An American teacher takes up a position in Saudi Arabia
I have finally traveled the last leg of the trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Arrived here six days ago after starting in San Francisco, California, in 1980.
I was then a computer service engineer working in the city's downtown area when I met an American of Middle Eastern ancestry who worked for the same company. He had resigned, and then had been rehired again after a short stint working in Saudi Arabia. He lasted there only three months, but he did say that he had come back with enough money to make a down payment to buy a house.
The lure of quick money was too much, and I thought I could to put in at least a year working in the Middle East as a high technology engineer. I wanted to have some cash so I could go back to college to finish my bachelor's degree, buy a house, and have a family. I had the America Dream. But the trip to Saudi Arabia was not to be a short one.
As the hired taxi barreled at high speed out of the island Kingdom of Bahrain towards the King Fahd causeway connecting it to the mainland, I saw a familiarly shaped green freeway sign. It said "to Saudi Arabia." I have seen countless of similar signs in other places... "To San Jose", "to Los Angeles", "to JFK", "to Bangkok", "to Phuket." This one did not look out of place; it seemed almost natural, like it belonged.
We traveled for nearly an hour on a modern freeway built over the ocean when we had to stop at the immigration checkpoint for passport formalities. Immediately after the tollbooths, there was an even more familiar sight: the large yellow arches and the red façade of a McDonald's fast food restaurant. The taxi driver asked if we should stop there. I declined: we were in a hurry and too much time had already been lost.
The sun was setting down and we saw a sight often seen in posters or movies: an orange colored sunset against an orange colored sky over the distant horizon. The sand dust haze made it possible to stare directly into the distant star.
It was already dark when we arrived, and we saw the oil refineries lights and their towers spewing flaming gas into the night. We had passed the industrial towns of Al-Dahran, Al-Khobar, Dammam, and were now in Jubail Industrial City. The streets were wide, but there was no traffic and buildings were few. There was good road lighting but not much to see.
After making a few phone calls, the taxi driver dropped me off at one of the schools where I was to work as a teacher and soon an SUV arrived to take me to the school-provided accommodations. The Arab driver did not speak English and could not understand I wanted to buy some food and water for the evening. All he did was point forward and say "friends," and "call."
He dropped me off at a nearby seemingly deserted building, showed me the way to an apartment on the third floor, and pointed to the apartments across the yard and said again, "friends," and "call." I did not insist for I know that trying to talk to people who do not understand a language is worse than trying to talk to the wall for at some point the people get angry. Walls never get angry; they are only obstacles to surpass.
He left and I lugged my 30 kilos worth of belongings, guitar, and backpack up the stairs to the third floor.
Upon opening the apartment door, a cold blast of air hit my face. The central air conditioning was at least working, but the light switch did not turn the lights on. The fear of having been left in a cold, dark, dusty and deserted place with no food and water and no one to talk to, began to creep.
In the distance, the loud wail of a Muslim call to prayer penetrated the silence leaving an eerie echo as it died away. The entire scene was like a script out of a horror movie. I attempted to regain composure and struggled against the fear of the unknown for a few minutes while searching for the main power switch panel. It was inside the walk-in clothes closet and with the help of a cigarette lighter to look at the on/off levers, took a leap of faith, and threw a switch. There was light.
All flat surfaces in the apartment were covered with a fine layer of light brown sand dust. The very sand dust that dimmed the sun and made the sky orange. There was a TV, a small fridge, a microwave oven, a kitchenette with two burners, a kitchen sink, a good-sized bed with linen and bed cover, a desk, a table, two large chairs, and a dresser. It would be home, sand dust and all.
Making a friend
As an old car mechanic, motorcycle rider, and garage tinkerer, I had packed a cleaning rag made from an old t-shirt my wife had made me throw away, and that was the first thing I took out of my luggage. I had begun to wipe the sand dust off the tables, the counter top, and the TV, when I heard footsteps in the hallway. It was one of the tenants leaving the building. I chased him and after an informal introduction, I found out he was also a teacher in the same school I would be teaching. He was on his way to the gym and offered to show me the way to a nearby shopping mall, an offer clearly sent by divine forces. Originally from Sudan, he had studied in Virginia.
