The Challenges of ESL in a Foreign Country

Teaching ESL, or English as a Second Language, is a great starter career for those holding a Bachelors degree… in anything! This is why you’ll often come across everyone from Art to Science majors travelling to the far ends of the Earth, with little to no experience. I started out as a Forensics and French major, teaching in Korea. No relation whatsoever!  But these years of travelling and soul searching, not only makes you stand out a little on paper, but also narrows down the careers that you don’t want to do, what luxuries you prefer not to give up, and what stresses you can and cannot handle long-term.

Depending on the country, ESL can get you a pretty lucrative salary or make you go broke. It can open your eyes to vibrant cultures, or make you hide for cover. The biggest impact of teaching English overseas, for me at least, is its ability to make you incredibly descriptive and creative with words… but at the same time makes you second think everything.  So, below, I listed my rules to getting through your teaching year without losing yourself.

 

1)   “Prepare” to get caught off guard

At one point of your year, you will have a student who questions everything! They will hit you with a grammar question that you won’t know the answer to. I get flustered easily with these. So what I do is applaud her for such a “great” question, and “since it’s more complex, and we’re low on time, I’ll answer that tomorrow.”  So to at least get me 24 hours to find a grammar wiz who knows. And as ambiguous as English is, sometimes there is no answer. Spelling “their”, “beautiful” and “guard” are the three words that I sometimes have to give second thought. I’ve seen the students spell these wrong so many times, that it starts to look right. So last month’s lesson was teaching them to use a paper dictionary, instead of asking me.

 

2)   Try not to question yourself too much

Because of these grammar questions, you may find yourself questioning everything you say. “Do I run quick? Or quickly?.. If I run quickly, then why can’t I run fastly, instead of fast?”. You can imagine how these thoughts can interrupt the ease of your conversations as well. When on Skype with family at friends at home, they often catch my grammar mistakes. The longer that I teach English at an elementary level, the more frequent I make these slip-ups.

 

3)   Don’t get caught up in the accent arguments

Living and working with every type of English accent on the planet, there are often debates on correct usage of words. I am adamant on retraining my British-taught students to pronounce “Z” like “zee” instead of “zed”. Amongst us, the teachers go back and forth mocking the Queens English versus American accent. Aubergine vs. Eggplant. “At the weekend” vs. “On the weekend”. I also think I should be able to hear the difference between “walk” and “work”.  From imitations, apparently all Americans sound like a “valley girl” or a “Redneck”. I’ve learned to laugh at these differences and stereotypes. Ultimately, we end up taking some of these, once awkward, phrases home with us.

 

4)   If all else fails, play Charades, Pictionary or Taboo.

I am often in situations where a picture or actions are the only way that I can get my point across.  When explaining the different consistencies of water to my students, I pointed to someone’s bottle of water, drew a snowman, and then pretended to slip on patch of ice.  A few of us teachers were curious about the location of the infamous “Chop Chop Square”, where executions take place. No amount of English could convey what we wanted to a nearby shopkeeper. But with the simple gesture of hand (signifying a sword) passing throat, we were pointed in the right direction.

 

5)   Don’t talk like your students

My students speak in very broken sentences. Instead of “Teacher, did you mark me late?”, they normally say, “Teacher, late?”. The easy way to get everyone’s understanding is to say, “Class, 7:30. 7:40, late.” However, this easy way out does not teach them proper sentence structure, and probably contributes to #2’s blunders. Just as, only doing baby talk to your toddler, probably wouldn’t help with their speech growth either.

 

Being an ESL instructor will give you great appreciation for the patience it takes to teach it. Many valuable experiences have come from talking to a local with little English. However, having a girls’ night of normal conversation has helped to keep my sanity. Another big help, is to keep reading. And write! It’ll reassure you that you have some intelligence left.

 

 

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Who should choose your “freedom”? Saudi Arabia vs. Democracy

Should Democracy Be Forced on Saudi Arabia?

            Someone, outside of Saudi, asked me this question yesterday. If I were just arriving in this country, I would think this a common sense answer! I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a democracy, right?? Who wouldn’t want the freedoms of religion, speech, church and state, and the right to bear arms? Americans ability to basically do as we please seems to make the general public happy. And what works for us should work for everyone else…

In comes Saudi Arabia.  This country, I must say, is unlike any other. Saudi is an absolute monarchy that has been heavily portrayed in media to be a trap, a desolate place for its women, and lacking of freedoms that “everyone” enjoys. Women can’t drive, its laws restrict most women from working (although this is changing), drugs and alcohol are prohibited in the country, it is gender-segregated, it is illegal to protest or say anything negative about the person in power, and women must cover in abayas.

The only thing that many people outside of Saudi don’t get the chance to see is that many Saudis may find the freedoms of democracy as detrimental. They love their country, how its run, and don’t want all of the changes. Democracy and Saudi don’t quite go together. And weirdly, I kinda agree.

You can’t separate church and state here. Saudi is 99.9% Muslim. Religion runs every part of everyone’s day, even if you’re non-Muslim. It is ruled by Sharia law (Islamic law) that has interpretations based on Saudi’s culture. Religious police are given the duty to enforce a dress-code standard. And shops shut 5 times a day, for 30 min-1 hr each, for prayer that blasts on loudspeakers across the country.  As a Christian, I don’t get a free pass to forgo all of these rules. To me, yes, it can be a headache. Especially when I want to go straight from work to buy bread at 3pm, but I must wait outside the shop till 4pm which postpones my nap, my workout, and dinner… However, for the other 99%, this is a constant reminder to keep God first, no matter what you have on your schedule. And I’m sure that whatever religion you (my readers) follow, you can appreciate that.

