“I’ll go anywhere but the Middle East. And definitely NOT Saudi Arabia.”
Approximately 6 months after declaring those words, I found myself not only in Saudi Arabia, but in the MIDDLE of the country, in the MOST conservative city of all — Riyadh. I am not alone. I have spoken to dozens of people who have the same story. Women–strong women–who willingly go to live in an overtly discriminatory country where they are obliged to put on a black cloak to leave the compound and had no freedoms to get in a car and drive themselves where they wish.
So how did we end up there? Why do people stay?
The Haggard will most certainly claim it’s all because of the dolla’ bills.
That’s definitely part of it, and I may even concede that money is the biggest draw…but not the only one. After all, he’s already written about how many teachers don’t “care” about the money, and are in this life for the excitement. So, why go in the first place? Why stay? We stayed for six years, which is twice as long a tenure as anywhere else we had ever lived.
I think it’s because of community. Teaching at an international school in Saudi Arabia means that you’ll live on a compound. Normally people describe “compound life” as a nostalgic flashback to to 1950’s America with kids running around unsupervised, safe places for riding bikes, unlocked doors, and friendly neighbors. This is pretty much true.
One of my first memories of arriving on the compound is of neighbors stopping by. One lady, who had lived there for 20+ years, brought me a contraband packet of bacon (freeze-dried). Other new teacher friends stopped by with banana bread and zucchini muffins. Also, since we had a baby, the new friends and neighbors had arranged for meals to be delivered to us for two weeks. Not only were we well-fed, we felt welcome.
And there’s more. Every kind of social event you can imagine (progressive dinners, holiday parties, Trick-or-Treat, Easter egg hunts, “Come Dine With Me” clubs, game night, Book Club, Girls’ Night, Boys’ Night, Mardi Gras, Saudi-Gaudi) — seriously, there is a lot. There is something for everyone, and so much for kids.
Back to the kids. Yes, they can run around unsupervised. Or if you are worried about them falling through the giant hole in the broken trampoline, you can actually be around your kids and supervise, or send the nanny with them. There are after-school activities available ON the ‘pound, which means no extra transportation to and from soccer, gymnastics, dance, or swimming. If they are little, there are play dates next door. If they are big, there is the swim team, or school sports.
Oh yeah, the school is on the compound, so you can walk to school. Commuting = walking to school (5-10 minutes), or biking or scooting (2-5 minutes). Now that we are back to a “normal” country and commute to work, I actually know what this means: 1 – 1.5 extra hours tacked on to our day. Times 5, that is 5-8 extra hours per day, away from home, away from our kids.
So compound life is easy. It really is. The kids actually do love it. The parents like it, too, and some love it.
As for saving money, that depends. If you stay on the compound, there is very little to do, which means there is very little on which to spend money. Kid activities can add up, and the compound store is pricy if that’s all you use, but most activities are free.
And the friends. The friends that you make on a compound are going to be friends for life. You become more than close with these people–they are your family. The longer you stay, the closer you get.
So….why leave? It’s also pretty obvious: the walls. While compound life is easy, fun for kids, and relatively cheap, it is a bubble. Some people love the bubble, others don’t. The Haggard actually liked it a lot more than he thought he would, for longer than he thought he would, until he no longer did. I loved it when the kids were tiny, and still liked it when they got bigger and started running the streets. I also loved hosting Thanksgiving and feeling like we were part of a real neighborhood. I felt like part of community, and that is not something that comes easy.
We have moved across the world, and are now in a different kind of compound. We can leave this one more freely, as it it not in Saudi, but it’s still the same idea. A neighborhood full of teachers and kids, that mimics what we think we would get living in our home country. Except we’re living with the people we work with….that part can be challenging.
Living internationally–especially teaching–this is often the set-up. It is a tight community, which has its pros and cons. In many cities, teachers will be placed in the same apartment buildings, so will see each other often.
Of our five different posts, only one of them was truly away from from other teachers. We loved it, but we didn’t have kids at the time. In the end, we have been able to soak the marrow out of compound life, but may be nearing our tenure. We find ourselves yearning for our own space, and more privacy. That, too, will come with a cost, as we will have to make more of an effort to find the kids play dates.
So, compound life = living the dream? Not exactly, but it can be close, for a period of time that suits your family.