Friday, June 24, 2011

Spoiler alert: This post is about toilet water

This post is dedicated to my hilarious friend Kimmie. Read her blog and become addicted.

With this blog, the Mister and I try to reveal what life is like in Saudi Arabia, but you won't find political observations and religious epiphanies here. There are plenty of other places to find such commentary. No, we want to tell you what really makes Saudi different, from an expat's perspective.

Thus, I feel it is my mission, nay my obligation to share this little nugget of information with you: The toilet water has gotten ridiculously hot. Seriously. It's out of control.

I've mentioned before (here and here) that the "cold" water tank is located outside, which means there is no such thing as cold water in a Saudi summer. I never thought this would also translate to our toilet water.

Don't get freaked out, I'm not drinking the toilet water or taking temperature data for some sort of disgusting research--the boredom hasn't gotten that bad yet. The reason I know the toilet water has reached the desired temperature of a hot bath is because when you lift the lid in the morning, it's like opening a sauna. Your face is washed with a cloud of steam, and the seat is covered in beads of lukewarm toilet sweat. It's vile.

"But Amber, why don't you just leave the lid up all the time?"

You're so smart! We also thought of that possible solution, and it does take care of the toilet-seat-turned-slip-and-slide issue. However, being a girl, I still get the pleasure of a butt steam bath every time I sit down to take care of business...and that's every time I take care of business. Plus, if we leave the lid up all the time, our bathroom becomes a steam room of toilet nastiness. We don't have an air conditioner in the bathroom, just a little window, and opening that means we'll be adding dust into the mix. Butt mud bath, anyone? Sick.

At first I thought this was just a quirk of our house. We do, after all, have walls that randomly fall off and plugs of various voltages throughout. But then I went to the restroom while visiting someone on a compound across town and had the same humid experience there!

I know this post is a little crass. It's certainly not revealing the lovely side of life. And I know those of you who don't know me personally must think I'm some bathroom obsessed weirdo American in Saudi Arabia--this is my second post on my lavatory lamentations in as many months. But give me a little credit, people! Next to eating, going to the bathroom is the only thing that is done consistently in EVERY PART OF THE WORLD! It's my duty (pun TOTALLY intended) to report to everyone out there what we're really experiencing, in all facets of life!

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The eX-pat Factor

Expatriates are a different kind of people. In his memoir Going Solo, Roald Dahl described the British expats of the 1940s as having a language all their own, sprinkled with words from the various countries of the British Empire, and being a very eccentric group of interesting characters. While he went on to describe the peculiarities of British expats, I couldn't help but agree that expatriates around the world are similar animals still today.

Perhaps it's because we live in Saudi Arabia, and it takes a special kind of person to relocate to the Magic Kingdom. But we've noticed a pattern among the expatriates here.

Part 1: the initial introduction. Remember your freshman year of college? It was like everyone had a script, all the first conversations were the same, right? It's similar here. Everyone has a set of questions. They are as follows (and usually in this order, too): Where are you from? How long have you been here? Why did you come to Saudi Arabia? Where do you live? Where do you work? Are you married? Is your spouse in the Kingdom too?

There's always at least one person in a crowd that picks up on your accent and makes an assumption about your origins. "So what part of the States are you from?" This usually goes successfully, until you meet an accent neutral person like me or my friend Sandra (who happens to be from Canada). I just don't assume, and yet there's always one Brit, Australian, or New Zealander who gets offended when I if to say, "Duh! I have an accent! Why do you even ask where I'm from!?"