Freedom of religion for Saudi would not only start some uproar within the country, but possibly from Muslims outside. Saudi is like the ‘Holy Land’ for Muslims around the world. Islam hasn’t gotten the best rap after extremist acts from Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. And consequently, even Muslims who believe in peace (the majority) have received a lot of hatred and assaults. Like the Saudi women, many foreign Muslims don’t see the cover-up as an obligation, but a preference. Saudi is an escape for many of these individuals; a place where they can wear their hijab (scarf) and/or niqab (face covering) without harassment. And just as Christians may cherish the journey to Jerusalem and would like for it to stay a Christian site, every Muslim hopes to keep Mecca and Medina of Saudi Arabia.

Driving only seems like a freedom/luxury to western minds, depending on whom you ask. I personally enjoy wandering aimlessly around town, with the windows down, blasting whatever I want. However, there are those who see driving as a chore. It’s thought to be a luxury if you can afford your own personal driver, being able to sit in the back and take a nap until you reach your destination. That’s how many Saudi women see it. They don’t have to worry about pumping gas, following directions, insurance, tune-ups. Plus, in this country of only male drivers, you can imagine the impatience and swerving of the speed-demons behind the wheel. I wouldn’t want to drive in this country either!

Same thing with working.. How many women in the U.S. wouldn’t mind being able to have a life as a housewife, especially if you are given a nanny and a maid? Your time is basically freed up of all responsibility. Once again, I’d probably more enjoy a life working a purposeful job. But in the near future, these Saudi women will be able to work because they want to, not because they have to.

When you first step off the plane into Saudi, there’s a sign that says, “Drug trafficking equals death”.  Alcohol is not publicly sold in the country either. Now, there are many days when this country does me in, and I feel like need a drink. But, I will applaud the government for being able to keep a handle on its country by applying these rules. Let’s be honest, drugs and alcohol is the start of many confrontations, accidents, and abuses. To attempt to eliminate the access of these into a country was a smart move. Saudi Arabia is basically run by expats, people who aren’t used to these restrictions. So you may not want alcohol involved, or they’d quickly start voicing their democratic opinions (and get kicked out of the country or jailed).

Lastly, there’s the gender segregation. If I was single, this one would be quite hard for me; but only because in the West, we are in constant interaction with men. Men give a nice balance in point of views. I could always go to my female friends if I want a little gossip and emotion; the men if I need a more logical opinion, less feelings involved. Call that statement slightly sexist if you want. But, more often than not, that’s how it goes.. If I have something heavy to lift, I don’t need to lift a finger. It’s pleasant to have something sexy to look at, and not be ashamed to actually look. Plus, they smell nice… For single expat women, this seems to be one of their biggest complaints. However, for a Saudi woman who has spent her whole life segregated, she can’t really miss something she’s never had. I can imagine that these male-female interactions, for them, would be quite awkward and intimidating. I don’t know the statistics, but in comparison to blended-gender societies, I would believe that Saudi’s percentages of rapes (date and stranger) are significantly less.

Now although I studied Diplomacy, I’m not a huge political person. I wrote all this to say that democracy is just not for everyone. Perhaps one day, Saudi would pick certain features to adopt, but to make any democracy work; you would need the general public’s consensus. Without their participation, you are bound to have a few riots on your hands. Despite how it looks from the outside, I believe the majority of Saudis citizens are quite proud of their country and would be fine without change.

Footprints in the Sand

So apparently I will have a chance to mark off a huge goal on my Bucket List: Run an international marathon! Of all places, Saudi was the last place I thought to get this done. By living outside of a compound, it’s an extreme rarity to see a woman 1) running, 2) in an abaya, and 3) in the heat. My whole blog was meant to sum up my struggles adjusting to these restrictions.

In the States, I ran daily with an outstanding group of ladies from “Black Girls Run”, a nationwide movement of long distance runners that has added quite a bit of color to a sport that was predominantly white. When I first joined, 2 years ago, I could barely run 3 minutes without getting totally winded. In elementary, I absolutely dreaded that timed, 1 mile test we were required to do in P.E., and almost always came in last. However, today, it’s an addiction to beat my PR, run extreme distances, and rack up on medals! With one marathon under my belt, I hope to one day qualify for Boston, complete an ultra, and team up in a Ragnar Relay.

 

Before arriving in Saudi I asked my recruiter about the ease of running in this country. “Oh… it’s no problem! Many people run. They have plenty of parks. It’s just like any other modern city!” .. So I packed my running shoes, hydration belt, energy chews, and every runner’s favorite: Body Glide.

For the 1st few weeks, I just observed my surroundings. Not only did women not run, but I barely saw them rush for anything! Nothing  (literally) moved fast in this country, except for impatient drivers. No one even walked around outside for fresh air. People caught cabs to cross the street. There were gyms every two blocks, but none that catered to women. I later found out that the few womens’ “gyms” (more like spas), cost $150-200 per month. Very cruel joke this recruiter played on me..

