By Tom O’Connor
In my experience, the key to living a fulfilling life abroad is making meaningful connections.
As I mentioned in my last article, I studied abroad at Princess Sumaya University for Technology in Amman last spring. I am a student of journalism, but I’ve focused on learning Arabic since coming to American University. My semester in Jordan was the first time I actually experienced the region I learned so much about.
It’s been less than a year since I left and I have already been back once. This return trip, which took place during winter break, was not part of a follow-up program with the school nor was it for education or business. It was simply to visit my friends.
What I noticed upon my return was the difference between visiting a country for the first time and coming back. I was no less anxious to get through security, grab my luggage and get out of the airport, but this time I was not waiting for a group of American strangers. I was waiting for my Jordanian friends. I knew once I turned that corner I would be seeing familiar faces who took the time and money (gas is not cheap in Jordan) to come pick me up from the airport.
I’ve been asked why I would not rather spend the money on traveling somewhere new. There are 193 sovereign nations (195 including Palestine and the Holy See), why not try somewhere different? The answer was simple. I had about a week and a half between Christmas and a new semester; I wanted to see my friends. I hope to travel to some of those other places someday, but this was not that kind of trip.
This trip was about maintaining the connections that have had a profound impact on my life. If I had had more time in Jordan, I would have devoted it to the people I did not get to see.
Making lasting, meaningful relationships abroad can be challenging. You encounter people from different backgrounds whose lives revolve around a seemingly entirely different context than your own. This was my mindset going into Jordan the first time. I soon realized, however, that you could find a lot more in common than you might expect.
One of the most endearing qualities in my Jordanian friends is that they remind me of myself and of my friends back home. Putting differences in religion and culture aside, we are not all that different. In fact, a common sense of humor was one of the most powerful bonds we shared.
Going to college at American University, I encounter people from a vast range of backgrounds. At times I find it a lot harder to adapt to the lifestyles of some of these American students, especially those more socioeconomically well off than I, than that of my Jordanian friends. I think we get too hung up on the things that set us apart and sometimes forget how much really brings us together, no matter the distance.
I’ve spent nights in Jordan talking with Abu Leil about politics, Abu Rob about poetry and Yazeed about music. These conversations did not occur because I was American and they were Jordanian or Palestinian, but because we were humans with shared ideas and passions.
To some extent, I feel like this does not even warrant mentioning. But my friend Abu Leil tells me he has seen countless foreigners travel to Jordan and treat it solely like a vacation or another class. I’ve seen it myself. They are the devoted disciples of Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. They will never know the country for what it truly is.
On the other hand, Abu Leil also tells me there are plenty of Jordanians who are eager to talk to and hang around Americans simply because they are American. In Arabic, it is said that this kind of person has a maslaha or “interest” in the relationship, which in this case could mean an ulterior motive. If you want to truly connect with people and establish meaningful relationships, then you cannot base them in superficiality or exploitation.
When conversing with my friends in Jordan, sometimes I will speak in Arabic and they will speak in English. On this level, we are benefitting both intellectually or educationally from each other. That being said, this mutual benefit, be it an exchange of languages or political perspectives, is not what defines our relationship; it compliments it.
Getting to know people takes time, trust and even luck. No matter where you are in the world, building relationships is an important part of life. It is essential for professional networking, comfort in times of crisis and, of course, fun and recreation.
Making real connections becomes even more formidable abroad because it can be difficult to find a common ground at first. With time and effort, though, you’ll start to see that the content of human character might not vary as much as you think throughout the world.
I was shy at first. I was conscious of everything I said and the way I said it. At times, I tried too hard to fit in, other times I was not willing to leave my comfort zone at all. In the end, I found my balance and realized that my friends and I were learning from each other and becoming better people because of it.
Be patient. Be open-minded. Be funny.
If you’re lucky, you’ll make several or even just one good friend, but that’s all it takes to change your life.