As we walked to the shopping mall, I noticed we were in a residential neighborhood and that the houses were very similar to houses seen in the suburbs of any modern city: we could have been in the outskirts of Miami, Paris, Rome, or Athens. The streets, however, were deserted. An oppressing silence blanketed the neighborhood.
The time was barely 8:00 in the evening. There were very few parked cars on the street, and most parking areas had no vehicles. The walk to the mall took only 5 minutes. We conversed the whole time about the things I needed to know about the town and the school. After showing me where the food supermarket was inside the mall, we parted ways.
Since departing Bahrain kind of in a hurry, I had no chance of exchanging Bahraini Dinars into Saudi Arabian Riyals, thus was also penniless in terms of local currency. The supermarket would not accept payment for groceries in foreign currency. I had made it to the accommodations, found electric power, was now near food and water, but these last necessities were still a challenge away.
The modern day convenience of ATM cards and the global interlinked banking network saved the hungry and thirsty traveler: I was able to extract local cash out of one of the ATM's near the store. I had regained full traction again.
The supermarket was comparable to a Lucky's or a Safeway and I was able to find bottled water, crackers, strawberry jam, canned tuna, chocolate bars, and cold Coca-Cola. Dinner was never so welcomed.
First day of school
A driver from the school came to pick me up the next morning. It was daylight and I could now clearly see the surroundings. The scenery looked as if we were in Midwest America. The place resembled Arizona or New Mexico. The streets were wide, lined with trees and with very few cars. There was absence of colors but the simple light brown of sand on all the buildings and houses, the grayish street pavement and the almost washed out green of the tree leaves. The town almost looked like a Kansas suburb I had seen before.
We arrived at the Royal Commission government building where a human resources officer processed my employment application and other official documents necessary for my work. He was very polite, helpful, and spoke very good English.
All employees there were male, and wore the traditional Saudi full-length white robe and headscarf with a double black ring retainer on top. They all looked very comfortable in their attire working in modern looking office cubicles with all the usual office equipment surrounding them: computers, copy machines, file cabinets, paper trays, rubber stamps, and telephones. They all were very friendly and occasionally would come, introduce themselves in English with a genuine smile, and shake hands.
By the time the driver dropped me off at the school, it was nearly noontime. I had to meet the school's own human resources officer and fill out a few more forms. He was also very welcoming, good mannered and spoke good English. A short while later, we went to my new office located at a nearby building. I then met my manager and all the teachers in the English department.
Teachers and students
All the teachers wore western clothes; some even wore suit and tie. They were extremely pleased to have a new addition to the group. Out of the fifteen teachers in our department, there were four Americans, one Canadian, and one British. The rest were from other countries such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Chad, and Pakistan.
The students walking around the hallways and standing outside the classrooms were all young Saudi males and wore the traditional Saudi full-length white robe and headscarf although a few wore common western teenager clothes such a blue jeans and t-shirts, baseball caps and tennis shoes. There were no females in sight.
After a long first day at work, I was back at my apartment, looking back on how I had gotten here. From the very beginning, nearly thirty years ago, there was always some kind of obstacle. We could not fairly call a love affair, or a new job, or lack of money an obstacle, but it was always something of that sort.
Rekindling lost loves
I recall not wanting to leave my lady lover at the time. After the affair was over, I traveled to Asia in 1983 for the first time, and had dreams of opening a computer business in Hong Kong or Thailand. Another love relationship and its failure did not speed me to my dreams. A promising job as a worldwide traveling engineer was more reachable and real, so my time was absorbed waiting at hotels and airports, as I went to places no one in his right mind would ever want to go to; I went there because the computer system was down, and I was the one to bring it back up.
In one of the business trips, in 1986, I rediscovered Thailand, and an old dream was reborn. A year later, I decided to move and to live there. That dream was shattered by yet another love affair, which also saw its final day.
