An America Unknown
Author’s Note: In ed school they make you write an autobiography about a time when the teacher trainee (generally white) felt like a minority, out of place, not welcome, and how this can help us empathize with our students. Given that context, and my feelings at the time about being made to write it, I’m a bit more vehement than I would be today. Nonetheless, I think the main outline of the point, at the end, is true. And the story of my life is definitely true, so it may as well be documented somewhere.
I grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. At the time, expats didn’t live in the big universal cocoons that are so common these days. The quality of the “compounds” varied by class, although no one really mentioned it: Raytheon engineers got one big compound with all the best amenities—the biggest pool, an indoor movie theater, a store that sold only American food. Lockheed engineers must not have been paid as well, because they had several smaller compounds with varying facility quality. But my dad worked for the airlines as a mechanic, as did most of the TWA employees, so we didn’t have centralized facilities. We had little enclosed groups of houses all over the city—and beyond. I lived for four years in the Red Sea Apartments, an isolated bloc of 8 apartments just a few hundred yards from the Red Sea and desert all around us—unless you count the Saudi Army base (nothing more than tents with a fence around it) 30 yards away. Right out on the sand bar were two stranded ships. My father and I went out to the closest one on a raft and snuck aboard. I took papers from the captain’s cabin, dated from 1956; the language seemed to be Dutch. I also took a shelf that my mom and I refinished; we both still regret losing track of that antique. We’d also go crabbing at midnight; my parents would round up all the neighborhood kids and we’d saunter out at low tide in the dark. One kid would pin a crab with the beam of a flashlight while another would hold it down with a stick and holler until my dad came and flipped the crab into a bucket.
Then we moved to Old Compound, the original TWA compound situated right next to the airport. Old Compound was great because we lived next to the pool and very near the only TWA employee movie theater. Alas, the movie theater was open air, so following a complicated movie plot became rather daunting when a 707 revved up its engines to taxi or takeoff. Still, we liked it.
We didn’t have our own stores, so we just used the Saudi ones. This was long before segregated facilities came into play—only after Desert Storm were women and children forced to use separate entrances, my father told me. So we went into Saudi shwarma stands to get those divine sandwiches, and we went into the Suq for all our local shopping. Of course, we couldn’t have church in a Muslim-only country, so services were held in the US Embassy. In the early years, we jockeyed around the donkey carts and oil sheiks’ Mercedes in the Chrysler, a gorgeous magenta car with amazing features like air conditioning and power windows. My dad got that Chrysler for next to nothing from a Saudi prince because it had a fuel leak that the prince’s mechanics didn’t know how to fix. My dad fixed it, and for several years we had a car well outside our usual station in life. We asked Dad excitedly if that prince would ever be king and my dad laughed and said no, Sultan was fifth in line. Today, Sultan is nearly 80—but he’s also the Crown Prince. One more to go! [Update: he died in 2011. Sigh.]
Living in Jedda meant that the power would go out without warning—but that just meant it was time to party. The parents would go to one house and drink Siddiqi (moonshine, it’s the Arabic word for “friend”) and the kids to another. In 1975 the country suffered a drought and everyone’s water was cut off. We only got two hours a day—and they never told you when those hours were. So we kept the water faucets on full blast at all times; when we heard the faucets erupt, even if it was 2:00 in the morning, we’d all get up, shower, fill up the water kettles to boil more water (you didn’t think we drank out of the faucets, did you?), and fill up as many pails as possible so we could flush the toilet.
(Eighteen months later, we came home to California, which was having a “drought”. My brother and I speculated that in the US, of course, they probably published a list so everyone knew when their two hours would be. Then they told us that in California, “drought” meant you didn’t always flush the toilet and watered the lawn every other day. Then they had to explain “lawn”. Badumpdump.)
We had no phones. We did have TV for a couple hours of day, when we’d breathlessly watch reruns of “The Fugitive” and “Medical Center” (even way back then, children, those were old shows). But the last five minutes of those shows were always cut off by the tape of the “awah guy”, as we called him, starting the call to prayer (listen to the call for prayer and tell me the two syllables aren’t “awah”). I still laugh when I think of us anxiously watching a 20-year-old show, hoping that the plot would be resolved before the “awah guy” came on. We had no bacon, no pork, no booze that wasn’t homemade. We had no milk or ice cream, but stupendous butter, an Irish brand called Kerrygold. We had bugs in a lot of food, but we learned to accept that bugs were a big step up from worms, and merely gave thanks that worms were less frequently found.
My parents were nothing if not unorthodox, and many of our vacations were spent in far off lands. In 1969, we lived in a Portuguese fishing village for a month. This was not a vacation spot; my dad just knew a mechanic whose parents owned a cottage. The locals thought we were very odd, but the fishermen kindly invited my dad and my brother out with the fleet. My brother caught two fish. I was outraged, as I was the eldest, and demanded equal treatment. The fishermen were perplexed, but obliging, and so Dad and I went out the next day so that I could catch two fish, too.
