Sixteen things about when I was living in Jordan as a newlywed

(Also posted on Facebook.)

This is Jenny’s tag, adapted to a more interesting time in my life so I’d have something to write other than “I changed a diaper today!” or “I don’t know what to make for dinner tonight,” or “I wish I had more time to sew!”

1. We had an all-tile kitchen with a drain in the floor (all the kitchens and bathrooms were like that.) We also had a badly-adjusted gas oven that left soot all over the walls whenever we cooked with it. Dean finally figured out how to adjust so it would burn clean near the end of our stay there. Then I wanted the sticky soot off the walls, so, at about 6 months pregnant, I boiled water continuously on the stove with the kitchen door closed, to steam up the room, and then I climbed up on the counter and wiped all the soot off the walls. It was like a sauna in there and the soot-cleaning took me most of a day to do. (I lived in that apartment about one more month after that cleaning project.)

2. We also had mice. One time I got home before Dean and saw one scurry into a corner, and I managed to trap it in the corner with suitcases until he got home. Then we managed to get it into a bucket and we took it for a walk and dropped it off in a field about a half-mile away. Another time Dean woke up about 2 AM insisting that he’d just been bitten by a mouse, and he had two little red marks on the web between his thumb and forefinger that he said were mouse bite marks. He spent the next hour constructing a trap for the mouse from whatever objects he could find. (The trap never caught the mouse.) Another time we saw a mouse run into the oven and look out the oven window at us — so we lit the oven (but the mouse got away.) Dean did go shopping for conventional mouse traps but could only find glue ones, which we felt were less humane than the kind that snaps the mouse’s neck immediately. And I think we also found a loose vent cover and some other hole to stop up and we stopped having mice. (Come to think of it, I listened to an episode of “This American Life” the other day that was about building a better mouse trap, and they spoke with a mouse-trapping expert who said there’s not really much need for a better mousetrap since existing ones work well and anyway mice aren’t very difficult to trap.)

3. I was pregnant during Ramadan in the summertime when the days were long, and I would be out all day and HUNGRY, but also reluctant to eat in public — not that anyone in Amman would have begrudged a Westerner eating during Ramadan, but it felt rude to eat in public when I knew others were fasting, and anyway most restaurants were closed, so I would try to pack enough food to make it through the day and would eat a lot of crackers (I got really really really really tired of all the local brands of packaged crackers,) but I was still always starving and we would often stay out late to get something to eat after sundown when the restaurants would open.

4. We had no car and although Dean would take the “minibus,” I didn’t feel comfortable doing that (most women didn’t, as far as I could tell, and everyone on the minibus would smoke like a chimney) so we spent lots and lots and lots and lots of money on taxis. Taxi drivers also smoked like chimneys, and I still know how to say, “Please don’t smoke, I’m pregnant,” in Arabic. One taxi driver asked me if smoke was bad for the baby and was surprised when I told him it was.

5. I taught English to 6th graders at a private school, and although the school’s administrators had assured me that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak Arabic and it would be good for the students’ English immersion, I was an abject failure at maintaining discipline. Somewhere I still have a drawing I confiscated from one of my students that was a frighteningly accurate caricature of me looking frazzled and helpless.

6. One of the girls’ names was something like Ma-ees, but I couldn’t pronounce it right, and the way I said it sounded like “mouse” in Arabic, which always made all the kids laugh and make fun of her. I tried so hard, but always got it wrong, and she was a good sport about it but I still felt bad.

7. The school where I was teaching was called “The Modern School” and was trying to be Western and progressive in their teaching style, with Western textbooks, but mostly any changes they made to teaching styles were just cosmetic. They’d say, for example, that teachers should never yell at the kids, but I strongly suspected that behind closed doors plenty of yelling happened. I tried to give the kids opportunities to be creative, but they didn’t take to it easily. One time I asked them to finish the sentence “If I ran the school,” and they would finish it with “I would give LOTS of homework!” or “All the kids would have to behave or else!” I said, “No, I mean if you were still a kid but you got to run the classroom, what would you do? Like would you let everyone chew gum, or would you let everyone sit on the floor instead of at their desks?” (etc.) THEN they caught the spirit of the assignment — and were saying things like, “I would bomb the school!” and “I would shoot all the teachers with a machine gun!”

