Trains, Tremors, and Temples

Greetings, friends and foes!

We now return to your irregularly scheduled glimpse into my adventures studying abroad. If you’re upset that I haven’t posted a blog in several weeks, I would advise you to lower your standards significantly so that I can’t disappoint you anymore.

Allow me answer the unasked question:  Kali, why haven’t you been blogging? The fact is, I’ve been going to school and taking naps, and frankly I just didn’t feel like it. But now that I’m here, I’ve got a few things to say.

We can start by discussing my love/hate relationship with Japanese trains. In general, I find public transportation repugnant for a number of reasons, but the trains here are clean, quiet, and almost always on time. Usually, I’d give these trains a 10/10.

Except during rush hour.

During rush hour, there are no rules. Chaos reigns supreme. It’s as though the concept of “train car capacity” doesn’t exist here. Oh, did you want some personal space on your way to work this morning? WELL TOO BAD, CHUMP. People crowd into a each train car like clowns in a circus routine. Do not take a rush hour train if you’re unwilling to spend your commute wedged between a salaryman’s sweaty back and the overstuffed backpack of a high school student. And you better grab a handhold or have exceptional balance, because some of those turns can knock you off your feet and send the combined weight of at least 10 other passengers careening into your fragile body. This is the reality of my morning commute. It’s genuinely terrifying, but it’s also so hilariously absurd that I kind of don’t mind it.

Most of my time consists of harrowing the train system, exploring, doing school work, and sleeping. I managed to get out of Tokyo a little bit this past weekend, when I visited Kamakura with a couple of girls from my dorm. It’s a beach city about two hours south of Tokyo by train, known for its many Buddhist and Shinto shrines and temples. The ride there was pretty great, if only because we spent most of it in a first-class car by accident. Eventually one of the train attendants noticed us out-of-place foreigners and asked us to move to the regular car with the common rabble. It was glorious while it lasted.

Once we made it to Kamakura, we walked around the Engaku-ji Zen temple complex, which was super rad because there’s nothing I love more than a nice Buddhist temple. I’m not even being sarcastic this time, I’m super down for temples. This one was founded in the 13th century, and today it hosts graveyards, shrines, and a tooth that was said to belong to the Buddha himself. I didn’t get to see the tooth. Maybe next time.

After the shrine, we got lunch at a yakiniku restaurant, which is pretty much a Japanese barbeque place. Of course, I don’t eat meat, but I did get some amazing udon noodles. We followed lunch with a stroll around the city to walk off the gluttony, and eventually we ended up at the Kotoku-in temple. This temple is known for its giant statue of Amitabha Buddha, which at 43.8 feet tall, is still only the second tallest Daibutsu Buddha statue in Japan. Its larger counterpart in Nara reaches 49.2 feet. So far, visiting these temples has been my favorite experience in Japan, and I hope to see many more before I leave.

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I’m going to start wrapping up this entry, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give the people what they want, i.e., BEEF and DRAGS. That is to say, I’ve got beef and I want to drag something or someone.

The first thing I have beef with is earthquakes. Japan has them constantly. For the most part, they’re so small that you probably won’t even notice them, but sometimes they’ll actually make their presence known. My problem is that sometimes I’ll wake up to my bed shaking ever so slightly, and in my sleep-addled state my mind somehow jumps from “Seismic Event” and straight to “PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.” Still, I’m glad these earthquakes aren’t very strong, because otherwise I’d be way more terrified, and 9/10 times I’d rather deal with a potential ghost and/or demon than a scary earthquake.

My other beef is with certain individuals that I encounter on a regular basis. Before coming to Japan, I’d hear how strange it was to be Black here, or in Asia in general, because folks weren’t used to seeing someone like me very often. So far, this has not been a problem. Actually, my issue has been with non-POC students and faculty who will spout off problematic ridiculousness without thinking. I won’t get into any details because I don’t need that rise in blood pressure right now, but I will say this: DON’T COME TO ME OR THE GOOD PEOPLE OF JAPAN WITH YOUR IGNORANT NONSENSE. Traveling provides an opportunity to learn about others not like yourself and to expand your worldview, but if you’re the human equivalent of a trashcan fire, just stay home.

Otherwise, Japan is neat and I’m A-OK. Thanks for tuning in, and keep an eye out for my next post sometime between next week and my 35th birthday.

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On to the Next One

Alas, the prodigal son has returned.