In 1975, we went to Kenya. Not for my parents the tour bus. No, my dad went around looking for an affordable guy who could show us around. He did not speak the language, but he figured that anyone who did speak English would be eager for some money, and so he found Joe, the kind of guy that people like my dad always find. Joe took us all over the country in his car, from Tsavo to a little northern town at the foot of Mount Kenya. He found wildlife of every sort everywhere, when we least expected it—once he slammed on the brakes, said “HUSH”, backed up around a nondescript bush and there, yawning sleepily, was a lioness, all alone. She eyed us warily, but did nothing. I still have the pictures from my little Kodak 110. While we usually stayed in lovely lodges and hotels, the northern town by Mount Kenya was having a convention, and everything was filled up except this ancient boarding house. We slept three to a bed, my brother, sister, and I, praying that the cockroaches would find a sibling first. In the morning, my mother and I were brushing our teeth in the communal bathroom when a seven-foot-tall man with coal-black skin and ferocious face markings walked in, smiled at us in the cracked mirror we were all using, and pulled out a pick to fix his hair.
We went to Greece, shepherded by my father’s Greek mechanic friends. We went on a ski trip in the French Alps—no, we didn’t speak French—and I boycotted skiing because beginning skiers had to ski down a hill through the town to get to the bunny slopes, which were only half as steep as the town hill. No, thank you. We went to Germany, Italy, England, Scotland, Wales, and, most frequently, Lebanon (once taking a cab ride from Damascus to Beirut because all the flights were full). “Intramural sports” meant competing with schools in different countries, so I went to basketball tournaments in Dubai, softball tourneys in Bahrain, and track meets in Egypt—for a treat, our team went out for camel rides. My camel, which I shared with a fellow runner named Kevin, escaped from his owner and went gallumping through the Giza pyramids, with what seemed like all the camel merchants in the world chasing us, yelling enthusiastically.
And then, in 1977, we came back home. I entered Sequoia High School for my sophomore year just four days after arriving in the country we’d always considered the Land of Plenty—they had television ALL DAY, telephones everywhere, bacon, milk, Captain Crunch, McDonalds, and oh, my lord, ice cream in your own refrigerator. Fruit you didn’t have to bleach. Water right out of the faucet. Unimaginable luxuries that didn’t have to be smuggled in.
I was miserable. I hated school, hated our new house, hated our lives. I’m not over-dramatizing. In our family history, everyone agrees that coming back to the US when we did was a huge mistake—it led to our parents’ divorce, and while they are both happily married to others now, their split caused significant financial stress. My dad left for Saudi Arabia again after five years, which meant we lost him from our daily lives for more than a decade.
I took several years to fully adapt to living as an American in the US, despite being of the so-called “dominant” culture. I took another ten years or more to figure out that my life in Saudi Arabia and my parents’ cheerful determination to see the world had kept something obscured from me. In Saudi Arabia, everything was weird. There was no normal. None of us kids particularly enjoyed feeling out of place in north Kenyan towns or Portuguese villages or even Saudi Arabia itself, but we accepted it as part of living our weird life. In America, I would always tell myself, things would be normal.
My brothers and sister were, in fact, fairly normal. They retain aspects of their unusual childhood, but in most ways, they fit nicely into their worlds.
I expected this as well. I spent much of high school and college wondering why I felt alien. I was in America. Shouldn’t things feel more normal?
Alas, the truth was hidden from me in our lives overseas. I—well, it must be faced. I’m odd. I wasn’t odd because my parents moved to Saudi Arabia and took their kids on a fascinating, if unsettling, world tour. I’m odd because that’s who I am. I’m always going to be a statistical anomaly whose life won’t exactly fit in. It’s not a bad thing, and I’m certainly not alone. And that’s the great irony—while there are people whose lives fit comfortably enough in the norm, there is no real “normal”. People on the edges, like me, are just a bit more aware of where the edges are and what it’s like too far from the center.
I was supposed to write about an autobiographical instance of a time when I felt different and discuss how this makes me aware of minority cultures, equity, and democracy in the classroom. As a member of the “dominant culture”, the thinking goes, I need to empathize with those who aren’t part of that culture and reach out and understand the differences.
Whenever others talk about this “dominant culture” that oppresses and locks out others who aren’t of that culture, I am reminded of my anticipation of America and the “normal” life that I thought awaited me when I returned. I understand the difficulties of belonging to a minority, and I accept that many people see the majority culture as dominating and unwelcome. Nonetheless, I think those who feel excluded, as well as those who speak on their behalf, see a “normalcy” to dominant cultures that will give them what they lack. They see a promised land, a sense of belonging, of access that is denied them. In fact, what they want, like the “normal” America I wanted, doesn’t exist for anyone.