‘More American than most Americans’
Saudi student embraces U.S. lifestyle, adapts to cultural differences
Marcus Clem | editor in chief
Even before his plane touched down in Joplin, Mo., two years ago, Yazeed Aldhwayan says that he was well tied in to American culture.
That’s unusual for a Saudi Arabian, and he’s the first to admit it.
“Well, I grew up with English since I was 5,” he said. “I wish I could have come here with no English skills and have just learned everything I know in two years – that would be a cooler story to tell.”
A voracious reader and someone who is deeply invested in education, Aldhwayan says he knew what to expect. That helped him adapt to the culture shock that, he says, leaves a lot of other internationals less prepared.
Still, getting here was like living a life that had, until then, been just an idea.
“Pitt State looked like a college campus that you see in the movies,” he said.
Easily recognized by his near-lack of an accent and thick mass of black hair, Aldhwayan is a easily recognizable presence on campus.
“My hair has always been thick from an early age and this curly,” he said. “And, it’s natural. People have asked me if I’ve got a perm, and I’m like, ‘Hell, no.’”
As president of the International Students Association, he has dedicated his time to helping the hundreds of his peers at Pitt State adjust to the new environment and all its challenges, a task that’s usually harder than it was for him.
Still, Aldhwayan’s time here hasn’t been without challenges, and chief among these may be the sense of uncertainty or distrust that some Americans have for any Muslim or Arab.
Aldhwayan says that as more years have passed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this problem is not as bad as it used to be, and he’s never been personally confronted with aggressive discrimination in Pittsburg.
More commonly, he says, he’s confronted by jokes or other actions that he does not believe to be have been mean-spirited, only insensitive.
One defense that he says he tries not to use anymore was to go along with some of the jokes.
“At the beginning, sometimes I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m here to study, but when I’m done, I will kill you all,’” he said with a sarcastic flair. “I understand how that can sound funny, but at the same time it is stupid.”
Aldhwayan says his life is made easier by his knowledge of American culture.
“The joke is always that I’m more American than most Americans,” he said.
Another aid has been the sheer number of his countrymen at Pitt State.
Because Saudi Arabia’s government pays for the education of most of the Saudi students who come to America, Pitt State has a large community of them – the largest international delegation last year.
In an environment where people are used to seeing Saudi men wear the full-length white garment and head covering on traditional occasions, and some women completely covered all the time, Aldhwayan doesn’t stand out.
He also credits the accepting nature of the community.
“Kansas is a nice place, and people are just raised to be proper,” Aldhwayan said. “Some people might say something behind your back, but I’m not sensitive to that stuff. It might all pass without me noticing.”
Continuing to adapt
There are still challenges for him, even today, though of a different sort that may affect most internationals.
Naturally at a university like Pitt State, there is a party culture, and this is something Aldhwayan says he predicted he would never really adapt to.
“I’m not a big partier, even when I go to a big party,” he said.
As an observant Muslim, one aspect of parties Aldhwayan says he’s tried to avoid is alcohol.
“I try to follow (Islam’s) ban on alcohol as best I can,” he said. “Sometimes, though, you do things and then you regret them.”
Ironically, these days Aldhwayan isn’t confronted by the challenges posed by his cultural differences. Instead, it’s that he’s so well-adapted and that can cause people to treat him differently.
“To an extent, foreigners are supposed to be foreign,” he said. “There’s a certain exotic appeal. I wouldn’t say that people are put off, just because I don’t look like the average Saudi, but there’s something there.”
The International Programs and Services office, Aldhwayan says, has been an invaluable aid through his collegiate career.
Yet, as the lead representative of internationals at Pitt State, he advises self-help as much as possible.
“As much as people will encourage you to rely on the office, you really just need to do things yourself,” he said. “I just needed someone to light the fire of my inspiration to succeed.”
The resources the university has provided internationals are a better safety net than a crutch, Aldhwayan says.
“It’s OK to make mistakes, and, hey, you can laugh at them afterward. And, you’ll learn. Just do it. If you fail, we’ll laugh with you and help you carry on.”