That is to say, after several weeks of procrastination, I’m blogging again. Initially, I had hoped to write some introspective, profound reflection on my summer in Morocco. But then I thought to myself: “What if I just take a nap instead?” And so I did. In fact, I took many naps and enough time passed that I just didn’t want to write about my summer anymore. So if you’re wondering, my time in Morocco was equal parts painful and worthwhile. You can ask me about it if you’re all that interested.

A lot has happened in the month since I left Morocco. For instance, I’m in Japan now, so that’s neat.

In all honesty, I don’t really have a reason to be here. I don’t speak Japanese. I study the Middle East. I could be doing a lot of other things. But being here means not being at Northwestern, and I just don’t feel like going back there right now. Thanks to a program called IES Abroad, I’m studying Japanese language and culture in the Tokyo area at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS). I’m living in a dorm this time around, which is perfect for a creature of solitude and darkness such as myself.

The other students in the program and I arrived about two weeks ago, and the program put us up in a swanky hotel that was far too classy for the likes of me. We stayed there for three days while the program staff tried to give us the basic knowledge we’d need to survive in Tokyo. I was pretty much lost the whole time, but I haven’t died yet, so I’m probably fine.

The library at KUIS

Classes have only just started for us at KUIS, but things are looking good so far. The school’s newer facilities are fantastic, if a little “extra.” For example, one kid in my program mentioned that our student center looks an Urban Outfitters, and now I can’t unsee the resemblance. When it comes to the actual academic side of things, I like my courses so far, but I’ve been wronged by school so many times before that I won’t trust a first impression. 

I’m staying in an all-girls dorm, and I won’t really go into details about it because no one cares about dorms. I will mention that there are some really nice old ladies who prepare our meals here, but I’m pretty sure they think I’m some kind of simpleton because I never know what they’re saying to me.

Now, my school and dorm are technically in the Chiba prefecture, but we’re in the Greater Tokyo Area, which is absolutely immense. Japan’s top-notch train system can get you into the city pretty quickly, and frankly it’s a big step up from Chicago’s trains (which are actual garbage and the bane of my existence). I’ve done a little exploring in Tokyo so far, but I feel like I’ve yet to see 99.999% of the city.

The first neighborhood in Tokyo that I visited was Harajuku, which most people consider the center of fashion and youth culture in Japan. As such, I found it terrifying. Given that I am actually a grumpy, 75-year-old man trapped in the body of a 20-year-old girl, I tend to have trouble relating to the youths. I wasn’t really interested in the shopping scene, and there were way too many people. There were also a bunch of ladies yelling at you to come into their shops, which I hated, because I don’t like being told what to do. However, there were a bunch of weird cafes (cat cafes, hedgehog cafes, owl cafes) that intrigued me enough that I’ll probably go back to Harajuku in the future.

Me and my son in a Shinjuku arcade

I had a better time in Shinjuku, which I visited with my friend from NU. Shout out to my homeboy, Alex Furuya, who found a dope, vegetarian-friendly restaurant just for me. We also went to an arcade, which was 8-floors of crazy. Arcades are super popular for all ages in Japan, and the one we went to had regular arcade machines for the average player, plus a whole floor of harder games that were too next-level for me. I played the crane machine. I won a dog key chain. 

The next day I ended up in Asakusa, which has been my favorite place so far. One one hand, it’s super touristy, but on the other hand, it’s full of amazing shrines and it has the oldest temple in Tokyo,  Senso-ji Temple, first built 1400 years ago in tribute to the bodhisattva Kannon. There are also a ton of stalls selling traditional Japanese foods, which is also a plus.

My most recent excursion was to Akihabara, a neighborhood famous for its electronics, video games, manga, and anime. I went there mostly hoping to look around and maybe grab some gifts for my friends. Like Harajuku, Akihabara was a little overwhelming, but definitely worth visiting if you’re into geekery or have to buy something for your otaku/weeb pals.

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So this is pretty much what I’ve been up to lately. I have literally no idea what the future holds for me here in Japan, but I’ll probably write about it here if I can get my life together and stop being lazy. So stay tuned, folks, there are more adventures to come.

The Final Countdown

THE END IS NIGH.

Or rather, the end of my time in Morocco is approaching, and I’ve got some thoughts about that. But first, I’ll let you know what kind of nonsense I’ve been up to lately.

For starters, I’ve learned that if my host sister says we’re going on a picnic, what she really means is that we’re going to the forest to hike, and there isn’t actually any food involved at all. This is an important lesson that I wish I’d learned before I was whisked away to the woods this Sunday morning. Not to say that I was disappointed. I very much enjoyed the experience, and it was a great opportunity to spend some time with my host sister before my homestay ended. We had a lovely view of the ocean, and even got to see one of Tangier’s most famous—and weirdest—attractions: The Place of Nightingales.