By the way, how does one get a job in Saudi Arabia? Contacted a placement agency in Houston, Texas, and sending them a hefty fee for a job search, did not work. Never heard from them again. Newspaper classifieds seldom advertised for international jobs and those who did wanted people with "overseas experience" (How do you get overseas experience if you cannot get there in the first place?).
Doing research was not my strongest point and maybe I failed in that area. At the time the Internet did not exist and only those with "connections" or who lived in industrial communities servicing the petroleum industry were probably the only ones who had inside knowledge on how to get a job in the Middle East. I had no idea that I could have just walked into the Bechtel Company building in downtown San Francisco, where I had serviced many a computer, and ask for information about employment in Saudi Arabia.
It was Bechtel and its American engineers and crews who built the oil refineries in Al-Dahran, Al-Khobar, and Jubail Industrial City. The freeways, the wide and near perfect streets with evenly spaced street lights and signs as well as the houses in the residential areas surrounding them were made from blueprints brought from Kansas, Arizona, Texas, California. I should have been one of those engineers. I had wanted to be one of them. The resemblance to Midwest America, the presence of a McDonald's right at the border and the all too familiar green freeway signs were now clear.
One evening, years ago, in 1989, while sitting at the dinner table, I announced to my mother and sister that I was going back to college to earn a bachelor's degree. Thailand seemed a little closer than Saudi Arabia but I still had to get more academic credentials before I could embark on a task that was greater than me. I had to arm myself with something. I had to re-load.
Without any money and unable to get student loans, for the next seven years I struggled taking classes at the San Francisco State University in the morning, while working two part time jobs in the afternoon and weekends. Shopped for food at the Lucky's supermarket in the evenings, did homework late at night, and sometimes, after midnight, dialed up the SFSU mainframe to do computer-programming assignments from my PC computer at home. When times got rough, especially towards the end, I mentally repeated one word like a mantra: "reload."
In the meantime, the Internet was slowly being born. Shortly thereafter, I was using a graphical operating system called "Windows 95" and then an application program called an "internet browser" made by the newly formed Netscape Company. "Search engine" programs had not been invented yet. Then the day came when I wore a graduation cap and gown. It was 1996.
My mother and sister were there as well as my best friends Margaret and Steven. An automobile road mishap kept Lauren from coming. That evening, one of my best friends, Ronald, threw a graduation party for me at his house in the Fillmore district; other very good friends were there: Anne, George, Martin, Donald, my mother and sister, and Ron's lady friend.
I spent the next five years working, still in engineering, paying off the credit card loans I had to take to finance my education. I also nearly paid off my mother's house loan and even began to put money away by the thousands of dollars. I had slowly regained traction but the unforeseen slowly crept up as well: my steering was faulty. After more than ten years of concentration on school and work, I had forgotten why I was doing it and where I was going. I now shudder at the thought that after reloading I was not aiming anymore.
Another love relationship came and went leaving me saying, "Never again." As I sat alone, house sitting for a friend who had gone traveling to Thailand, an uneasy feeling came to me as I said to myself "something is wrong with this picture... why am I here? It's me who is supposed to be in Thailand, not him." All obstacles now out of the way, I remembered that I had a dream. I had forgotten my goal. I had sinned for not writing it down and not hanging it in front of me for all those past years.
I had been too busy dealing with the day-to-day idiosyncrasies of a simple life turned complex and had forgotten why I was struggling. The means had become the end. I then made the most important life course correction: from that day on, any action that I undertook, had to have as its final goal to get me to Thailand. After resigning from a well-paid computer software engineering job, disposing of all belongings: cars, tools, motorcycles, radios, computers, firearms, old love letters, and clearing out of the house in San Francisco, I arrived in Thailand in 2002.
Back on track
As the old saying goes, "Never say never," a year later, I met the woman who was to become my wife. We have since married and have Beam, my 9-year-old stepdaughter and our own daughter, Chelsea, now 18 months old. We rent a duplex in Phuket where I worked for the last five years as an English program manager at a local vocational college. We are all fortunate that we have each other. My wife is a caring mother and I am a responsible father. We both lead simple lives, love to have fun together, and our children love us for who we are.