 

So on Month 2, I made my first big purchase, a commercial treadmill. Although, I was happy to have some sort of real movement, it did kill the excitement and stamina I had for running. So much to the extent that, when I vacationed in the US this summer, I went from being a marathoner to barely making it 10 minutes. It’s as depressing as having an injury that hinders you from doing the sport you love.

Therefore, my goal for the next 5 months is to get back into the shape that I was pre-Saudi. This past Saturday started my marathon training…mostly by treadmill! I know you’re wondering “How in the world will you practice 20 milers on the ‘dread’mill?”. Well, I may have found one outlet. This past weekend, I …ran… outside! Although pricey in terms of transport, and quite inconvenient, the Diplomatic Quarters is heaven-sent. The DQ is a city of embassies, international schools, parks, and are ‘free-zones’ where most of the cultural Saudi laws do not apply. Therefore, I wasted little time shedding my abaya and hijab; finally being able to be out in my run-gear!

 

I really didn’t have a plan, not even a place to put my stuff. But after scoping out the area and making sure I wasn’t in a restricted zone, I walked a few dead end paths through boulders and sand, until I found a distinct path. For once in my lifetime of running, I could care less about my run/walk ratio, mileage, or pace. It was so unearthly silent out that I didn’t even want to ruin it with music. Perhaps the silence would have alarmed some, but it was such a peaceful escape that it almost felt Godly. The only sounds I welcomed were the rare songs of birds and the occasional “Hello” of another runner escaping his treadmill. Two hours later, I climbed up as high as I could on a boulder, while eating my energy chews and watching the sunset. I got to use my hydration belt and my Body Glide. Not because any of this stuff was needed, but because it’s as good a time as any. Right in the middle of a dry rocky ravine, was a random cluster palm dates. The contrast was oddly beautiful and kept me for another 30 minutes. As my ride called out from a distance and echoed my name, I made my final 10-minute jog to the car. This time it was effortless ..

Top Ten Books that make you go “Hmmm..”

Being an avid reader, I always make time to find a good book. This is especially the case here in Saudi, where a lot of my time is idle. Here’s my top ten book reviews, in no particular order.

"The Kite Runner"

* “The Kite Runner” By: Khaled Hosseini

This is one of my all-time faves! Don’t let the title bore you. For that reason, I had this book on my shelf for years without opening it. All I knew of Afghanistan was war, terrorism, and poverty. So to see the start of this book portray Kabul as a beautiful ancient city, with wealthy sectors, and children who enjoy familiar activities, was an unexpected touch. This story is about a motherless young boy, named Amir, who struggles with his high social status and desire for his father’s affection and approval. He grows up with Hassan, his incredibly loyal servant boy. Just as most kids who are quick to make friends, they form a close relationship. So close, that Hassan’s 1st word was his boy-master’s name. However, this unique bond is challenged due to their tribal differences, jealousy, and a conspired separation. This book takes you through the family’s sudden decent during the war, Amir’s betrayal to his best friend, and their experiences escaping Kabul. This book gives a good mix of personal and political events, that makes it a page-turner with underlying Afghan history.

* “A Thousand Splendid Suns” By: Khaled Hosseini

After reading “The Kite Runner”, Hosseini was the author at the top of my radar. His 2nd book, “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, is a story of 3 generations of Afghan women, during the reign of the Taliban. One who is forced into a young marriage after the death of her mother. One who is orphaned due to war. And one who lives an isolated life because of an unsupported pregnancy. It’s easy to think that this would be a story of weak, quieted women, behind veils. However, these three have shown me that women, in general, no matter where in the world we are… we are fighters for love, freedom, and power. Their lives become intertwined for an unforgettable ending.

* “Left To Tell” By: Immaculee Ilibigiza

Immaculee was a student in Rwanda, who grew up in a highly respected family. The scenery of Mugabe and Lake Kivu is so vividly described that you imagine a vacation getaway, instead of the massacre that had transformed the country. Into her teenage years, Immaculee was quite naïve of the prejudices existing between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda. This alluring country was suddenly turned upside down by the Rwandan genocides, that led to over a million Tutsi deaths. Being an educated woman from a prominent Tutsi family, Immaculee was at the top of the “Wanted” list. After being split up from her family, a Hutu preacher took the risk of hiding her and 7 other women in a 4×3 bathroom, for 91 days. Every 12 hours they took turns sitting down in the cramped space. With only a toilet and a shower stall, flushing or running water was a risk of being caught, as they could hear the killers outside the window hunting for them. She struggled with hatred for the Hutu killers, until she found her only relief, through prayer. During these 3 months, is when Immaculee finds God; not by pleading for her life, but instead by learning to forgive her enemies. She was left to tell her story of survival.

* “Eat, Pray, Love”, By: Elizabeth Gilbert

Out of all of the books that I have read, I cannot find a more likeable character than “Liz”. She’s a recent divorcee, who realizes that she doesn’t want to waste away anymore time in depression and dwelling on the past. She unearths her old fun and carefree personality, frank humor, and wild curiosity as she decides to randomly hop a flight and find herself. Like most daydreamers, Liz takes in every event with all senses, and the dialogue of the story reflects a lot of her quirky thoughts. First she travels to Italy (to enjoy pleasure). Here she learns what it’s like to purposely lose track of time, enjoy food, and let loose. Then she goes to live in a monastery in India (to study the art of devotion). She learns to simply meditate until she finds healing from previous relationships. And lastly, in Indonesia, she builds unexpected relationships, where she learns to love again. This book is more for the open-minded, wannabe travelers, with big imaginations. The movie sucks in comparison, so read 1st. The quotes in this book are outstanding. You will highlight every page!