Part 2: the need to be the most interesting person in the room. At home, expatriates are automatically interesting. Most people you meet on the street don't live in Saudi Arabia, so it's an instant conversation piece. But here, everyone lives in Saudi Arabia (duh), so we try to compensate somehow. We fit into the following categories:
  • The drunk-in-exotic-locations guy-- You know the guy. He's everywhere, but he's especially obnoxious in his expatriate form. This guy feels the need to tell as many stories of his drunken exploits around the world as possible. Dude, he was so wasted in Bangkok this one time, it was so great. And another time, he was stoned out of his mind in Moscow and then he got questioned by the cops! And this other time, he was mainlining heroin in Guatemala--ok, maybe that's a little extreme, but you get the idea.
  • The Lifer--This person moved to Saudi Arabia with her husband when she was 23, intending to stay for 5 years, and she hasn't left since. She's now 55. She thinks you're so cute with your starry-eyed look and culturally sensitive observations of life in Saudi Arabia. She'll bust out with borderline racist comments soon, and dare you to call her out.
  • The Teacher--This is our category. As certificated teachers, the Mister and I are in the minority of teachers in Saudi Arabia, and I'm not just referring to our Saudi counterparts. I'd go so far as to say 90% of the expatriate teachers we've met here are not "real" teachers. They fit in the next category.
  • The English teacher--The English teacher has no interest in education. He just wanted an easy way to travel the world, and in this down job market, getting his TOEFL certificate and hitting the road was a great option. And because he's a native English speaker, he's just the warm body his employer needed. This guy is usually the sociology major who doesn't want to get his masters degree yet. He is especially cynical about his classroom exploits and is continuously counting down to the next semester break when he can explore jungles of Thailand on a budget. And he hates real teachers. With their genuine passion, teacher jargon and drive to be the best they can be at their jobs, teachers are so obnoxious!
  • The ex-military--This guy hates Saudi Arabia. He's here to train Saudi naval officers about the latest weapons system, and he's pissed that he can't get a proper beer. And he's gonna tell you about it. His stories are similar to drunk-in-exotic-locations guy, only with more gunfire and uniforms.
It's worth mentioning that all of these groups of people are always seen in mixed company. Even though you probably wouldn't hang out with drunk-in-exotic-locations guy under normal circumstances, you're going to see him at every party, dinner theater, or expat gathering. Eventually he calms down and becomes a genuine friend. English teachers get over themselves, as do the real teachers, and they become great allies. The newbies begin to actually learn things from the lifers and the ex-military becomes everyone's go-to guy for an interesting story. And then they all move on to part 3.

Part 3: Pick up a weird hobby. The choices for entertainment are limited in Saudi Arabia, so expats have to get creative. What you choose to do in your free time adds to how interesting you are as a person. People join book clubs, start crafting, develop an unprecedented interest in Zumba, or find a weird sport. Closet thespians come out in force. People suddenly become super interested in community involvement or start on their first novel. Embroidery, quilting, origami. You name it, the expats in Saudi Arabia are dabbling in it.

Sometimes expats take part in hobbies they don't particularly enjoy just for the purpose of adult interaction. I have the feeling that's a world-wide behavior, though.

The Mister and I are still getting our wits about us with regards to hobbies and groups of friends. I never expected to have such a hard time making friends and trying to hang out with them. I really appreciate the silly entertainment options of home: laser tag, bar trivia, and karaoke. As cheesy as those options can be, I'd KILL for a good evening out with any of them as the main diversion.

For the most part, the pattern of expat life in Saudi Arabia consists of these 3 parts, generally cycling through the process every time you meet a new group of people. I'm not sure if this is the case for expats in other parts of the world, but I personally find this aspect of international life hilariously interesting.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Odd oddities

It should come as no surprise that I expected some obvious differences between my American students and my Saudi students. I went from a coeducational classroom to a single gender. I knew there would be wardrobe changes, girly behavior for miles, and an abundance to language barriers. Those expectations have been the case just about every day since we arrived in the Kingdom. I figured otherwise, the students would be the same as everywhere else.

To a degree, that is true. I've shared stories of how my Saudi students have reminded me so much of my American kids. But there are a few oddities that my girls have that are so funny, I have to share. I have no idea if this is the case with all Saudi students, or if mine are just especially quirky, but these little peculiarities are often very entertaining.

They're perfectionists! You'd never believe it based of a cursory glance of the litter strewn about the floor and playgrounds, but when it comes to their work, my students are total fussbudgets! I have my students make a lot of graphic organizers in my class, just quick charts and bubble maps and things like that. I don't like to make the copies for them because I think having the kids actually do it will help them associate the skill with the logic behind why we use graphic organizers in the first place. But heavens! As soon as I said, "Make a T chart," the rulers were out and the anxiety went through the roof!

It's exam season again, and I proctored a geometry exam today. I was given a spiral pad of graph paper for the girls to use, and had to tear each page out individually. Nine times out of ten, as soon as I gave the paper to a girl, she got out her ruler, used it as a tearing edge and took off the little paper tabs that are left behind when you tear a sheet out of the spirals. So funny!

Everything has to be in pen. I think this is the fault of my girls' former teachers. Personally, I avoid using pens unless I have no choice. I make lots of mistakes, and I like the way pencil lead looks on paper anyway. As a teacher, I don't really care what my students write in as long as it's not an obnoxious shade of pink, purple or green. Blue or black ink pens, or pencils of any kind are totally good to go in my class. I have literally answered the question, "Can we write in pencil?" almost everyday since the school year started. One time I actually had a student respond with "You're so kind!!" when I told her she could write in pencil! I guess using graphite isn't common practice with their other teachers.

