about this. More than one of my girlfriends here has gotten rocks thrown at her at some point by bored little boys on the street, but I was still raging mad when I felt a handful of pebbles hit my back while I stood in the doorway of our neighborhood falafel place, waiting for my roommate to finish her purchase. I ignored the first stinging attack, but when another followed it a few seconds later, I turned around and glared at the culprits: a smirking group of eight-to-ten-year-old boys. “Enough,” I scolded. “Shame on you.

The ringleader paused for a second, clearly caught off guard by my response. “You’re Arab?” he asked, confused.

“What?” Now I was confused.

Apparently that cleared things right up for him. “Say hello to Jackie Chan for me!”

And that was when I cracked–that ridiculous remark drove all the anger right out of me, and I couldn’t hold back my laughter. I watched as he led his little posse up the street before turning back to the restaurant to tell my roommate what had just happened (who couldn’t believe it, of course).

Finally, because it’s so rare for someone to immediately guess my actual background correctly (I am often greeted at stores with the question, “Chinese or Japanese?“), I tend to reward those people who do for going the extra mile in their research, even if it’s just for harassment purposes. The random guy who called hello to me in Korean on the street–he won a smile that he didn’t really deserve but I couldn’t hold back. And the sleazy shop vendor in the balad who yelled “Park Ji-Sung” at me as I walked past? He won a double-take. And then another. And then a long, long laugh as I continued on my way.

[Guess I do a lot of laughing in public, huh. Some would consider that immodest…You can’t win!]

Just for kicks, here’s a fun/relevant picture…Shortly after the “Japanese girl” incident at the park, we went for a little walk and found the area called “The Chinese Garden.” “China, China!” my ever-hilarious friend J called. “Go take a picture with your garden!” So I did.

me and my garden

time flies

April 12, 2011

I know there are only four seasons in a year, but in the last seven months I could swear I’ve gone through even more than that. Quiet seasons and busy seasons. Seasons with different roommates and in different houses. Seasons where I stayed up reading and seasons where I stayed up crocheting. Breakfast-eating seasons and sleeping-in seasons. Fragile seasons and confident seasons and desperate seasons and content seasons…

Plus, it feels like time moves so fast these days, and I just noticed that both calendars hanging in my room are now off by a few months (nice try, though!). Stripped of the cues I relied on in my previous life–midterms, holidays, changing leaves, melting snow–I find myself marking time in new ways. I’m calculating weeks and months as I hold another empty shampoo bottle in the shower, or count how many contact lenses I have left in my drawer, or run my fingers over the new holes in my jeans.

The terrifying thing about all this is that I see the next three months zooming by in super-speed. As I walked up to my students’ house today where I was joining them for lunch, I found them wrestling with a big homemade kite in the alley. (Kite season: definitely one of the most charming seasons so far.) I lingered outside while they tried to launch their kite into the gusty wind, laughing and holding back my hair and chatting with their mother. And I was hit with a bittersweet realization: the more settled I feel here, the closer I know I am to my departure.

My way of dealing with this is trying to plan out how my final seasons here will look–but the more I try to plan, the more stressed I start to feel, and I am now trying to accept that no matter what goals I do or do not accomplish before I leave, no matter whom I manage to satisfy or what promises I am able to fulfill, the next few months will be meaningful. Period. This whole long season in general will leave its indelible mark on me. That’s enough.

(Or so I try to remind myself. Over and over. Still, there are people I’m longing to spend time with who are getting squeezed out these days, which is distressing me. So that’s my prayer right now: that I will always be with the people I need to be with. Magically.)

recapping lebanon

April 8, 2011

Lebanon is a truly beautiful and complex country. I made my way over there because I had to leave the country to renew my visa, but it was really a well-timed break for me. I relaxed, re-calibrated, and returned ready to jump back into my life here full-time. (And that I certainly have…a few people expressed concerns over the possibility of burnout just today, and I’m totally with them. I’m scrambling to reshuffle my schedule and just say no once in a while, as hard as that can be for me. I don’t think I can last much longer at this pace.)

Anyway, I took a ton of pictures, as per usual when I make an excursion (not so much during my daily life here). I wasn’t a very consistent photographer so I ended up with a kind of weird collection–I  but I’ll let them do most of the talking anyway.