It is because of our children that six months ago I started to look for new employment, as Thailand is still a country of poor people and wages are not very high. A single individual earning my salary would have been relatively well off, but now I support my wife and kids and bills would pile up and we would be living from paycheck to paycheck.
So armed with the new high speed Internet, its powerful search engines, and dedicated websites, I began to research the job market and found many job ads. In a couple of months had submitted letters of interest to about one hundred different companies and schools in several countries for both engineering and teaching positions. Within ninety days, I had three job interviews and two job offers. I took the best paying one. It was teaching English in Saudi Arabia.
Even after accepting the initial job offer by E-mail, and while waiting for the actual contract document to arrive, I insisted in continuing the job search. Instead of spending time with our new baby at home, I would go to the nearby Internet café and spend hours doing job searches and applying for the available openings.
Born to fight and to win
One day, I told my wife I was going to the Internet café to continue looking for work, and she, somewhat annoyed at my insistence, replied, "The economy is not good. Many companies are laying people off. Maybe better if you don't try to change jobs now..." Thai people are very happy people and look at life in a very simple way. This makes them the more natural, humane, and lovable.
On the other hand, this simplicity often annoys me for life is not so simple. Knowing that my wife did not intend to say anything against me, I put on a smile and said, "Look honey, I'm not Thai, I'm a foreigner, an American, and we fight until we win... I have not won yet. I don't have a work contract in my hands."
My wife, who often gets sensitive when I get serious, sensed the smoldering lava beginning to flow and quietly slipped away to the next room with the baby. That's right, we fight until we win and if we do not win, we step back to see where we went wrong, reload, then comeback with more speed and momentum, and if we can no longer fight, it's because we can now be counted among the fallen ones, in the sand dust.
So at the end, we went to college, bought the house, moved to Thailand, got married, and had kids. Saudi Arabia was to come after all that. It was the last leg of the trip but it is not home.
My home, sweetheart, and children are in Thailand, and there I shall return, reloaded.
Jorge Emilio Jo
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Nicely written Jorge! At the beginning I wasn't completely enthralled by the passage but there's something about the simplicity of your writing that drove me to continue reading, I enjoyed that. In the end it was nice. I liked how you broke it up by headlines and how each headline showed a glimpse of different aspects of a time in your life.
By Ajn Krainak, Phuket, Thailand (9th March 2016)
Hello Shivanii. Of course I remember you. The hours long wait at the embassy would have been much longer were it not for your good disposition and company. I am now permanently in Thailand. I'm working on another essay and in a week or two will ask Ajarn.com to post it. Thanks for the good wishes. Send me E-mail.
By Jorge Jo, Thailand (27th August 2015)
Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is not the bargain it once was. Yes, they wages are higher than in Thailand. But if you look at most of the salaries now for positions in KSA, they are less than before due to middle-man agencies taking a bite. Jobs that once paid 5k USD a month and allowed you to live in an all-foreign compound have been replaced by 2-3k a month and you are stuck in a hotel room in the middle of Tatooine. This is the way of the future. Being able to bring a spouse/kids is going away very quickly as well. You're expected to leave everyone behind and live like a monk.
Getting the dreaded 'Iqama' (equivalent of a work permit) is now more difficult as well. Business visas are not as easily obtained as they were 5-10 years ago, and the Saudi government is holding employers more accountable to follow labor laws. Unlike Thailand, you can't float fake degrees. If you don't have a [real] degree, jobs in KSA are slim to none.
Last but not least, let me sum up the vast majority of students in KSA: lazy and disrespectful, particularly if you aren't muslim. They aren't worthy of your time -- hell, they make the worst Thai students look like saints.
By Don, Bangkok (26th August 2015)
Thank you for the post. I dont know how I would feel working in a place like that, all male, muslim world. I wouldn't trade my life in Thailand unless I was strapped for cash. Being away from family is a tough situation
By MorPhan, Las Vegas (25th August 2015)
Hi Jorge. How are you? I don't know if you could still remember me but we met at the Thai Embassy in Vientiane last year. Hope you're doing fine. Wishing you all the best in life. ^_^
By Shivanii, Thailand (25th August 2015)