Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Expat Effect

As part of my job I get to visit Riyadh a lot. Now for those who are not too familiar about the ethnic distribution in Saudi Arabia the thing you should know is that Saudi Jawas (and other naturalized non-Arab ethnic groups) are almost unheard of outside the Hijaz region. Which is why I get plenty of stares when I'm wearing Saudi clothes and dismissed as just another Pinoy expat when wearing western clothes when I leave the comfort of my home region.

I admit, at first this bothered me to no end. Why should I be judged differently just because I look foreign?

But being the ultimate optimist that I am, I soon learned to have fun. Imagine the following scene:

Interior shot: It's a fast food restaurant. Saudi Jawa enters, wearing a pair of jeans and a Metallica T-shirt. The Egyptian clerk smiles and starts speaking in English.

Egyptian Clerk: Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?

Saudi Jawa (in perfectly accented Saudi Arabic): وعليكم السلام أخوي. ممكن الوجبة رقم 3 الله لا يهينك (Wa alaikum assalam, brother. Can I have meal no. 3, may Allah never humiliate you?)

Pause and double take.

Egyptian Clerk (surprised Egyptian Arabic):!ده انت بتتكلم عربي حلو أوي (Hey, you're speaking excellent Arabic!)

Call me mischievous, but I just love the shocked looks I get when people get confused over exactly what I am. I once opened the elevator door for a Sudani guy and he thanked me in English and I voiced my "you're welcome" in Arabic, in a friendly attempt to inform him of my linguistic skill and preference. He didn't get the hint, or else he was just too confused. We had a whole conversation during the elevator trip where he spoke in English and I replied in Arabic! I loved it!

Another perk that has more practical merit is that when people think you're an Expat from a developing country you get better prices. Yes. Better prices. I remember the first time I came to Riyadh on business I had to stay longer than I planned to so I went to a nearby clothes store to get some extra changes. I piled my purchases in front of the Indian clerk and when I was informed of the total cost I did a half-hearted attempt at haggling (more out of habit than anything else). The clerk surprised me when he said: "Sadeeg*. You are not Saudi. Don't worry, I'm giving you the best price. I would never dream of over charging you."

To this day, whenever I'm in Riyadh and I happen to be shopping I always cheat and wear western clothes and stop speaking Arabic.

I love being a Jawa :)

*"Friend" in pidgin Arabic.


Hning said...

Oh how you make us proud, my friend.
*glows happily*

Dotsson said...

Man if I was in your shoes, I'd get tired of being judged from my appearance. You take it in a very well way and that makes you the better person :)

Kizzie said...

Funny post.
I'm a sudanese living in Egypt. Being an African here most people assume I can't speak Arabic although its my first langauge!
Anyways, I can relate to this post very much especially the part about people speaking to you in english although you are speaking to them in Arabic! Been there.Done that.
I speak arabic with a perfect Egyptian accent but they still hear english...somehow!

Saudi Jawa said...

Jawa power baby!

Ah, you get used to it. You can only be filled with holy righteous anger for so long :)

Really? You'd think Egyptians would be used to the sight of a Sudanese guy, Sudan only being a border away.

Kizzie said...

yup lol, I know! But they are not:)
Many dont know that most Sudanese speak fluent arabic!

lill_miz_wackoo said...

lmaoooo,, ,, I soooo know what you mean; i used to do it all the time. tara it also applies in Jeddah. I soooooo like the look on their faces when u reply and the upmost makkawi accent, loooool; u can actuly see their eyes fliping side ways and they go "oh , , urmm," and switch to arabic. lmaooo Oh the good ol'days

Jawa 7alawa ya boya keep it up ;)

Lipstick W. said...

*glows happily as well*

I think I'm in love with you.

-not a jawa, but a jawa-enthusiast from riaydh, (or in other words a jawa nashbah)

أبو سنان said...

My wife is Hijazi, with her mother being 1/4 Indonesian, the other 3/4 from a well known Saudi family.

Now we are here in the US she always gets doors opened for her. They think she is the cute old Asian lady/Buddhist nun (it's the hijab you see). My mother in law looks very Asian.

My wife has a good friend, an al-Ghamdi, who would be 100% at home in Manilla, only she is born and bred Saudi from the well known family. It bugs her to no end that people think she is Asian.

As to the Arabic thing, I have that happen here all of the time. First they get confused when they expect English and Arabic comes out of my mouth instead, then they want to speak nothing but English whilst I am speaking Arabic.

The US born Arab Americans I know why, I speak better Arabic than many of them, but the Arab born Arabs....I dont know why? Do they think they seem or look more "American" because they can speak in heavily accented English?

I feel sorry for some of the US born Arab kids, they often dont speak Arabic. I had one nice girl turn all red when I talked to her Arabic. She had to confess to me: "I dont speak any Arabic".

Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

LOL:) You're as devilish as I am. I've used my foreign looks to my advantage a couple of times too. I'm not a social type and I hate giving people gossip fodder about me so in order to avoid giving out info about myself, I do the "Ma fee Araby" bull at social gatherings where people don't know me already. Then I sit back and listen to them go on and on with speculation about where I'm from and how many wives my husband must have...etc.

BTW, even though I can't comment much lately, I still love your blog and the topics you bring up...keep it up.

أبو سنان said...

Stepford Wife,

Since my wife doesnt really look too Arab and people dont think about a white guy like me speaking Arabic we do and have the same things happen.

Recently we got our youngest boy's haircut. We got him a mohawk. He is one years old and his auntie wanted it and it looks cute.

Anyway, we are walking through a store and a kid tells his brother in Arabic, "look at the boy's hair". My wife heard and said to them "a7lan".

Their eyes got wide and they hurried back to their mother, a lady wearing hijab at the register.

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