First of all…Lebanon is a different world from Jordan. Architecturally (and sometimes culturally) much more European. Its landscape is much more diverse–Mediterranean Sea, snow-capped mountains, and tons and tons of green. They don’t have water shortages there…just electricity ones.

The first few days, my roommate A and I stayed with a friend of hers who teaches at a school in the south of Lebanon, in Sur (aka Tyre). It’s a smallish city by the sea, with Roman ruins nestled right in the middle of it…alongside a Palestinian refugee camp, volatile neighborhoods (Tyre was hit hard during the 2006 war and there is substantial Hezbollah support there), and a breathtaking sea-front unfortunately thick with garbage in some areas. Just the same, I found it remarkably peaceful.

We also managed to spend about a half day exploring nearby Saida (aka Sidon) with some new friends from the area. Castles and fishermen and palm trees, oh my. Getting there and back was a public transportation headache that made me eminently grateful for the comparatively orderly (and cheap!) system we have here in Amman. I did have some fun chatting with the old lady sitting next to me on the mini-bus, though. And accidentally falling asleep on her shoulder. She didn’t seem to mind.

We moved on to Beirut for our final couple days, which kicked off its own new wave of culture shock. Back in the day–pre-civil war–Beirut was nicknamed the “Paris of the East,” and some people I’ve talked to still use that nickname to highlight the cultural differences between there and here. Even as it rebuilds, Beirut holds onto its reputation as a glittery, Westernized capital.

Speaking of rebuilding: you don’t have to look far to find crumbling, bullet-ridden buildings scattered among the plentiful cranes and construction plans. The top two pictures below show a building sitting near the old Green Line and, just a few blocks away, the stunning National Museum of Beirut. The first thing we did there was view a short documentary on the restoration of the museum after the war. Watching these men and women file into the bombed-out shell of a building and carefully unpack each artifact to see what damage was wrought…it was surprisingly moving. So was checking out the display of artifacts that had, indeed, survived thousands of years only to be irreparably changed by a 20th century war.

Other highlights: strolling along the Corniche (bottom right in the very first pic of the post), amazing food, the beautiful campus of AUB, and falling asleep on a rock by the sea. Also, people-watching and eavesdropping by the clock tower on Sunday afternoon, where it seems the posh crowd comes out to play. There were almost as many South/east Asian nannies as there were dyed and Botoxed mamas chatting amongst themselves. Surreal: realizing that a little boy who had Lebanese parents and lived in Lebanon did not speak even basic Arabic when he had to ask his dad how to say “cold” so he could buy a drink from a man on the street.

All in all, Lebanon is a beautiful and confusing country, and one I was thrilled to visit.

But like I said, I was glad to come home. Home is home, and not-home is…not. I leave you now with these wonderful words of wisdom because I’m exhausted and I used more words in this post than originally planned. Night y’all.

[P.S. Some of the pictures got fuzzy when WordPress compressed them, so click to enlarge if you wanna see them pretty. I promise they’re nicer that way.]

attitude check

March 31, 2011

I went to bed last night feeling frustrated and irritated because of silly circumstantial things (like the fact that our apartment leaked two tanks’ worth of water in one day, leaving us with nothing for the week). I woke up this morning with a nagging and uncomfortable thought: maybe I needed to be more intentional about having a gracious attitude when things are going wrong. It probably helped that I happened to  read these verses just before falling asleep, and that my whine-ranting didn’t actually make me feel much better.

So. Even though I had to wake up earlier than desired to catch a shower in the empty apartment that our landlady gave us access to until we figure stuff out, I tried to enjoy the leisurely pace afforded by all that extra getting-ready time. I used our bucket of borrowed water to wash our giant pile of dishes without grumbling in my head about it. I ate breakfast for once and read the Bible while I dried my hair.

And then. I proceeded to have the kind of day that reminded me over and over that I have purpose here. And since that’s sometimes my biggest challenge–feeling purposeful and useful despite my crazy long days–that in itself was a gift, and one I savored. But it was also something that I might not have noticed if I’d chosen to feel sorry for myself and stay in a mood all day.

