Thursday, March 31, 2011

There once was a lass overseas...

I've started a poetry unit with my eighth-grade class. As a disclaimer, I should tell you that I hate poetry. I'm sure that's going to cause a few of our readers to gasp, but it's true. I can't write it, I'm ambivalent when I read it, and I hate teaching it. I hate teaching it because I have absolutely no good answer when my students ask, "Why do we have to learn this?!"

Just the same, I've started a poetry unit with my eighth-grade class. I'm in Saudi Arabia, where they broadcast an American Idol-esque poetry competition where people across the Arab world could text their votes for the best poet. Poetry is big here. I had a few student squeal in glee when I told them we were diving into the genre.

Unfortunately, I think I may have snuffed out their glimmer of happiness already. We started lightly, or so I thought, with a few poems that had the typical literary devices: personification, alliteration, repetition. I was trying to get them to see why poets use these devices--no, the poem "Silver" by Walter de la Mare isn't about a woman named Moon-- but I could tell they just weren't getting it. Non-literal/abstract thought is not exactly their forte, I'm afraid. And if there's a word to describe English poetry, it's "abstract."


So we moved on to more humorous topics: the limerick.

They were relieved to finally see a poem they understood when I flashed "Hickory Dickory Dock" on the screen. They broke into song and chuckled with delight. See?! English poetry can be fun!

Then I ruined it all by bringing up syllables.

This is one area in which I can empathize with my students' plight. The whole concept of stressed and unstressed syllables is very confusing when 90% of the English you hear is spoken with an Arabic accent. Language learners often do well to get all the letters pronounced correctly, don't throw emphasis in there to confuse the situation!

But the meter is the whole point of a limerick! I had to bring it up! They didn't fully understand, so when I had the girls give it a shot by writing their own limericks, I also gave them a litmus test: "If you can sing your limerick to the tune of 'Hickory Dickory Dock,' you have succeeded."

Here is one of the more humorous ones they came up with:

There once was an Arab named Noaf
Who got some hummus and loaf
She ate it with a fork
Cause there wasn't a spork
So she went off and found a cool stove

Pretty impressive, considering the circumstances, right?! She has the AABBA rhyme scheme. It's pretty close to the correct meter. It's not as humorous as her first draft, but her first draft wasn't quite on point with the meter:

There once was an Arab named Fatooma
Who got some hummus and toaboulah
She ate with a fork
Because she didn't find a spork
So she went off to play with a puma

Here's another one that was oh-so close to being a real limerick. It has missed the target with the meter...and the storyline...but it still makes me laugh.

The long neck of a giraffe
Ate me and cut me in half
I though I would die
So I said my good byes
Then I woke up and laughed

Then there's this one by one of my angels who really labored over this poem and was so hopeful when she handed it over...SO not a limerick, but still very humorous.

There was a bunch of students who had to write a poem
They didn't know how to so the teacher had to show 'em
She started with the types, and then went to examples
They finally got it and as a gift they got apples
The gifts were definitely a surprise to them.

I love it!

I realize to the untrained eye this looks like a blog post about what an incredible failure I am as a teacher. But I look at this sample of poems and see learning.

And that's what makes me cooler than you.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1950s: SAME THING

Landing in this country was like going into a time machine. I was struck with the 1970s design of the airport as soon as we stepped off the plane, and the decades just kept rolling back the farther and farther we got from the tarmac. It's well known that this country is very much in its youth having only been founded about 79 years ago. But the similarities between modern day Saudi Arabia and the United States in the 1950s grow each day. Here are a few of the more obvious ones:

Smoking is crazy popular. It was so bizarre when the Mister and I went to a restaurant for the first time and were asked whether we wanted seating in the smoking or non-smoking section. I guess you've got to give it to the Saudis, they don't have many legal vices. Alcohol is illegal, as are drugs. It's haram to be addicted to a substance. But nicotine? Bring it on! Sure, there are "no smoking" signs in places like malls--INSIDE THE MALLS. Are they obeyed? No. But at least they're there. The best part is that these "no smoking" signs are located directly above ashtrays. It's like they know the citizens of Saudi are just going to do whatever the heck they want.

I will say that I've only ever seen men smoking here. I've been told that I'll never see a Saudi woman smoke because it's considered unattractive. Not sure why that social norm doesn't apply to the males, cause those guys are constantly lighting up!

Littering. I've started to rant about the littering habits of Saudis before, but have never gotten around to posting it. Well now is the time. Saudi Arabia, you are a land full of litterbugs! It was totally shocking to me when I first saw someone open their window while driving down the highway and chuck a bag full of trash out onto the road. I've seen children finish their candy bar and drop the wrapper without skipping a beat. I brought this bafflement up with my students one day and they told me that if you try to use a trashcan instead of littering, you'll get made fun of. PEOPLE WILL MAKE FUN OF YOU! What?!

I was venting my frustration when a colleague--a fellow American--reminded me that the States had a littering problem until Keep America Beautiful came around in the 1950s. Remember Iron Eyes Cody? That crying Indian convinced us all to find a trash can instead of using the roadside as a dump (apparently no one was offended by the obvious don't-trash-the-land-you-stole-from-my-ancestors message being sent there).

To further prove the fact that Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1950s are the same, Saudi Arabia has started an anti-littering ad campaign of its own. Here and there you'll find awkward billboards with an old man's face pleading you to "Keep always Saudi Arabia clean." or "Stop! Way vandalizing?!" I'm sure it's much more grammatically correct in Arabic, but the translated message only causes me to chuckle.

Of course, I don't have a littering problem.

Women's roles. Granted, women have never been prohibited from driving in the United States (or in ANY other country in the world, for that matter), but American women in the 1950s and the modern women of Saudi Arabia have a lot of similarities.

At school a few weeks ago, we had a "progress party." This was essentially a celebration of making it just more than half way through the school year. Part of the celebration was a little goodbye ceremony for a few of the teachers who were resigning. I'm just going to ignore the fact that a). we were celebrating progress before the school year was over and b). we were celebrating teachers resigning in the middle of the school year. I asked why they were resigning and my fellow English teachers responded, "She's getting married," as if this was explanation enough.

