Sunday, December 26, 2010

America, I Don't Like You!

Soon after I posted my chance meeting with a young African girl coming from Saudi Arabia to study in America, I came across this poignant account of a Saudi woman also living in America as a student. My translation is from her Arabic blog which can be viewed here.  

"Before I came to America, the idea of independence attracted me more than anything else. Even though my father was never involved in my personal decisions and allowed me full responsibility, the lifestyle of my country forces women to be dependent for the simplest of things. Besides that, my father spoiled me so much that he would not even allow me to move a glass from its place - that was the job of the servants!

So I came to America with the dream of benefitting from the experience of freedom. I wanted this experience to strengthen and develop my personality. I wanted to learn to depend on myself, which was hard in a country controlled by masculinity.

But I no longer want this independence, nor the responsibility that I used to dream about. I want to return to my parents. I want to wake up to find my breakfast prepared and waiting for me. I want to finish eating breakfast and have my coffee ready. Then I want to get in the car and have the driver drop me off at the university, or the mall, or wherever I want to go. When I'm finished, I want him waiting to take me home.

I don't want to have to look for a parking spot. I don't want to pay the rent and the utility bills. I don't want to think about anything except my dreams. I don't want daily responsibilities that weigh me down.

Who is at fault for my fear and inability to accept responsibility? Is what I feel normal? Is the lifestyle I am accustomed to the reason for this? Should I blame myself, or the society that demands the permission of my father for everything?

I don't like the American life. I find it pushes people down. It forces you "to be or not to be". You can't be just an ordinary person living an ordinary life. You either succeed, or you are forced to work three jobs to live a respectable life. There is no place for the family. There are no boundaries placed in front of trying to get money.

This is what I have observed in my small environment, and is not a generalization. I prefer the pretense and windowdressing of my own country. I prefer the dichotomy, and the lack of freedom. I want to live my life and defend my principles, with all the limits and restrictions, but with my family. I want to be with my daddy and mommy, with my brothers and sisters and my relatives. I want to be my father's spoiled child who arranges the entire house according to her whims.

There is something about my country that makes me crazy about it. In spite of all my criticism and my rebellion, I love it more than any other country.

I know many will not agree with me, but I am speaking about my personal experience. Many people love life in America, and they have that right. Yes, there are many positive aspects, but they mean nothing to me. None of them make up for what I am missing. What I have lost is much greater than I can put into words. America, I am sorry but I don't like you!

Life in America is not right for me. That does not mean it is not right for all the women from my country. I am merely speaking for myself. I was much happier in Saudi Arabia. There is a spirituality I have lost here. What I have lost is much deeper than the feelings of independence and self-reliance, and that I am equal to a man in every way. I have lost something that all those things are not able to cover. I have been in America more than six months, and these feelings are still with me.

I still view America as being green, the color of money. Its nights are depressing, and its streets narrow. Life here is frightening. I would prefer an hour in the Empty Quarter to these dreary woods behind my house. 

This is my personal perspective, nothing more."

Welcome to America!

I was waiting at the King Khalid Airport in Riyadh to board the Swiss Air flight that would take me on the first leg from The Magic Kingdom to America. Among the usual crowd of well-heeled Saudis and bewejelled expats I noticed a young, comparatively poorly-dressed dark-skinned girl waiting to board the plane. In Zurich we went to the same gate to catch the onward flight to Washington, and I struck up a conversation with her. Her family was from Guinea in West Africa, but she had been born in Saudi Arabia and lived there her entire life. Her father was one of millions of foreign workers who did the jobs Saudis were unwilling or unable to do, and her family was far from rich. They had saved enough money, however, to send their oldest daughter to America to study where she had been accepted at the University of Washington.

She said she had never really felt at home in Saudi Arabia or welcomed there, even though it was the only country she had known. She had returned to Guinea for a few months after graduating from high school, but felt even more of a stranger there. Like millions of others have done for centuries, she was coming to America to start a new life.

I was behind her as she put her suitcase on the conveyor belt to go through security, and it set off enough alarms to raise the dead. Security officials quickly opened the suitcase to reveal the metal sauce pans and silverware, along with bags of rice and beans, that her mother had packed for her so she would be able to survive in America. I realized that if she was having that hard a time getting out of Europe she might have a real hard time getting in America, so I made sure to keep her in sight to vouch for her if necessary after we reached DC. They let her into the country, and at the luggage carousel I saw her for the last time.

When I shook her hand to say farewell I handed her a crisp 100 dollar bill. "Life's not always easy in America," I told her. "You are going to meet people who mistreat you, and some who try to take advantage of you. No matter what happens, I want you to remember that the first person you met in America welcomed you here."

As she looked at my gift her eyes got large and her mouth dropped open. She could only say three words, but they were more than enough. "Oh my God!"

A few weeks ago I learned that a young Egyptian couple was making their first trip to America to interview in hopes of being accepted at a university in New York City. At the last moment the person who had said they could stay in her apartment backed out of the invitation. Determined to make the trip anyhow, the couple sold their car in Cairo to be able to afford the cheapest hotel they could find in Brooklyn.

After they finished the interviews, I offered to host them for a few days in the DC area. I took a day off from work, and we walked around the White House and the Mall. I introduced them to the Lincoln Memorial and explained why Abraham Lincoln was such an important President that he merited his own temple. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, and watched the veterans who after all these years still shed tears as they touch the engraved names of fallen comrades. And I said to them, "This is America."

Like most of us, I continue to make New Year's Resolutions even though I usually fail to keep them. My resolution for 2011 is to be more active in welcoming newcomers to our country. Many refugees have recently arrived from war torn countries such as Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. I've just filled out the application forms to serve as a volunteer teaching English as a Second Language to some of them. It's only a two-hour per week commitment, and even I can handle that. Hopefully I'll do a good job and will be able to say to them, along with the many others involved in their resettlement, "Welcome to America!"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What Sarah Palin Has That Everybody Wants

In her December 17 interview with Sarah Palin, Good Morning America correspondent Robin Roberts noted, "I have to tell you, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the Palin home is that it's all about family."

America is a country filled with millions - perhaps tens and scores of millions - of lonely people. Many of us are divorced, or the children of divorced parents. Others stay in empty relationships long after the spark of romance and the warmth of intimacy have gone. Unmarried teenage girls choose to become pregnant and have babies just so they can have someone to love or to love them. People move from one empty relationship to another, or give up hope of a good relationship at all. Married couples choose not to have children for the sake of their careers, or carefully calculate how many children they can have without putting those careers on hold. Infants live their lives in daycare because their parents choose lifestyles that demand both incomes.

And along comes Sara Palin, a woman who loves a husband who adores her, with a big, messy family. Her critics use words such as "polarizing, fanatic, radical, right-wing extremist, Christian fundamentalist conservative" to describe her, and that's just the beginning. I don't need to mention those critics by name, and you could probably make a list far longer than mine. My suggestion is that she has something most of them are longing for.

It could well be that Sarah Palin will be the next President of the United States. If so, she will continue to be the person she has always been, a mother working out of the house balancing the needs of her family and her job. Like radio talk-show host Dr. Laura, I could imagine President Palin greeting foreign dignitaries by saying, "Good morning King Abdallah and Queen Rania, and welcome to the White House. I am Sarah Palin, and I am my kids' mom."