When I first moved to Amman, Jordan as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, I sought experiences that would take me away from the comfort of my expat community. Having participated in athletics my entire life, I chose to pick up taekwondo at a dojang near the University of Jordan, where I taught. Located in the basement of a popular hookah café, I remember feeling nervous that I was about to descend into a room full of only men. To my pleasant surprise, the hole-in-the-wall taekwondo club that I had chosen happened to also host a number of top female athletes.
During my day-to-day activities in Amman, I was confronted by numerous obstacles. Communicating in Arabic was difficult, navigating public transportation was tricky, and teaching a classroom of 60 students was a new challenge. In the evenings, I was a 30-year-old taekwondo beginner who spoke awkward textbook Arabic going up against black-belt, adolescent Olympic hopefuls who spoke Arabic a mile a minute.
I hated that I didn’t fit in, but the kids and trainers welcomed me into their club with extremely warm hearts. As a teacher, I felt right at home during our impromptu exchanges of English and Arabic lessons in the changing room before practice. Being the first foreigner to train at that club, I was asked many questions that I took delight in answering. One 12-year-old named Luma commented that she never saw me wearing short skirts or shorts. I told her that even in America I never wore short clothing. She was pleased to hear this as she had plans to study in the United States, and I believe she took comfort in knowing she would be able to dress modestly and still fit in.
My Jordanian training partners weren’t the only ones who expressed cultural curiosity. I noticed that though many girls participated in taekwondo, they seemed to stop after high school, my guess being that taekwondo is considered juvenile. I asked 16- year-old Reem if she planned on continuing after high school to which she answered with an emphatic “yes.” Taekwondo, she explained, is her passion and she wants to train as hard as she can so that she can be the best. Her self-confidence and dedication have paid off because she recently qualified for the Jordanian national team.
The photo just above was taken after sharing a meal to break the fast during Ramadan (Iftar). I was challenged by my club to fast before Iftar that day, and by doing so I gained a better understanding of the sacrifice Muslims make during their holy month. The heightened energy of the children and the festive mood around the city before family and friends came together for dinner each night reminded me of the excitement of Thanksgiving.