What It's Like Being the Host Family for a Saudi Arabian Grad Student

The first few weeks were filled with laughter, but tensions rose and our cultures began to clash.
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Publish date:
July 3, 2016
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Partying, culture, islam, being boring, Host Families, Saudi Arabia

Andrew and I were renting a three-bedroom house that was more space than we could use, and, ultimately, more than we could afford. We watched the "rooms wanted" section on Craigslist reluctantly. Neither of us had had good experiences with roommates in the past, nor had we expected to have one again as a married couple in our late twenties. No one seemed quite right.

Then there was an ad from a company that urgently needed to place a 29-year-old Saudi Arabian grad student whose original host family bailed at the last minute. Without much thought, we decided to go for it. The company was legitimate and the pay, which would cover the student's rent and the cost of dinners we'd be expected to serve, seemed worthwhile.

After looking for so long for a roommate with shared interests, we'd have one from the other side of the planet. We signed a contract with the understanding that Abdullah's Muslim values would not align with our atheist feminist ones and that was OK. Opposites attract and all that. We were sincerely interested in learning from him.

After celebrating the holiday with family, we met Abdullah at our home on Christmas. He arrived around 9 p.m., well-dressed and bearing gifts of festive flowers and champagne. We were relieved to find he wasn't as principled as we'd expected. In a faint voice, he offered his name and said apologetically, "My English very little." Understandably, he was tired and just wanted to be shown to his room. My initial impression of his shyness could not have been more wrong.

Despite his English being "very little," Abdullah communicated effectively with the help of a translation app. The next morning at breakfast, we learned that he couldn't eat much because he'd had gastric bypass surgery; laughing at his fatter self, he held up his phone to show us pictures of what he looked like before the procedure. He went on to show us pictures of his family. Andrew was not permitted to see the one of his fully-made up wife saucily posed in Western garb, but Abdullah showed it to me with a proud smile. His three-year-old son was with her in Riyadh, and they would join him once he got his own apartment after the two months he'd spend with us.

After we ate, Abdullah insisted upon helping with clean-up, saying, "I am family, not guest." Although it became obvious that he had never washed a dish before in his life, his effort was a relief. The next morning, he made a savory breakfast of beans with peppers and baba ghanoush. He taught us to take food with our right hand only, since Saudis use the left in the bathroom and consider it unclean.

The first few weeks were filled with laughter. He'd greet me enthusiastically when he came home from school, calling me "My sister!" I got to know his family in Saudi Arabia through Snapchat. We marveled at the snow with him. We shopped at an Arabic grocery store where I happened upon the miracle of halva. He served us golden cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee alongside sugary khadrawi dates, delivered from his country. We listened to a lot of Arabic music, ate a lot of hummus, and smoked a lot of apple flavored shisha.

Coming from an Islamic country where it was illegal to consume alcohol, Abdullah was like an American college freshman away from home for the first time. After drinking at the bar on New Years Eve, he bought a giant bottle of vodka and feared it wouldn't be enough for the three of us. We danced in the living room. That night he confided that he wanted an American girlfriend, which came as a shock since I knew he loved and missed his wife.

"In my country, I can have three," he explained.

I helped him download Tinder, but he was more interested in meeting women in real life, so he wanted to go out as much as possible. "Anything for the fun," was his mantra. But he made a show of how bored he was at an art museum. He held his ears at a local band's show. He unfavorably compared my suggestions of ice skating to the thrill of his experience flyboarding in Dubai. I thought the novelty of a movie theater might entice him (because there were none in Saudi Arabia), but since he could download whatever he wanted to watch onto his computer, he saw no reason to go.

All he wanted was to do was "go to nightclub." It was a great sacrifice for a pair of bookish introverts like Andrew and myself, but we eventually gave in. At least it gave me an excuse to buy a new dress.