 It’s a cliff-side mansion built by Greek-American expat Ion Perdicaris in the 1870s. It’s also where Perdicaris was kidnapped by a Moroccan chieftain, whom Perdicaris later befriended in what I can only assume was a case of Stockholm Syndrome. 

Interesting though the mansion was, it could not make up for the fact that I was essentially tricked into doing physical activity. My host sister tried to remedy the situation by taking us for ice cream afterward, but I was still pretty exhausted, and my day had only just begun. Next up on the agenda was a trip to the hammam, or an Islamic bath. The hammam is essentially a public bath/sauna, with different bathing periods for men and women. In the past, I’ve been to a “traditional” Moroccan hammam only once, but the experience was memorable, to say the least. My friends and I chose to go together, each of us buying an exfoliating glove (kees) and a bag of foul-smelling, black soap paste made from olives. You can bathe yourself, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can pay a lady to do it for you, because she’s not going to be as gentle when she uses the glove to scour the dead skin from your fragile body. It sounds like an awkward and painful experience, and it definitely is, but I swear you’ll never be cleaner.

This time around I opted for a more bougie alternative, choosing to go to a hammam that was also a spa. Unlike the traditional bath, the soap at this spa didn’t possess a horrendous odor, and the hammam lady seemed like she didn’t want to cause me any pain. Plus, there were massages, manicures, waxing, and whatever else fancy people do when they’re spa-ing.

The hammam also provided a much-needed opportunity for stress-relief, which I desperately needed after the “re-entry” workshop I had been subjected to the day before. Since this is our final week in Tangier, we were required to attend the workshop in order to reflect on our experiences and prepare to re-adjust to life in the U.S., i.e. avoiding “reverse culture shock.” (What is reverse culture shock? This link will tell you, because I don’t feel like doing that.) However, the workshop just turned out to be another opportunity for me to put up with nonsense. I won’t go into any details about what went down because that doesn’t matter, but I’ll give my two-cents on a couple of points.

First: This is a fully-paid opportunity to study abroad, and the program only lasts eight weeks. I believe that reverse culture shock is real and stressful, but if that’s the going to be the biggest problem I have in my life right now, that’s fine by me.

“Cultural Appropriation Bingo” will help you figure out if you’re being problematic. Courtesy of Dr. Shiela Addison

Second: Cultural appropriation is real and problematic. You’re going to want to show off everything you bought abroad and tell the whole world about your experience, but don’t forget that it’s not your culture, and what you say and do with cultural items will affect how that culture is perceived, especially by people who only learn about it from you. Additionally, there’s no one who can simply give you permission on behalf of a whole culture to wear some unique clothing or jewelry you bought. It doesn’t work like that. Furthermore, no one owes you the emotional labor of defending their right to be offended when you’ve somehow exploited or misrepresented their culture. It’s easy to be respectful, and if you mess that up, it’s even easier to admit that you were wrong and to try to be better in the future. End rant.

 

The Mountain

If you’re struggling to comprehend my study abroad experience, try to envision a picturesque, magnificent mountain. Now imagine trekking to its peak, only to tumble down the mountainside the moment you’ve reached that zenith. It’s over in a flash, painful though it is. You’ve got some battle scars, but the next time you climb a mountain, you’ll be more prepared. It’s a majestic mountain, nonetheless.

That is to say, the end of my program is rapidly approaching, and in spite of the good times, I’ve had moments of distress. I want to learn from these experiences, mostly because there’s not much else I can do with them. My recent trip to Fez epitomizes this sentiment.

Fez, also known as Morocco’s cultural capital, is probably one of my favorite cities here. Home to more than 1 million people, Fez is the second largest city in Morocco. Fez is divided into the old medina, the new old medina, the Mellah (what was once the Jewish quarter), and the actual modern part of the city. It’s known worldwide for its leather goods, as well as al-Qarawiyyin University, the world’s oldest, continually operating university. Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 by a woman, because as per usual, women have to do everything. What I’m trying to say is, Fez is dope. It has also caused me distress.

For instance, Fez is about five hours away from Tangier by train. Given that my friends and I had to wait for school to end before we could depart for Fez, we ended up arriving there quite late at night. Immediately, several taxi drivers tried to swindle us into paying an exorbitant price for a ride to our Airbnb riad. This is fairly normal experience for tourists. What was not normal was the fact that the drivers got into huge argument about how many of us could fit in a taxi, and who would be the one to drive us.  

