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**

Optimists Beware!!

Turn away now, if you’re looking for a fuzzy blog entry. This ain’t the one. This is solely for venting… and I invite any others with frustrations with their current country to chime in below.

You know that lifelong question… “Would you chase money or happiness?” On this one assignment, I decided to tough it out and see what it’s like to go after the money.. I read up on the possible extent of unhappiness I’d come across here: the treatment of different hierarchies, as told by the book “The Princess”, inequality of women, from the book “Inside the Kingdom”. I read into the Sharia law, to see what exactly I can and cannot do. With the laws on coverings, proselytizing, selling drugs, mingling with opposite sex.. I knew that all of these were a “no go”, and there’s no point in sparking a rebellion about it. These books, were in the point of view of Saudis. Therefore, I knew that some, but not all of it would apply to me, since foreigner aren’t held to the exact standard. So, then I checked out Expat Guides, Facebook message boards; people who I assumed could paint a perfect picture of what life is like here… But I’ve come to realize that there is not ONE straight story. Talk to one expat who is contracted with a business, and likely he is making double your salary. The one working for in the Diplomatic Quarters has his family to keep him sane. The nurses, live on their own compound. So, I decided then find some teachers.. and realized the difference based on university. Work at one, and you may walk the large campus grounds, uncovered, and with enjoyment of the pool. If you’re a male teacher, you take your breaks at the campus gym and automatically have a higher salary. And then there’s mine… I’ll just say that we have none of the luxuries mentioned above.

Compounds: Most expats in Riyadh live in compounds. I do not. Now, my apartment is not wretched by any means, thanks to me opting to find my on arrangements. However, I must step out my door as a Saudi. I must cover-up, walk with someone, and the language outside that building is Arabic. Compounds, on the other hand; they are secured with thick tall walls, barbed wire, and armed guards.. the inside of most of these forts are mini Americas. It’s a nice step into normalcy after a day out in the streets. Where almost everyone, no matter their background, understands English. Anything that you were told that you would never find in Saudi.. it’s here. Included in these living quarters are pools, fusion restaurants, salons, skating rinks or bowling alleys, courts/gyms, mixing and mingling.. and weirdly the one that I miss the most.. grass! Yes, I said “grass”. I know it sounds simple, but hear me out. I’ve found living in a city that lacks a color palette outside of brown and beige, to be somewhat of an eye-sore. Imagine, never being able to kick off your shoes outdoors. Or how nice it is to sit on something outside other than stone. Or just have your senses livened a little. Even though I’m allergic to it, I stood in grass yesterday.. for a long time.. with my little group of teachers. And for a good while, none of us said a single word.. it wasn’t an awkward silence, because I’m sure we were all thinking of home. It was midnight, while we sat in a lounge chair, with music in the background. This was the 2nd time in 3 months, that I have felt breeze touch my skin, without an abaya (cloak) blocking it.. It’s the simple things, you know… We played ping-pong, pool, air-hockey; a little entertainment, that we can’t find anywhere on the outside. We walked around the grounds, without a guardian. And I’m thinking, outside of these walls, I would’ve definitely gotten harassed for doing the exact same things. “Women shouldn’t be out this late”.. “We shouldn’t play music in public” “Shouldn’t commune with men”.. “And the women are ‘uncovered’”?? I’ve lucked out this semester with awesome classes, so my girls have not really been the issue. It’s just having my most freedoms, big and small, taken away from me, that has been a huge adjustment.

A teacher in Korea asked me the other day, to compare there to Saudi. It’s such a stark contrast, that you’ll only do harm to yourself by reliving the memory. Living among the people, in Korea, was welcoming and quite easy. What you say, your public acts, and your beliefs were all your business. And even if you decided to share, it wouldn’t get you deported or killed. There are other things that I’d like to vent about, but maybe this isn’t the place. I will say that this country is like no other. Therefore, you can’t quite fully prepare for it.

I’m writing this entry because, perhaps I was a little naïve and optimistic, coming into this one. We get so wrapped up, into one thing that we want (whether it’s money or a lifestyle).. that forget that there’s a downside to everything that you get yourself into. And then we start lashing out at loved ones, when their “I told you so” comes true. I’m not one to easily quit, so I will stick it out for the year.. but I will need to do a little attitude adjustment. Although, I have had great moments and have learned tons (if you want to read about those, check out the other posts)…but it would only be fair if I presented the negatives, as well.

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


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 <>

Buchanan, E. (2012). Women Only to Work in Saudi Arabia Lingerie Shops. BBC News. Retrieved on March 13, 2012 from < >