Two favorite quotes (so hard to narrow it down!)

People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.”

You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.”
Elizabeth Gilbert,
Eat, Pray, Love

4 Hour Workweek”, By: Tim Ferriss

24 hours in a day, just doesn’t feel like enough time to work 2 jobs, cook, clean, plus squeeze in a workout. Lately it seems like everyone’s been working themselves to complete exhaustion, but not really having much to show for it. That is why I picked up this book! This book teaches you how to be smart with you time, work less, while making more money. It gives tips on how to convince your boss to let you work from home, how to put timed blocks on your computer so you don’t waste hours on social networks and email, how to give instructions to avoid back-and-forth questioning from employees, and also tells you how to afford “mini-retirements” throughout your career. It not only deals with work advice, but also how to get discounted airfare and free international housing. It advises on how to outsource even the simplest tasks, such as making and canceling appointments, so to free up time for larger tasks. And also how to afford random vacations and still make money while away. In summary, this book is definitely not a waste of time!

*“First They Killed My Father”, By: Loung Ung

Loung is a 5 year old girl, who lived in a middle class family, in Cambodia. Being of this status brought pride to the family, until the takeover of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s ruling party. The Khmers were of lower class, and sought to exterminate all Cambodians who were intellectuals. Luong tells of her and her family’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge genocides that killed over 1 million people through execution. The family spent days fleeing the city by foot, and faced months of starvation. After eventually being split up to increase their chances of survival, young Luong was made into child soldiers so to have a “better” life. This one will put a lump in your throat, to think of a child who has seen and gone through so much!

*“How to Win Friends and Influence People”, By: Dale Carnegie

This New York Times bestseller is helpful for everyone; whether you are shy, a sales person, or someone who often gives presentations. It teaches you how to receive positive responses when you talk to others. You will learn what exactly people want to hear and why we are wired that way. I first picked up this book thinking that it would give a lot of common sense tips. There are simple principles, such as, “Principle No 1: Don’t Criticize, Condemn or Complain”, “Principle No 2: Fulfill Others’ Desires to Feel Important”, and “Principle No 3: You Cannot Influence People by Telling Them What You Want”. However, these are things that I almost constantly need to be reminded of. So this book isn’t one of those ‘one-time’ reads, which makes me feel like I really got my money’s worth.

Abraham’s Well”, By: Sharon Ewell Foster

I first picked up this book years after my grandfather once told me that I had a great aunt that walked the “Trail of Tears”. At the time, he never went into detail, and I never asked for more. So when I read a synopsis on this book, about the Black Cherokees of North Carolina, I had to buy it! The main character, Armentia, is a young girl born on the edge of slavery while trying to still identify with her Cherokee side. This book has blunt details of the 1,000 mile forced movement of Cherokees from N.C. to Oklahoma and the difference of treatment between full-blood and half-blood Cherokees.. details that you’ll rarely find in textbooks. There are little sections of the story that drag, but be reassured that it will pick up again!

48 Laws of Power”, By: Robert Greene

I’m actually not anywhere near finished with this book. I started and left it in the States, due to its large size. But found a pocket-size copy here, last week. But the fact that it’s made it on my list this early on, should tell you that it’s an interesting read. This book may be a little controversial to some, only because it teaches you how to get ahead of the game, even if you have to step on someone else to get there. By the way, this book is written in the point of view of rulers and great leaders of the sciences. It quotes a lot from Machiavelli, who wrote the famous political piece “The Prince”, which advises on how to takeover kingdoms. So, I’d only advise people who already have high ethical standards to read this one. My reason for reading it: it gives an interesting touch on history and ties to modern day, it’s beautifully and uniquely written …. and most of all, to be less naïve of the conniving tactics some people take to get ahead, especially if it’s against me.

Bible for Dummies”, By: For Dummies series

I am far from being a wiz at my Biblical knowledge of “who did what, where, and why”. Many parts of the Bible can be up to interpretation. And this part, I actually do enjoy. However, there are parts where I’d like some nice hard facts; like, “What are the rules of Biblical war?”, “What was the exact route of the exodus out of Egypt?”.. This book goes deeper into the historical account of the Bible stories we learned as a child, gives explanation to Hebrew words, summarizes a text in modern-day language, and gives interesting geographical tidbits. It gives it’s own interpretation of some accounts, such as the presumed location of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is thought to be near the Dead Sea, which explains a lot about the fate of Lot’s wife. “The salt content of the Dead Sea is about 30%, making it impossible for anything to live in it (hence, the name). Yet, because of this high salt content, salt deposits appear all along its banks. Therefore, one walking through this region would notice a lot of “pillars of salt”. Jordan has never really been on my list of places to visit, but facts like these keeps my travel list growing!

**** What’s your favorite read?? Any suggestions on what I should check out next?****

You Would’ve Loved Her Too

Elegant, enchanting and well-spoken.. most called her “Bernie”, some “Queenie”. All of her qualities fit the perfect description of a “Lady”. So that’s what I called her.

Prom queen, Bernadine Kelley, of Morehead Nursing Home.

