I taught multi-lingual groups of students in Chicago briefly and it was fascinating to be able to converse with people my age (or slightly younger) from Asia and Europe and South America all in one group…but I must admit that my students from Saudi Arabia — most of whom were there to prepare to enter a technical university – held a special interest for me.
Why? I think part of it is the fact that the country seems so self-contained. Westerners don’t tend to go there as tourists, and there aren’t a whole lot of Saudi tourists in the US that I’m aware of. I’ve heard that a woman cannot even get a Saudi visa if she’s not accompanied by a male relative…and then there’s the no-driving-for-women law. This all just makes it seem, well, foreign to me, perhaps more so than the countries of the other students I’ve taught.
I also had a great deal of respect for my Saudi students for coming to the US at this point in time. I have often felt nervous being an American abroad in the recent past, and while I have found people nearly everywhere to treat me kindly regardless of their political views, I could only guess at the concerns my Saudi students might have about how they would be received as obvious foreigners in the US.
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They wore western clothing in Chicago, but I saw pictures of a few of them in their traditional clothes…one of them claimed to be a prince, or the cousin of a prince, and I have to say he did look fairly regal in his native getup. Many of them had received cars as graduation gifts, and more than one “funny childhood story” involved driving — generally furtively — at a remarkably early age. We were discussing cost of living when it came up that there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. The voting situation (or lack of it) came up only once, and when a French student started questioning one young guy if he thought it was right, I managed to change the topic quickly. Other than this, we didn’t really encounter any taboo topics…although none of the Saudis turned up in my debate class.
One of my favorite images is of one of the younger and “cooler” Saudis carrying in a gigantic Jewel-Osco birthday cake for the birthday of his Japanese classmate and later presenting me with a slice along with a Coke. On the whole, I found my Saudi students relatively easy to relate to, respectful, and motivated. Granted, it’s not really appropriate to judge a whole country worth of people based on the example of ten or so…but meeting these students made me think that working in Saudi Arabia, while maybe not for me at this time, would be a truly remarkable experience.