It’s the Little Things

As I mentioned in a few previous posts, the concepts of sanitation and personal hygiene are quite vague, if not entirely misunderstood here in the Kingdom. It’s not an issue that most people here are eager to talk about, but seeing as I teach at the forefront of the culture clash, I get to deal with it on a daily basis.

Most Saudis grow up in traditional households, where personal freedoms are granted to children in amounts that would make most western parents cringe. This takes the form of doing whatever you want whenever you please, taking rather than asking, and doing things only for yourself. Some people describe the resulting children as selfish, abhorrent, and lazy. I personally like to add annoying, and naïve, but in short I think average Saudi children are best described as ‘little shits.’  

Historically, Saudis were just like every other group of people with limited availability to any proper sanitation technologies or continuous water supplies. They worked with what they had and eventually ended up doing what everybody else does in the same situation; you eat with your right hand, and clean yourself with the left. Even after the advent of indoor plumbing and toilet paper, this tradition persists, and everyone from small children to wealthy adults takes part.

This brings me to my main point: nobody knows how to use the bathroom. I don’t mean that in the sense that people relieve themselves at their own free will in random places whenever it pleases them. What I do mean, however, is that the normally insignificant act of going to the bathroom ends up looking like a fairly large production to the average western person.

Most buildings have what could be labeled as modern bathrooms. They usually come with two types of facilities; normal western toilets, and eastern squat toilets, which is basically a porcelain rectangle with two spaces for your feet with a hole between them (which can vary considerably in diameter). This only makes sense, seeing as Saudi sits at the crossroads of both civilizations. If you’re lucky, the stall will have a scant amount of toilet paper, but more often than not the only accoutrements available will be a miniature garden hose that’s basically the exact same as the extendable faucet in most western kitchen sinks, and your hand. If they do have toilet paper, you usually have to put it in a little basket, as most sewer lines can’t handle it. Once you finish you may or may not find soap, and there usually isn’t anything to dry your hands with.   

A stall at the Boys' School, on a really, really good day.

Keep in mind that the standard dress for both men and women is a long robe that drags on the floor which is put on by slipping it over the head, paired with open toed leather sandals. As you can imagine, there is quite a bit going on near the end of any bathroom usage, which means that most Saudis are fairly indiscriminant when it comes to finishing up this particular task. It’s not uncommon to walk into a bathroom to find the floor of every stall covered in standing water, with the little hose laying somewhere in the puddle and splatters of leftovers on random surfaces. Saudi men also do not usually raise the seat when they go to the bathroom, and based on the yellow stains on every possible surface one can assume they also do not use their hands or practice aiming of any sort.

Being the adventure that it already is, going to the bathroom at the Boys’ School is made even more daring due to the fact that most of the students were not specifically taught how to go to the bathroom. They were potty trained to the extent that they know where and when to go, but that’s about it. I have students who regularly come back from the bathroom with wet clothes and unbearable smells. In the first few weeks of school I threw away several textbooks because I found smears on several pages. Let me reiterate that for you. I threw away several of my textbooks, of which I didn't even have enough to begin with, because they were covered in human feces. Only after I specifically taught my students how to wash their hands using soap, and monitored them whenever they went to the bathroom, did I feel comfortable touching some of the things they touched. It doesn't help that regular bathing is not something my students normally practiced, and things like deodorant and toothbrushes are considered novelties. 

Being an elementary school teacher has its moments. Teaching the older grades usually means smartass kids doing stupid things, or having conversations about uncomfortable topics that always end up being hilarious after the fact. I have had a surprising amount of those moments, but I’ve also had a few unexpected ones. They keep life interesting. Frustrating, but interesting. I guess it comes with the territory.

I teach 6th grade. My youngest student is 11 years old. Today, I taught him how to wipe his own ass.