In every new place, there are bound to be comparisons drawn between the old and familiar and the new and novel. For example, right now on the East Coast of the US, my friends and family are being pummeled by a snow storm, and I’m eating breakfast on my patio in 65 to 70 degree weather. At 5 in the morning at home, the only one awake is my early-bird father, but here people are headed to prayer at that same dawn breaking hour. Last week I visited the doctor and within 2 hours, I had seen the doctor, gotten an X-ray, had the doctor read the X-ray, had blood drawn, and got two prescriptions. Aside from the sheer craziness that all of that only took two hours, the whole excursion cost less than $400; if I had been from Saudi, it would have been free (the same applies to education). I felt a pang of anxiety when the doctor said the words “X-ray”, thinking “oh man, how much is this going to cost me?” It’s a sad moment when you realize that you’re willing forgo medical attention based how much it will cost (something that has happened to me on more than one occasion in the USA). Obviously, this is a sensitive issue in the states right now, but I have to say that I was extraordinarily impressed by the Saudi system for healthcare and will probably always draw upon this example and think about it every time I head to the doctor in America.
There are different entrances for women at many places here, with signs that say “Ladies section” or “Family Section” (also meaning ladies only). For the men there are either no signs or ones that say “Single Section”. Earlier in the week I was craving some American coffee, as the coffee here is poured in tiny cups and is an odd shade of green from the lack of roasting. I saw a Starbucks and headed in. Standing there I thought, “This place looks just like home!” Immediately following that reflection, the man behind the counter said, “This side is for singles only ma’am”. To which I promptly replied, “But I am a single”. Then it hit me, clearly that wasn’t what he meant and I had to exit the building, chuckling to myself, but amidst staring eyes. I opened the door directly to the left and entered a room where the windows were shaded out, the walls only adorned with crackling white paint, and far less seating. The same man, who merely crossed over the divide, then took my order. It’s moments like this that I think, “this is as close to segregation as I will ever get”. What to do with that, I haven’t quite figured out, although I do understand that it is steeped in religion and tradition which dates back longer than I know – so in the meantime I’ll just pass the experience along to you.
I haven’t been able to exercise since being here, and I am fearful that I am losing my good habit. It’s hard to run in an abaya, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t go over that well. So I asked someone on my compound to take me to a few gyms in the area that she knows of so that I can finally get back in action. The gym windows were entirely blacked-out so that no one from the inside or outside could be visible; needless to say, it was for women only. I looked around, checked out the schedule, and noticed the price; 1,200 Riyal a month. In the states, that equates to over $300. You can imagine my surprise. In Philadelphia, I belonged to a great gym in the Rittenhouse area and paid a mere $65.00 a month. Given that there isn’t much activity for women to partake in here I figured they could afford to charge the hefty price. After I removed the gulp from my throat, I walked out without a membership, not able to justify to my mind or my bank account the expense. Being physically active is a huge part of life for me, something that I don’t share with most Saudi women. In fact, in a recent article that I read, it stated that often times the ladies of Saudi Arabia are not encouraged to build strength in their muscles or leanness in their physique because it is viewed as something with attract male attention – not an acceptable thing in this society.
In an attempt to find activity for myself, I had my driver take me to the Diplomatic Court; where all of the embassies broke soil. The grounds are enormous. Somehow, it felt like a cultural exploration with people from all over the world within a few acres. As we passed each embassy, I could see a difference in the people filling their sidewalks; everything from their clothing, to the tone of their skin, to their accents and languages. The names of each embassy; India, New Zealand, Bahrain, Australia, China, Canada, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya, Japan, Syria, Lebanon, the United States of America, and so many more, peppered signs mounted above each gate. To my surprise, I was excited and relieved to see an American flag, although sad about its half mast status due to the recent shooting in Arizona. Below it, I saw a very tall young lady standing and immediately marched up to her and said “HELLO!” it was the first time in two weeks that I knew someone would speak English. Although I’m doing my best to learn the language, most of the time I feel clueless. I find myself turning my head to the left, as if the words will make more sense if they go directly into my ear, rather than having to find their way around the curvature of my head.
I learned today that Saudi parents never stop giving money to their children (at least that’s what I’ve been told so far). In fact, grandparents give to all generations of their family members; their children, their grandchildren, and if they’re lucky enough the chain goes on. They pay for houses and allowances, clothes and food. Given the enormous amount of wealth that this country has, I’m sure this has something do with the success within the Royal Family over countless generations. This concept got me thinking about the different beliefs regarding money and care around the world (not that I know a ton about this subject). In the US, although this is seemingly shifting with our current economic status, at the age of 18 children are considered adults and can fend for themselves (if their parents so choose). In China, it is the children who take care of their parents once they are old enough to earn money. Is one system better than the other? One possibly breeds dependence, one stands the chance to breed independence from family, and the other may possibly breed premature responsibility. There’s no way to say who got it right and certainly no definitive answer, but it was one of those moments for me that made me realize exactly what I have, how I want it, and what I have been given in comparison to others around the world. Learning about how money is handled in different cultures is a prime way of beginning to understand the dynamics of different places.
There is a tradition in Saudi that happens once a month with one of the Prince’s of this desert country. Men prepare letters that state why he should give them money and what they need it for. They then line up for hours to individually hand him their piece of literature and pray that he forsakes them. In an interview that I watched this prince, he commented on how his family has given millions of dollars away to the people of his society as tradition; again, this idea of tradition runs deep within this culture. This discussion of money leads me to my next experience here.
Women of Saudi are not allowed to hold a bank account. Their money goes to their father or their husband, unless special permission is granted from these people for them to open an account. My neighbor, and tour guide, arrived in Saudi two months ago for a two year commitment. She’s an independent woman, who wants independent things. She arranged permission from our sponsor to allow her to open an account. Ever eager to learn the process, I accompanied her for the start up venture. Aside from the regular information needed to open an account (ID, address, etc.), she was required to have proof that the male figure responsible for her was allowing her to open this account.
I watched the women enter through the back door of the bank and thought of the sunlit room that the men were sitting in below us. I can’t help but wonder to myself, “why don’t you fight against this?” In America in the 1960’s and 70’s, women stood up and wanted to claim their own rights, independent of men. A civil war has been continuously waged for people to have equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity. The struggle continues today with more than just women fighting for their rights. It’s not my question to explore or challenge right now; at this point, I’m just a sponge trying to understand the concepts, rules, regulations, traditions, language, and belief system of this country. When thinking about accepting this job offer, I had many discussions with those close to me about how my independent, extroverted, and dare I say, mildly feminist attitude would find a balance in this particular type of society and environment. My mom told me that she would have been more worried about my taking this chance if I was in my early twenties. I have to say that I think being closer to 30 than I am to 20, and having a fairly good, internalized sense of who I am has helped (and will continue to help) me understand that I can be myself without having yell it from the rooftops when feeling oppressed or limited with my freedom of expression. At this point in life, I no longer feel the need to follow the crowd and it is serving very well here, although on the exterior I’m wearing a black gown, just like every other woman on the street and using separate entrances.
What is it about new places that make you think of old places? Is it because we all want a point of relativity? It doesn’t have to be defined as a sad thought or a happy thought; it doesn’t need to be classified as better than something or worse than something else. It’s been two weeks since I arrived here and I have a few pictures of loved ones posted on the fridge, a packet of unopened cards from my brother in case I get lonely or need inspiration, and pots of full of plants that I picked up from the market, and I’m doing just fine, learning a lot, and feeling my way around this new and different world.