Two Sides to Every Coin

Things have wound down. The last few weeks have been relatively uneventful. The quick pace of the various installations happening in the building wore down rather quickly, and virtually everything has slowed to its previous pace. As it turns out, the majority of the work being done was due to some bribes and a bit of tactful blackmailing, and once the money stopped flowing so did any progress. This exemplifies one of the relatively major yet seldom spoken of aspects of everyday life here.

Nothing ever really gets done here unless you pay someone to do it, even when it’s their job. This infuriates everyone, Saudis included, but no one really has the time or desire to change the system. Case in point, I’ve recently been trying and failing to get my driver’s license in order to buy a car. I’ve been waiting for a few weeks to get this finished, and the only real hurdle in this process is having my company’s Government Relations Officer (a Saudi whose job it is to process these things for our company) take my already completed papers to a window at the license office and wait there while they print my license. This will take less than 5 minutes, but I’ve only finally been able to get him to agree to go by paying him extra. I’m bribing my superior to do one of the few things his job actually requires him to do, but I’m not really that upset about it because at least something will get done. Or at least that’s how it will work in theory. I’m scheduled to meet him tomorrow to finalize this, but he isn’t particularly well known for his punctuality.

Another fun little fact of life in the Kingdom is that promises mean everything when given to a Saudi, but nothing when given to anyone else. One of the very first pieces of advice the South African gave me was never to tell a Saudi parent that you’re actually willing to do anything for them. I noticed he always ended his conversations with “and you know I won’t promise you this” and gave an awkward stare into the eyes of whomever he was talking to. At first I thought it was some odd South African way of doing things, but over time I realized that all my parents were hanging on to my every word, as if anything I said held as much merit as a binding contract. They would contact me weeks after I had last talked to them, asking about small mundane things that had no relation to school or their son, and grow upset if they hadn’t been dealt with because they could have sworn they remembered me promising them I would take care of it.  

The open house held at the Boys’ School almost two months ago was initially a great experience and fermented the beginnings of what would have been a very good system of parent-teacher communication. The problem was that after giving out all of my contact information and receiving verbal commitments from the parents to participate in it, nothing happened. I accepted this as a normal state of affairs because, seeing as it was up to the parents to perform the majority of action, things weren’t likely to be done. Then, more than a month later, came the parent-teacher conferences that we held yesterday. None of the parents were particularly worried that things haven’t really changed, and they readily admitted it was because they hadn’t made an effort to help change the situation. They were quite upset, however, that I wasn’t able to make small changes that I had supposedly promised them, like helping their son after school with extra English, or buying missing textbooks and equipment with my own salary. Neither I nor the parents were able to remember exactly when I had said these things, or why I had promised to do them in the first place, but they were all fairly disappointed in me. By the end of the day I was ending my conferences with ‘I’m going to try to help you and your son, but I cannot and will not promise you anything’ and giving an uncomfortably long handshake to each father.

I’m surprised with how good I feel in the aftermath of my conferences. They went much better than I anticipated once I started wading through the bullshit, and I think my terse attitude struck a chord with some of the parents; this afternoon when I emailed them, they responded.

In some respects this is difficult to come to terms with because, retrospectively, I feel as though I’m turning into the type of expat that many people frown upon. In reality, I haven’t been able to find any other way to deal with living here, and I haven’t found too many others who’ve come up with something different. I find myself with the attitude that every person I must deal with is either too incompetent or too apathetic to accomplish a simple task, and therefore I must treat them like a toddler. I know that describing a group of people based on the shortcomings of a few individuals is both misleading and impolite. I realize that my interactions with this culture thus far are skewed and mostly not the norm. I understand that even though almost everyone I’ve met seems to share a similar experience and viewpoint, it doesn’t mean we’re qualified to present a formative opinion on the matter. But at what point do rationalizations for cultural shortcomings stop, while making excuses to justify backasswardness begin? I don’t know, but I have a particularly strong feeling I’ll be discovering that threshold in the near future.