Lesson 1: Be wise with your money when traveling.

We got two reasonably priced taxis and eventually made it to our riad in the old (New old? Old old?) medina. This location is ideal if you want to shop, because the souk (or market), is colossal. I hate shopping in most cases, but in Morocco, bartering for certain goods is expected. Not only do I love bartering, but I speak enough Arabic/Darija to do it well, which is necessary if you’re not trying to get charged the tourist price. Unfortunately, my Darija knowledge doesn’t extend very far beyond basic shopping, so I tend to look like an idiot when a shopkeeper tries to have an actual conversation with me.

Lesson 2: Learn to feel comfortable with your incompetence.

Another noteworthy fact about Fez is that it has the world’s largest urban pedestrian zone. As such, it’s also known for being more prone to crime, especially pickpocketing, than other cities. The crowdedness also means a greater chance that women will have to deal with the harassment that often occurs when we’re in the streets. If you’re like me, i.e. not white, you’ll probably have the distinct pleasure of being catcalled in a way that specifically highlights this non-whiteness. Because if there’s one thing we ladies love, it’s racial fetishization. (This is sarcasm. I have to point this out because some people really think this is a good thing. To those people:  It’s not. You’re dumb.) My friends and I have dealt with situations like this and more, specifically in Fez. Unfortunately, these moments are some of the most memorable, and it’s very easy to let one bad experience color your entire perception of a city, a country, a people, etc. It’s important not to let these situations reinforce stereotypes and prejudices that might exist, but it’s also important to recognize the validity of any distress you’ve faced. I think this is a difficult, but necessary, balance to achieve.

Lesson 3: Every country has its degenerates, so try not to let them ruin your whole experience.

There are way more good people out there than bad ones. So when I think of the individuals who’ve made racialized comments toward me on the streets, or harassed my friends for some odd reason, I don’t think “This person represents Morocco.” Instead I think “This individual is garbage in a way that is entirely unique to themselves.” So yes, I’ve had moments of struggle and doubt, but I love Morocco, Fez included.

 

Globetrotting

If—for some unfathomable reason—this blog is of particular interest to you, you may have noticed that I didn’t post last week. Rest assured that I’m still alive and writing, and I’ll do my best to relay a whole two weeks of my life in this one, brief post.

I’ll start with my jaunt to Chefchaouen, the blue city. A better writer would go into passionate detail about how picturesque, how quaint, or how remarkable this city is, but the inside of my head isn’t a pithy place, so I’ll get straight to the point: It really is blue, but not inordinately so. Imagine that some giant, clumsy toddler knocked a bunch of blue and white building-blocks down a mountain, and these all sort of stayed clustered at the bottom. Now imagine that these blocks are actually houses. That’s how I see Chefchaouen. It’s a actually a gorgeous city, but it’s also overwhelmed by a horde of tourists. My friends and I spent a weekend ambling around the city by night, in order to avoid the searing heat of day (and also because I am nocturnal). It was a pretty low-key excursion, unlike the one I’ve recently returned from.


This last weekend we went to Merzouga, a city about 500 miles south of Tangier, near the Algerian border. Tangier is genuinely beautiful, but it has strong European vibes. Tangier feels Moroccan, French, and Spanish all at once, which can be overwhelming at times. Moroccan culture is incredibly multifaceted in its own right, so I was glad to leave Tangier, where I feel like I have to crack through some sort of veneer to figure out what it is to be Moroccan. So I was excited to drive south, but I was not excited to travel by bus with 30+ other people. It was not an ideal situation, but I digress.

It was a rihla (a journey) of highs and lows. First, the highs: We stopped in Volubilis, or in Arabic, Walili, the ruins of a city that was established by the indigenous Amazigh people in the 3rd century BCE, and was later ruled by the Romans. A lot of the Roman architecture is still intact, and it’s definitely worth visiting if you ever find yourself nearby; it’s about an hour from the major city of Meknes, which is worth seeing as well.

But the best part of this trip was the camels. Merzouga is near a sea of sand dunes (for the geographically-disinclined, a lot of Morocco is part of the Sahara desert), so the program arranged for us to ride into the desert and sleep in a “traditional” camp. I’ve actually been to Merzouga before and done this exact thing, and the fact is that we camp fairly close to the city, and the whole thing is a tourist trap, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that camels are some of the most incredible creatures in existence. They’ve perfectly evolved to live in the hellacious terrain better known as the desert, and they’re adorable. I was jazzed about the camels.

