The Melting Pot Outside of the US

Back in my elementary school years, I always wondered what exactly went on at school during those joyous ‘Teacher Workdays’. Did they really come into work? What work was there to do, if I’m not there? Well, I had my 1st teacher workweek and it was actually quite interesting. Today and yesterday were lectures about culture. The Arabic teachers came in and gave us an insight on their lives outside of the classroom and how school was for them growing up, so that we could better understand our students. I’ll tell you more about that later.

But what really caught my attention was today’s discussion. It was our chance to understand this crazy mix of foreign English teachers. Our university has 100ish females of every race, nationality, and religion .. from White African to Black European Muslim to Korean American Christian. We each explained our immediate to distant backgrounds, and what has formed our sub-culture. The purpose of this exercise was for us to drop our stereotypes and understand how everyone define themselves. In the end, the hope was for everyone to accept the extreme Saudi differences, just as we’ve learned to accept our peers. Although the different accents and complexions are obvious, the explanation behind it provided an interesting history/anthropology lesson. For example, one of our teachers is an American albino from Detroit. “African-American” is her sub-culture. When asked why she is very strong-voiced about it, she comes to the conclusion that “on the outside (by being albino) she is unable to show it”. I understand and love how she answered. So often you hear of people trying to prove their identity.

After a while, it’s my turn. I defined my sub-culture as “Black American”. The Europeans caught the difference in my answer almost immediately, even though I said it subconsciously. Why am I “Black American” and she “African American”?? Well… I can’t tell you which African country my ancestors were from. I’ve never been to Africa. And what does a person who moves from Nigeria to the US call themselves (just as any immigrant who adopts American culture)? African-American….

What I do know though, is that I am Black. According to the Black European leading the discussion, putting a color for race is taboo and seen negatively. But what perhaps also makes my answer different, is being from the South, where “Black” and “White” are simply common titles to distinguish a group w/o being very specific, and can be also be found on many official form you fill out for govt, jobs, surveys, etc.

Another interesting difference I found in Black Americans and Black Europeans, were how we would acknowledge each other. Maybe you have noticed how two Black Americans, who have never met before may nod/smile/greet each other.. no matter in what country they cross paths. First and foremost, running into anyone who speaks English (of any race), is comforting abroad. An American outside of the US is an easy find, but bumping into another Black American is sometimes such a rarity, that you almost feel like you ran into your actual sister. How can you not be happy to see your family? But, for Black Europeans, I was told that I may not receive that mutual greeting. Because of their diverse nationality of their near ancestors (Sudanese, Caribbean, Egyptian), meeting someone from their home country trumps seeing someone of the same color.

I’m curious in knowing how any other cultures or races interact upon meeting, as Black Americans do? How do you define yourself, or do you? The comment box is open below.

*any racial bashing will be deleted

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Run for your Life

Next week, I WILL be buying my treadmill!!! I’m so excited to get back moving, that price is no longer a factor… In this immobile country, it’s quite easy for the first 10lb weight gain to come unnoticed. So far, I’m going up a 1lb per week. There are 52 weeks in a year…O_o

So… I’ve decided that along w/ 3 months of P90X, I’ll tack on 3 miles per day. As silly as it may look, I am strongly considering going for a run outside in my abaya, before it gets too hot.. and before I lose the guts to be a total oddball. But I’m sure the Saudis think foreigners are a weird bunch, anyway. I have 2 others who are up for this challenge. The most the police can do is ask us to walk.

Hopefully, all of this will combat this Saudi diet of shawarma in white, floured pita bread, stuffed with French fries. Or the university food that can be compared to elementary cafeteria lunches, in the US.. I’ll do my once a week cheat meal, since that’s worked for me in the past. And I finished my last juice and soda, yesterday. I’m slowly getting back into the habit of cooking my own food, even though I’m having a harder time finding all of the variations of turkey meat, as I like it. But, NO Excuses.. If I can manage to stay in shape here, I can anywhere.

Correction..

To keep the validity of my posts… I must update and say that yesterday, I have found my dumbbells and yoga mat at a different mall 🙂 They also sell treadmills O_O  (hmmmm…) … and lastly, I have been given free access to one of the compounds to use their private gym 🙂 🙂 … I think I’ll make it out here!

I’ve got a feeling we’re not in the U.S. anymore.

Yesterday, I finally got a chance to go window-shopping at a huge mall, here in Saudi. I almost felt at home, seeing all the familiar name brand retailers and restaurants. Notice, that I said “almost”.. The little reminders, that I’m not in the U.S., was constant. Not bad, but just gets you thinking “where in the world, am I?”

