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,

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