"" I asked.

They turned and looked at me just as befuddled with my response as I was with theirs. "Well, she will be very busy with things."

"Like what things? You get married, you go on your honeymoon, khalass that's all there is to it! I know that weddings last like a week here, so at most you would need like 2 weeks off from work and then you can get back at it!" I said, laughing.

"Oh no! There are many duties for a new wife! You have to set up house, take care of your husband, there are lots of things that must be done. A new wife shouldn't have to work."

I almost gagged. It was like I was watching a scene from Mona Lisa Smile.

Women are extremely limited in the kind of jobs they can have in Saudi Arabia. Like 1954 America, the acceptable employment options are: teaching, nursing, or being a secretary. And women can only have a job if it's ok with her husband.

Of course you'll find the odd female doctor or prominent business woman here and there in Saudi Arabia, but it is most certainly NOT common. To quote the Labor Ministry: the best place for a woman to serve is in her own home. Sick.

Seat belts (or the lack there of). After the littering, the most shocking norm of Saudi Arabian life is the total and complete ambivalence towards personal safety. Saudis don't buckle up! They don't buckle ANYONE up! Drivers, passengers, newborns, toddlers, everyone is invited to the flirt-with-death-party!

Unlike the United States in the 1950s, cars in Saudi Arabia have seat belts! Saudis just don't use them. And it's not because they're extra cautious on the road! We regularly beat death every day on our morning commute! Fathers are swerving and speeding down the highway and their school-aged children are hanging out the window finger-gunning the passing cars. I'M NOT EXAGGERATING!!

(this is often how I feel when I see such families)

Trust me, the irony of US legislation on seat belt use being pushed through Congress by an Arab is not lost on this girl.

No sex in the movies. Oh, just like the 1950s, there's plenty of suggestion of sex, but no real proof of reproductive acts! (I should mention that there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, so any movies we're watching here are being watched on television) Kissing scenes are minimized, and sex scene start with the initial kiss and jump right to the post-coital snuggling, naked under the sheets.

That'll keep the kiddos from knowing what's up. mwahahaha

Vicariously yours,

Forget King days, Sand days are better!!

Wooo! Two 4 day work weeks in a row!!

As the Mister and I were about to go to bed last night I said, "Smells like a sand storm," referring to the atmosphere. Not...nevermind.

Not 2 minutes later, the windows started to howl with the gales that were blowing through the streets of our neighborhood. It was a sandstorm, alright. According to a local, this is one of the worst sand storms the area has had in a while.

The Mister went out to take photographic evidence of what a friend has dubbed "Sandmageddon." He had to wear this get-up:

As we were falling asleep, I said, "I wonder if we'll get out of school for this." I was only half joking. But what to my wondering eye did appear this morning when I checked my text messages?? "No school tomorrow, go back to sleep."


I followed instructions and went back to sleep! GLORIOUS!

Sand days are like snow days, but warmer and so much more awesome. Well...slightly. They're definitely more awesome because they're so regionally specific. But apparently you only get sand days when you get storms like this one:

This is the same storm that blew into town last night around 10:30...but in Kuwait. It was hitting Kuwait yesterday afternoon. A friend of ours posted this on his facebook, so we had the sneaking suspicion that our night would be windy.

I love the fact that sand days are basically snow days with all the sleeping in and none of the shivering, but I'm definitely not going to enjoy the clean up.

Because we were still awake when the storm hit, we made sure everything was closed up tight. But there are only so many towels you can stuff under doors, so we expected a light dusting inside the house.

My dining room table, which I had just dusted 2 days ago?

Looks like this now.


Oh well, I'll have plenty of time to go back over the house with the dust rag because I DON'T HAVE TO WORK TODAY!!


Vicariously yours,

Friday, March 25, 2011

Stuff Arabs like #11: Shawarma

To anyone who's visited the Middle East--or even a city with a large Arab population, this declaration comes as no surprise. Many non-Arabs have discovered the wonders of the shawarma, in all its forms.

Whether it's mistakenly being called a gyro and presented in a half piece of pita bread, oozing with cucumber sauce and tabouleh...

Or if it's served up pseudo-taco style in a cradle of soft bread with tahini sauce, pickled vegetables and a smattering of parsley....

Or dished out on a platter with an iceberg lettuce salad and some hummus...

Or my favorite--and the most commonly found in Saudi Arabia--rolled up in a grilled tortilla-like waif of bread, slathered in oil and a pasted wonderful cream cheese-like smear--veggies and hot sauce optional--shawarma is an Arab delight.

No matter how it's served up, shawarma is an Arab delicacy that everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives. On any block in Saudi Arabia you'll find several shawarma shops, all with their own unique way of making the wrap. Each has its own combination of fresh and pickled vegetables, a cream-based sauce of some sort, and lots of fantastic Middle Eastern spices. You know a shawarma shop from its telltale rotating log-o-meat:

Be it beef, lamb, or chicken, you know you've stumbled into shawarma heaven when you see this jumbled collection of spiced, processed meat rotating vertically in front of a pair of heat lamps. Once the shawarma guy fires up his electric knife and shaves away slivers of the juicy goodness, you know you've hit the jackpot.

I've got to give it to you, Arabs, this is one of your more ingenious creations.

Vicariously yours,

Identity Theft

A day or so ago, some people on Facebook put an article up about the revolutions in the Middle East. Definitely read it. I was fascinated by it, and I think the guy had some really great points and I agree with most of it...but then again, something bothered me about it. It kind of relates back to an earlier post about westerners just not "getting it" about the Middle East, but this is a little more specific. Many people view the Arab World as one big unit...but each country, even in North Africa, is so different from the others that to blanket the entire Arabian peninsula as basically (though I know he never said it) "fake countries" is just kind of out there. Now, there's no way I can say that Mr. Friedman is wrong...dude has basically spent his life in the Middle East studying and writing about it. That's not really what I wanted to write about. No, I wanted to write about the way that this makes me feel.

