Aunt Alice in Arabia – Reverse Culture Shock – Part 2

March 29, 1990

So there I was in college last summer, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Everything was normal.  No separation of the sexes, easily availability for any and all shopping.  No problem communicating in English. No foreign-currency conversion although I found myself doing it backwards a few times to compare American and Gulf prices. I even got used to everyone wearing shorts, although I didn’t wear them. I also realized American men wear baseball hats for the same reason Arabian men and women cover their heads:  protection from the sun.

It was a relief to sit in the student desk and not at the teacher’s chair.  After two weeks I became bored. I had put pictures of sand dunes and camels on my dormitory wall to remind me of “home.”  I loved showing pictures of wind-towers, modern Arabian cities and traditional Arabic jewellery to old and new friends alike. I surprised them when I told them I shopped at Safeway and much of the Gulf reminds me of Southern California.

But I was restless.  What did I miss? My car?  My  apartment? My private bathroom and waterbed? Of course!  I had time to reflect while I flew to Vancouver.  I realized I missed living in the Gulf – the living on the edge of two cultures: the old Arabic and the emerging, modern Arabia.

I missed the multitude of Eastern cultures converging downtown on Thursday nights, their flattering, billowing, usually white clothes swaying in a breeze. I missed the foreign food served at parties. I missed the exchange of stories among Westerners and Easterners alike about the impossible and improbable daily events that have just recently begun to form a pattern and, after months and years, an understanding of Arabian culture.

I missed that extra alertness which was needed to handle frustrating problems, but upon reflection, provided exotic learning adventures.

I missed that when in Arabia, I was an exotic minority: a single Western white woman. Third world store clerks, local university officials, Eastern colleagues – all treated me with various underlying emotions that reinforced that I was someone special.  The emotions may have been negative or positive, such as jealousy, anger, confusion or normal everyday Arabic politeness. Whatever they were, I felt special.

I also missed living on the razor edge.  Not of pain, but of a tightrope edge over the circus of life.  The familiar is over-known and over-exposed in the States. But in the Gulf, the daily newness constantly imprints a differentness which slowly sinks into my being and transforms me. I am no longer an American but I have become something else.  Perhaps “ex-patriate” is the only convenient word for it.