Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse Culture Shock

{Also called “Reentry Shock”} 

A few days ago, my cousin paid me a compliment. She said,”I think your years in the Middle East have caused you to lose touch with mainstream America.”

I had been worried that I had slipped further back into the American mainstream than is healthy for me. Repatriation had its challenges.The completion of tasks to re-establish a working relationship with my culture of origin needed several years. Now that I’ve lived in the States nearly as long as I lived in Riyadh, I look back at the early years of repatriation. I was definitely living a “double” life, if only in my mind. I smile now, but at the time, it didn’t feel so good. Here are the salient points of my readjustment process during those first awkward years “home”:  

Hair: Though I did not cover, I felt irritated by the sight of all the other women in public who naturally did not cover. I drew mental scarves over every one of them, for months, yet did not cover myself. Maybe I merely disliked the hairstyles, which had become less arranged, less sculpted, and less styled over the years. Eventually I got used to seeing all that hair, but I still don’t like the contemporary American hair styles.

I also realized that the messy hairstyles reflected the fact that most women work (in addition to caring for families), and therefore do not have time to style their hair.

Language: I got very sick of hearing everyone speak English with an American accent. Every time I caught the drift of a foreign language or accent, I had to check out who had spoken. My own English had become inflected, talking to so many Arabs and other assorted non-native-English speakers. Several people in the US asked me where I was from. Eventually, I lost the Arabic accented speech, but I still love to hear other languages. I still get sick of hearing English all the time.

Driving: It wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it would be, except for the changes that had taken place in carsways in which cars had evolved. The first car I bought after repatriation was six years old, and ten years newer than the last car I’d owned. While most people were enjoying CD players, I was thrilled with a tape deck and air conditioning. Electric windows seemed like the height of technological advancement. 

I was a bit befuddled with all the bells and buzzers. One afternoon, I drove downtown  to visit a Muslim family we’d just met. The bell sounded when I opened the door. I thought it meant the door was open. Later, I discovered– the hard way– that the bell was supposed to alert me that the headlights were on. I hadn’t known they were on in the first place.

Shopping: I scolded a young clerk in a convenience store for overcharging me for a can of soda. He asked for  fifty cents, and I said, “Are you kidding? It’s twenty-five cents!!” His face fell, and I realized that the last time I’d bought a can of soda at a convenience store, it was indeed twenty-five cents, and some years back.

Grocery shopping was an adventure. The big warehouse stores had grown up while I was gone, and I loved wandering up and down the aisles. I still do. Meat became an issue, of course. Pork popped up everywhere, but worse than seeing it was having to leave the smoked pork hocks in the grocery store. I used to adore eating smoked hocks and beans! It’s the one pork dish I really miss, all the more because it is now in front of me.

Conversation: This was difficult, because my speech had become so mixed up with Arabic injections that I sometimes let slip an, “Insha Allah,” or “Humdullilah,” or even a,”Yellah!” I had to stop prefacing people’s names with, “Ya.” Eventually I learned to add those lovely Arabic phrases in my mind only, and to stop them before they settled on my tongue.

Much of the new slang sounded odd to me, and excessive. I dislike slang in any event, but I was especially irritated hearing it during the first years after repatriation. I also dislike the regional accent with which my fellow citizens speak. I have consciously tried kept my speech free of it.

Dealing with Men: At first, I could hardly look a man in the eye, and certainly did not care to prolong conversation with one. I must have appeared rude. I disliked shaking hands, and still do. Before living in the Kingdom, I didn’t mind casual physical greetings, but I do now. Eventually, I relearned how to interact with men, and in the process realized that I had became very comfortable with gender segregation in Saudi Arabia.

Culture: I did not know the new TV shows, movies, or actors, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was embarrassing though, when people would talk about some show or movie I did not know about. I remember the evening I spent with a group of Americans at a game of Trivia. Someone asked me if I liked Jonnie Depp. I replied, “Who is Johnnie Depp?” Everyone fell silent and stared at me.

That was OK, though. I still don’t care much about American entertainments, but I know who Johnnie Depp is, and I think he’s handsome..

Dress: No problem there. Since I became middle-aged, I stopped dressing in anything but the most modest styles and colors. Head covering never posed a problem  because I never believed in it, anyway.

Friends: I’ve made one friend in the entire ten years I’ve been back. My Riyadh years, coupled with my conversion to Islam, formed a barrier between me and most Americans, beyond which I wouldn’t go, and they didn’t want to go. I have no interest in the things that engage them, and have no interest in my concerns, either.

(Thank goodness I discovered blogging!)

Work: I did not know how to use a computer when I repatriated in 1998. I had no idea that “Windows” was a sort of system that allowed you to use other programs. That lack of knowledge hurt both me and my husband in the job market. My husband then bought a home computer, to the tune of $2300- the same model today costs $399.

A friend connected all the wires and plugged everything into the correct holes. Later that evening, I cultivated the courage to poke around on a few keys. I nearly fell off the chair when the computer emitted a sort of melody. I didn’t even know it could make sound.