Living here is a constant challenge. It's a challenge to my faith, it's a challenge to my customs, and it's a challenge to the patriotic feelings I have for my country. I had to explain why the idea that 9/11 was an inside job was ludicrous to my 10th graders. I am spoken to about Christianity in a tone that seems to say, "that's so cute that you believe that...". I have started speeding.

And yet, I find myself defending this place to people back home. I get a twinge of irritation when I see things people write about the Kingdom. I write facebook comments and then decide not to send them because I know it would cause a thing. When I get home I know that I'm going to have some interesting conversations with people who think they know a lot about this place, but don't actually know a damn thing.

This has led me to a very strange conclusion: like Spock, I am a child of two worlds now. I have the burden of knowledge and experience that will never let me hear a news story about the USA without dreading what it will be. I won't be able to see an event like the "trial" of Islam in Florida without thinking immediately of my students and getting sad that after all I do to try and show them what a great thing America is, I get this. I will never be able to read the reports about protests in the Kingdom without seeing that no one really sees what's going on. When I get home, I know I'm going to be culture shocked. I'm going to shake hands with everyone a million times, drive too fast and honk unnecessarily, and just generally feel uncomfortable. This is going to be very strange.

So I have been completely changed by this experience and it's not even halfway over. I'm still Tyler, there's no doubt about that. I love puns, oreos, and a good, cold, dark beer (can you tell I'm excited for Berlin?). But my perspective has shifted and my understanding of who I am in relation to the rest of the world is different now and will always be.

Vicariously yours,

An Open Letter to Barnes and Noble

Dear Western Booksellers,

Saudi Arabia is a land in crisis. As a featured read aloud performer for next week's Literacy Day, I've made some sad discoveries. The literacy movement has found its way into the Kingdom, but prematurely. Being that I have recently moved to this country from my home, the United States, I have a very limited personal library. Shipping books is expensive and I was given the impression I would have a good selection in my new home.

I could not have been more misled!

After taking on my role as reader aloud extraordinaire, I headed to my school's library. In the tiny English section of the library, I found a hodge-podge collection of children's books, mostly from the mid-80s to early 90s. They were not properly alphabetized, a lot of them were strewn about the floor, and most of their spines were broken and tattered. The sight brought tears to my eyes.

"Alright," I thought to myself, "I'll just go to my local bookstore. It must have a better selection."

I could not have been more wrong!

My driver (read: husband) and I went to a new bookstore, because I had been told that this one had a better selection than our typical haunt. We even sat in the parking lot for 30 minutes because we arrived just as salah (prayer) was beginning. After the doors were finally opened, I went in with a mission: Find a good children's book and get out.

I could not have been more disappointed!

There were hardly any children's books--in English or Arabic! So off we went to our usual bookstore. It's two levels, only one of which has books. This should be a sign to you, Barnes and Noble, of how desperate this Kingdom is for a real bookstore! The children's book section is comprised of 3 aisles. Most of the books are either text versions of a Ben10, SpongeBob, or Hannah Montana episode. Or English grammar books. It was a miracle I was able to find a selection of 4 obscure Dr. Seuss books, no The Cat in the Hat, or his other famous stand-bys.

Don't even get me started on the young adult lit section! ONE two-sided aisle! That's IT! And 90% of those books are vampire books!! There's the occasional Meg Cabot, but nothing of real substance! Where's the Maureen Johnson? The E. Lockhart?! For heavens sakes at least stock some Lois Lowry!!

So I'm begging you, Barnes and Noble (or any Western bookseller that's listening), please open a branch in Saudi Arabia. Yes, I know the censorship laws are horribly restrictive and probably more trouble than it's worth, but there are READERS here! I realize that the conservative leadership would never allow wonderful authors like John Green, Rachel Cohn, or Alex Sanchez through customs, but at least TRY to introduce some Ally Carter, Adam Rex, and Neil Gaiman! Their stories are not controversial, and have nothing to do with sucking blood. I know! You could open a branch inside a resort, one of those walled compounds that is an oasis from the prohibitive kill-joys that have a stronghold on the current literary situation.

This country is making a push for literacy before it even has anything to read! Do it for the desperate Americans who thought they were going to be able to enjoy a lazy afternoon with a good book. Do it for the Saudi children who don't know the wonders of Eric Carle, Don Freeman, or Mo Willems. Do it for the teenagers who think that Stephenie Meyers is the ultimate YAL author! The Kingdom needs to be enlightened, and I NEED A GOOD BOOK, DARNIT!

I'm begging you,

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Stickers are like crack

I'm happy to say that a time-honored trick of teachers around the world works even in the Middle East: stickers.

You'd think that because I teach seventh grade, the adhesive accouterments would be a total dud. Oh no, my friends. Stickers are like crack to seventh-graders. All you have to do is start to open your desk drawer and they go crazy.

Such is always the case with my angels. It's a fantastic classroom management tool.

One day, I was giving out stickers during a quick review of the previous day's information. If the student got the question right, she got a sticker. That's literally all there was to it, but you'd think I was handing out rainbows and unicorns with the way they were freaking out. It was hilarious.

I was just picking the stickers at random, not even looking at what I was sticking to each girl. I loved the fact that after getting the question right, the girls would treat their sticker like it was a newfound friend, stroking it and holding it while looking at it with a loving smile on their faces.

One of my more squirrelly girls was engrossed in her sticker, practically talking to it like a proud mother to her child. I watched as she valiantly placed the marking of her success on her chest and looked around to compare her prize to those of her classmates.

She looked at the girl across from her, and her smile drooped.

She quickly looked at the girl diagonally across from her, and the smile disappeared.

She looked at the girl next to her, asking her to move a lock of hair so she can better see the decoration. Her head snapped back in my direction, a look that was a mix of horror and dismay on her face.

