Earlier Thoughts

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I moved to Saudi Arabia seven months ago. This decision occurred after more than a two-year search for my first, and possibly only professional job out of the United States. The move -- actually packing my things, selling a car, and arranging for family to sit my home -- was straightforward. Calculating the economic impact of this move and career transition was done after talking with my tax consultant, wife, and family. (I did not mention the move to even my closest work colleagues. You know the old adage: Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.) The new job would be an opportunity to take on new challenges and to experience life in a different way. (Like when I put on my Groucho eyeglasses and nose.)
My loving wife gave up a lot herself in agreeing to my wishes. (The teeny-weenie yellow polka dot bikini had to go.) After more than 18 years at a major university she quit her job and transitioned an only recently won research award to a colleague. Rightfully, Coralie didn’t know if she would be able to find a job in Saudi that would be productive and allow her to continue with her research activity. She did successfully secure a good position and is now busily setting up her laboratory and recruiting staff. She doesn’t know if her recent grant-writing efforts will result in additional funds to support her work, but she is hopeful.
I miss the routines of living in our California home. Life is different here. A lot of what we perceive as different is obvious. Cultural severity, social arrangements, and entertainment choices are not what we enjoyed at home. All of these things are different. Our friendships are few in number. New friends live near our home which is in one of the many housing compounds that are set aside for expatriate workers. And, we have been fortunate as we have been welcomed into the English-speaking embassies here to be part of their celebrations and events. (They’re laughing with us, not at us.)
I think one of my greatest disappointments has been the American embassy. United States representatives are not visible as they live behind thick gray walls guarded by disinterested and surprisingly rude employees. I only met an employee with an American passport a month ago, not at the embassy but at a social gathering in Riyadh. I am new at being an “expat” and can be easily surprised as life here isn’t as portrayed in the movies. Maybe that is good, depending on the movies you watch.
Still, it is shocking to find that America continues its presence in foreign lands by employing people who are not American. Imagine, waiting for 30 minutes in 100-degree heat to pass through security procedures to gain access to “my” embassy, then to find that no one was able to help me to register to vote. This employee spoke to me from behind a 3-inch-thick plate of protective glass. He told me that he had no idea how voting procedures worked and suggested I check a government web site. (“The bastard’s on to us. He knows we’re not really Americans. Always testing my knowledge of voting rights. Who do I look like, March Fong Eu?” )Do we really get what we pay for?
Now the new friends, all from Canada, England, and Australia have been truly supportive. Sometimes encouragement is offered with sarcasm. (“Yankee!”) I think the sour humor expressed by folks living under non-native conditions is understandable. Framing the obvious oddity and aggravation provides a sense of emotional release. (“Wedgies all around, my mates, for the American!”)
I know you likely don’t know this, but when you visit one of the local souks (a traditional shopping mall) in Riyadh, it happens that the major headquarters for the Mutawa, or morality police, borders the souk with a football field-sized marble yard known as “chop, chop square.” This area is where executions by beheading occur. So, the shocking nature of this type of execution has led to the graveyard humor of this not-too-artful naming of the location. And, everyone refers to this location in this way, even the locals.
Next, try something new.