During the pandemic the term ‘isolation’ took on an uncomfortable meaning, one that most of us became all too familiar with.
While preparing for my time abroad, I spent time emotionally preparing myself for several aspects of the program. I mentally prepared myself for trying and eating new foods, for missing home, and for feeling unsettled. What nobody prepared me for, however, was the lingering feeling of being isolated.
Amman in it of itself is in isolating place to live, especially for women. We have an early curfew and are told never to walk alone after dark (the sun is setting here at 5:45pm). Uber’s are preferred over Taxi’s for their safety, and we make sure our phone’s are always charged. Most of these are basic safety principles you’d practice in any part of the world, but they take on a different and heavier weight when you’re in a big city where you don’t speak the language and every building looks the same.
In Jordan, as well as in many countries in the Middle East, the power dynamics between men and women are much more drastic, and men have the stronger upper hand when it comes to social interactions. Knowing that at any moment when you’re in public you could, and will, be approached, hit on, or catcalled means you’re always aware, and always on guard. In the United States, I’ve grown accustomed to programs like STEP or Title IX, and the growing cultural and social understanding that unwanted advances are unacceptable. Jordan is far behind in that respect, and that understanding doesn’t exist widely enough for harassment to be actively discouraged. So, we move inconspicuously and don’t draw attention to ourselves, sitting in corners of cafe’s and wearing our hair up. Looking over your shoulder, avoiding eye contact, and always having to be aware of everyone around you is exhausting, and it’s isolating. Similar to the feeling of walking across a dark stage with a bright spotlight shone on you, and still trying not to be seen.
Last week I was really struggling with this feeling after an incident left my immediate safety feeling threatened. Fear and the sensation of isolation can be debilitating when it overwhelms you. But, there are ways to manage these feelings and to cope with them while abroad.
1. First thing you gotta do when you’re feeling isolated or afraid is talk to a friend. When I opened up to my program group about the struggles I was having, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and they empathized with me and shared their own similar experiences.
2. Routine works. When I get these sensations of isolation, I feel compelled not to leave my homestay. I’m afraid of stumbling into an unsafe area or being harassed when I am alone. Finding a comfortable routine has really helped me grow in confidence. As you establish a routine that works for you, go with a friend the first time or two while you get your bearings, so when you go alone you can go in confidence. I love walking to the grocery store on Fridays, visiting a cafe after school, and taking walks around my neighborhood.
3. Explore! Exploring new places of your study abroad location has so many benefits. You get better acquainted with the area around you, it takes your mind off of your feelings, and hopefully creates a positive experience to help balance negative emotions. I love going out with my host Mom on the weekends, going to cafe’s with friends, and exploring the many malls in Amman.
4. Do something familiar. I’ve seen four movies in theaters since I’ve moved to Amman. Why? Because movies in Jordan are just like movies at home. I can count on the simple pleasures of buttered popcorn, exciting movie trailers, and comfy seats. For three hours, I’m back at the AMC Holland 8, and sometimes that’s all I need to get back to a positive state of well-being.
5. Make safety an instinct. Part of feeling isolated is feeling like you have to be ‘on guard’ all the time. As I’ve gotten acquainted with Amman and the people in it, I’ve gradually been able to make safety instinctual. For example, I’m always from Canada studying Arabic at the University of Jordan. Yes, we Canadians are quite nice and love maple syrup. No, sorry, I have a husband back home. Having these simple pleasantries in my back pocket helps me turn that bright spotlight off and remain inconspicuous, without having to go through the exhaustion of always being on guard.
I’m happy to report that while I still feel isolated sometimes, I’ve come to love my little corners in cafes and always getting to be with friends. I have fun coming up with different personas to give over eager men, and treasure my movie nights (I highly recommend seeing Dune). And on the bad days, which still happen occasionally, I make my way to the apartment a few below mine and hold their three month old baby, which always makes me feel better. I’ve found that bad days are great opportunities to search for sunlight and peace, and that my most memorable experiences here in Jordan have come from the messy pursuit of joy.