"Teacher!!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, student?" I've started answering them that way every time they just call me "teacher" in hopes that they'll see how annoying it is.

"Teacher, everyone's sticker says 'good job!' or 'great!' or 'nice work!'" she said, stabbing her finger at the offending badges, "but mine only says, 'much better.'" Her shoulders dropped and she gave me her best puppy dog eyes with those last two words.

I threw my head back in laughter, which probably only served to confirm her paranoia. Who knew that stickers could cause so much trauma!?

Vicariously yours,

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stomp the runway

Last night, I went to a fashion show.

Normally, this wouldn't be such an odd event on my agenda. But I'm in Saudi Arabia, a land where the most you see of the female body is what you see when the wind causes the abaya to Marilyn Monroe and reveal some ankles or even a calf.

This fashion show was the culmination of work for a Senior Project and was completely student organized. I was dog tired from a long day of work, but some of my tenth-graders were modeling in the show, so I felt it was important I was there to support them.

Boy am I ever glad I went! It was unlike any fashion show I have ever been to. It started with the doors being opened and about 100 upper elementary and middle school girls clambering across the gym to claim front row seats (a friend and I had already staked our claims front and center because she was the teacher supervisor). The seniors decided that the front rows were reserved for mothers and teachers, so 4 or 5 of them were tasked with shooing the young girls away. It was so fun to watch the exasperation grow as they continually had to chase the same group of girls from the same clump of chairs. "Augh! They're not listening!!"

Welcome to my world, ladies.

As we waited for the show to start, the food started.

Yes. I said food. Like I said, this was unlike any fashion show. Trays of kibba (a delicious meat-stuffed rice patty), egg rolls, miniature fruit tarts, and cookies were paraded in front of us and girls with kahwa (Arabic coffee) made sure our paper cups never went dry. It was a wonderful distraction, but almost 40 minutes after the show was supposed to start, the aforementioned hordes of young girls were getting restless. And loud.

Thankfully, the show began shortly afterward. The DJ started the music and then yelled into the mic "ARE YOU READY?" and the gym was filled with the gleeful shrieks of hundreds of tweens.

You'd have thought we'd gone to a Bieber concert.

I loved the fact that the models wobbled their way down the runway in their 5 inch stilettos as much as I do in my pitiful 2 inch heels. It made me feel like I'm not the only one who has a hard time with fake height. The whole idea behind the senior project that the show was representing was that fashion projects unhealthy body images, and models don't have to be starved to be beautiful. There were 2 screens on which were projected real runway images, and on the runway in our gym were our real models wearing similar outfits, showing that healthy bodies can be high fashion.

At home, this same idea would feature a shot from a Gucci show and then a local girl wearing a JCPenney's imitation. She would look cute, but it would be obvious that she'd gotten her look at the mall.

But a few times in this show, Gucci was on the screen, and Gucci was in the gym. These girls had either borrowed or bought the REAL runway fashions.

Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Proud mothers dabbed tears, friends of the models, held up signs (yes, SIGNS) and screamed, and the models served up face as they stomped the runway surely feeling on top of the world. It kind of made me giggle, but I also felt a little sad.

These girls don't have Prom, or Homecoming. They have no excuse to get all dolled up and strut their stuff, so this fashion show must have been epic for them. The pinnacle of their school year. I was sitting next to a woman who wasn't even the mother of one of the models. She doesn't even have a daughter that goes to my school! She had just heard that there was going to be a fashion show and she came! That's how starved for entertainment the women in this country are.

I remember the magic of Prom and school dances and how fun it was to get dressed up and worshiped for a night. Every high school girl needs a chance to be the center of attention and told how beautiful she is. This fashion show gave that to a few girls, but it is a one-time thing, and there are hundreds more girls in this country who won't get that chance.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted but I was so happy for my students who were models and volunteers that helped make the night happen. The show was wonderfully organized and I'm sure it will be one of those awesome high school memories for many people there.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Forget snow days, King days are better!

Remember when you were a kid and you woke up one winter morning and tried to stumble to the bathroom for your shower, only to be stopped by your mom with the news that school was out for snow?

...if you're one of our readers in Saudi Arabia, the answer to that question is probably "no," but let me tell you, it's awesome!

This morning was much like that scenario, only we're experiencing mid-June temperatures. My alarm went off this morning and I sat up to rub the sleep from my eyes.

"mmphfm to sleep," the Mister mumbled. He often talks in his sleep, so I thought I had just disrupted his slumber and thought nothing of it.

"No school mmphhfm."

"What?" I said, much more interested now.

"The King said we don't have to go to school," was Mister's response, slightly more lucid now.

"Are you just sleep talking?" I said, a high level of skepticism in my voice.

"No, I got an email last night. There's no school today. The King said so."


Of course, by that point I was wide awake and had to tool around on the internet and read a book until the high wore off, but boy was it great!

I'm still not entirely sure why Baba Abdullah called off the day for us, but I'm certainly not complaining. Last night he addressed the country via state television, but I didn't watch because I still haven't been able to find the elusive English state tv channel I keep hearing so much about. From what I've gleaned in the news, King Abdullah announced that he will be pumping $66 BILLION more dollars into benefits for Saudi citizens.

I guess he's hoping that if he throws more money at it, his problem with protesters that keep popping up here and there will go away. Not really sure how all these benefits and placating words are being taken by the unhappy citizen of the country. All I know is foreign workers like me got a free day off!

Long live the King, indeed!

Vicariously yours,

Travel hints I've picked up along the way

Our travel quota has increased exponentially since we moved to Saudi Arabia. Not only is this a great jumping off point to go to places most people couldn't afford, but we just need to get out of this country every now and then.

Being that we live in the Middle East and one of our trips has been unceremoniously upstaged by the ever-so-popular civil uprising, I've picked up a few travel tricks for a couple of globe trotters just looking to get around.