I spent my morning in the Palestinian refugee “camp” next to my neighborhood where I work with a local community center twice a week. I’ve transferred from helping with translation in the health clinic to working with the kids’ club, which is amazing. Even though the camp has been there for sixty years now and has long since traded its tents for concrete, the kids all go to the UN schools, which are overcrowded enough to require double shifts each day. This club gives them something extra to do during their off hours. And with crafts, songs, games, and stories, it teaches character-building lessons like anger management. And the importance of brushing your teeth.

Anyway, it’s a great program, but it’s run entirely by one couple, and they were hoping for some help because it’s a lot to do for two people. Since my Arabic is perfectly sufficient for interactions with children and I’m comfortable dealing with them because I have a good grasp at this point of how they work, I felt legitimately useful all morning. I could sense (and was told) how much more chaotic it would be without me, and that was a nice feeling.

I left there exhausted and covered in paint, but I headed straight to a family friend’s* house to wash my hands, get fed a little, and attend a surprise birthday gathering for another friend. When I was asking for advice/references re: our water situation, the father of the house reacted with incredulity at how much water we’d lost, and I just joked, “I was really thirsty, okay?” And that pleasantly surprised me. Trust me, I was being all tongue-in-cheek about it last night, but more to prevent myself from having a meltdown than anything else. But I was honest-to-goodness feeling much more at peace about it now. Crazy.

Then it was two hours of teaching–some weeks, this is the least enjoyable portion of my schedule, because it entirely depends on who shows up and what mood they’re in. The kids were much more respectful than expected. They sat through more activities than usual, and were more patient with each other than ever before. And even though one usually well-behaved student had a freakout and I had to send him out because he refused to apologize, he later returned after the class was over to say sorry. Miracle. And that just made me feel like maybe all this work isn’t as fruitless as I thought.

Finally, I had two hours of tutoring, followed by a long discussion with my students’ parents and their extended family about their financial and educational struggles. The whole conversation was sort of a long way of explaining to me why they were so thankful to have me around, which was encouraging. Um, and I also somehow ended up agreeing to take on one more student as a result–a cousin–but just for one hour a week! And he’s clearly both smart and studious! And sweet, like his cousins! And he’s in a really tough school situation! And…okay. I’m already kind of killing myself with my current schedule, but I am determined to make this work. Because I love this whole family. And I know I’m actually making a difference for them. Which is kind of the whole point for me.

So basically it was a long day of being unexpectedly encouraged…and reminded that while there are a lot of things out of my hands, my attitude is not one of them. Which means my whole post boils down to the likely fact that no one is benefiting from all these character-building lessons as much as me. Learning with the ten-year-olds. And proud of it.


*I call them family friends in my head, even though I don’t mean a “friend of my family.” But because a lot of my friendships here are friendships with whole families, not individual people, that’s how I think of them.

home again.

March 28, 2011

I just spent the last five days soaking up sea-scented air, acting like a tourist, getting tangled in delicious conversations, and enjoying a much needed break in Lebanon with one of my roommates.

It was wonderful, and I fully plan to tell you more about it, plus pictures…later. (Though it has occurred to me that there’s ANOTHER excursion from November I never actually posted about. Maybe I should do that one first? At this rate, you’ll never hear about my travels…)

Anyway, Lebanon is a bruised and beautiful country. At various points during my stay, it made my breath catch in alternating heartbreak and irritation and awe–not an easy feat. But to be honest, I left Jordan in such an exhausted state that I was half-afraid I’d end up falling in love with Lebanon and wish I could stay there forever. (I was also warned this might happen by some major Lebanon lovers in my life.) To my relief, this didn’t happen.

Instead, I found myself more than ready to come home by journey’s end. For one thing, I was longing for the familiarity of Jordan. Let’s face it–traveling can be tiring, and even though Amman and Beirut are only an hour’s plane ride away from each other, they are like different worlds, and by Sunday evening I was looking forward to being in a place where I knew what I was doing again.

But I also found that certain things about being there made me cling with even more gratitude to living here. Which isn’t so much a testament to Lebanon’s deficiencies as it is a testament to how Jordan has scooped out a little nesting place in my heart. As I directed our airport taxi driver to our house from the backseat of his cab, I settled into a sort of fatigued contentment…because I was home.

Sometimes I think that’s the best part of the whole uprooting experience. Getting to feel that deep inward sigh when you leave and come back.

(altogether too gorgeous Lebanon–this is Tyre)