It’s been both a short and long month since the kids and I arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Short in that we have settled in and it feels more like home each passing day. Long in that there was an election back home that we are being told to accept with grace until we vote again in four years.
I will get back to that election, knowing that if you are still with me by that point you probably agree with me since we know now that we only indulge in reading what we agree with … thanks, Facebook.
But, first I want to share some observations about being an American expat in Saudi Arabia.
We are treated well. My first week here, I left my purse in a cab. In my purse was some money, my phone, and most devastatingly, MY PASSPORT! It was returned within an hour.
Our white skin and American English are seen as assets. A few weeks back, we were at a mall food court, and a man came to us and asked if he could take a photo of Elsa. I firmly said NO. He was kind and walked away. Later, I asked other expats what that was all about; they said it is her fair skin, green eyes, and strawberry blonde hair. Her ‘look’ is a novelty that is considered beautiful.
At another mall and a different food court (we may eat out too much), I was given the food I ordered before I paid for it. They didn’t take debit cards, and I didn’t have enough cash. They insisted that I take it before I went to the ATM to get money. They wanted me to know they trusted me because honor and trust are a big deal here.
While I was hollered at one time for being in the wrong line (men’s only), that is an exception, not an everyday occurrence.
This is not a scary place. These are not scary people.
When we are asked where we are from by people from all over the globe, they are not asking what country. They know. They are asking what state or region. Americans reading this, can you name the regions of Saudi Arabia? I sure can’t, and I live here.
The people of the world know about America and realize what power and influence our country has over the paths of their home countries. This past election has me wondering if we Americans know what power and influence our own country has in the world.
The morning of November 9, as I watched election results roll in with students, the mood on campus was similar to a funeral. The Canadians were ready to welcome an influx of Americans into their fold, the Brits were feeling our pain after Brexit, but most telling and truly heartbreaking was the response I observed from our Muslim students.
They are worried for the safety of their family in the U.S., and the rash of hate crimes following the election of Trump justifies these fears. I was asked by one of the kindest students I have ever worked with why Americans hate him so much. And when a surrogate of the President-Elect of the United States of America cites the shameful imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II as precedent for creating a registry of Muslim Americans, I am not sure how to respond.
In one case, I had a bright young woman — who will be a valuable member of any community she chooses to join — come to me and ask if she should withdraw her applications to U.S. universities. She was concerned for her safety, sure, but she also wanted to make a statement about the the dangers of the current tenor in America. And, according the the New York Times, she is not alone. American colleges at overseas recruitment fairs are finding it more difficult to convince the world’s top students to apply.
This is a sad state of affairs for the students, but also for the colleges’ bank ledgers, although it may be a boon for Canadian universities. Regarding the University of Toronto, the New York Times reports, “Visits to our recruitment website from the U.S. are typically around 1,000 a day,” said Ted Sargent, the university’s vice president, international. “On Nov. 9, that spiked to 10,000.”
Even if you don’t buy what the media is selling, even if you think the rhetoric of Trump and his supporters is not dangerous, even if you think it is time to accept the results of this election and move on, I think it is important we are aware what the world thinks of us right now.
The international community, specifically those who have been preparing to study in the United States since they were born, are scared and disappointed.
America is bigger than America. Our elections indelibly affect people all over the planet, and now that I know better, I will do better. Now that I know my ballot is not just about me, I will always consider the impact my vote has on the world.
Yesterday, our schools celebrated International Day. This is a day set aside to celebrate the countries and cultures of the students and staff. We were all encouraged to wear traditional clothing to school.
I saw girls from the Phillipines wearing magenta colored satin gowns we would only see at prom in the States. There was a lot of Lebanese pride, if I am to judge by the amount of I HEART LEBANON shirts that were donned. The silky saris were met in their loveliness only by the humor of the Canadians in their parkas. The Pakistani delegation sang as they walked in the morning parade, and invited all the onlookers to join in. You can check out photos of what I describe here on the ISG DHS Facebook Page.
A student of mine came into class, appearing not to be dressed any differently than normal. But, she then explained her black and white scarf to me. It was a Palestinian keffiyah and is a symbol of solidarity. Her scarf served as a starting point of a conversation I will long remember about how proud she is of her Palestinian roots.
For Americans, traditional clothing would be jeans and some combo of the colors of Old Glory. It was hard for our family to muster enough national pride to wear red, white, and blue. I had some worries that being proud of America would be seen as equal to being proud of our election results.
The day was capped off with an assembly. The students put on an international fashion and talent show. I was uneasy about this event. The lens I have is that of an American public school teacher. The assemblies and pep fests I have seen featured competition, usually by class (freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior) and were sometimes friendly, but sometimes not.
I can’t even begin to imagine a high school International Day in America that wouldn’t be tinged with a dangerous brand of nationalism. I don’t think Mexican-American students would feel safe waving a Mexican flag in the current political climate. I doubt Arab-Americans would feel welcome to wear traditional scarves, thobes, hijabs, etc.
But my fears about ugly nationalism interrupting our International Day were for unfounded. The Bollywood dancers, the Venezuelan folk music singer, the American jazz performers: all were met with encouragement from their fellow students. I mean, check out this video of the student body’s reaction to Nigerian students performing a traditional dance. It was the sort of idyllic scene I didn’t think existed outside the climactic dance-off in a 1990s Freddie Prinze, Jr. teen flick.
International Day was just the sort of reminder I needed that pride in one’s country is NOT the same as nationalism. The students lifted each other up. They asked questions about the traditional clothing of their peers. They enjoyed food from all over the world. There was no competition. No chants. No “we are better than you” sentiments. It was all about community, love, and support.