I picked up enough skill to fool people into thinking I knew how to use Windows, and I got hired. Learning the specific applications really challenged me, and I tried to poke around the keyboard and figure things out for myself, but I’d frequently have to ask someone how to do something. Since everyone thought I knew basic Windows, they’d rattle off a series of finger maneuvers that would magically pull up the desired “page”. Then, the person would vanish, leaving me sitting like a lump, no further along and still wondering how I was going to do it.

Now, I’m addicted to my computer. My family refers to it as my “husband,” since I am so devoted.

I learned not to talk about my expat experiences while at work. People in my community think a seven day Caribbean cruise is a big deal, and a two week European tour the epitome of travel. Their lives are filled with work, families, ball games and plans for the next holiday or ball game. I’ve learned, over the years, how to talk to them, without having to to join them. They  bore me silly.  Some people think I am a snob. I wouldn’t deny the possibility.

Multi-Lingual Family Life

Multi-Lingual Family Life

An Entreaty From One Who Learned (the Hard Way)

When a Western woman marries a Saudi man, and moves to Saudi Arabia, she is faced with a language barrier. Her MIL  likely will not speak much English. Even if she does, the Western wife will find herself an object of curiosity and conversation within the family. Her world will both narrow and expand in ways she never thought possible.  In fact, her whole life will close in on itself or blossom out, to the extent that she learns Arabic.

Her husband will be the main person- the only person, at first- she’ll be able to talk with, unless we can count the maid, who might know a few words of English.  The family will help her a bit, but they’ll always run off and leave her, conversationally, and she’ll end up sidelined, finding more meaningful social contact with pre-lingual nieces and nephews.

When her kids start school, she will be unable to communicate with the teachers. The kids will have learned Arabic from Baba, of course, and guess what language they’ll use when they don’t want Mama to understand?

The common Arabic phrases are easy enough to learn. Foreigners cannot help but learn them by osmosis, but permanent residents need to learn more. They need to apply much effort. The language is difficult, and the multi-cultural, multi-lingual atmosphere of Saudi Arabia can lull a person into laziness. An ex-pat worker need not speak a word of Arabic, but a permanent resident needs to do everything she can to get a good grasp of it.

Without a working knowledge of the language of your own family, you put yourself at risk for all kinds of misunderstanding, if not worse.  Please, if you live in a multi-lingual family, do not trust them with a language you do not speak. Learn it, no matter how hard, no matter how long it takes. Consider it an insurance policy of sorts. Consider it your right and your responsibility. Make your husband aware of this stance. If you do not, you remain in a compromised position within the family, even if mutual love and respect suggest otherwise.

A Walk on the Wild Side

 Before I went to Saudi Arabia in 1986 to work at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, I bought a small book of Arabic phrases. The language, with its strange guttural sounds not made in English, and its curvy script read from right to left, fascinated me. I memorized the usual first phrases: min fadlak, shukran, marhabah, and ma’asalama— please, thank you, hello, and good bye.  Easy enough.  I would be ready.  I would know something about this exotic language.

Six weeks after my arrival in Riyadh, I got the courage to walk out of the housing compound to the neighborhood grocery store. I covered myself properly with my new black abaya, and threw a scarf across my shoulders.  As a Westerner, I was not obligated to cover my hair, but my bare head marked me as a foreign woman, and we all know what some Arabs think of foreign females. 

Halfway to the store, in the middle of a long block of residential villas, with walls surrounding them to hide the women, a small pick- up truck pulled up beside me. I noticed a bale of hay in back, half covered with canvas, but no animals.  The driver, an Arab dressed in a white thobe and checkered headdress, rolled down the window and said, “Marhabah.” 

I returned his greeting, “Marhabah!”  That was my first mistake.  I knew he’d ask me to get in, and sure enough, the next word– in English– was, “Ride? Ride?”  As I wanted to show off my acquisition of Arabic phrases, and be polite at the same time, I said, “La, shukran.” No thank you, with a smile. That was my second mistake. 

Suddenly, the truck pulled in close to the curb. I noticed no other person walking. In that neighborhood, only crazy foreigners walk in the broad daylight of desert heat.  No other car passed in either direction. I secured the flaps of my abaya across my body, and set my gaze straight ahead.  He jumped out, and rushed up in front of me, tripping and holding his manhood through the skirt of his thobe. His eyes narrowed, marbles embedded in the leathered creases of an old desert dweller. He smiled across a stubbly beard, unashamed of the gaps between his teeth, or what he was doing, and made grunting noises much like the noises made by the goats and lambs that he surely carried in his pick-up truck from time to time. 

I shrieked, and ran across the street.  He ran after me, hiking up his thobe to get a better grip and show me what he thought I wanted.  I shrieked again, picked up the bottom of my abaya, and ran fast in the heat until my lungs burned and I reached the main street, where six lanes of traffic whizzed back and forth, and he couldn’t possibly keep hanging on. 

The next day, I was told by my laughing Arab colleague that my polite American response had been more of an invitation than a refusal!