A Day in a Saudi Classroom

Assignment 4: Narration (Revision 11/30/15)

“Phones off! Phones in bags! Bags up front!”

‘Phone’ was a word that never needed translation, as these items were affixed to my students palms since Day 1. I’ve never seen such an addiction to social networking in my life, as they type pages of texts to their friends two classes over.

“But Teachuh…” starts the chorus of begging. “Teachuh, dictionary..” says Kahloud, as she points at her only lifeline.

“That must be a very long word you’re typing. I’ll be your dictionary.” She smiles at the sarcasm. In all honesty, it would save me a lot  of hassle if they solely used their phone dictionaries. I never quite understood how every semester I’d end up with high-level books for low-level students. Today’s vocabulary lesson was no exception.

“So, girls, how was your weekend?” I predict the responses to be about shopping and sleeping. Yet, I hope for more.

“I go shopping with my sister” says Hanan. “Sleeping… just”, says Noura.

I then look to my favorite (Yes, I have favorites..). Knowing that she’ll give me a unique response, I repeat the question. “How was your weekend, Sumayah?”

“I do nothing. But today, I see my teacher last semester, and she give me a beer!”

With raised brows, I’m sure that I heard her wrong. You can’t even bring vanilla extract into this country due to its alcohol content. Let alone, a beer!

“Umm, she gave you a what?” I casually ask.

“A beer”, Sumayah says nonchalantly.

Eyes to the sky, I’m searching for all of the words I’ve heard misused over these past two years.

“Can you spell it?”

“B-E-A-R” and then she looks at me like I’m the crazy one for not knowing what a bear is. Of course, I can’t explain the difference between bear and beer. The latter was an “Avoid” topic on the Culture Sensitivity List. So instead we spend 5 minutes doing word repetition, by saying everything we know about bears. They will not leave my class saying that Ms. Ashley taught them about beer.

We then start class with a reading about a man with 13 jobs, one of them being an “Undertaker”. This is a new word that takes every bit of effort, from drawing graves to acting out a funeral. After my performance at the front of the classroom, I get baffled stares. Then suddenly my one 40+-year-old, Amani, proudly shouts out.. “Ahhh, Teacher… Undertaker, like WWE!!” The class must not have seen the slight shaking of my head and lack of confirmation, as they erupted in “Ahhhs” and “ohhhs” of instant understanding.

At the bottom of my lesson plan is a space for notes.

Tomorrow: Phone Dictionaries

 

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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.

 

 

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..

Things NOT to say in a Riyadh university

I was just given my Culture Sensitivity List for this semester’s class…

Basically, if you’re considering teaching in Riyadh, prepare to get creative!

Here are the topics you must either avoid, or proceed with caution:

1) Adopted children and children conceived out of wedlock

2) Alcoholic drinks and intoxicating drinks

3) Birthdays

4) Blended family concepts (e.g. a step-brother/ step-sister living together)

5) Boyfriends or girlfriends

6) Celebrities: actors, actresses, musicians, dancers, etc.

7) Christmas

8) Concerts

9) Dating

10) Dramas

11) Drinking alcohol

12) Drugs and drug abuse

13) Devil and demons

14) Euthanasia

15) Eating pork

16) Fashion

17) Film-making

–turning page–

18) HIV or AIDS

19) Holidays outside the two Islamic holidays

20) Homosexuality

21) Love stories, being in love, falling in love, love at first sight, soulmates

22) Magic, magicians

23) Mental situations, mental diseases, etc.

24) Mixed gender situations (men and women working together, socializing, etc.)

