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.
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.