Minnesota Nice

One of the more surprising and unintended aspects of moving to the Kingdom has been the change in attitude I’ve found myself noticing recently. The culture and people here have a particularly good knack of testing one’s limits. At first you don’t realize how much it happens because everything is new and exciting and ridiculous, and you’re left with little time to think about what’s happening. After a while you realize the full extent of how meticulous everything is when it comes to making sure that even the most trivial of activities involves agonizing frustration.

The serenity is misleading.

There’s a whole slew of probable reasons as to how this aspect of Saudi culture developed, most of which could be attributed to the sudden transition from wandering Bedouins to disgustingly rich Sheiks in just a few short years. Others include the colonial nature of development here, the general lack of basic education, and a very restricted religious world view. Whatever the root may be, the outcome is pretty clear for anyone thrown into this wonderfully confusing world of smoke and mirrors; you need to learn to assert yourself.

The average interaction with anyone here, whether it be with a Saudi, an Expat, or a migrant worker, is likely to end up in one of two outcomes. The first being dependent on the fact that everyone involved has a vested interest in the outcome, meaning whatever is desired will most likely happen. This happens relatively frequently (though not as much as one would hope). When I want my car washed or my house cleaned it happens because I want something and the person doing it wants my money. It’s almost never as easy as that because of any number of factors (language and greed usually being the big ones), but the important part is that something actually happens and neither party has to go too far out of their way. The second type of interaction happens when only one person has a vested interest in the outcome, and, therefore, nothing will get done. Every major problem I’ve encountered stems from this type of unnecessarily ridiculous type of interaction, and the entire foundation of Saudi society seems to be built around this. If I want a form to be signed, an order to be placed, or a task to be preformed, this is the type of interaction I’m destined to face, and I’m almost certainly going to walk away from the situation worse for the wear.

Not every person here fits exactly into this description. There are quite a few helpful individuals who go out of their way to accommodate your needs, and they’re usually generously employed by the people who value them. These folks are rare though, and, therefore, extremely valuable (and expensive) to have around.

The quick fix to this frustration, as I’ve written about before, is to bribe people. It gets things done in a relatively timely manner, but, seeing as I don’t bleed gold or shit diamonds, I don’t necessarily have the means to grease every stuck cog I encounter. The next best alternative is to do things for yourself whenever possible, and if you can’t physically do it yourself, you constantly monitor the person who can. It’s time consuming, and unfortunately still usually requires you to spend a fair bit of money, but once you start seeing the results of your labor, the extra effort becomes worthwhile.

Learning how to successfully accomplish this process isn’t necessarily complex, but it helps to have someone show you the ropes. I’ve been lucky enough to have the Brit teach me the some of the ins and outs of this cultural maze, and for the most part I’ve walked away with a new set of tools when dealing with people.

My most recent lesson came in the form of procuring supplies for the Boys School. We had heard through the various grapevines that certain teachers were being given decently large amounts of cash from the School Accountant to buy books and other materials for their classrooms. After a bit of schmoozing with the Principle of the Girls’ School, myself and the Brit got a written request for 4000riyal with which we could go shopping. We tracked down Ali, the driver (one of the valuable ones), and he agreed to take us to a neighborhood known for bulk supply stores.

Downtown Dammam

An hour car ride through the alleyways and side streets of Dammam, followed by two hours digging through dusty piles of random office supplies, and we had enough material to last us the rest of the year. Then we began the agonizingly long process of negotiating prices. Haggling over prices is something I’m still learning to do, as I find it uncomfortable to go through hours of hard work simply to waste it over a few petty riyals, but it’s a necessary part of life here, so I’m trying to get a knack for it.

The Brit hard at work.

We walked away from our little shopping adventure relatively satisfied. After 45 minutes of haggling, Ali and the Brit were quite pleased to have successfully negotiated 75riyal off our final total of 3,984riyal.  To put that in perspective, 75riyal is exactly $20. Back at the Boys School, we hid our new treasures in a side closet on the second floor, away from the prying eyes and sticky fingers of the other teachers.

Sitting around, relying on somebody else to do things for me, I waited four months for a ten dollar cable to be bought for my classroom computer so I could connect it to my projector and use my smartboard. Doing things for myself, I outfitted every student in my class with enough supplies for the remainder of the year in less than half a day.

Every morning this past week I’ve had the other two western teachers walk into my room with uncomfortable small talk (we rarely if ever speak to each other, and one of them is my roommate) that awkwardly segued into asking for this or that from the new supplies I bought. I bluntly said no. After a few minutes of whining about not being able to get so-and-so to get new supplies for everyone or some other poorly thought out excuse, I usually ignored them and they walked away. This morning the South African had the nerve to say “Listen, just share your damn supplies. I need some fucking pencils and you have more than enough.” To which I responded, “No. You’re an adult. Figure your own shit out.” Then I turned around and taught my English class. 

As we say at back home, if you don't like it...