8. The administration must have realized my teaching of the 6th graders was an abject failure, so they assigned me to kindergartners instead, which was even more disastrous — one time the little girls decided it was really funny to circle around me saying “Mommy, mommy, mommy!” for the whole class period, and I never managed to stop them. (If memory serves, I did eventually have a better experience teaching 1st graders — I think I had an Arabic-speaking teacher present to help keep things in line.)

9. Oh, and after I got switched from teaching the 6th graders (who had more-or-less tormented me by ignoring all my attempts at discipline and by plotting things behind my back (actually right in front of me, but since in Arabic, still behind my back,) when they got their new teacher they all told her how much they missed me and loved me and how I was such a better teacher than she was. I found this out because she told me and wanted to know the secret of my success, but I assured her that they were just messing with her mind.

10. All of the above was for a wage of, if memory serves, a little more than a dollar an hour — except for when they kept me overtime (which happened a lot) without my being paid more, so my hourly rate dropped even lower. And I found out I was making more per hour than the professional teachers I worked with. So why did I stay? The job had been arranged through a member of my church, and the first person (also a church member) who’d been offered the job had changed her mind at the last minute had left them high and dry, so I didn’t want to leave a bad name for the church and wanted to be professional. I did quit at the semester break, and they didn’t seem sad to see me go. I was very relieved when I quit, but now am glad I endured as long as I did, since, other than the misery of it, it was a GREAT way to get a little exposure to local culture, particularly since I was working with Jordanian English teachers who could and would translate everything for me.

12. Although we’d assumed the cost of living in Amman would be lower than in the States, it really wasn’t (since we were still living close to a Western standard,) and my teaching wages barely made a dent in our cost of living. Dean had tried at first to find work as an engineer but soon found there were many Jordanian engineers and no work to be found. After several weeks (very long weeks, especially since I was working such a tedious job and because for a while he got discouraged and stopped job-hunting at all) he found a job teaching at a nonprofit that helped Jordanian students prepare to study at U.S. universities and would administer standardized tests (ACT, GRE,) and would also teach test-prep courses. Dean’s a master test-taker and was very well-suited to teach these courses — although he did find it hard to win his students’ trust and persuade them that his way worked — they often thought they knew a better way.

11. Through connections at the school where I taught and through Dean’s job, Dean and I both started getting private tutoring jobs teaching wealthy kids whose parents hoped to eventually send them to the States for university. This was MUCH more lucrative — we’d make about $15-25 US per hour (Dean got higher rates than I did since he could tutor in science and math and test-taking.) I had to tutor two different 11-year-old boys (from two different families, at two different homes) in science (in English) and my most vivid memory of this is of trying to get each of them to understand the concept of “relative humidity,” which is the amount of moisture in the air, RELATIVE to the amount of moisture the air is capable of holding at a given temperature. I would explain this and then ask, “So what is relative humidity?” and they’d say “It’s the amount of moisture in the air.” I’d say, “Relative to what?” and they’d give me a blank look. I spent an hour with each boy on this concept and neither of them ever got it. (They both thought they understood, though.)

12. Another time I was tutoring a teen girl for her high school English literature class, and was trying to help her understand the Robert Frost poem “Two looked at two.” This is a poem where two people out walking encounter two deer (and they look at each other.) I could tell from everything the girl said that there was something she was misunderstanding about the poem, and finally figured out that she was imagining the deer to be dangerous animals, like encountering a tiger or lion. I only tutored that girl a few times before her parents told me her grades had gone way up and she didn’t need me anymore, and I remember thinking “Oh yes she does.” (But how odd and prideful of me to think that one Jordanian teen really needed my continued help at understanding English literature — as though the world weren’t as huge as it is, and as though a few more hours talking about poetry with me would really make any significant difference in the course of her life or even her academic career.)

13. Although I’d heard stories of BYU coeds who were harassed by Jordanian men when they visited the country, I’d been warned to never make eye contact with a man, and I would also try to display my wedding ring prominently and (before I was showing and it was obvious) to make reference to my being pregnant, and I was never treated disrespectfully. There was one time, near the beginning of our stay, when I was frightened because a taxi driver (who wanted to teach me Arabic and have me teach him English) took a very circuitous route taking me home — but after a lot of my mentioning my husband expecting me back home, and a lot of internal praying, he did take me to my destination.

14. I never really liked the local bread much, nor the local desserts. The produce was reasonably nice (although nothing near the deliciousness of produce we’d eaten in Turkey on a stop there on our way to Jordan,) and I liked all of the traditional Jordanian dishes we got to try. My favorite place to eat was at the “Kenny Roger’s Roasters” downtown, which I still remember as some of the most delicious comfort food of my life. (Remember, I was pregnant. And hungry.)

