"What are your summer plans?"
It's the question du jour, and everyone keeps asking it. I'm sure they're expecting me to tell them what local place I'm working at, or that I'm simply hanging out. Having just been certified as a lifeguard, some just ask what pool I'm guarding at. I've caddied in years past, and many ask if I'm doing that another summer. And every time, I tell them simply that I'm actually "going to be living in Jordan this summer."
After this point, the conversation is the same almost every time, regardless of who it is.
Person: "Where's that?"
Me: "In the Middle East, in between Israel and Egypt and Syria."
Without fail, the other person's eyebrows raise at that point.
Person: "Is that safe?"
Me: "Yeah, it's fine."
Person: "Is your family going?"
Person: "Where are you staying then?"
Me: "I'm living with a host family for part of the time, and then the other part I have an apartment."
Person: "Oh." (short pause) "Why do you want to go there?"
Me: "I'm studying Arabic."
Person: "Can't you do that here?"
Me: "It's kind of hard to learn a language all by myself when nobody speaks it here."
Person: "Oh. Isn't it kind of expensive though?"
Me: "I have a full scholarship."
Person: "Huh. I still don't get why you want to go to the Middle East though... "
Excuse me when I go bang my head on a desk somewhere.
It's as if people hear the words "Middle East" or "Arabic" and immediately some sort of sensor goes off in their brains that tells them to steer clear. After that point in the conversation, I've noticed some patterns about what people think about the Middle East, and I literally want to scream every time I hear someone tell me one of them. Obviously there are exceptions, but for the most part, this is it.
High schoolers don't really know anything about the region, and so the typical idea of the Middle East for them is something about the desert or camels. When I've mentioned it to some of the younger adults, in their thirties and forties, the response is somewhat more intelligent, and they are able to name a few countries in the Middle East, and ask what town I'm going to. Sometimes, miracle of miracles, they already know what language is spoken there.
But that's pretty much the top of the bell curve. Whenever I mention it to someone over the age of forty-five, their first words are warning me about how everyone in the Middle East is a terrorist and they hate women and there's no reason for me to go there. (Biggest pet peeve? People who literally think that terrorist is a synonym for Muslim, and vice versa. Second biggest pet peeve? People who know the difference, but use them interchangeably).
And so I go. Maybe once I return in one piece, people will realize that the entire Middle East is not one big war zone. Hopefully, people will get that it's just another part of the world. I'm so excited to go.