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Now some lows: On the way to Merzouga, we stopped in a patch of forest known for its “wild” monkeys. You’re able to buy peanuts and bananas to feed them, and the whole set-up gives me uncomfies for a number of reasons. On one hand, I feel uncomfortable interacting with wild animals in that way, making them so trusting of humans and exploiting them for money. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s my place to come into another country and say “Hey, I know you depend on these monkeys for your livelihood, but my morals say don’t do that.” Not because I think my viewpoint becomes invalid when I try to express it in a country that’s not my own, but what right do I have to offer this criticism to strangers without offering viable alternatives, especially when they don’t have the same opportunities as me?

I also felt uncomfortable visiting the monkeys/participating in the camel rides to the sand dunes, because both activities are centered around a very artificial idea about wildlife and culture in Morocco, anyway. I know programs that send students abroad often include activities like these, which sacrifice authenticity for entertainment, which leads to a lot of conflicting feelings for me. In the end, even if I’m having fun,  I don’t think that I have a more genuine understanding of Morocco after this trip, and I worry that I’m going to find myself framing my view of the country from a stereotypical perspective.

However, I had one experience in these last few weeks that’s really stuck with me. A Moroccan friend mentioned that in all her 20 years, she had been to three cities in Morocco, and she had not visited another country before. Then she asked me how many cities I had visited. In my whole life, 20 years, how many cities have I been to? The truth is, I don’t know. Even as a kid, I visited different cities in Colorado, and several nearby states. My family never really had “vacations,” but even visiting Denver for the weekend was a big deal to me. In high school, I started traveling even farther across the country, and in the last 3 years alone, I have visited Asia, Europe, and Africa. For the longest time, I thought of myself as just some girl from Pueblo. Occasionally, especially when I’m talking to other Northwestern students who seem to travel everywhere all the time, I still feel like just some Pueblo girl. And yet, I’ve always been able to say that I’ve seen more than three cities. Even though the world seems so vast, and there are surely sights I can’t even fathom seeing, I’ve actually had quite a few adventures of my own. All at once, it’s a humbling thought, but still pretty impressive for this Pueblo girl.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Salam Alaikum!

Peace be upon you!

On this week’s episode of The Never-Ending Struggle (AKA my life), I’ll try to recall exactly what I’ve been up to since the last time I posted, but to be quite honest, my brain is pretty fried from all the language-learning. Also, for some inexplicable reason I like to work while listening to the  “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” soundtrack, so I’ve titled the post to reflect as much. This title also describes my life pretty well, so I’ll roll with it.

The Good:

For our cultural excursion last week we all went to the Kasbah Museum, which is a 600-year-old palace that currently houses artifacts from Tangier’s storied past. As far as museums go, it wasn’t half bad. The exhibits chronicle Tangier’s development from humble, prehistoric beginnings until early modern times. I was especially impressed by the Kasbah’s courtyard and garden, but I was utterly floored by the fact that the garden held not one, but TWO turtles. Furthermore, the garden at my school is home to YET ANOTHER TURTLE. Miracles are everywhere.

On another high note, I spent last weekend in the seaside town of Asilah which provided the respite from education that my mental-well being desperately required. Several other students and I rented out a traditional Moroccan riad, which is pretty much just a big house with a courtyard or garden in the center. Asilah is truly stunning, with massive, gorgeous murals painted throughout the old city. We happened to be in town while a major art festival was taking place, and even though I actually know nothing about art, it was cool to see the different exhibits.

We also had a wedding. That is, we acted out a traditional Moroccan wedding, using two students from our program as the bride and groom. I don’t care for weddings in general, but I think I would be down to go to a real Moroccan wedding. They seem very lively and there’s a lot of dancing, which is most definitely a plus.

Additionally, I’m very grateful for my host family. For the most part the only adults I’ve interacted with in the family have been women, which has been a unique experience for me because I wanted to learn more about women’s social roles in Morocco. For instance, one of my host sisters is single and works as graphic designer, but the other is married and raising three children and has a husband working overseas. My host mom is fairly religious and traditional, and she visits her mother and unmarried sister a lot. They all provide a more varied example of Moroccan women than I’ve witnessed before, which has been incredibly interesting for me. Plus, they’re really kind and hilarious, so I feel lucky to have them.