15. I was briefly hired to tutor some wealthy Jordanian women in English, but soon discovered that, although they liked the idea of being able to speak English, they weren’t actually planning to put much effort into it. I also made the mistake of thinking a U.S. magazine would interest them (I think I had a copy of “People,”) but I found that they weren’t very interested in U.S. celebrities and also that the writing style of People is quite complex. I think I only met with this group of women twice, and the main memory I’ve retained is of one of them explaining to me that the problem of Middle East conflict could be easily solved: All the Jews of European origin (Ashkenazi) should go back to their native lands, whereas any Jews with a true Middle East heritage (Sephardic) could stay. Problem solved — simple.

16. I had a female British ob/gyn who did a sonogram at every visit, but who refused to tell me the gender of my baby (she explained that she’d once had a Jordanian man throw a fit in her office when he found out he’d fathered a girl.) I told her I was American and would be equally happy with a boy or girl, but would like to know so as to prepare. Still she refused. I brought Dean to a checkup hoping he might help persuade her, but she only dug in her heels more. Finally, shortly before we returned to the States, I found a different ob/gyn clinic where the kindly old male doctor, after first asking, “Do you care if it’s a boy or a girl?” and my telling him “Not at all” consented to tell me I was having a boy.

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8 Responses to Sixteen things about when I was living in Jordan as a newlywed

  1. Thora says:

    How funny you posted this right now. Avram yesterday started applying for a fellowship, and if he gets it and all works out, we’d live in Israel for the next year (while he goes to Hebrew U.). I really, really, really want to go to Israel, and I enjoy the experience of living in foreign countries, but it was good to read this and remember the weirder/harder parts as well. I lived in Egypt for four months, and although I was studying Arabic full time, I was amazed how how much I didn’t get the local culture/they didn’t get me at times.

    I liked the food in Jordan, but I was only there a week. I especially liked their Schwarmas. I thought the food in Syria was the best in the middle east that I had (out of Egypt, Jordan and Syria), but it was a lot darker of a country; the people felt more oppressed. Jordan felt really western to me. I ate at a Popeyes Chicken fast food restaurant on Christmas Day there just to feel American – I understand liking Kenny Roger’s roasting restaurant!

  2. zstitches says:

    Yes, the Shwarmas are fabulous, and there were also a lot of Chicken Tikka places with delicious chicken and na’an. YUM.

    I think I know the exact Popeye’s chicken you’re talking about, and we ate there many, many times. (It was about 3/4 mile down the road from us — we lived near the University.)

  3. Annette says:

    I’m feeling rather cool because I’ve been to Israel (for all of a week and a half) and eaten Swhwarmas. 😀

    This was totally fascinating. I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to travel around there alone, pregnant, not knowing Arabic, and teaching. Wow.

  4. Kristina says:

    Wow, what an amazing that was! I don’t know if I could do it.

  5. Mrs. Organic says:

    I lived in a foreign country when I was a child – I love reading my mother’s journal from that time and hearing about it from her perspective. I cannot imagine living in a 3rd world country as an adult, let alone having my children attend schools where bomb threats/drills are as routine as fire drills.

    Your account would make a great book.

  6. Anneke says:

    This is very very cool. My aunt lives in Jordan right now with her 3 kids – they’ve lived all over the Middle East since they’ve been married. I get the impression they’re pretty well off, though, and her husband is Lebanese, so I think that makes a difference in how they get around.

    The mousetrap bit cracked me up.

  7. Cheryl says:

    Wow, I am impressed and enjoyed these 16 points very much. I definitely don’t think I’d have felt very comfortable being there pregnant. Brave, very brave. Why did you guys go though?

  8. zstitches says:

    Cheryl, that’s the big question, huh? Let’s see if I can make the long story short:

    1. Dean minored in Arabic and had gone on BYU’s intensive Arabic program. They spent some time in Jordan and he liked the 15 cent ice cream cones.

    2. When he graduated (just before we married) he wanted to get to practice his Arabic and take a break from school before starting a PhD program in Chemical Engineering.

    3. He applied for a Fulbright scholarship in Jordan and didn’t get it. My mom breathed a sigh of relief. He said to me, “You want to go anyway, and work and pay our own way?”

    4. I was a brave, innocent young bride, and said, “Okay.”

    5. The 15-cent ice cream cones really weren’t really very good. 🙂 (But I’m still glad we had that adventure.)

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