Trisha Fallon finished her one-year SALT (Serving and Learning Together) term with MCC in July. Fallon, whose home congregation is College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, served as a teacher’s assistant at Arab Episcopal School in Irbid, Jordan.
When preparing to work cross-culturally, one begins to think about the challenges and differences that will await them. There are the obvious differences: languages, food, clothes and weather, all of which you can easily read about at the library. Then there are systems and institutions that express the country’s beliefs, values and customs, which are harder to understand unless they are experienced. Deciding to live cross-culturally, whether in your own backyard or a plane ride away, entails learning about how others understand and give meaning to their lives.
Life in Irbid, Jordan, is extremely diff erent than life in Wheaton, Illinois (the town in which I grew up); at least on the surface. Religion, gender roles, and how women dress are customs that, at first glance, portray these two communities as complete opposites. When I first arrived in Irbid, I naturally experienced my fair share of culture shock.
As someone who has a right/wrong paradigm engrained in how I understand the world, I found the adjustment to living in a shame/honor society difficult. In a right/wrong culture, the individual’s actions are motivated by what is believed by the individual as right or wrong. Whereas, generally speaking, in a shame/honor society, an individual’s actions are motivated more by what the society sees as right or wrong. In a shame/honor society, one’s name and reputation is what matters most. Appearance and assumption oft en take precedent over reality. This emphasis on “saving face” most dramatically affects those on the margins of society: the poor, the disabled.
For my SALT assignment, I had the privilege of working at Arab Episcopal School (AES), where blind and visually impaired children are able to receive specialized education. Resources for students with special needs pose a significant challenge in any country. In communities that operate on a shame/honor paradigm, the challenges for a visually impaired child are heightened by the idea that they must be hidden from the world by their families. Through the work of AES, this cultural belief is beginning to wobble a bit. Not only has AES assisted visually impaired students, they have created a space where families and communities are able to dialogue about meeting the needs of all members of their community. All classes are integrated (visually impaired students and sighted students together), making AES a forerunner in Jordan, and the entire Middle East region. They exemplify the power that education, paired with equality, understanding and love, can have on a society.
Through participating in the life of AES this past year, I was able to get to know and work closely with some of the blind and low vision students. Through classroom work and playground activities, I saw first hand the growth and joy a child has upon realizing that they are not worthless, that they are capable of achieving great things. One of the greatest aspects of the school is the employment of four blind teachers, giving our visually impaired students wonderful role models who exemplify the opportunities that are available when they work hard and are surrounded by a community that supports and accepts them.
As my year of living in Jordan progressed, I began to see that these two communities, Wheaton and Irbid, are not that different after all. I began to see my Jordanian neighbor as a friend, and what was foreign and diffi cult became familiar. In reality the shame/honor paradigm, which seems to be the undercurrent of life here in Jordan, also plays a role in my own culture. American society is driven by image, and appearance matters. What you wear, what type of car you drive and what career you choose all aff ect how others view you. Through discovering these similarities I began to see that this idea runs even deeper into our human nature. We are created to be relational beings. Due to our sinful nature, living in community often stirs up emotions of jealousy and desires to be admired. We desire to appear powerful, successful and beautiful.
Through working with students and staff at AES, I have seen the beauty and joy that can develop in someone’s life when they feel loved, accepted and encouraged for who they are, beyond their physical appearance or abilities. No matter where we come from, what cultural tendencies are embedded in us, we have the ability through Christ’s example to live in freedom. Freedom from feeling shame or guilt. Freedom from feeling the need to find our identity and worth in other’s opinions. Freedom to love others, no matter their language or nationality or religion.
Working with MCC this year has given me the chance to learn about life in Jordan. I’ve experienced it with all my senses: seeing women in hijab hassling through the markets, hearing the call to prayer five times a day, smelling the spices rising from my host mother’s stove, tasting the meat which was cooked underground at a Bedouin camp, and holding my host nieces’ hand. These experiences, whether diffi cult or joyful, have given me a glimpse of how others understand the world. They have enabled me to know the joy that comes through listening, learning, accepting and loving those in my surrounding community.
- Trisha Fallon
For more information about SALT: salt.mcc.org