Everything is subject to white-out. Although I broke this habit with some of my kids by the end of the year, this quirk has slowed down so many lessons and tests this year. Despite being told repeatedly that they can just scratch out their answers and write the correct word, my students insist on whiting out every possible mistake! Even on simple worksheets that are meant to be a quick classwork assignment. And everyone hates the smudge that results from hastily writing over semi-dry correction fluid, so my girls will wait for it to dry completely before correcting their mistake. They don't use a little white out, so they often have to wait for a while.

The nose bleed fake out. Teacher/mom friends: When a child approaches you with a panicked look on her face, cupping her hand over her nose, what do you assume? She's got a nose bleed, right? Not the case in Saudi Arabia (with the exception of one student who actually would get nose bleeds in the winter months). The sniffle doesn't exist here, so if the girls have even a modicum of suspicion about the status of their snot, the hand goes over the nose and they simply cannot function until they have a kleenex.

In my world, if you get a simple little nostril blockage--possibly post sneeze-- you just sniffle a bit, perhaps swipe the back of your hand across the ol' schnoz. You don't interrupt class and give your teacher palpitations by giving the impression that you're oozing blood from your nose!

A tenet of Islam is cleanliness, so I assume this compulsive need to prevent any hint of snot anywhere south of the septum (not even outside the nostrils!) is borne from that.

It's been an interesting year, to say the least, and getting used to the little idiosyncrasies of my Saudi students has certainly added to the challenge.

And to the humor.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's your favorite part...

The Mister and I are approaching the end of our first school year in Saudi Arabia. That means the most popular question I was asked by my students this week was, "Teacher, what's your favorite thing about living in Saudi Arabia?"

That's a tough question to answer. I had to stop and think for a while the first time I was asked this, and I think my students interpreted that as me finding it hard to come up with something I liked about living in Saudi Arabia. And I guess that's partially true.

No, the Mister and I aren't totally miserable living here, I enjoy many things about living in Saudi Arabia, but these are not things that are uniquely Saudi. I could meet really cool people anywhere in the world. I would get a classroom full of awesome students that I enjoy teaching at home, in Europe, in Africa...anywhere. That's not something I like about living in Saudi, that's something I like about being a teacher.

Truth is, in the 10 months that we've lived here, I don't know a lot about true Saudi society. At least not enough to definitely say, "I like this about Saudi Arabia." Instead I would have to say, "I like this about such-and-such compound," or "I like this food item that can be found in most international restaurants."

It's really hard to connect with Saudis, especially because I don't speak Arabic and I'm not Muslim. Neighbors don't become friends with their neighbors. They meet in the mosque and then form we're obviously out of luck when it comes to that. The Saudi ladies at work are so busy with their own classrooms, we don't have time to socialize. I can't go to social functions because I'm not invited. All in all, living in Saudi Arabia is a pretty isolated life.

I'm so incredibly thankful for the few Saudi friends I do have, and I'm making it a personal goal to get to know the true culture of Saudi Arabia in the second half of my contract.

Vicariously yours,

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Featured Photo: So aadi

As reported earlier, the side of our house fell off last Wednesday. Yesterday, the guys came to fix it, and as you can see they set up some scaffolding. It appears they got a little rough and careless with their work because when we opened the door to go to work this morning, we found that the glass on our gate was shattered. Bits of thick glass covered our front steps.

American me would have been indignant. First of all, they left the work area in a complete mess. We had to step over circular saws, dried cement piles and bits of tile as we made our way to our car. AND on top of that, they leave glass all over our front door, and our gate completely exposed. American me from 10 months ago would have called up the foreman right there and let him have a piece of my mind.

Fast forward 10 months to Saudi me. I open my front door to a welcome mat full of glass, and I just roll my eyes and sigh. This is so aadi. So typical. So not surprising. Saudi me doesn't get mad and frustrated. She just tells her husband to get our his phone and take a snapshot for posterity.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I've finished up all my units with my classes, and because my last day with all my kids is tomorrow, we've entered that time of year when every teacher digs through her movie collection and tries to justify the latest Disney classic as "educational."

I must admit, I'm a variation of that teacher. I try to make the learning last as long as possible, and this year has not been an exception. I haven't started on a fresh unit--mine and my kids' attention spans wouldn't last long enough to make it meaningful anyway. Instead, with my 8th graders, I've been doing "fun" lessons. First I started with "The Top 5 Things You Don't Know About the USA." The girls seemed to enjoy that one, and I think I actually exposed them to some information they didn't know. Then a presentation entitled "The World's Worst Monarchs" where I reveal some of the more shocking and crazy monarchs history has to offer. Next I had an extended book talk and gave them my recommendations for summer reading. As a young adult lit lover, I was so happy to see all of them write at least one title down for future purchase.