As a child, Lady’s house was the last place I wanted to go. Her place was filled with fancy white chaise lounges and plenty of breakables that she teasingly had out on display.  I was a 5 yr old who simply knew not to touch anything! This included the decorated marbled eggs, chiming capiz shelled chandeliers, and the life size asian doll made of fish bone.

At age 8, we packed up and moved to NC, with Lady in tow. At that moment, all I could think of was how I’d be constantly force-fed and assigned endless chores. Little did I know how critical she would be to hold our family together.

Lady knew how to intrigue and made an excellent teacher. How do you get kids to memorize scriptures of the Bible? With a challenge, a deadline, and a dollar. My little cousin and I were in such intense study mode.  Still to this day, Psalm 23 is the verse I recite when I’m anxious.

Her sister, son, and grandkids

Lady could strike up a conversation with anyone. As an introvert, I studied her fluidity. If your conversation lasted longer than 15 minutes and it happened to be around the holidays, you can count on her gifting you a lemon bundt-cake for Christmas.

In my pre-teen years, when everything was measured by how cool you are, I thought it was so un-cool when she’d randomly burst in song at church. She’d make her way to the front, hand someone a tambourine, and get the whole church into a Jericho march. Lady knew how to get a crowd going. Secretly, I wanted her courage.

I always thought of my Lady as brave. My bedroom was nestled safely in the center of the house. But I constantly worried of how her corner in-law suite had 3 doors that led to the outside. I asked her one time, if she was scared of someone breaking into one of these doors. “Well baby, if they get me, the Lord got me!” was her response.

Me and my Lady

I’d hear stories of her younger days, when she’d pack up her family and travel the world at the drop of a dime. And how she never returned without a collectable. Slowly, our house turned into a museum; a museum that she painstakingly taught me how to polish every Saturday morning. I grew to hate the smell of lemon “Old English” oil. Its thickness acted as a tattle-tale, letting her knew if a spot was missed. She’d start taking stuff off tables to reveal hidden dust and say her patented phrase, “Don’t be nice/nasty!”.. and then tack on another hour of polishing. I did polish some interesting pieces, though. All of her unique décor and travel stories played a huge part in how I saw the world. Whether it was wanting to be a cruise ship worker or moving 30 minutes from the North Korean border, she supported and bragged on all of my dreams.

Lady stretched out with her sister, in Jamaica

She filled the house with gospel music and threw her own personal service before church on Sundays. This was always the reason why she was the last one ready… that … and her picking out the right feathered hat to match her heels. Lady knew how to piece an outfit together. Even at the nursing home, Lady remained fancy; having her outfits matched up for the week, getting her nails and makeup done. You wouldn’t catch her in a hospital gown in the middle of the day!

Her advice was never really deep. But sometimes a simple “pray about it, baby” is all the advice you need. I always admired her prayers. I silently prayed at night that I could make mine flow as easily, filled with thankfulness, with such care for each individual, and never rushed.

Lady was one of a kind.

She spent her final 4yrs in Morehead Nursing Home. Her constant questioning of when she’d be able to come home was heart breaking. But the care that they provided, the genuine love that she got from nurses and volunteers, and the friendships she made was more than we could hope for her. With every visit, there was a new gift sitting on her desk. Each morning, my grandmother would thumb through her devotional and pick out a scripture to be posted on her door. Random strangers would stop by to read her messages and then she’d make yet another friend. She made her mark on that nursing home as the lady with “The Word of the Day”.

That’s the kind of person my grandmother was. Loving and loved.

Brother showing his grandma some love

She comfortably passed away in the peaceful setting of the hospice, August 29, 2012, with the most diverse cluster of family and guests visiting every 15 minutes.

The family supporting Lady’s “Rock-a-thon” (rocking chair, instead of walking) to raise money for cancer awareness

I am comforted with God’s timing of it all…

These last 2 weeks kind of came as a surprise to us all.

I was technically not supposed to receive a vacation this summer, but I did. I originally wasn’t going to vacation in the U.S., but I did. I wasn’t supposed to be on vacation throughout all of August, but with a few mess-ups from my company, the Visa expeditors, AND the Embassy.. I did. I was supposed to fly out this weekend, and once again, my time was extended. God allowed me to be by her bedside all the way up until her final passing. He’s allowing me to attend her service and reconnect with family members that I haven’t seen in years. Just like her placement in the nursing home, I believe that we all are where we are, when we are, for a reason.. whether we like it or not. And for that, I’m thankful that He dismisses a lot of our plans.

 

Go Hungry for a Change

I am a Christian living in an Islamic country. It would have been totally ignorant of me to enter Saudi Arabia and not read up on the basics of what Saudi Muslims believe. Without personally knowing a single Muslim, I had to find my information in the most random of places. I browsed blogs, camped-out in Barnes and Nobles, FaceBooked public Saudi profiles. These attempts were made mainly because I try not to offend, if I can help it.. Of course there will be slip-ups; like crossing my legs with the soles of my shoes up, or mentioning how much I’d love a piece of bacon.. but I try to be respectful with the knowledge I’ve acquired so far.

I’ve come to find so much love for two fabulous ladies in this country. One happens to be Muslim and the other Atheist. We make a VERY interesting trio, to say the least .. We all exchange our beliefs and why, but we never end in a heated conversation; always in respect, and often cracking a slight joke in the end. Although none of us will probably ever convert to the other, we are friends who’ve offered and listened to sound opinions, great entertainment, and a have been a shoulder for homesickness. They’re good people, in my book!