25) Movies: only when talking about a particular movie or when the word movies is used to refer to the cinema

26) Moving out (not living with the family in the same house) at the age of 18

27) Music, musical instruments

28) Neuroticism

29) Partner relationships (unmarried couples)

30) People not dressed properly, e.g. wearing shorts (men or women)

31) Plastic surgeries, physical appearance changes

32) Political topics, elections, etc

33) Professional dancing and dancers

34) Psychologists or psychiatrists

35) Religion

36) Sculpture (human/animal faces)

37) Singing

38) Sexually transmitted diseases

39) Spirits and witchcraft

40) Social networking

41) Superpowers or superheroes

42) Superstitions: beliefs not based on facts/scientific knowledge (crossing fingers for good luck, the number 13, walking under ladders)

43) Theatre

44) TV shows or programs that discuss inappropriate themes like music, dancing, (American Idol, So you think you can dance, etc)

45) Tobacco and smoking

46) Women driving

**Scratching my lesson plan, before today’s class**

You live where??? Saudi Arabia?!

I just realized that the entire time that I’ve been writing on Saudi Arabia, I’ve never given a proper introduction about the city I live in, Riyadh… Riyadh is the conservative capital, almost directly in the northern center of the country. Contrary to popular belief, its urban inhabitants do not go to work by camel, nor are they totally ignorant to western ways. The streets are bumper to bumper with foreign taxis who break every driving rule that you’d find in an organized city. Here, you will only find a man behind the wheel, and the occasional 12 year old driving his mother to the mall, which also explains the craziness in the streets.

The Arabs of Riyadh range from Pakistani, to Emirati, to African. There’s a rainbow of complexions, wide variety of hair textures, and all shapes and sizes. I assumed that the personality of Saudis would be very dry, and I blame media for this misconception. However, the college-age crowd that I teach are very giggly and immature. I’ve found most of the older Saudi women to be incredibly friendly and giving. They are all close-knit to their friends and family. And once you’ve made your way into one of these categories, you’re always taken care of.

Family, shopping, and religion make up the life of these people. It’s very simple… and makes me realize how us foreigners strive for so much to keep us happy. Some may say that the Saudi way of life is quite backwards… Yes, it’s very different.. and no, it’s not something I’d like to live in for more than a year.. But, if it’s all that they know, it works for them, and they’re the ones who will be raising their next generations in it.. I guess a passer-by’s opinion of the place, doesn’t count for much.

The religion of Saudi Arabia is Islam. This is seen in everything a Saudi does, from the 5 daily prayers, to throwing an “Inshallah” (Christian equivalent of “Lord Willing”) in their casual conversations. For nearly 30 minutes per prayer call, shops shut down, waiters take a break, and you even get locked into the grocery stores and restaurants. Time is very precious for non-Muslim foreigners here, because of this!

The weather, so far, has been a little iffy. There’s been a weekly rainstorm with the most booming of thunders. Within 15 minutes, the city is flooded, due to the lack of sewers. With the piles of puddles combined with 90+ degree weather, you can imagine our problem with mosquitos. There’s an occasional sandstorm, and it makes for an awesome sight! This is almost always followed by rain, to clean the city and clear the air. Another one of God’s awesome solutions to our problems.

Most of the royal family lives within Riyadh, which plays a part in why it is more conservative compared to the port city of Jeddah. This family is quite extensive, spanning into the thousands since multiple wives and an abundance of children isn’t shunned. It is likely to have a prince or princess in the classroom.

The laws of Riyadh can be quite strict, which is why the city is considered a hardship. Men and women outside of the family, are almost always segregated. Women wear black-based abayas. Coverings may be a little more enforced in comparison to other cities. Music in public is outlawed. The mentioning of pigs and dogs, the picture of a woman’s face, or pop culture references are not allowed in the classroom.

The food is a great mix of the Gulf countries. You can find Saudi kabsa (a mix of meat, rices, and spices), Turkish shawarma (meat wrap w/ veggies and sometimes french fries), and various Yemeni dishes. A lot of dishes include chick peas/hummus and rice. A popular Saudi snack consists of dates (my new fave, but oh so high in sugar!) and Arabic tea. Of course there’s also your Burger King, McDonalds, Applebees, and Krispy Kreme. Two things you will not find in this country is pork and alcohol.