Of Plants and Planets
Not all cultural surprises and misunderstandings make for amusing tales years later.
Most children of ex-pats attend an international school, or private school with other ex-pat kids. My girls studied at the Saudi government school in Riyadh. I visited the school once, and was appalled at the litter, disarray, and drab appearance of the entire place. The teachers welcomed me, but underneath their greetings I perceived a suspicious interest, and a smug sense of superiority. By that year, 1993, foreigners were part of the Saudi scenery, except in our neighborhood, where “foreigner” meant Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian or Pakistani. They knew I was American, and they were waiting for me.
The visit was short and sweet. I was shown my daughter’s classroom, the teacher’s offices, and the door out. I am certain I was the first American (and probably the last) to set foot in that school.
My daughter used to come home with tidbits of misinformation she’d learn from those teachers. Invariably, the most offensive bits concerned the character and habits of the American people, of whom those teachers knew nothing, my visit notwithstanding.
Crowning the pile of manure they told her was that Americans all had filthy bodies, because they did not use bidets, nor take wudu, and therefore could not clean themselves well. My daughter knew better, as by this time she’d visited my family in the States several times, but she felt distressed about the teacher’s vile remarks. I asked her if she ever contradicted the teachers. She said no, “That would be impolite.”
One day she came home and told me that the English teacher said that planets were green leaves and shrubs growing from the ground. My daughter knew the correct word- plants. She knew the definition of planets, too, and she felt sad that the teacher taught something wrong to the entire class. She wanted to correct the teacher, but could not, because it would be impolite, and they already held her at arm’s length, because she had an American mom, actually a step-mom, which was even worse.
When she was about the take the exam, she asked me, “What should I answer if the teacher asks for the definition of planets?” Reluctantly, I advised her to answer as she had been taught. We’d keep the secret.