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The Bad and The Ugly:

I learn a lot even when I’m not in class. For instance, I’m learning that Moroccan conceptions of beauty and “ideal” womanhood aren’t that different from the ones we have in America. Based on my observations, it seems quite clear that there’s a high demand for light skin and effortlessly-silken, wavy hair. I noticed this for the first time when I joined my host family for a trip to the salon before Eid al-Fitr. I spent nearly two hours watching as women with an assortment of hair textures willingly submitted their locks to the scorching breath of a hair dryer; all of them desiring the same gently-waved looked. On other occasions, a host sister marveled at pictures of me from when I used to wear my hair straight, and she struggled to understand why I don’t straighten it these days. (To be fair, if I can barely carry on a conversation about shopping in Moroccan Arabic, there’s no way I could have explained the politics of Black hair to her.) Another time, a relative of our host family expressed her fascination with my hair by actually clasping a handful of it. If this happened to me in America, I would have had some choice words for her, but in my Moroccan reality I coped by relying upon ample amounts internal screaming.

There’s also a very real preference for light skin here. Example: In Asilah, I happened upon a painting of a Moroccan public bath, or hammam. In a hammam you can pay a tiny, ancient woman who possesses the strength of a thousand body-builders, to scrub your skin until you are so clean that even a lifetime of sin has been washed away. This is only a slight exaggeration. I was initially intrigued by the canvas because I’ve been to a hammam, and I find them absurdly fascinating, but further inspection of the painting made me realize that all the dozens of bathing women were white, while a single, black-skinned woman had been painted dead-center in the painting, washing them. I realize this was in agreement with my own hammam experience, but it was somewhat shocking to see this juxtaposition depicted so clearly in a single painting. However, racial prejudice isn’t a strictly-Moroccan phenomenon, and life in America has prepared me for this very thing. So yes, I’ve glimpsed a facet of Moroccan culture that doesn’t sit right with me, but unfortunately it’s something I’m quite used to already.

All Aboard the Struggle Bus

Here’s some unsolicited advice: Don’t go abroad if you’re not willing to be uncomfortable. And when I say “go abroad,” I’m not talking about some bougie, vacation-y nonsense, I mean really engaging with and trying to understand the people and the culture in a country that’s not your own.

Granted, I exist in a constant state of distress, but living as a foreigner in any country makes discomfort all the more salient. In a program like CLS, where we live alongside native Moroccans, learn in a Moroccan school, and swear to use English only when necessary, moments of pure ease are fleeting and treasured. For me, the root of most discomfort here is the tenuous grasp on my own identity that has emerged during my time Tangier. In other words, I find it hard to be myself.

For instance, my adherence to the Arabic language pledge means I simply don’t possess the breadth of vocabulary that I have in English. There are certainly children (and maybe even some very clever pets) that possess a better knowledge of Arabic than I do, especially since my knowledge is mostly of the formal, written language. There have definitely been some taxi drivers and shopkeepers that think I’m a simpleton based on my pathetic attempts to communicate with them in Moroccan Arabic.

Living with my host family presents challenges as well. They’re truly wonderful people, but sometimes our mix of cultures and languages creates barriers I’m not able to overcome. Some of these are fairly simple, like when my host mom gave me traditional balgha shoes to wear. Of all the family members, I struggle to communicate with my host mom the most. When I realized the shoes were two sizes too small, I inexplicably chose to hobble around the apartment like a newborn giraffe in my tiny shoes. She so was happy to see me wear them that the struggle of communicating “Hey, these don’t actually work for my body” didn’t seem worth it.

Other issues are clearly rooted in who I am as a person, rather than cultural difference. My group trip to the beach town of Qsar Saghir exemplifies this fact. Qsar Saghir means “little palace,” and the town is home

to the remains of a 13th century citadel, which was really rad to explore. However, our trip also included a visit to the beach. This would have been a perfectly wonderful experience if I was the kind of person who wanted to go to a beach ever. Beaches tend to be composed of sand, water to swim in, and large crowds. In general, I have no interest in any of these things. But I made a genuine effort to enjoy the occasion, even though it wasn’t really on brand for me. I think a lot of traveling abroad is like this; the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality can help outweigh the fact that sometimes you have to do things you’re not terribly interested in.

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But some discomforts are genuinely grating, like when my Arabic professors asked me to describe the difference between women’s rights movements in the Arab world and America. In English, I know that several of my classmates and I could wax poetic about intersectional feminism, the diversity and history of women in the Arab world, etc., but we just don’t have the ability to communicate the same way in Arabic. The result of the activity was an oversimplified, problematic depiction of women in  both regions.  The inability to truly verbalize my most deeply-held beliefs/prove that I’m not a moron is unbelievably frustrating.