The most entertaining of my entertaining lessons, however, has been Geography Jeopardy. I reached back into my college days and made a jeopardy powerpoint, my first in years. It took me about 4 hours to get all the hyperlinks and spelling correct, and I was really afraid the whole thing was going to be a total bust. I was so touched when one of my girls quietly said, "Thank you for this game, teacher. This is a lot of fun."

My cup runneth over.

Of course, throughout the class period the girls busted out with some hilarious answers to the general knowledge questions I'd found for the game.

Question: What famous Italian pasta has a museum in Pontedassio, Italy dedicated to its history?
very enthusiastic answer: PANINI!

Question: Which country lies immediately south of Nicaragua?
Answer: ...Is Nicaragua a country?

Question: What bodily function can exceed speeds of 200 miles per hour?
Answer: giraffe?

Question: The South American country of Bolivia has two capital cities. Name one.
Answers: Bolican (a combination of Bolivia and American) or Pepper.

Apparently, when it doubt, the answer is Africa.

What is the largest country in South America?

Alphabetically, what is the first country in the world?
Africa. (other favorite answer possibilities included Alabama and Arizona)

Which country has the longest coastline in the world?

In which city did gangster Al Capone live?

The girls were cracking me up that day, but I hope they learned a thing or two in the process!

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Featured Photo: Desert Scenery

Facebook friends have already seen this shot, but I really like it. This is Saudi Arabia every afternoon.

Vicariously yours,

Poolside reading...

The Mister and I went shopping this weekend. It was a productive day of buying surcies for family and friends. We were able to find a silver shop and found some great pieces. While we were there, we also were given a few Islamic tracts.

I'm no stranger to religious tracts. As a waitress in high school, I frequently got tracts instead of tips from the Christian crowd. Definitely not an effective way to reach their audience as I was usually pissed off at getting stiffed. I suppose they thought the secret to eternal life was gratuity enough.

I've got to give it to the shop owners, though: they know their demographic. This silver market is a favorite of the expats, so a lot of the patrons of this particular store are not Muslim. I'm sure they were super encouraged when we gladly took the tracts as we were paying for our jewelry finds.

Before I give my parents further palpitations, let me clarify: moving here and being surrounded by Islam has, if anything, solidified my faith as a Christian. I only write this blog post because the titles of the tracts were very intriguing, and I was impressed with how non-aggressive this guy was with his approach. The hubbins and I both knew that moving to Saudi Arabia would result in a few attempts by the locals to convert us, and this guy felt he was doing his pious duty, I'm sure.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, June 9, 2011

So annoying!

One of the downsides of living in Saudi Arabia is when Google has a theme day, like today, I have to hunt for 5 or 7 minutes to find out what the theme is. As you can see in the screen cap below, even when I'm on in English, the words that come up when I hold my cursor over the Google are in Arabic! And when I click, all the links that come up are in Arabic. And inevitably the server that translates from English to Arabic experiences a problem, so the whole page stays in Arabic.

This might be the world's whiniest post ever, but it's an aspect of living overseas that I didn't plan for, and I find it very irritating. So I'm sharing that experience with all of you.

Vicariously yours,

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Saudi magazines: the censorship continues

A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of a propaganda/bias unit with my 10th graders. To illustrate the different propaganda techniques, they were assigned a mini-project: create a collage of magazine advertisements.

We had an in-class work day and I got a peek of an interesting side of Saudi culture: fashion magazines. Take a look.

As with all Arabic publications, the magazines open from the left to right, opposite of their English counterparts. You'll notice that the KSA Marie Claire has a significantly more modest cover than the USA version.

As can be expected, there are a lot of runway shots in this Marie Claire...

This month's issue is focusing on wedding dresses. Don't they look nice. Hold on. Take a closer look at the girl on the left...

My my! Her low-cut neckline is much too haram! Don't worry, though! The crafty editors at KSA Marie Claire have her covered. Literally. They've superimposed a more modest neckline over her exposed chest and shoulders!

See that yellow dress? It doesn't actually have cap sleeves! But in Saudi Arabia it does! It's not just wedding fashion that has to be monitored...

Here's a shot from the Dubai World Cup, a horse race in Dubai in March:

See the ladies in the white dresses? The nice print dress standing next to the green and purple numbers? Yeah, they're floozies and needed to be covered. Their chests and shoulders (and in the case of the green and purple dresses, their legs) have been hidden.

