Just like Americans feel a degree of culture shock when traveling to Saudi Arabia for the first time, the same applies to Saudis who are coming to the States. For most Saudis who have not been to the US before, their preconceived perceptions on what to expect and what it will be like is based on tv. Now remember, the popular US shows that are aired over here are Oprah, Dr. Phil, Desparate Housewives…well, you get the picture… these are not bad shows but may not be the best representation of life in the USA!
Most Saudis are taken aback and surprised by the openness. Compared to Saudis, we Americans can be viewed as quite chatty and almost nosey by comparison. In Saudi Arabia the culture is to be reserved which is viewed also as showing respect. However Americans on learning someone is not from the States are not shy at all in coming up to the individual and piling a deluge of questions upon them to include ‘are you married, is your family with you, where do you work, how did you learn your english’ all questions which would be viewed as very forward in the Kingdom.
Saudis should also be prepared for the American woman. It is typical of American culture to greet individuals with a welcoming smile while looking to their eyes and offering to shake hands. This is rarely done in the Kingdom between men and women. As a result, while it is natural in the American culture, in the Saudi culture such a gesture can be misperceived. Remember, depending where a Saudi may be traveling to in the US, the American may have not had any exposure or knowledge of Saudi Arabia and its customs.
The vibrant lush greenery and in some locations of the states, the proliferation of lakes and rivers are new scenes for Saudis. They will enjoy looking up at the differing shapes and styles of clouds (Saudi Arabia has many many days with nary a cloud in the sky). They will also enjoy just taking in all the greenery and the varieties of flowers, trees and shrubs.
Saudis should expect to see many “pet crazy, pet friendly” Americans. Americans routinely walk or jog with their dogs in the States. A Saudi will see Americans with their dogs along the streets, sidewalks and parks just about anywhere in the USA. Although there are leash laws in the States, sometimes some dog owners will allow their dogs to roam freely. The American will tell you that there is nothing to fear from their dog and if the dog attempts to jump up on you the dog is only showing you how friendly it is. This is something that is very unlikely to happen in Saudi Arabia.
There is little to no segregation in the States. If you need a haircut, regardless of whether male or female, most of the salons, hair cutteries and barbers in the States are unisex. And it is also common for a male to do a woman’s hair and a woman to do a man’s hair. Also with shops, the sales clerks and shop personnel will be both male and female. It is pretty normal for high school age teens 16 years and older to take jobs at various shops, restaurants, gas stations, etc.
If you are coming to the US for a longer term stay and will be renting or buying a place be prepared for plenty of paperwork and legalities. It is very difficult to conduct any kind of business or transaction in the States without a credit card and/or a social security card. If you need to rent an apartment or house or buy a car and do not have a social security number and a credit history you may run into difficulties. This is something to think about and research before you depart the Kingdom.
There will be greater choices in the grocery stores, particularly for pre-packaged food. Because most American families do not have live in domestic help and also have more busy active lifestyles, there is a greater selection of ready-made. Pre-made, pre-packaged salads are common as are extensive salad bars where all the salad fixin’s are already chopped and one creates their own salad at the store. The deli section will be much more extensive as well with various cuts of meats, pastas and vegetable dishes. Alcohol is commonly sold in the grocery stores and prominently displayed (although there are a few states such as Pennsylvania where the sale of alcohol in a regular store remains prohibited). And one should not be shocked to see pork and pork products sold in the grocery stores as well. Many muslims prefer to go to halal or kosher grocery stores to purchase their meats. It may also be more difficult to find varieties and cuts of lamb as it is not as popular in the USA as it is in the Kingdom. A good grocery store which carries a variety of selections from around the world is Wegman’s. It is a nationwide chain and locations can be identified via its web site at www.wegmans.com.
It is unlikely to hear the adhan (call for prayer) in the States although most cities and towns will have a mosque or Islamic center where one can go to pray as well as interact with the Muslim community. Because the adhan is not called many muslim families in the USA have chosen to install a program on their computer which will advise them of the times to pray. And be sure and read the previous post “Where Should He Pray” as there are differing views and perspectives on when and how a muslim should pray in the USA.
Just like the Kingdom, depending on where one is going to in the States one will come away with different views and perceptions. Each region, each state has its own personality, culture, customs and traditions. My home state is Pennsylvania and if you wish to have a soft drink or soda in Pennsylvania, you would ask for “pop.” Whereas if you are in the New England States you would ask for a soda. If you ask for a soda in Pennsylvania you would receive club soda and not a coke or 7-up. Some Americans may say “turn off the lights” and others will “cut the lights” when they wish to have a light switch or lamp turned off.
While in the Kingdom one is commonly greeted with Salam Alaikum, in America the greeting can vary depending on location and the age of the person greeting you. These greetings can include “how are you,” “good day,” “hi,” “how’s it going,” “what’s up,” “hey,” or “how do you do.” The advise here is to be flexible and smile. American culture is big on smiles as they indicate happiness, friendliness and peace.
One will see many kinds of dress codes in the States from very formal to very casual. It is not unusual for women or young girls to walk around in nice weather and have bare skin showing. In some schools it is okay for the young men and women to wear shorts, t-shirts and sleeveless shirts to school with sandals. If one is attending University and choosing to live at the University dormitory, in many cases these may be co-ed. By co-ed I mean that one dorm room will house girls and then the next room in the hallway may house guys.
As in any culture there may always be a few “bad apples” who can make one discomfited or uncomfortable by rude actions, gestures or remarks. But overall I believe that the American culture is a friendly, open and receptive culture. Just like Americans who come to the Kingdom for the first time, Saudis coming to America for the first time will have varying degrees of culture shock. I would stress that in an uncertain situation on what to do or what to say, don’t be shy and ask for help or advise. The majority of Americans will want to help as well as be well-thought of as nice and kind to visitors to their country.
English is essential. While more Americans are taking an interest in things Arabic these days, fewer Americans know or speak Arabic compared to the number of Saudis in the Kingdom who know English. And unlike the major cities in the Kingdom, signs in America will be in English.
In closing I know that this post only touched the tip of the iceberg for a Saudi coming to the USA for the first time but I hope that these pointers are helpful and informative.
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