The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Ambar Khawaja.
Traveling means a different thing to each person who experiences it. When I was preparing to come to Morocco, I had no idea what it would mean to me. I listened to stories of other people’s travels overseas with wide eyes, peppering them with questions with the intent to satisfy what I believed I had not yet experienced.
I spent hours scrolling through my social media, seeing beautiful, vibrant images of adventures and locations in different countries. These images fed into the preconceived notion I had of traveling and living abroad, which I have now learned is highly misrepresentative of one’s true experience. Life here is not constantly the “picture perfect” snapshot you imagine when moving to a foreign country; Instead, it resembles life in general, with its ups and downs, but with tremendous space to grow.
There are many facets of my identity that have helped me blend into Agadir. As an 18-year-old, Muslim, Pakistani-American woman, I physically do not stand out in the crowd. Basic words, like “salam,” “shukrun,” and “inshallah” come easily to me because of my second language, Urdu. At a glance, I am just like everyone else around me, but ask me a question in Darija and you will be met with a blank stare.
The first thing I learned how to say when I arrived was “ana Pakistaniya” so that I could communicate to the confused Moroccans around me that I myself was not Moroccan. This physical similarity with those surrounding me has given me some privileges, like not being overcharged by a taxi and not being stared at like a tourist while walking down the street. Conversely, it has made my experience traveling as an American much more complex than I expected. Because of this situation, however, I have learned an absurd amount about myself and my skills, or lack thereof in some cases.
On the surface, I fit in, but the nagging knowledge that I don’t speak the language or know the culture as well lends itself to a lot of cognitive dissonance. I feel embarrassed when the person I am out with has to explain that I speak English; however, I wonder if this sense of self-consciousness is because my looks don’t match up with my language.
I ask myself “How different would I feel if I matched the stereotypical image of a white American?” and “How would the privilege of looking like what my nationality is ‘supposed’ to look like change my interactions with people?”
I have observed that it is more likely for local people to change the way they approach a conversation with this stereotypical image of an American because they feel the need to adapt to them, rather than the foreigner adapting to the culture they are in. This is the privilege of speaking English. However, I appreciate my physical appearance making it more difficult for Moroccans to pinpoint where I am from, because I am then placed into more situations where I must adapt to this new language environment. Sometimes I must resort to speaking in English, but this is because I understand the limits I have when trying to communicate in French or Darija.
The language barrier has been the single most difficult experience for me thus far. When I first arrived, I found myself speaking a mix of English, Urdu, and Spanish, since these languages lead to conversations in my world. Pointing, hand gestures, and shaking my head “no” have proved to be an effective way of communication for me when my interlocutor doesn’t understand English. While humorous on many levels, it has also provided me with the opportunity to learn non-verbal communication skills and living with a host family has given me the chance to sharpen them.
My host mom, in particular, speaks very little English, yet we have formed a beautiful bond in the short amount of time I have spent here. Helping out in the kitchen, watching the sunset together in awe and admiration, having the same faith, and sharing photos of each other’s’ lives has created a relationship between us that couldn’t have been created by words, since words sometimes get in the way of moments.
This is not to say that language is not beneficial since our relationship is finding new joys in language exchange, with me starting to learn Darija and teaching my host mom words in English. Learning the language of the place I am living in will also remove the barriers I have in trying to interact with locals and will prevent my overarching privilege of speaking English from interfering in conversations. Lucky for me though, I do not face these problems in my workplace.
I have found a lot of purpose in my work here as an intern. Being the youngest person in the office has helped me fine-tune some of my skills since I am constantly surrounded with more experienced coworkers offering me constructive criticism to help improve and add to what I already know. It’s an interesting experience to learn more about my capabilities by doing things I have not done before, like tutoring English and planning programs for high schoolers.
Being in the presence of these amazing people has helped me adjust much faster to living here than I would have if I had to figure out everything alone. Because I have people to show me their favorite places in the city and teach me how to order food or buy something at the “hanout”, the transition has been much smoother. I have been given a solid foundation on which to venture out alone on.
Traveling solo for the first time has enforced the concept that I am accountable for myself. There is no external reason that I can’t go out and try something new, face a fear, or take a risk. All of my choices are in my own hands, and that is a very liberating feeling to have because it opens up my life to a lot of personal growth. Now is the perfect time for me absorb everything around me.