On the other hand, I’ve had moments where I’ve realized that my identity isn’t incompatible with life in Tangier. Before coming to CLS, the program provided me with advice on living in Morocco. One of the suggestions about minimizing cross-cultural conflict suggested avoiding the discussion of topics that might be perceived differently in Morocco than in America. Apparently, vegetarianism is one such controversial issue. I’ve been a vegetarian almost ten years now for moral reasons, but it was suggested that I tell Moroccans that health reasons prevented me from eating meat. Now, to say such a thing would be an outright lie, and my mama didn’t raise a liar. (Mostly because my mom sucks at lying, so she wouldn’t be able to teach me to do it, anyway.)  So when my host family questioned my eating habits, I told them the truth and waited for the bewilderment to follow. But it never came. They were polite and genuinely interested, even if they didn’t agree with me. We were different, but we could think critically about our differences and the reasoning behind them without attempting to decide whose views were right our wrong.

But I don’t want this post to make me sound like a total whiner, because the truth is I’m very lucky to even be on this trip, and my inconveniences are fairly minor and always temporary. And of course, there are times when I genuinely enjoy myself. Our 4th of July celebration was one such moment. I’m not really patriotic or into holidays, but I sure do love to dance. The second I saw a DJ come to our little school and start setting up ginormous speakers, it was like I was reborn. For few glorious hours I was myself, surrounded by my Moroccan and American friends, and all was right in the world.

Anotha One

You thought I wouldn’t write another post, didn’t you? It’s okay, I thought that, too.

Welcome to Tangier

I’ve been in Tangier for more than a week now and I’m still not quite sure what’s going on, but that’s actually no different than my life in America so I can’t be too frustrated about that. Allow me to provide a brief summary of my exploits so far.

The program has placed me and another student with a Moroccan host family consisting of a 22-year-old named Neda and her mother, Houria. Sometimes Neda’s older sister will bring her three children to our apartment. I particularly enjoy spending time with the 5-year-old Aymran, whose favorite activities include dancing, spitting, and making up fake Arabic words in order to trick me. He’s a real angel.

I took a placement test to measure my Arabic fluency, and I proved that I do, in fact, possess some competence in this language. Each class consists of 3 hours of Modern Standard Arabic and 1 hour of Moroccan Arabic. We had to take a language pledge vowing not to speak English on our school’s grounds, on group trips, or with our host families. Honestly, I do slip into English sometimes, but I am trying to be better. Additionally, each week we’re supposed to spend 3 hours with a Moroccan student who is our “language partner.” Two other students and I are in a group with a girl name Yusra, who is going to show us around the city and attempt to improve our speaking skills. God knows I need it.

We also had the chance to celebrate Ramadan with our host families for about a week. During Ramadan, Muslims don’t eat or drink water during the day, so my roommate and I would eat breakfast alone in the mornings, and at sundown we would join our family for iftar, the meal where Muslims break their daily fast. Iftar consists of a lot of traditional foods that aren’t really eaten during the rest of the year, so it’s especially cool to be in Tangier during Ramadan. This weekend we experienced the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr—the feast of the breaking of the fastwhich meant that our host family went to the mosque before visiting all their family members. The day consisted of a lot of meeting family, drinking uber-sweet Moroccan mint tea, and eating various traditional sweets. I’ll probably get a thousand cavities, but I did it for the culture.

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Tangier is an interesting city. I’m not sure how much I enjoy it because I haven’t gotten to explore as much as I’d like, but Tangier seems like a decent place so far. It’s a sprawling, metropolitan city, and there are areas that seem exorbitantly wealthy, but that luxury isn’t spread very equally. So far I’ve visited al-medina al-qadima (the old city), which is a walled area that has stood for centuries, and still houses many Tangierians today. We also went to a traditional souk, or market, to buy close for Eid. I’m a big fan of Moroccan markets because you can barter, which is fun, and you can buy pretty much anything. When I was in Rabat two years ago I saw people selling food, clothes, DVDs, passports, falcons, fresh-caught sharks; pretty much everything the average person could possibly want. My experience in this Tangier souk wasn’t bad, except that I spent too long standing in front of what I thought was a mannequin, but was actually a Moroccan woman that shouldn’t have been standing so still. This particular surprise may have taken several years off my life.

