Sorokanich: Anticipation of abroad trip leads to revelations about stereotypes

When I tell people I’m studying abroad in Jordan, I tend to get the same hesitant response: “Is that safe? How do your parents feel about that? Are you scared?”

I can’t say I’m ever surprised by these questions. As a Middle Eastern Studies major, reassurance of my safety seems almost as much of a requirement as knowing Arabic. But for those of you who aren’t personal acquaintances and may be wondering the same thing, I’d like to give you a few thoughts to consider before deeming me a risk-taker for my travels.

We have a tendency to assume Western nations are much safer than others. Do you worry for the safety of your friends in London or France? I’d be willing to bet not, and it’s likely because those places are more familiar to us.

We’ve become comfortable with them through the media, entertainment and politics. We know who Kate Middleton is, and we are familiar with European celebrities like Daniel Craig, Penelope Cruz and Audrey Hepburn, to name a few. They don’t seem any different from you and me.

But what do you know about the Middle East? Do you know who the King of Jordan is? Or the name of the most famous Arab singer?

Imagine what America would look like to an outsider if they didn’t hear about any of the culture or the triumphs. What would we look like if the only stories they saw were of the violent things that go on? There are high rates of violent crimes, including homicide and rape. There have been mass shootings, terrorist attacks and innocent lives taken.

Yet despite knowing about these disasters, we understand that extremists committed them. They are by no means indicative of our culture as a whole.

You must understand, then, that the same applies to the Middle East, where the majority of people are no more extreme than you or me. Statistic for statistic, Jordan is just as safe as the United States. This holds true in statistics of violent crime, theft and terrorism alike. The government is well-established, the law enforcement is strong and the country maintains good relations with its neighboring nations. Jordan is very stable.

But even when I tell people how safe Jordan is and rattle off statistics, they still wonder at my willingness to jump into it.

“You won’t have to wear a headscarf, will you?” I’ve been asked in horrified voices. And when I reply “no,” I usually get an “Oh, good” with audible relief.

This, I think, exemplifies people’s unease pretty well. It’s not so much about the fear of death or injury, but about the unknown culture. I’ve had friends tell me they could never go to Jordan because they’d “never be able to dress that conservatively,” or “never be able to go somewhere where they can’t even read the signs.” But are we really so attached to our own culture that we’re unwilling to bend in order to experience others?

If you ask me, fear of letting go of your own culture is not enough reason to miss out on the world. You can choose to sit at home because you’re more comfortable in your short shorts, or you can say “to hell with it,” throw on your maxi skirt and optional head scarf, and live scenarios most people only see in magazines.

Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone to get a greater view. Sometimes you have to do things that scare you in order to get to places that thrill you. And maybe, just sometimes, you have to let go of an American piece of you to create an international version of yourself.

I’m not saying it’s not intimidating at times. I’m just not willing to miss out on this adventure.


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