Last week was the ending of the Islamic month of Ramadan. I’ve heard of it, but honestly only knew that I’d be vacationing during that time. So, to gain a little understanding on what a good percentage of the world was doing, I interviewed my friend, Amaal, about this time of the year.

1) So what exactly is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a period in which all Muslim adults ‘fast’, or abstain from certain activities. It is one of the five basic tenets/pillars of Islam. It lasts for 30 days, and each day we fast from sunrise to sunset. It’s the month of mercy, blessings and forgiveness. During this time, Muslims are completely immersed in their connection with God. They persevere in doing righteous deeds, pray often and read the Quran (Muslim’s holy book) as much as they can.

2) What must you refrain from?
Food, drink and sexual activity

3) Does it last only certain hours of the day?
Yes, it lasts for a range of hours depending on which country you’re in and what time the sun rises and sets.

4) What is your favorite Ramadan memory?
Ramadan is a beautiful way of bringing family together. I love breaking fast with my family, sitting down all together to eat. I also love going to night prayers. These are special prayers that occur only during Ramadan. You go to the mosque and pray for about an hour, and read chapters of the Quran. This is truly a spiritual booster.

 5) How is Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, in comparison to your home country?
Well I come from England and that is extremely different. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and therefore it abides by Islamic law. I’ve been in a Muslim Country 3 times for Ramadan and every time it always feels like it’s Ramadan. People are all doing the same thing. They are unified in their worship and acts. People are extremely charitable, they give each other goods, they pay for the needy to be fed in Ramadan, and they share whatever they have. Whilst in Riyadh, what I’ve witnessed consistently is the constant giving of food and water to anyone and everyone. One time I was in a car and we were just about to break fast and people came around to our car window and gave us water and dates. This moved me. I’ve been taught that nothing is free in this world so to be given free food is shocking. But these acts aren’t even one of a kind; they happen constantly throughout the Muslim world.

6) How do you celebrate the breaking of fast?

At the end of the day, we actually mourn the end of fasting because it signifies the end of our spiritual detox. A good Muslim’s heart longs for the next Ramadan to come quickly and prays to see the next one.

At the end of the 30 days, however, we have a celebration called Eid. This is where all families come together, get dressed in their new attire and have a good day out or within their own houses. On the morning of Eid, we go to mosque to pray the ‘Eid prayer’. People exchange greetings and children are given sweets and money. Communities come together and celebrate. We also pay a charitable sum of money on that day. This goes towards feeding the poor and needy.

7) How is the environment around you during fasting and non-fasting hours?
Riyadh is quiet because during fasting hours not much is open. Food outlets in Saudi are usually closed, people stay in their homes and wait for the break of fast. They use their time to involve themselves in acts of worship. The beauty of Ramadan is that it pushes you away from the worldly things that often distract you from worshiping God. So during fasting hours, Muslims are meant to use that time to be productive. Non-fasting hours in Saudi is when everything and everyone ‘wakes up’, so to speak. Shops and restaurants are open, people come out and the city comes to life again.

8) How has normal daily tasks been affected?
Well, people can still go out and shop and go with their daily tasks, the only thing they aren’t allowed to do in a Muslim country is eat in a public place. Pretty much anything else can be done during the day.

9) How are non-Muslims handling it? Have they changed their activity hours?
I’m sure they are finding it hard. They aren’t allowed to eat in a public place, so I guess the less tolerant of them are annoyed. Most non-Muslims are very respectful, though. In fact many are happy because their hours of work are reduced during Ramadan.
10) Now that Ramadan is coming to an end, how do you feel?
In all honesty, I’m upset. This month is like a beloved friend that departs from your house and you must wait another 11 months for its goodness to return. Many think fasting hard and draining but it’s the opposite for a practicing Muslim. Knowing that every deed you are doing is exclusively for God can only make it an easy endeavor. I almost cried at the last sunset, signifying the end of Ramadan. But the celebrations of Eid somewhat eased the pain.

 

 

**I wrote this post, not only to be educational. But also so that different religions can learn to be more  tolerant of others. Many religions practice and find importance in fasting. By knowing the of similarities that we have, perhaps individuals wouldn’t be as quick to judge. With that being said, any disrespectful comments/responses against any religion will be deleted**

Land of the Free.. :)

My first step outside of Saudi soil, on my way to the U.S., was pure bliss! As you can guess, it didn’t take any time at all to take off my abaya; 1 minute after take-off. The airport is supposed to be a safe zone for clothing, but I was so close to freedom that I wanted to be absolutely sure that I’d have no problem being so “naked” in public. My 1st public outfit in the sight of men, was a conservative top with tights.  It was a slight show of my liberation to reveal some curves, instead of being a shapeless figure behind a black robe. I realized that I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this moment, as some covered Arab women entered the plane restroom and transformed to high heels and flowing-free hair.. Already, I have received a nice little tan; something that you’d assume was easily achievable in a desert. When I return to Saudi, hopefully, the temperatures will drop out of the 130’s so that I can somewhat enjoy the outdoors of Riyadh again.