Oddly enough, there are some people whose bodies are permissible in this fine publication:

Want to look upon Beyonce's busty physique? Love Katherine Zeta Jones's toned arms? Want just a peek of Taylor Swift's v-neck-line? HAVE AT IT! American celebrities require no censorship, apparently. No photoshop here.

Very odd. It's not like when Saudi women wear this type of fashion they cover up with similar t-shirts under their strappy dresses. This magazine is targeted at women, who do not need to cover when they're in each other's company. So why are the models' bodies covered in the photos? And why aren't the celebrities? My girls didn't have an answer, really. They just said that's the way it is here.

How interesting!

Vicariously yours,

Welp, that's different...

We've been pretty quiet on here this week. Mostly because it's been a quiet week for us. This was my last week with my 10th grade class, and next week is the last with my 7th and 8th grade classes. We've just been chugging along as usual.

But something kind of exciting happened today...

The wall of our house fell off. Just fell off. The Mister and I were sitting in the living room watching an episode of Top Gear and we heard a terrible crash right outside the door. My first thought was that some crazy driver had finally done it and run into the wall of our house.

But nope! when we opened the door, we saw a big pile of the orange tiles that cover the outside of our house. They had come loose, I guess and called it quits. There are a few other tiles that don't look too reassuring.

I called somebody at the school and tried to describe what had happened in the simplest way possible. He said he'll send the maintenance guy over.

Certainly an interesting way to start our weekend!

Vicariously yours,

Friday, June 3, 2011

Featured Photo: A Saudi Graduation

The Mister snapped this picture last night at the boys side graduation ceremony. I can assure you this is NOTHING like the girls' ceremony, but photos are not allowed on the girls side so I have nothing to compare it to.

As you can see, it's a sea of shmoghs and ghutras! The graduates are on the left and right of the stage in the ceremonial get-up. This isn't a graduation get-up, it's the traditional formal attire of the Middle East. If you take a look at footage of the recent Royal Wedding, you'll see the representative from Saudi Arabia, as well as the Emirs of one of the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait wearing similar garb.

The guy sitting in the middle chair at the table on the stage is one of the princes from the Saud family. ...there are 7,000 of them, so don't get too impressed. This prince is the sponsor of our school.

Also unlike the girls side, the entire boys side ceremony as in Arabic. The Mister didn't understand a dang thing that was being said. Another stark difference between the girls' and the boys' ceremony: the men actually LISTEN! The Mister also got a quick video and I could clearly hear every word that's being said (because no body was talking while the presenter was talking) and in the 30 seconds that were recorded, there wasn't a single phone interruption. There is no greater proof that there wasn't a Saudi woman in the room than that.

Vicariously yours,

Featured Photo: The Birds

I've been getting up at 4 am for the past month and some change in order to work out before having to get ready for work. My routine involves a little email/facebook time before my workout, then making breakfast and lunch after. While eating breakfast, I'm sitting at the computer, and this little guy is usually with me.

The birds around our house crack me up. They have such lively personalities and they're so active in the morning. This guy hangs out right at the sill of our window. Lucky for him, our house is super leaky, so when he sits in the metal track for our sliding window, he can catch a breeze of the air conditioned air that seeps out. He often stares in at me while I read my morning Google news feed.

He's very shy, so I'm glad I finally was able to snap a shot of him. He's smiling and everything!

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Summer can't arrive soon enough!!

This is not a homesick blog post, despite the desperation implied in the title. This is a typical teacher-at-the-end-of-the-school-year blog post, because teachers are always just as ready for summer as the students!

We are 2 weeks away from the students being finished for the school year. After that, the teachers stay behind for 3 weeks of professional development and planning and then we're FREE! I think the fact that our former schools at home are letting out for the summer this week has compounded our restlessness. The Mister and I literally spent last night looking at the accommodations we have booked for this summer's travel and found restaurants that we want to frequent at each destination.

It doesn't help that we have such awesome plans made for the vacation. We'll be starting out on the Outer Banks with the Mister's family, then a week in Nashville with my family and our friends. Then we leave for visits with grandparents in South Carolina, and friends in Portland and San Francisco. As soon as we get back from California, we're taking off for two weeks in Costa Rica! One of the hubbin's best friends will be joining us for part of that visit. We'll be surfing, hiking, and doing a whooole lot of nothing! I cannot wait!

The students have caught summer fever too. My eighth-graders are finishing up with a book study, and in the middle of last week they were asking what was up next on the agenda.

"Can we just do nothing?"

For two weeks. Sure. That won't get old fast at ALL.

I'd rather be doing nothing on the beach with the Mister than nothing in a classroom with restless students.

Eyes, on the prize, kids. Don't go squirrelly on me just yet.

Vicariously yours,