Amman, Jordan — I arrived at the conclusion that ‘going local’ is a defective expression thrown around by culturally-unconscious western thinkers who are convinced that one could simply ‘go local’ if you ride a camel with a scarf ornately tied around your head, or dine at an exotically decorated restaurant with an impossibly foreign name, or hammer out a deal from a street vendor without the use of a credit card.
As if ‘going local’ was an effortless honeymoon type of an experience. In reality, what is local is really a dynamic array of lifestyles filled with a myriad of alternative narratives which cannot be understood without an extensive amount of time and, honestly, a broad range of discomfort.
This critical contemplation of ‘going local’ started with a recent Skype call with my best friend living in Palestine. Her list of countries traveled surpasses three dozen and she is, without a doubt, the most patient, graceful, knowledgeable and experienced traveler I know.
When we speak of her life in Palestine it is not one likened to the American lifestyle, but an outright attempt at discovering and adapting to as much of local Palestinian-Arab culture as possible. But after a year of what she described to me as a terrifically rewarding experience, she is ready to gracefully bow out.
What I respect most about my friend is that she has enough discernment and self-awareness to recognize when she has had enough, after putting a sincere effort to learn and live in a culture completely antithetical to the ones she has lived previously. In the midst of our conversation, she admitted that she has the utmost respect for those who can actually undress their native mindset in order to allow for wave after wave of discomfort to hit them until finally they are released into what is actually described as successfully and contentedly operating as one of the locals.
After personal experience living and traveling abroad as well, listening to a wide range of testaments from internationally-lived friends, I understand assimilation to be a continual and intentional choice over time.
The life of an everyday person living in Jordan is vastly varied due to its complex demographic. When I am asked by friends back home if I am “going local” while living here in Jordan, I am at a loss for words. Because, frankly, to be Jordanian can be described with a million different answers and I am not at liberty to identify myself with a culture which I can only dip my toes in with the four months I have before I must return home.
I posit the most dangerous aspect of studying abroad in the Middle East as an American is not the threat of a terrorist attack, like most would like to assume; it is the readable availability of remaining in an all-too-cozy American bubble while here.
Thanks to globalization, I have the ability to be in a convenient western lifestyle while I live in Jordan with a multiplicity of lavish malls filled with stores such as American Eagle and Starbucks, as well as a wide range of English speakers in almost any setting. On any given night I have the option of attending nightclubs, bars, wasting hours of time using Wi-Fi to access Instagram and Facebook, dining at McDonald’s and jumping into social groups who prefer the lifestyle I am used to back in the States instead of exploring new cultures.
Even if I choose to deny these Western labels as adamantly as possible, it does not automatically make me a native. I can eat falafel and knafeh, run around town babbling in Arabic, snap photos with ancient Roman ruins and even obtain paperwork which grants me residency, but it is still unfair and inaccurate to identify as “going local”.
The enemy of passion is comfort, and I am passionately pursuing experiences and knowledge that will bite at my sense of comfort and way of thinking provided I consciously open myself up to the dynamic and culturally-rich people (including refugees) living in Jordan. I am not admitting that I want to be Jordanian or Syrian or Palestinian, but I do want to challenge and expand my American understanding of the world around me.
Brooke Lake is an international and Arabic studies double major. She studied abroad in Meknes, Morocco and currently studies in Jordan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.