1. When traveling to or from the Middle East, book directly through the airline. We've probably ended up paying a little extra by doing this, but it's saved us in the end. We booked directly through Egypt Air for our cancelled trip to Cairo in February, and as I've previously mentioned, we were able to get a full refund because of it. It also probably didn't hurt that we were in the cheaper fare class because we weren't flying transatlantic...but let's not dwell on the details.

This weekend, I had the delight of contacting KLM to redirect our flight to Berlin in April. We booked this travel with Bahrain as our point of origin way back in January--long before any of this mess in Bahrain had started up. BUT, now that Bahrain has declared 3 months of martial law, we thought it best to look for an alternative beginning and ending point.

I called KLM, explained my situation, and was able to change our plans FREE OF CHARGE! I'm certain this was only so easy because we'd booked directly through the airline instead of through a discount website. As long as we're living in the Middle East, this will be the only way we go.

2. Use the travel sites for everything else. Thanks to my sister who is in the industry, I've found out about fantastic "members-only" travel sites like Jetsetter, Voyage Prive, and Snique Away. While these sites usually provide me with some fantastic daydreams of Kenyan safaris and rain forest get-aways, we've been able to book some really affordable travel through them now and then. Our trip to Berlin is a direct result of a killer sale on Voyage Prive.

The links above are invitations, so click away and register. They're totally free to sign up--absolutely no commitment except for the occasional email in your inbox tempting you with fabulous all-inclusive vacations.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, March 18, 2011

Life lessons learned from Britney Spears

Sometimes I wonder what kind of impression of the United States Saudis are getting based on the entertainment they see on TV here. I had a very interesting conversation with some students the other day who described a typical US high school experience as being riddled by bullies pushing people into bathroom stalls, teachers looking the other way as couples made out, and principals who do nothing about the token geek being stuffed into a locker.

They were shocked when I told them that I'd never in my life seen or heard of anyone actually being stuffed into a locker against their will (we had a few guys in high school who tried it just to see if it was possible, but that was just funny), public displays of affection are generally against the rules and only done if the couples really try, and while there are bullies they tend to be more sneaky with their violence and teachers/principals are always on the lookout.

At first I was baffled that they would even think things like that actually happen...and then I started paying closer attention to the American television they're exposed to. Gossip Girl, Jersey Shore, Glee, Vampire Diaries...we look like a bunch of drunk, shallow, pregnant, death-obsessed loons! (Let's not even get into the fact that some of my students didn't think Glee was a comedy so much as high school with songs. "No, Miss. It's not funny. That's what high school's really like." oy.)

Last night I watched Crossroads, the 2002 cinematic feat starring America's sweetheart: Britney Spears.

You're judging me. I can feel it.

First of all: Whaat?! Why is this movie even showing here!? And why couldn't I look away!? It was like a car accident on the interstate. I knew it was going to be bad, but I just couldn't avert my eyes. In an attempt to save face, I decided to try to see this movie with non-American eyes and turn it into a culture-bridging blog post.

Perception of the West based on Crossroads no. 1: Americans eventually come to hate their childhood best friends. If you think about it, this isn't just a theme in Crossroads. Tons of movies show the childhood friends making a blood pact to never ever leave each other and then the next scene is a flash forward of them ignoring each other in their high school hallways.

THIS ISN'T AS COMMON AS THEY WANT YOU TO THINK!! Of course people drift apart from some of their childhood friends, but rarely do people hoard such resentment towards people whose toenails they used to paint. Facebook is filled with thousands of people who have known each other since diapers and who still love each other very much. And if friends do have a falling out, they generally don't mend their ties by going on a cross-country road trip with a strangely attractive ex-con in a classic car.

Man, look at those gas prices. Those were the days.

Perception of the West based on Crossroads no. 2: Valedictorians are total nerds who regret their academic accomplishments. Yes, I'm going to skim over the fact that Britney Spears's character was valedictorian...A valedictorian who expressed her dissatisfaction with her high school experience in poorly-delivered, unemotional lines to her father (played by Dan Akroyd. To quote the Mister, "What happened to that guy!?"). Most valedictorians are not regarded as total losers who are to be avoided like the social plague. In fact they're usually very well-rounded, well-liked individuals who have lots of friends. They might even have a romantic relationship. GASP! You mean they can actually be desirable?!?!

While I'm sure some valedictorians might look back and think, "Man, I missed out on the homecoming game. I should have gone to more pep rallies." I'm pretty sure that regret doesn't settle in until their mid-40s. Mine and the Mister's valedictorian went on to YALE. For biomedical engineering. I'm pretty sure she's not regretting missing Senior Skip Day. High school's great and all, but tangible personal accomplishments are better.

Perception of the West based on Crossroads no. 3: Virginity past 18 is like social suicide. I realize that this rant is going to sound very odd considering my last post, but NOT ALL AMERICAN TEENAGERS ARE SEX-CRAZED HOOLIGANS WHO HUMP THE FIRST THING THAT WILL TAKE ITS CLOTHES OFF! No one starts a conversation by asking whether or not you and your boyfriend have done "it" yet. It's absolutely no one's business and in my high school, keeping your virginity was the norm. If you did choose to give it up, no one cared and no one knew unless you told them.

Even once you get to college, virgins are not impossible to find and if anyone made fun of you for being one, that person was unceremoniously written-off as the token jerk. As the Mister says, "This isn't an American Pie movie. People are allowed to make their decisions" and the co-eds in American colleges respect those decisions.

Perception of the West based on Crossroads no. 4: A trio of teenage girls can tart themselves up and earn several hundred dollars singing karaoke in a New Orleans bar.

Cause nothing makes you wanna make it rain like a pregnant teenager.

Um. no. If they're going to earn money in a New Orleans bar, it ain't gonna be by keeping their clothes on. And they're certainly not going to just waltz in off the street and immediately start earning money for their mediocre karaoke. Just. not. realistic.

