I’ve been away for the last couple of months, helping my daughter in the U.S. welcome a new baby.I know, right? Pretty cute. Or at least the adults all think so. But Weird Overseas Granny moved in two days after Weird Small Baby moved in, and two days after that, Big Brother did this with my toothbrush:
Yeah, he was dealing with a lot of changes in his life. This is one of the big tradeoffs of being an expat. When you’re home, you’re there intensely, full-time. When you’re not, you’re not. Big Brother, who’s two and doesn’t remember last summer, only knew me from FaceTime. There have been no drop-ins, no Sunday dinners, no birthday parties, no let’s-meet-for-lunch. For a new mom, the full-timer who travels from the other side of the world and stays for a month is far more helpful, but over time we all know the little things add up to a far bigger presence. Giving them up is huge. And when people heard I was doing so to live in Saudi Arabia, the biggest question was “Why do you live there?”
An apt question. And when my Google News feed looks like this,
First, the obvious answer: We’re here for a job. Saudi Arabia is an emerging economy of unmatched scale. When oil money came into the country in the 1930s, it was a desert peninsula peppered with mud-brick villages that had just barely unified as a nation. The population has been doubling about every 20 years, and they’re building the infrastructure to support it all at once. There’s a lot of work to be done in every sector of the economy—not just in oil—and close to a quarter of the population is made up of foreigners here to do it. My husband is one of them. I’m a tagalong.
Okay, that’s the easy part of the answer. I’m avoiding the real question, which is asked the same way you’d say it if I lived here:
To many in the West, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a scary place. That’s partly a public relations problem, which is entirely of KSA’s making. It’s a closed country, kept that way on purpose to minimize the influence of foreign cultures. Which is FINE. But every choice has consequences, and in this case the lack of a CNN reporter standing in front of Kingdom Tower on a regular basis, saying “Reporting from Riyadh,” means that folks around the global neighborhood look at Saudi Arabia the same way folks look at the people living in the Keep Out house. What, they think, is going on in there? The imagination supplies only crazy things: A skeleton in the bed. Meth lab. Cats in costumes, eating at the table.
Well, well. Turns out the place has a kitchen and modern plumbing. TV, Internet access, and the hermit inside was right up at the front of the line for an iPhone 6. The countries of the world are ALL different from each other, as are the interior lives of the homes in any neighborhood, and Saudi Arabia is no more or less different than any of them (well, depending on where you’re coming from). I mean, you remember what it was like to go a new friend’s house when you were little, right, and have a plate set in front of you of food you had NEVER seen before?
Scary. Weird. And you ran home and told mom about the BIZARRE stuff you saw there. Which is basically what I’m doing here, while at the same time getting a clearer picture about how weird my own house can seem. I wish everyone could see that, because what I really want is for all the neighbors to Just Get Along.
Getting along requires us to get out of our own houses. I become more convinced with every passing day that the great weakness of humanity is tribalism. And by that I’m not talking about the existence of families and clans or heritage, but the tendency to behave tribally: identify ourselves narrowly, cling to those who are the most familiar and comfortable, and distance ourselves from all others.
Tribalism is narcissism writ large, and we all do it. I and my people, it says, are the center of the universe. The kids from the other school are thugs or spoiled brats; the other team’s fans are idiots and their cheerleaders are bovine; country music fans are shallow or rockers are drugheads; people from another country are inferior; members of another political party are vile; adherents of other religions are deluded and unclean.
Living in Saudi Arabia is a struggle for an outsider. No lie. I can’t jump in a car and get what I need. We have to plan errands and outings around 5x/day business closings. I have to wear black polyester robe whenever I’m outside the compound. I can’t ride my bike or go for a run. Security alerts pump out of the U.S. embassy like sales flyers.
But here’s the deal: Nobody is “safe” anywhere, and hiding from one another only makes things worse. Even Disney’s current Cinderella, who started the movie in a sunlit meadow protected by loving parents, soon finds herself half starved and freezing and abused. The most recent Western victims of terrorism were in a supermarket in Paris, not a souk in Riyadh. There are neighborhoods I wouldn’t go into in every city of the world. I’m no more or less unsafe here than anywhere else as long as I practice good sense. I pay attention to the alerts. I cover my hair when I’m walking around so as to not draw attention to myself or suggest defiance. I stay away from sketchy places. And in the course of normal shopping and errands, Saudi women smile at me from behind their niqabs. Children play peek-a-boo. Men go out of their way to give directions or offer help at the side of the road.
And from time to time, I get to go to places like this:
…where I learn about the roots of a culture at the roots of everyone else’s. Where I get glimmers of understanding about what divides us, and what we have in common. Where I see and understand things I could experience no other way.
And that is my clearest answer to the question about why I’m living here: I want the neighbors to get along. The problems the outside world associates with Saudi Arabia are real, and come from tribalism, from a minority that hold a passionate belief that the self is preeminent and the Other is to be feared, excluded, rejected. That the Other is unclean. That the Other is ignorant and evil. That the less we interact with each other, the better.
How, then, can I be governed by the same thinking?
During my visit I had an opportunity to spend a day with American high school students talking about my experience in Saudi Arabia. The next day, the teacher forwarded to me a comment one student had made in a writing exercise afterward:
I had no idea that Saudi Arabia is the way it is. I thought that it was just a country full of dirt and terrorists. I think the culture of it is way cool, and that is more closely related to the United States than I thought.
I miss my babies, and my babies’ babies. My mom. My friends. My house. My bike and my car and my precious freedom of movement. But the good men and women of Saudi Arabia have much to teach me, and every stick I can add to the bridge between us—the good, the bad, the weird, the embarrassing—has value. I’ll take the trade, for now.
For more on daily life here, you can see my Saudi Cheat Sheet post.