As a child, I used to hear numerous good stories about the life in the United States. Some of my friends and cousins were at the time privileged to travel to America to visit friends and relatives and others even had the opportunity to study in this country. Even though I had always found their experience thrilling, I had never considered it a possibility for myself. I grew up learning more and more about the United States and when I gained the opportunity to come and study in this country, I was dumbfounded for some time. I had learned that studying in America, I would receive a better quality education compared to the one at home. Moreover, I would have more career opportunities with my American credentials compared to Saudi Arabian ones, especially within an international context. Thus, moving to the United States to study is a watershed moment in my life because it gave me a number of possibilities and opportunities. First, it was a rather unexpected and yet long wished for situation. I had always wanted to study in the United States but I had never thought I would have the chance to do so. Second, I had to relocate and live away from my family for the first time. In Saudi Arabia, girls are rarely allowed to be away from the family. My new independence has helped me to grow significantly in a number of ways. I also consider this move a watershed event because studying in the United States implies that my career will be more successful than it may have been if I had remained and studied in my native country. Currently, my life is different than it was three years ago, especially in relation to how I think, speak, dress, and what my future holds as well. In addition, while I am still from Saudi Arabia, I have been acculturated into the American system. Therefore, it may be difficult to consider myself the same person whom I was back then.
Endings What Did I Let Go Off
Disengagement. In Saudi Arabia, I lived with my parents. I was surrounded by friends and family and everything was familiar and rather comfortable, including the culture, the language, the weather, and even the political and legal climate. I was used to everything as it was. Moving to the United States presupposed leaving all this familiarity behind. It means that I experienced disengagement when I had to leave everything behind and come to America alone, as a single person. Moreover, although I have recovered significantly, considering that I have new friends and some are just like family to me, I remember feeling lost and lonely in the beginning. I communicated with my friends and family regularly but I still felt at a loss being alone in a new country and far away from home.
Dismantling. To recover from the disengagement, I had to form new habits as a way of dismantling my old self and becoming a new person altogether. First, I started reading more during my free time. Back home, I spent most of my free time reading current news and discussing local politics with my friends. My main interests were mostly related to the Gulf and its politics. To avoid despair due to my disengagement, I started reading more fiction and more American news. I also spent more time engrossed in my studies, conducting research in the library or indulging in group discussions and coursework, among other things that were more American than Saudi Arabian. In essence, I was trying to acculturate rather than being stuck in a culture that I had to abandon when I left my home.
Misidentification. Back home, I was mainly considered as just a girl or a woman. My role was mostly related to the home and I was barely expected to do anything else away from the usual house chores. These are the cultural norms in Saudi Arabia. In the United States, however, I could no longer expect to live in the protection of my family. I had to re-learn how to take care of myself as an individual rather than expecting that someone would take care of me. I learned how to change a flat tire, order takeout, negotiate for a better deal at the electronics store, and even install a new operating system on my computer, among other things. Basically, I am now a well-rounded individual who can survive in the United States as opposed to the dependent girl whom I was back at home.
Disenchantment. I used to love my culture just as any other person from Saudi Arabia would confess. While at home, being under the consistent protection of the males in the society seemed like the ideal situation, considering it ensured that women and girls were always safe. The men were responsible for all the difficult or dangerous chores, leaving women with lighter household tasks. After spending some time in the United States, I realized that the culture that considered women inferior and in need of consistent protection was not enchanting. I understood that women needed as much space to grow as men, but protecting them from all challenges stagnated their mental progress. As time went on, I learned to appreciate the liberties that the American culture afforded me as a woman.
Disorientation. I experienced disorientation as well after moving to the United States, especially in terms of cultural identity. I love my country and I am proud of my heritage as a child of Saudi Arabia. But I also came to love and appreciate many aspects related to the American culture. There are times when I feel like I have to choose between being Saudi Arabian and being American in terms of my actions. For example, I usually dress appropriately for my religion but sometimes, I feel like dressing like a normal American woman without covering my hair. I tend to feel guilty about it but I also appreciate that I can do it. I hope that there will be times when I will enjoy the best of both cultures without feeling like I am trading one for another or deserting my heritage as a Saudi Arabian woman.
Neutral Zone – How I Experienced the Neutral Zone
The earliest indication of my neutral zone was eating takeout. Back home, we rarely ordered food from a restaurant to be eaten at home. We either cooked at home or ate out if we wanted. The whole concept of ordering takeout from a Chinese restaurant was a new experience that I seemed to have readily accepted after a few weeks in the United States. It took me about seven weeks to contemplate the idea but eventually, it became one of my unshakable habits. Eating takeout is not exactly an American culture but it is not Saudi Arabian either. I even kept ordering different kinds of takeout, ranging from Mexican, Chinese, Indian, and Italian and, at some point, I ate French food just to experience something new. I was seeking an identity in my eating habits. The lack of clarity at this point was both exciting and frustrating, considering that I did not understand what I was looking for and, at the same time, I knew that I needed to find something. The ambiguity was dealt with through exploration. I made it a habit to read about everything and make comparisons which helped me to decide what I wanted within this context. To prepare for the new beginnings, I also made a few friends who introduced me to other aspects of the American and other foreign cultures with which they were familiar. This exposure is what assisted me in leaving the neutral zone.
The new beginning moment for me was when realized I could speak English comfortably, drive across the city without getting lost, and make my complete grocery list without having to consult anyone. All these are things that would have been impossible in my previous life. I knew this was the new beginning because previously I had been speaking Arabic to people who did not understand any of it. I often had to stop and remind myself that I am not at home anymore. Furthermore, while sometimes I still think in Arabic, I have learned to use English more, thus making my communication in English more fluent and comfortable. I have also learned the citys roads and highways enough to reach any destination I want. When it comes to shopping, I am always proud when I can figure out everything that I need in the house without relying on my parents, friends, or siblings. All of these things showed me that I had reached the point of a new beginning. At this point, my goals included becoming fully acculturated in the American system without necessarily losing touch with my Arabic heritage. To accomplish this goal, I maintained communication with my friends and family back at home while also trying to make new friends in the United States. I have so far been able to experience much in terms of the American culture and I think I have become more American than I could have ever dreamt of.
Change is not in any way an easy thing to implement or experience. First, I remember how difficult it was for me to disengage from my past and establish myself as an individual in the present. I struggled to let go and even when I thought I had moved on, I kept returning to the past, feeling guilty about embracing some aspects of a foreign culture while also wanting to acknowledge that I am living in a different society altogether. What this experience taught me about change is that it cannot be easy for anyone. People respond differently to change but it is never easy (Bridges, 2004). Each individual is thus likely to have their way of coping and, in most cases, it is up to the leader to understand how the individual is coping. My way of coping was in experiencing all the different kinds of food that the city has to offer and while it may have had some unpleasant consequences, it helped me to decide that I would be a multicultural individual rather than being stuck in a cultural limbo. Secondly, I learned that people can accept change faster if they understand it. Once I realized that I would have to live alone and make many adjustments in my life to survive in the United States, I could take care of myself better. Lastly, I learned that the main role of the individual in the context of change is to define their direction. If I had not decided what I wanted, I would have been stuck in the moment. I would not have decided to live my life to the fullest as an American of Saudi Arabian heritage. All of these lessons are particularly important in preparing individuals for change within an organizational setting.