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My 1st ride home was an admiration of all of the greenery, one of the benefits of living in the country. I’ve never missed so much, the trees and grass that I’m so allergic too. The sky seemed bluer.. and maybe I’m mistaken, but the stark white clouds of the U.S. seemed like another feature absent of Saudi. In a country where the only animals roaming are cats and camels, I was quite happy to see those ‘pests’ that we call squirrels!

My 1st drive, took a little getting used to. I have a ‘heavy foot’ and maybe a few flashbacks of the speed demons who live inside of Saudi taxi drivers. After a little bumper accident, I got the hang of things. I took a few destination-less trips around town, searching for any little changes of my city during my short time away. Nothing changed..

I ate … and I ate. Delicious pork ribs, real Mexican food, Americanized Chinese food, BBQ’d and fried chicken wings. I had a shot of alcohol the1st night without the fear of getting arrested and/or deported.  All of those food rules you grew up with.. eat balanced meals, don’t eat desert before dinner, eat all your veggies… all of that went out the window. After 2 weeks and 7 lbs. later, my stomach was real mad with me! But thankfully, I now have ‘close-to-nothing’ priced gyms, outdoor running, and the largest, most easily available choice of health foods and protein powders to get me back on track.

For my 1st form of public entertainment, I hit up the movie theatre 2 days in a row. And for a week straight, I listened to music, while sipping on my drink of choice at an outdoor bar.

These 2 weeks in the U.S. is going by way too fast. And although I didn’t spend my vacation island and country hopping, and going to big events, these little reminders of why I love U.S. and the people in it, was much appreciated. All the time spent on my momma’s couch was a much needed break. I think I have officially gotten all of these wants out of my system, before serving my last 6 months in Saudi.

The ‘Post-It’ Note Syndrome

I think we all know a person who is extremely stringent on planning! Not only will they keep a basic calendar of birthdays.. but there’s the daily to-do list, timing of meals and water, and even scheduled times to read certain books and lectures. They wake up from a dream and immediately must write it down, in case it means something. Their purse is crowded with little post-it notes with lists; groceries, money calculations, calories, speed they need to run to finish in ‘x’ amount of time. You may call them an over-planner, a control-freak, excessively attentive to dates. Or take a positive approach of it being far-sighted, methodical, and prepared…

I just described myself. And I’ll say the definition falls somewhere in the middle. There are 3 things that I do to find that challenging balance.

1)   Find out the root to why you’re excessive:

What is the purpose of doing this? If it is to seriously keep you rolling effectively through your day, good. But you do not need to write the grocery list 5 times, especially if you haven’t lost the previous 4. If the total is $1.06 over your expected total, will it really be that big of a deal?

2)   Pick up good management books/podcasts:

*Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, is a great time management book. It teaches you how to make smart moves with limited time, and promotes using outsourcing to save you on the stresses of planning.

*The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, is a Christian-based book, that teaches you how to focus more on God’s plan, instead of solely your own. During the 40 days of reading and journaling, you slowly start to chill out when things don’t quite go your way.

*YouTube podcasts of Jim Rohn, Zig Ziglar, and Brian Tracy. These three, I consider the ‘greats’ of time, money and business management. They’re not all ‘wordy’, either. Their comprehensible lectures are really worth the ITunes buy!

3) Keep your “words to live by” handy, when your inner control-freak rears its ugly head. Pick one that you truly believe in (when you’re not stressed). Sometimes this small reminder, is all you need to get back on track… Here’s mine that I go back to, and can always manage to make me smile..

*Listen here:

Or

*Read here:

 

Wear Sunscreen

By Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’98: Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blind side you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium.

Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good.

Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

Sometimes my Students Teach Me

Topic: Jobs

 

“What is teacher major (vocab word) in university?”~Eman

 

“Well, I had 3 majors. French, Forensics, and Diplomacy.” (describing each) ~Me

 

Eman: “So why are you teacher?”..~Eman

 

Then they give me the Saudi “just one moment” sign, before I answer. They argue back and forth in Arabic, and come to the conclusion…

 

 “Teacher, because you are woman..?”~Eman

 

 

At that moment, I felt like crap of all the times I felt my job prospects, coincidences, and paths in life have seemed unfair.. I run into these girls, who are automatically disqualified and have their paths set for them, simply because of their gender. Our current status is more or less our fault.. determined by the moves that we were or were not willing to make in the past. We could’ve studied more to pass a test. Or could have taken an extra course to stay competitive in a job. We can commit to the full plan, to lose the weight. Yes, some things are a crap-shoot.. and simply happens. But today, my girls taught me to be a little more thankful that I’ve at least had a chance.

 

So, here’s to my Eman (future psychologist), Faten (future business woman), Afrah (future teacher), and Bashaer (future professional soccer player)… My few motivated ones, who are such hopeful dreamers to do something different. I pray that your country will see that you have more potential than any man..

 

What learning moment have you had while teaching??

10 Ways to Survive the year in The Kingdom

After announcing my move to Saudi Arabia, I received disapproving shaking of heads, uneasy looks, and plenty of “are you sure??”s. With 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, being Saudi .. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little nervous as well. Movies, like “The Kingdom”, which reenacts the compound bombing of 2003, didn’t help ease anyone’s nerves. So, kidnappings and bombings were what I was looking out for. Little did I know, that these worries are the furthest down on the list. My list is in order, of least often –> often, of what I see foreigners getting deported, arrested, or hassled for.

