One of my recent discussion prompts was this: “Tell me about when you were a little kid. What did you like to do for fun?” Of course, I didn’t expect the students to have the same responses as Western kids, but I assumed that everyone had a favorite game or hobby from their childhood. But I couldn’t believe the absolute uniformity my guys answered with. “Football” and “video games” – these were the only answers I received, in class after class. Almost 200 students, and I struggled to find a single different answer.
Of course, this was inconvenient, because it gave me little material to practice the grammar lesson. But, I wasn’t so much annoyed as befuddled, so I asked them in more detail, giving examples from my childhood: “Someone, I’m sure, liked riding bicycles? Pretending to be an animal? Playing with blocks or Legos? Finger painting?”
One of my best students finally responded:
“Here, we don’t do different things like in America. The father wants his family to stay home, and we don’t, um… ishoo [slang: 'waddya call it'] the things for play only …”
“Aywa [slang: 'yeah'], we don’t have much toys like kids in America. We play football and relax in al-jurooz (a place in Saudi houses like an old-fashioned sitting room). Now, play video games and watch movies also. But on the weekend, I don’t do much things for fun. I play video games and watch football only.”
It goes without saying, the desert is very barren, for the most part. But as I continue to settle into this culture, I understand more and more that the character of the environment is also reflected as a uniformly sparse character among the people who live here. Sometimes, I imagine that the environment must slowly program the genetics of its inhabitants. I don’t just mean the evolutionary concept of physical adaptation – it’s more of a shared personality between place and people. My idea is probably oversimplified and unscientific, but when a Saudi friend invites you to the desert, where you just sit and drink coffee for five hours, doing nothing but surveying the rocks and sand, you begin to understand the origin of his mono-everything worldview and austere attitude.
I’m beginning to feel the process of desertification in my own personality. Occasionally, Saudi friends invite me to their house for dinner. An evening with a Saudi goes something like this:
- Arrive at eight. Settle on a couch in al-jarooz.
- Sip coffee and tea from miniscule cups for the next two hours. You will discuss either Islam or work. (Of course, all the women are sequestered in their own portion of the house for the evening, except when they set up the meal in the dining room).
- Dinner is served around ten p.m. Everyone sits cross-legged on the floor around a communal platter of rice and chicken, which is eaten with your hands. (The food and coffee is delicious, but more about that in another post. Right now I’m whining.)
- After dinner, return to al-jarooz and repeat the tea-coffee-restrained conversation ritual until one or two in the morning (or whenever you can conjure a reason to excuse yourself).
That’s it. No board games, no walks in a park, no playing with pets or working together on a project . We don’t discuss music, or history, or politics, or new ideas. (Please don’t think this is representative of 100% of Saudi people, or 100% of my evenings on the weekend. I have made friends with some outstanding, progressive, intelligent, and active guys here. I’m only describing my general experience and what seems to be “normal”).
Where I initially felt confined or bored during these evenings, I’ve now learned to slip into an expectation-less trance. Just like my vocabulary has slowly melted due to constantly using the simplest phrasing available, my vibrant, scattered attitude and habits have eroded, leaving only a bedrock like some sort of bland, unsought zen. “Everyone here” used to mean “them”, now it means “us”.
During the work week, I teach for absurd lengths of time: 7 a.m. to 2.45 p.m., then back to the office at 4 to prepare for my 5 – 9 shift. Sometimes I’ll tutor an extra student after work or on the weekend. My life now: work, sleep. On the weekend: alternately eat chicken and rice with my hands, or politely circumvent encouragement to become a Muslim. .
Fatigued from long hours, inept management, and an extreme environment, it’s tempting to simply give up. Thankfully, I live with another American teacher, and we work to stay vibrant in our limited free time. Like the pioneers first carving out homes on the unforgiving Great Plains, we remind ourselves that, with hard work and a resilient mindset, we can thrive anywhere – even here. So I read. I have solo dance parties in my bedroom. I’ve started drawing – not very well at it, but I enjoy myself.
To my family and friends, I apologize for not writing frequently these past couple months. This suffocating work schedule really cramps my style. For self-preservation, I spend my limited free time with phone and computer off (the internet here only works half the time anyway). Usually, I spend my down time on our roof – a space we work to make colorful and alive. I’ll tell you more about my roof in another article.
This post sounds pessimistic, but I want to finish with positivity: we can flourish anywhere. My family moved from Michigan to Iowa when I was 12 years old. As we parted, a teacher told me: “Bloom where you’re planted”. Some places, it’s difficult to bloom, but it’s never impossible. Don’t forget that.