Perception of the West based on Crossroads no. 5: Everyone has a mom/parent who doesn't want them. Britney's foray into Hollywood isn't the only example of American cinema that has a character that has been abandoned by one or both parents. Yes, hardship and strained relationships with your parents can be a theme in just about everyone's life at one time or another. But a whole heck of a lot of us have two parents who love us very much and have never just walked out on their family without looking back. Those parents may not be married to each other anymore, and the children of divorced parents might feel abandoned, but the maturity that comes with age often reverses those feelings, not confirms them.

Yeesh, if all these conclusions could be drawn just by watching Britney's pathetic attempt at a feature film, I don't want to know what people think after watching an episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Things that made me go "...huh."

This country has been a bit of an enigma since we moved here in September. On one hand we've seen a few of the Western misconceptions of Saudi Arabia confirmed, and on the other they've been totally blown away.

For example: It's a well known fact that homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia. People are jailed for even hinting they might be gay, and those out of the closet are put to death. Because of this, I expected to see nothing but uber-macho men, doing their best to look as straight as possible. Flexed muscles, sports talk, and enlarged personal space bubbles (you thought I was going to say something else, didn't you? Dirty). What I was met with was quite the opposite: men with fingers entwined giggling as they crossed a busy street. Men kissing each other on the cheeks as a greeting--in the Emirates, they even touch noses and air kiss!! Men walking arm-in-arm, or pinkie-in-pinkie as they window shopped at the mall together. Men flipping their shmogs and gutras as if they were Fabio with long locks of hair. Men more preoccupied with their looks and fashion than I am!!

SOO many body language signs and behaviors that in the West would indicate you bat for the other team. But here it's totally normal!

On the flip side, I expected girls to be typical girls. At home, girls are squealing masses of hugging, hair-twirling, hand-holding hormones. I think some girls in the West have figured out that the eroticism of the hint of lesbianism excites their teenage counterparts, so they play it up to the max.

"What?! We're just friends! Friends ALWAYS hug when they've not seen each other for one. whole. class. period!"

Here the girls are just as squeally as at home (if not more), but they do. not. touch. I rarely see my students hug each other, and even when one of them is upset by something, all she gets is a platonic arm around the shoulder and concerned look. When girls at home would be embracing and cuddling up during a school assembly, my students are giving each other the socially required amount of personal space you'd give a distant acquaintance.

Another example: I grew up in the American South. Land of the Evangelicals and Fox News. In the South, if you want to buy a box of condoms, you have to go to the pharmacy and ask the nice man or woman behind the counter for the product you desire. The pharmacist will then unlock a glass case which is located next to the anti-depressants and flu shots. That is, unless the glass case is in FRONT of the counter. Then he has to leave his post and it's a big production.

tee hee, that'll show those fornicating teenagers. They'll be too embarrassed to have to clarify which condom size they need to even THINK about buying condoms or having sex! If you're already married, you have nothing to be embarrassed of. Just be sure to flash that wedding band when the pharmacist rings up the box of Magnums and he won't judge.

Coming from a land where sex is so shameful to a land where I thought sex is equally shameful, I never expected to be greeted with a giant condom and lube aisle in the grocery store! There are even brands of condoms I didn't even know existed! Every size, every shape. Even the ones designed for her pleasure! And the lube! Oh wow! There are so many varieties of personal lubricant, even a sex therapist would blush. Last night, while driving home, I even saw one of those big, energy wasting LED billboards advertising Astroglide!


Another example: The grocery store will sell condoms like a champ, but tampons?! Don't even think about it! There are aisles and aisles of feminine napkins (I've always hated that term. It makes me think of dinner linens being stuffed down one's panties and that makes me gag), but try to find one of those sinful, virginity-stealing cotton bullets and you're plumb out of luck!

I knew the importance of virginity to this society so it doesn't surprise me that girls are expected to endure the disgusting-ness that is the sanitary pad (because we all know that the hymen is the ONLY thing that makes a girl a virgin). But once they're married, shouldn't the ladies enjoy the freedom of the Tampax?! Ladies, you have no idea what you're missing!!

Yet another example (and yes, this one has to do with sexuality too): I've already discussed the fact that I expected human sexuality to be totally taboo and repressed...but then I went to the mall! In each mall there is a sock store. Leggings, tights, and the modesty they provide are all the rage in Saudi right now, so I think the sock stores are thriving. In one particular sock store, kind of toward the back, there were some stockings that can only be described as naughty. These fishnet thigh highs are the type of thing I'd expect to see at a Spencer's or Fredrick's of Hollywood back home. Not out in the open in conservative Saudi Arabia!

At one particular mall, there are role-play outfits in the window display. Does your husband like the naughty nurse? They have two choices! Prefer the dominatrix look? You're in luck! There was a cop, a construction worker, and French maid outfit too! (Don't be fooled into thinking this was a Halloween store, either. As an Islamic country, Saudi Arabia only celebrates Muslim holidays)

I was scandalized! This was in a shopping center in Saudi Arabia! There were families strolling by! The last thing I expected to find here was outfits solely created for sexual role playing!

It just goes to show you, Americans think they know, but they don't! Saudi Arabia truly is a land of mysteries and surprises!

Vicariously yours,

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wow. That escalated quickly.

This morning while watching the news, I saw reports that the tear gas and rubber bullets were brought out again in Bahrain. The protesters have figured out that they're just being placated, so they decided to march on the business district of Bahrain to hit 'em where it hurts, as they say. In a country that stamps your passport with greetings like, "Welcome to Business Friendly Bahrain," I should have known that this sort of move would not be taken lightly.

This afternoon, the Mister and I were welcomed home by machine guns and tanks lined up on the causeway going to Bahrain. Literally. Saudi is sending in the troops. There are two trucks with machines guns blocking the entrance to the bridge. It looks like non-military people are not being allowed to go onto the causeway.

Judging by the license plates, these cars are a mix of Saudis and Bahrainis. A lot of Bahrainis work in Saudi Arabia, and considering there was no indication of this sort of action as of this morning, they must have left for work this morning with no back up supplies. I wonder where they're going to spend the night. Oy.