The Cave of Hercules, located just outside of Tangier

Later in the week, I joined my friends for a trip to the Cave of Heracles, just outside of Tangier. According to legend, Hercules slept in the cave before completing his 11th labor. I didn’t see him there, but the mouth of the cave is sort of shaped like Africa, which is dope enough for me to include a picture here.

That’s pretty much the gist of my journey in Tangier so far. I’m sorry I can’t provide any truly useful travel tips or introspective commentary on the city, but insha’allah (God willing) I’ll stick to this blog and tell you something worth knowing.

 

Morocc’ and Roll 2: Electric Boogaloo

To be honest, I don’t think I’m the blogging type. I prefer not to share the goings-on of my life with people, especially with a medium the whole internet can see. But since I’m going abroad this summer and I don’t want my family to think I’m in a constant state of peril, starting a travel blog seems like the right thing to do. So if you want to follow my shenanigans abroad, stick around. I’ll try to keep things interesting.

THE HARD FACTS:

So here’s the deal:  I’ve been awarded a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State, which will allow me spend the next eight weeks in Tangier, Morocco. This scholarship gives American college students the chance to study one of 14 “critical languages” —i.e. non-Western European languages valuable to U.S. security,—in a fully-funded, overseas immersion program. The program includes intensive language classes, home-stay accommodations with a local family, and various excursions around Morocco.

Now, if you know me, you might be aware that my long-term career goal is to work as a foreign correspondent. My majors at Northwestern University are Journalism and International Studies with a focus on Middle Eastern culture and society. For a little over two years, I’ve studied Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). In fact, after graduating high school I received a scholarship to participate in a nearly-identical program to CLS, although that time I stayed in Rabat, Morocco. By studying Arabic in Morocco again, I hope to increase my fluency in MSA and the Moroccan dialect.

Full disclosure: No one actually speaks MSA, also known as al-fusha. You might hear news anchors using it, but spoken colloquial Arabic dialects seem like completely different languages compared to MSA. Speaking MSA to a dialect speaker would be like speaking Old English to a Modern American; they might understand you, but you’ll sound like a lunatic. I’ve studied a little Levantine dialect, and I know some Moroccan darija phrases, but overall I’d put my spoken-Arabic skills in the category of “Actual Garbage.” So that’s pretty neat.

WHAT EVEN IS TANGIER?

I’m so glad you’ve asked!

Tangier is major port city in north Morocco, on the cusp of the Strait of Gibraltar. Nearly a million people live there, so it’s a far cry my hometown of Pueblo, CO, but not quite as monstrous as Chicago, where I spend a lot of my time these days. (I really didn’t even want to mention Evanston, IL because I don’t claim Evanston. That’s right, I said it.)

I actually don’t know a lot about Tangier myself, except that the medieval traveler Ibn Battuta, who ventured across Asia and Africa, was from Tangier. I’ve always thought he was pretty dope, so maybe I can capture some of his adventurer’s spirit during my stay.

I actually visited Tangier on my last trip to Morocco. I was only able to spend a few hours in the city so I don’t have any strong opinions about it, but I do remember being a little disappointed by its strong “European” vibes. Given the history of colonialism in Morocco, I wasn’t at all surprised, but I still preferred Rabat, which I felt more authentic to me.

For reference, here is a picture of me, the last time I was in Tangier. Apparently I’m pointing to Spain, and as always, I am overflowing with joy and excitement.

WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN TO YOU, KALI???

The tragic part about studying abroad is that actual studying is required. I love learning, but as I’m sure many of you are aware, I find going to school abhorrent. My language classes will require me to go to school five days a week for a whole four hours a day. (Feel free to gasp, faint, clutch your pearls, etc. I understand that this fact is quite disturbing.) I don’t even have classes that frequently at Northwestern, and it’s well known that my class attendance is….sufficient, to say the least. But I want to keep my scholarship, and I truly enjoy Arabic, so you can be sure to catch me in class every. single. day.

I’m also living with a host family, as well as another student from my program. I really hope the family doesn’t hate me, and I’ll do my best to suppress my only-child instincts so my roommate doesn’t want to throttle me. My last host family was very kind, but we were never particularly close, and I hope that changes this time around.

If nothing else, my one goal is to improve my Arabic so that my speaking and writing skills reached the esteemed level of “Barely Embarrassing.” Is such a feat possible? Perhaps. Only time will tell.

 

*All content here is my own and does not reflect the views or positions of the U.S. Department of State, the American Councils for International Education, or the Arab American Language Institute in Morocco.