      1. So, I step into the first shop. One that I know well; Nike! I was quite surprised to see workout-wear for women, being that this city doesn’t seem to encourage female gyms. They are here, but in much smaller numbers than the males-only gyms, of course. I read that womens gyms were in abundance back in 2009 (Black, 2009). But due to the protest of the conservative crowd, who felt that these facilities take women away from their homes/husbands/children, many were shut down.Although, there were clothes..none of the fitness stores in this mall had equipment geared towards women. Now, this mall is massive! Why did I not find even one Yoga mat, dumbbell, or a real running shoe?
      2. As I go into the next store (“Express”), I’m humming “Con los ojos cerrados”… then I suddenly stop.. look up.. and realize there is no music playing. “Am I going crazy? Music does normally play in American stores, right??” I walk over to the next store, and same thing. No music! I talk to someone the next day about this, and she tells me so matter-of-factly that music is haram (sinful) according to Islamic Shari’ah. I know it shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s SO odd going into a totally silent store, wanting to say something to your shopping buddy, but feeling that you need to whisper because your English is going to draw attention. My blond friend already stands out enough!
      3. I walk into a store with some really cute going-out wear. Where in the world, are these abaya-clad women going to wear these outfits?? Now, maybe I’m simply naïve to this other life of Arabian women.. but short skirts, tanks, tight and sheer? These are the same women who wear skirts to their ankles and loose shirts to their elbows, to class… and the abaya in public.
      4. ALL of these stores were ran by men, even MAC and Victoria Secrets.. These are the same men who are not to see a woman “uncovered”, except for his wife and family members. I must also say that Victoria Secrets had absolutely no lingerie.. Apparently men are not banned from selling female underwear .. So, where are they getting them from is my next question. The only females that I have seen working so far, in this country, were the foreigners.. and a few Saudis in salons/spas. But according to the Buchanan’s article, women will soon be allowed to work in this industry (Buchanan, 2012).
      5. In these retail stores, I almost never saw a dressing room.. This is a shop-happy culture. With so much money and free time, what else are the women to do? A dressing room would get a lot of use in this country. But, instead there’s a pretty relaxed return policy.

Little differences, but enough of them to make an interesting experience..

Black, I. (2009). Saudi Women Face Gyms Ban. The Gaurdian.Retrieved on March 13th, 2012 from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/26/saudi-women-sports-ban>

Buchanan, E. (2012). Women Only to Work in Saudi Arabia Lingerie Shops. BBC News. Retrieved on March 13, 2012 from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16412202 >

The Abaya

The first question I’m asked by family and friends after they found out where I was going.. “Do you have to cover up??”… Yes, I do have to, wherever a man is present. In the KSA, women can only be uncovered around other women, her husband, and their family. So basically, all of these clothes I brought for whatever occasion will never be seen accept at work (my all-women’s university) and when I am in foreign-friendly areas (desert hikes and compounds).

The abaya is a long cloak, that is traditionally all-black. But you will often find today’s abayas with different material, designs, colors and sparkles on the sleeves and the base. As a non-muslim foreigner, this robe is the only strict requirement to wear in public. The niqab, is a piece that covers the face, besides the eyes. I am not required to wear this. However, it seems to be quite helpful during this sandstorm season. Covering your hair with a scarf or hijab, is less enforced for non-muslims, but I’m sure you’re more respected if you don’t go against the grain. Everyone carries a scarf just in case they are approached by the muttawa, the religious police.

There’s always going to be a fuss about it. But as extreme and restrictive the abaya may seem to some, it’s quite easy to get used to. Out of all of the factors that contribute to daily stress, this attire is the least of my worries. Yet, is the main thing people want to know about. The language and the segregation, is the big adjustment! My roommate actually remains covered behind the locked doors of our apartment, which probably makes me look like a heathen in my loungewear. I’ve seen some pretty cute abayas.. and I already own 4 (3 I’m in the process of getting altered) and a 5th one being designed. I’m thinking about putting a modern/Latin spin to it 🙂 ..

In the compound, I was actually ordered to remove my abaya.. In public.. It almost felt like they asked me to remove my shirt. Last week, I went out into the desert “uncovered” and even though it felt GREAT for the sun to hit my skin..Strangly, for a second, I felt naked in front of all of the western men. Of course I got over that though, and enjoyed the rare moment. But this lets me know that perhaps the Saudi women, who have been covered all of their lives vs. my two weeks, welcome this conservative attire.. instead of seeing it as a command. Through their perspective, being uncovered in public is kind of like that question, “have you ever dreamed that you were naked on stage?”

Thinking on my Feet!

I have been a substitute teacher for the past 3 days, I have found these Saudi ladies to be incredibly smart with grammar rules. They point out prepositions, pronouns, and past participles with ease. Honestly, I have to think twice about these rules… But their main issue seems to be with creative thinking, like making their own sentences/stories. I received an interesting explanation of this, from a senior teacher:

These girls spend all of their years in religious schools, where they are asked to memorize rules and the Koran. Ask of any passage, and they are likely to quote it word for word. Therefore, excelling has always been tied to rules of some sort of book. So when it’s time for them to voice their own opinion… sadly, they don’t seem to have one. This is my first impression, though. And being in a prep university, especially if they want to survive universities abroad, having an opinion is necessary.This is what I would love to teach them! However, this does not seem like the best country for free-thinkers. My teacher orientation was compiled of “don’t do”s.. and in short, I can’t mention anything connected to politics (women’s ban on driving, gender segregation), religion (which involves every aspect of their life), or even the word “pork”. So when I give examples to explain a definition, or when I ask or answer questions… it’s smart to think like a Saudi Muslim, so not to offend or revolutionize anyone.. especially since we don’t know when/if we’re teaching one of the Saudi princesses.

I believe I actually taught one today.. During the last 10 minutes of class, we’ve been having open discussion. After they asked about my small family (1 brother and 1 sister).. one girl who had a certain air about her, says that she has 16 brothers and sisters (her father has 2 wives). Besides ‘The Duggars’, Saudis often have large family sizes. I was also asked whether or not I had boyfriend. Arab muslim answer, “No”.. Then, came the trick question. “Teacher, do you have children?” .. Me: “How can I have children, if I’m not married???”.. “Oh, yes, yes.. right!” ..

Gotta keep thinking on my feet!