The second I stepped off the train in Rabat, I knew what I wanted: a McDonald's cheeseburger. I know, I know. I'm in Morocco! Why would I go to an American fast food chain for food? Why wouldn't I want an authentic Moroccan experience? But you know what? There were no Americans in that McDonald's. I have seen numerous American tourists at the marché central, the souqs, the Andalusian gardens, the vista by the Rabat beach, and any number of other "authentic" Moroccan attractions. So what if going to McDonald's is a more "authentic" experience compared to what an average Moroccan does on a day-to-day basis?
Just kidding. I know it's ridiculous to arrive in a foreign country and immediately crave something with a whiff of home. And I'm slightly ashamed that the place in which I found that comfort and familiarity is the American fast food chain restaurant that happens to be headquartered in the suburb next to the one I grew up in.
The whole situation begs the question: Why did I go abroad? Did I go abroad to see the tourist sites of Morocco? Or did I go abroad to live like a Moroccan? The answer is probably somewhere in between. Any study abroad student will tell you that there is at least a certain degree of vacationing and tourism that happens when you're abroad. But they will also tell you that everything becomes banal eventually, that nothing stays a vacation forever. There's a bizarre interplay between the mundane moments when you're eating McDonald's in Rabat and the sexy flashes when you're expanding your world view and becoming a global citizen and getting outside your comfort zone and learning that deep down everyone is the same blah blah blah...
I'll tell you why I came here: I came here as a Middle Eastern studies major at an Ivy League school. I came here religiously believing in the unyielding rhetoric that we can always find common ground, no matter how different we are. I came here believing that I would be the one to find that common ground, that I would be able to sacrifice the comfort of familiarity to find something in common among the unfamiliar. I came here with the pompous arrogance that I would easily make myself comfortable in a culture many Americans find uncomfortable.
When I arrived in Rabat, I had been traveling on my own for three weeks — one week in Spain, two weeks in Tunisia. I arrived one week prior to the beginning of my program. I hadn't seen another American — or even much by way of English signage — in three weeks. Everything was uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I was so tired. I was weak. All of a sudden, I could hear tourists speaking in English, and I saw an advertisement donning the golden arches "in just 150 meters" as soon as I exited the train station. I ordered a double cheeseburger and a large fry from a woman who looked like she absolutely hated her job and ate quietly with a huge smile on my face among the free WiFi. It was honestly the highlight of my week.
Now that the program has begun, I’ve appreciated the fact that I can more or less lean back and follow someone else. I don’t have to constantly be on guard and wondering where I’ll eat my next meal. I can speak English whenever I want. But oddly, the first night the program started, some of the other kids’ culture shock and homesickness rubbed off on me. It reminded me how different life is here, and it made me miss home.
My experience in the last three weeks has taught me a lot. It's taught me that people will immediately identify me as a tourist because of my blonde hair. It's taught me that they will try to charge me more because of it. It's taught me that you should never make eye contact with anyone on the street for more than a millisecond. It's taught me how terrifying it is and how much strength it takes to transplant yourself into a completely new place. It's taught me how different people can be, even when we live in the same world, even when we put our socks on one at a time in the morning. It's taught me to hope that one day I'll start to feel comfortable and at home when I hear French and Arabic. It's taught me that I might find Newark airport scary and foreign when I return. It’s taught me to have a lot of respect for the people who work up the courage to do this permanently.
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<p>Hi there, I’m Emma, and I’m from Hinsdale, IL. I’m a senior at Brown University studying computer science and Middle Eastern studies. No, you are not the first person to tell me I should work for the CIA. I like stories, and I like data. I like combining them even more. Follow my blog for an in-depth look at Moroccan culture!</p>