(side note: the article linked above cites a Reuters source stating that Saudi troops were mobilizing early this morning...unless they mean before the sunrise, I'm not sure what they're talking about. It was business as usual this AM)

Of course, we're totally safe over here. The Mister and I are going to leave in a bit to go to a game of ultimate frisbee. Life continues in the Kingdom as usual. Minus a few tanks and such, of course.

Vicariously yours,

Awkward American (aka Tyler)

I had the strangest experience that I've had yet in the Kingdom, today. Some American educators came and took a tour of our school. I think the idea was to show them how a Saudi private school works (and we are kind of the best one...nbd). I met with one of them who was actually a very interesting and nice guy who taught at a school in Houston. Anyway he asked the normal questions you would ask like:
"What are the differences that you see in teaching Saudis vs. Americans?"
"How long do you have?" I replied.

We then had a kind of panel discussion about Arabs, America, the future of the Middle East, etc. It was in the midst of this discussion that I realized that I was totally experiencing culture shock. I was sitting on the other side of the table from these American educators...both physically and figuratively.

The big thing I noticed is that they sounded the way I did when I first got here. We as Americans really want to be open minded...and I think we actually are. However, we don't really know how to be...and we're kinda bad at it. Much of what we do to try and connect with people is show that we empathize...we understand your experience or we use our experience to try and understand it. There's nothing wrong with this...I know it's well intended and I will probably do it every time I go to a new place. I realized, though, that I understood something that many Americans do not get the chance to understand: we don't get it. We try really hard, but we just don't. As a nation, as foreign policy, as world citizens...we miss the point a lot.

Now before you go all "tea party" on me and get upset for thinking that we don't get it...that's part of the problem. One of the issues is the political thing...I kept asking my students and my colleagues what they want America to do. They keep telling me they don't want us to do anything. Just let them do what they do. I understand that we have a vested interest here involving terrorism and our only legitimate source of fuel, so we can't just do nothing. But I hear on the news and commentary in American media this same question I was always asking..."what do they want us to do?!" It really does prove that we are missing the point.

The educators that came were great guys. I certainly don't want to take anything away from the them. I am proud that my countrymen wanted to make a hell of a trek over here to actually find out what schools in the Kingdom are like. I'm glad that the students got to speak to more Americans that aren't shouting about how Islam is going to destroy the United States. I'm glad that we got to sit down and talk with them and tell them what it's like to teach internationally as an American. But I couldn't help noticing a great deal of almost reverse culture shock at the way they were answering questions about Arab-American issues.

Again, I don't have this place figured out. I could not even dream of saying that I "get it". But I think that I do understand that I don't...and from the way that acknowledging this has paved the way for deeper, more fruitful, and all around better conversations with my students and seems that this is the way to go.

On a related note: I was totally accidentally awkward because of some social cues here. One of the things here is that you shake hands with people every time you see them. You shake hands in the morning, in the hall way, even when you tell a good joke. As your students are coming in the room it's like a receiving line. This made for an awkward moment when I shook one of the guy's hands like twice and reached out for a third time on the way out the door...I was denied...realized immediately how weird it must have seemed to them and awkwardly explained the unnecessary hand shaking. They laughed uncomfortably and we parted felt like that Arrested Development episode when Michael is talking to that British girl and says something like, "...and so I bid you good morrow" and walks away mouthing "what is wrong with me...". Yeah, just like that.

Vicariously yours,

What do your dogs say?

Once again, I have a wonderful memory with my English cluster secretary that I will cherish.

Today, after school, we were working on my Arabic (it's coming along at a snail's pace), and I was looking the word for "bookshelves." Because the word is plural, it's said "rufoof" (a creative transliteration, of course).

"So what should I say if I want to say 'one bookshelf'?" I asked

"One bookshelf? Ruff." she answered.

"Oh! Like what dogs say!" I said, more for my benefit than hers. However, I knew from her quizzical look she had no idea what I was talking about.

"You know! What do dogs say? 'Ruff! Ruff!'" I said.

"Oh. Is that what dogs say in English? Here they said 'howw howw!'" she replied with a laugh.

We had a great time with that one! I love the fact that animals "say" something different in each language!

Vicariously yours,

This whole ordeal of course made me think of this, my favorite dog:

I mean, I'm all for freedom of expression, but Scheiße!

Everyone remembers when they learned words like "Scheiße" and "merde" and started working these words into their vocabulary, feeling like a stealthy cultural renegade, right? Just me? Good talk.

Anyway, my point is a lot of people think that because it's a cuss word in someone else's language, it doesn't count as a bad word in mine! So if I want to say "shit" in German, no one will know what I'm saying and it's no harm no foul!

(Unless of course someone nearby sprechen sie deutsch.)

This flawed logic seems to be in effect among the students in Saudi Arabia. The only problem is, they're cussing in English...and just about every single student (and all the administrators...and a lot of the teachers) in the building speaks English. There's nothing stealth about this vulgarity, and the girls don't seem to care.

For example, I was sitting in the English cluster during recess the other day and the upper high school girls were participating in a little public speaking contest. This is a VERY big deal for the girls, and they were very nervous. As one girl was reaching for the door knob she let out--crystal clearly and at a conversational tone--"Oh shit."

I mean...YOU'RE IN THE ENGLISH CLUSTER!! Directly in front of teachers! If she had said it under her breath, I could have let it slide, but seriously?!

Someone doesn't get the grade she was expecting on a test. "Oh, dammit!"

A girl is surprised by a tidbit of gossip at lunch. "What the hell!?"

I haven't heard anybody blatantly drop the f-bomb, but I'm sure the day is coming. And I'm sure it'll get dropped just as unapologetically as the rest of the expletives that are already carelessly flung through the air.

I'm positive the girls don't think they are breaking any social rules with this behavior. In fact I had the luxury of getting to over hear a conversation today between a few 11th and 12th graders debating the vulgarity of words like "hell," and "damn" and "shit."

"I mean, they're just words."

Classic argument. Foolproof.

