Before we moved:
"We're moving to Saudi Arabia."
After we moved:
"We just moved here from the United States."
I've always found it so funny that we've gotten the same reaction to our move on both ends of the line. People at home were confused as to our relocation choice and most assumed we were leaving to become missionaries. Why else would anyone voluntarily move to Saudi Arabia?
When I got here and started introducing myself, my new co-workers gave me the exact same perplexed expression when I told them I'd come to live in their country--and that I wasn't the wife of an Aramcon. Why else would anyone voluntarily move to Saudi Arabia?
"You mean your husband doesn't work for Aramco?! He works in the boys school!? What are you doing here?!"
This wasn't exactly the reception I was expecting. I guess being that I'm from America, land of opportunity, I'm used to people just nodding their heads as if to say, "Of course you moved here. Why wouldn't you?" But the Saudis have been asking us "Why would you?!"
Initially I answered with, "Why not?" I got answers such as:
- There's nothing to do here.
- It's not really fun here.
- America is so much more free.
- It's so beautiful in America.
- You don't have to cover up in America
- Life is really hard here, especially for women.
- You can't drive.
Eventually I stopped asking "why not" because I was getting depressed with the answers. I was getting the impression that people are really miserable here! You'd think this country is a prison, but most of the women I work with have gone to college, and a lot of them went to college outside the Kingdom. So they left. A lot of them went to North America. So they REALLY left.
...So why'd they come back!?
I was muddling this question over after seeing a colleague on the way out the door this afternoon. She happens to be the mother of one of the Mister's students and she is wonderfully sweet. She always stops to talk to me and compliment my husband whenever I see her.
"What did you do for the break?" she asked. I explained that we went to Berlin and had a great time. I said we were a little sad to come back to the routine and wanted to stay in Europe instead.
"Did you cry? On the plane? Did you just cry the whole way back?" she asked, totally serious.
If the Saudis are so miserable here, why don't they leave? I've always thought this behavior is so bizarre, and then I realized, Saudis are no different than small town Americans. How many people from itty bitty small towns have said, "One day, I'm getting the heck out of here!" only to move right back home after college. And there are other similarities.
People in small towns entertain themselves in much the same way the youth of Saudi Arabia do: cruise around town with the music up, smoke cigarettes, go to the mall (if there is one), go on the internet. I'm sure if Saudis had Wal-Marts, they'd be hanging out in the parking lots just as much as the kids at home. One thing that my students have all said is, "It's SO boring here!" Just like the kids in small towns.
So what is it that keeps kids from small towns and the average Saudi from picking up and heading to the big city (or the West, in the case of the Saudis)?
For the most part, the answers are obvious: this is their home, their families are here, moving is hard and stressful.
In the case of the Saudis, family fidelity is extremely strong. When I think about my family, I think of my husband, the kids we'll eventually have, our parents, grandparents, and our siblings. We've left most of the people on that list behind, but the wonders of technology make the distance seem small.
When a Saudi thinks about her family, she means her husband, her kids, her parents, her grandparents, all her aunts and uncles (on hers and her husbands side), her cousins, nephews and nieces, second and third cousins, and more. It could literally be over a hundred people. If a Saudi were to move away permanently, she would have to bring a small town with her in order to be happy.
There's also the cultural aspect of moving out of Saudi Arabia. In case you haven't noticed, this country is unlike any other in the world. The culture shock of being removed from your family and being thrust into a whole life (not a pretend life like college) has got to seem daunting and totally intimidating to a Saudi.
So see, we're not so different after all. We all want to be surrounded by familiar faces, places, and the comforts of home.