The bouncers at the first club we landed at let their Islamophobic flags fly. After passing Abdullah's passport back at forth between the two of them and asking a bunch of questions, they denied us entrance saying, "We just need to keep people safe." Abdullah, having been versed in American anti-Muslim prejudice before he left Saudi Arabia, smiled through it and was not shaken. However, Andrew and I were bewildered that they could think this silly guy was dangerous. Some middle fingers might have flown up as we walked away.

We had no trouble getting in at the next place, which was basement-like and bereft of ambiance. There were 10 men to every woman and sexual harassment seemed to come with the territory. I took solace in the shot specials that were called out every 15 minutes: a gut-wrenching mix of kamikazes, fireballs, and jagerbombs that had me making a fool of myself on the dance floor and debilitated the next day. Of course, Abdullah was enthralled by this place where men and women danced together.

When he attempted to cement plans for the following weekend — "same place" — we explained that it had been a one-time thing.

Freed by the realization that Abdullah had completely different interests than we did, we stopped trying to impress him with plain, white, married American activities. He had his own car and had made friends at school. Still, his expectations remained taxing. If I was late coming home from work, he'd text me with interrogations. If there was a nonverbal moment between us, he'd ask, "Why so silent?" We tried to remind ourselves how lonely the solitary move to a foreign country must be, but we began to resent his flowery sentiments about us being a family because he only talked that way when he wanted something.

The next Saturday at dinner, Abdullah again asked if we'd go to the nightclub. Displeased with our hard pass, he grimaced dramatically over his plate of pasta, then complained, "My family very boring," as he got up from the table and went to his room without eating.

Tensions lingered throughout the week, and our cultures began to clash. He took issue with our dog, asking over and over, "Why dog in home?" I'm not proud of it, but his antagonism stirred me to retaliate. I began asking the things I'd been wondering about women in Saudi Arabian society. Did he think they should be able to drive? His response: "The drive very hard in my country. Why woman want to drive? She have man." And if she didn't? "She call Indonesian man." When I asked what would happen if a woman wanted three men, he shrugged and made a face. Maybe he didn't understand me, or maybe he thought the question was preposterous. Maybe it was.

Although we continued helping Abdullah with his homework, accompanying him on errands, and watching Prison Break with him, our relationship with him became strained. I'd have to force smiles and small talk through clenched teeth. He didn't greet me with the same enthusiasm. I got colder. He withdrew.

At the dinner table on February 11th, 2015, Abdullah was unusually morose. He asked if we had seen the news. Andrew and I had both come from work and didn't know what he was talking about. He took out his phone to show us that three Arab Americans were killed in their North Carolina home the night before. Weeping, he pointed to each of their pictures and said, "Student! Student! Student!" He clearly identified with them and asked why they were killed for no reason.

Both of us were taken aback and slow to find the words. I stammered about hate, trying to delicately articulate something I didn't understand. Abdullah sat back in his chair, studying us quietly with tears in his eyes before erupting through sobs, "You no cry for them?" Outraged by our lack of raw emotion, he rose and left the house.

I had no defense. It's true that I have been somewhat desensitized by violence in the news. No, I couldn't cry. I can't cry every time this happens. But I felt culpable for the sins of my country and my race.

After the Chapel Hill shooting, Abdullah spent most of his time with his Saudi friends from school. I abruptly stopped receiving his once copious texts. Then, suddenly, his room was empty — he had moved out early. It was a sad discovery as I reflected on our early days with him, but also a huge relief. No more wondering if he would come home for dinner. No more feeling boring if I just want to stay home and watch Netflix on Saturday nights.

Although Andrew and I have since moved to a comfortable apartment and we've committed to never having a roommate again, I did learn a lot about Saudi Arabian culture, and I'm grateful for the hosting experience.

Last Christmas, I got a text from a number I didn't recognize, but the content was all Abdullah: "Happy Mary Christmas my sister! I am sorry about anything bad when I live with you. I move to Cleveland. You and my brother welcome to visit me. I am really miss you. Have a great day!"