  1. Negative Talk: Put 100 female teachers together during 6 hours of idle time, and see gossip spread like wildfire. Don’t say anything, unless you don’t mind it shared 10 times over. Voicing your dislike the company can get you fired, if spread to the wrong person. Also, prepare to have your students test you with this question.. “Teacher, do you love our King?”.. The answer is and should always be “Yes”. People have been reported and/or arrested for voicing their opinion otherwise. Thankfully, the Saudi king is actually a good guy and has done quite a bit to advance the Kingdom, making this an easy question to pass.
  1. Contraband: Before you step off the plane and onto Saudi soil, you will see “Illegal drugs = death”. Kind of seems like a late warning, if you ask me.. It’s not like the smugglers can simply turn around. You can find alcohol in a few brave private residences. But getting caught can mean deportation or getting arrested, and possibly receive lashes. Watch “Locked Up Abroad: Saudi Arabia”. Other things not allowed into Saudi, are pork, vanilla extract (it has alcohol in it), and bulk religious items. My Bible was actually confiscated and I had to tuck away my cross.
  1. Gender Mixing: Unrelated men and women are not allowed to gather in this country, except for in a few secure places. I will say that many foreigners have gotten away with this rule. However, it would suck to be the exception.. as one of my friends has spent a few days in jail by doing so. Conservative Saudis are quick to report any suspicions.
  1. Walking Alone: One thing that us foreigners cherish, is the freedom to go wherever you want and however you want. You do not have that freedom here. Walking the streets, in general, is just not done in Riyadh. So a foreign woman walking can bring trouble. Before knowing this, I decided to get a nice workout w/ an hour-long walk home. Fully cloaked from head to toe, I counted 73 honks and 3 men pulling over to offer money. From then on out, I had to put away the “do what I want” “Strong black women”.. I bought a treadmill and took taxis.

  1. Drifters: The latest problem with walking (even in groups), is dealing with Drifters. These young teenage drivers make a game out of getting as close to the pedestrians as possible, without hitting them. A few suck at this game, leaving a few of my fellow teachers injured and/or shaken up.
  1. The Muttawa: Also known as the “religious police”. You will often see these guys parading around the mall advising or harrassing (depending on point of view) females. They don’t have the power to arrest or enforce any laws, but being big men yelling in Arabic, is sometimes enough to intimidate a few. Their actual job is to remind people of the cultural and religious rules of Saudi. They usually pick out foreigners to cover their hair. But you may know the Muttawa from the incident of the womens school on fire. They were locked inside of the burning building because they were uncovered, and unpresentable to public. The latest news were Muttawa attempting to kick a women out of the mall for wearing nail polish.         
    http://www.batangastoday.com/saudi-woman-with-nail-polish-refuses-to-leave-hayat-mall-argues-with-religious-police-video/22730/

  1. Taxi drivers: I know I said in #7 that it’s not the safest to walk, and to take a taxi.. but not any ole’ taxi. When you find one that you trust, it’s a smart idea to take his number as your personal driver. In many parts of the world, foreigners (or American women) are stereotyped to all be “easy”. Therefore, some of the younger drivers think it’s ‘cool’ to have an American in the back seat. He’ll whistle to the young drivers at the stoplight next to him, do the money sign (which is the same in every language), and then ask you to smile …. Or you’ll get some drivers who don’t like foreigners at all, and simply get frustrated with your English/broken Arabic  directions and drop you off on a strange corner in the middle of the night. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, but you can see that it’s getting closer to my #1. To avoid all of this, just have a few good drivers handy.
  1. Standing Out: Single foreign females stick out like sore thumbs. First of all, unlike many Saudi women, we don’t have male chaperones. So this kind of makes you a target for unwanted attention. Being alone, having your hair uncovered, even doing a slight jog to get into a closing store will get you stares. When walking outside, covering your hair could eliminate maybe a quarter of the attention. Wearing a niqab can play in your favor too. Basically.. when in Saudi, do as Saudis do.
  1. Words/Topics to Avoid: If you can teach in this city and country, you can teach anywhere. The limitations we have, makes getting your point across quite a challenge at times. If you’ve read one of my previous posts “Things not to say in a Riyadh University”, you’ll see a lengthy list that can easily get any teacher to slip-up. Some students lure you into these topics. And sometimes it’s totally your fault. “Like, duh, what were you thinking, talking about birthdays???”. I’ve accidentally hit these topics a few times. Thankfully, my students love me and let it slide 🙂 Some teachers aren’t so lucky and get reported. This goes on your record, and if done enough could be a reason to be let go.
  1. The unexpected: The #1 thing that I fear in this country, are accidents. Everyday on the way to school we cross a 3-lane, 4-way intersection that has no stoplights. We go over about 10 unmarked speed bumps. The lines to designate the lanes are faded to no avail. There’s a random trough of a bulldozer sitting in the middle of the road. Construction workers lifting an unprotected spin-saw 3 stories, using a rope tied around the handle. Right-laners make left turns. Metal pipes blowing hot steam onto the sidewalks. Jumping over boulders, ditches, and puddles when it hasn’t rained in weeks…All of these things have no warning signs before you reach them. The “Final Destination” series, should have been filmed here.  To sum it up.. Safety is not #1 priority, so constantly be on alert!

The real-life ‘roadrunner’. Ostrich running the streets of Riyadh, a few months ago..