Let's just hope the girls can remember to turn the filters on before any college interviews or important events.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bet you've never seen something like this on your daily commute to work.

Look closely, folks. The picture turned out badly because I didn't turn the flash off before I quickly snapped this piece of evidence. But inside the red circle you can clearly see what the Mister and I lovingly call the "Snapper Guys." We see these guys almost everyday when we get off the highway to go to school.

Two guys on a Snapper riding lawnmower. We saw them the first time and laughed at the preposterousness of it. At the time, the seasons were changing, so the scorching temperatures were making way for more grass-friendly climes. So we figured maybe they were going to mow somebody's lawn and didn't have a truck to load the Snapper on. Made sense.

But we've literally seen them at least 3 times a week since. This leads us to believe that this Snapper riding mower IS their mode of transportation.

And there's two of them.


Vicariously yours,

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I'm really getting tired of WALLS

On Wednesday, the high school went to the beach. The woman who owns the school also owns a very nice beach complex, and she opens it to the students each year. The beach day is sort of like the Saudi version of the American field day. But without organized games or competitions...or organized anything, really. We just laid around the property, dipped our feet in the water, and soaked up the beautiful weather. It was a very nice day.

Before going, I'd heard tales of this wondrous beach house. The other English teachers went on and on about how nice the house is, and how beautiful the beach itself was. "You just sit on the beach and you can see miles and miles!" one of them said.

While the houses and other buildings on the property were very impressive, and the water was so blue and beautiful, I found myself walking away from the whole experience with a feeling of "meh." A quizzical, slightly culture shocked "meh." But meh nonetheless.

When I go to the beach, I want to be able to look left and see for miles, and look right and see for miles. But at this beach, I looked left, and I saw this:

And when I got to the other end of the property and looked right, I saw this:


I've mentioned before that if a piece of property has been purchased--even if nothing is built on it--the owner has to put a wall around it. I'm still uncertain as to the logic behind this rule, but it I guess it clarifies property lines for any prospective land purchasers with large architectural plans. But at the BEACH?! Really?! Is nothing sacred anymore?

I guess the Saudis would say yes. Their privacy is sacred. So sacred that they will build a wall 100 feet out into the sea to prevent prying eyes from drinking in their exposed bodies. I can't help but think that all this wall building and secrecy only makes people more nosy.

In Miami, for example, there are various beaches. There are parts of the beach that are...more liberal than others. But there are no walls separating the topless section from the more family-friendly section of the sand. And it's no big deal! Of course you end up with the creepers with video cameras that will troll the topless beach looking for a rise (literally), but that's the risk you take when you go to the topless beach. From what I understand, people rarely accidentally wander onto the topless beach. You pay attention to your surroundings and mind your own darn business!

Of course there would be absolutely NOTHING resembling a topless beach in Saudi Arabia, so why is there the need for the walls? Are people here just that nosy? Do they not teach their children that it's rude to stare? Are the young boys not raised with a respect for sunbathing women and families?

I just don't understand the walls. And I'm getting a little tired of them.

Even away from the shore, the walls feel so...unfriendly. I have no idea what my neighbors look like, and I'm not sure which one of them has the rooster that wakes me up every single morning. One of them has gotten a peacock, but I don't know which because of all the walls. There is not neighborly kindness here because you never make eye contact with your neighbors. It makes Saudis seem really rude and unfriendly. But the Saudis I've met at work have been just the opposite. For a country that's so concerned with appearances and perception, you'd think they would be willing to lower the property wall a little bit just to have some human contact.

It's all very curious.

That's all.

Vicariously yours,

I'm experiencing a sprinkling of culture shock, perhaps

In the grand scheme of things, women's education is a relatively new thing in Saudi Arabia. It first became legal in the 1960s/70s, but didn't become popular till later. That means my students are only the second generation of women in their families to even be allowed to get an education. SECOND.

In America, women girls were allowed to go to school as early at the 1700s. It wasn't popular and many universities didn't open their doors to women until the 1920s, but that means that I haven't met a generation of women in my family that didn't go to school.

So I can understand the apathy and the disinterest in education among students in the United States. Students in America have the freedom to choose to be uneducated. If you're a high school drop out, there are still opportunities for you--they generally involve a McDonald's name tag or a mop/broom, but you have the freedom to make that choice.

Until just over a decade ago, women in Saudi Arabia didn't even have the choice to drop out of school! You can't drop out of something you're not allowed into! So the apathy and disdain for education among my students blows my mind. These girls KNOW someone who didn't go to school. These girls SEE women who are denied rights because of lack of education or because of gender discrimination. I expected that, of anybody in the "developed" world, they would understand the importance of education.

Last week, when we had the fire, girls were asking if it was real or just a drill. "Insh'allah it is real and the whole school burns down," one giddy seventh-grader said, arm-in-arm with an equally bubbly friend. They weren't the only ones who groaned in disappointment when we were let back into the building only to find that it was a very minor fire and no damage was done to classrooms or computer labs. The next day I had several students that said they had hoped the fire would be more serious so they wouldn't have to come back to school.

What?! I was shocked. I would expect that kind of flippant remark from a student in the States. Usually my kids said something like that just to get a rise out of the teachers. I taught middle school, and sixth-graders generally don't have a filter. My students back home were no exception.

But here!? My students are just as callous about education here?! This country is on the cusp of major change, and the GIRLS in my classroom could potentially be the leaders of that change. But 95% of them appear to care less about learning and more about being able to sit around and do nothing.

Do nothing. Which is exactly what their government forced women to do a mere 2 generations ago. Just sit at home, girls. No need for you to think.

Maybe I see a different side of my students because I'm the foreign language teacher. Very few of my students take English seriously (to clarify, they take their grades seriously, but actually learning and applying the language? no.) and most of them make it clear to me through their behavior that they don't take me seriously at a teacher. Perhaps in their Arabic classes they are the driven, determined, change-making girls that I was hoping to find before I moved to this country.

Because if they aren't, the men have won.

Vicariously yours,