Aramco Brats: Life inside the Kingdom.

By Daniela Duran

Hiraeth (n.) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

 The most complex question you can ask a third culture kid is “where is home?” Because the truth is that we cannot give you a simple answer. We belong everywhere and nowhere. It is only by spending time getting to know us that we will reveal the places that shaped us, the people we truly miss and the stories that make us who we are.

For me, living in Saudi Arabia was of one of the most exceptional and life-defining experiences. It is the country that when I list among the places I’ve lived, people stop and ask “Saudi Arabia?! What was THAT like?” and my response is always the same “extraordinarily different”. If there is one truth about Saudi Arabia that all expats can agree with is, is that the hardest part of living in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) is leaving. Saudi Arabia is one of the hardest countries in the world to get a tourist visa especially if you are not Muslim. This means that once expats finish their work assignments and their work visa finishes, they can never (or at least in most cases) go back. It is perhaps this very fact that makes KSA so hard to say goodbye to.

Growing up we always joked that we lived in a “bubble” but it was only until I left that I realised how true that really was. My experience in Saudi was different from what most locals experience or what I myself had experienced anywhere else. I was an ‘Aramco Brat’, a term that we all refrained from using, but admittedly exactly what all of us who have lived within Saudi Aramco camps are. Saudi Aramco is the largest and leading world oil company, and due to the country’s conservative Islamic law, the company created separate gated communities to accommodate foreign workers. Within these closed communities people have access to private schools, hospitals, restaurants, pools and even cinemas (even though cinemas are prohibited by Islamic law inside the kingdom). The strict laws imposed by the Kingdom simply do not apply inside these communities. Women can drive (before it was legal), they can go out without abayas, religious police do not monitor the area and boys and girls are free to share public spaces. Saudi principles are respected but there is flexibility for western culture inside the gates. I lived inside two of these communities, Ras Tanura (3, 200 residents) and Dhahran ( 11,000 residents).

There are certain moments in life that you remember so vividly that you almost feel like you can re-live them. A lot of my experiences in KSA feel that way. For example, ill never forget landing in Saudi and feeling overwhelming fear-both for the unknown and for the little I actually did know about the country. I was used to moving around the world (well as much as one can ever get used to it) but I knew Saudi would be different. I was made well aware of that when I was packing for the move and I was instructed to get a permanent marker to cover the faces of all the actresses on my DVD covers. To top it all off, I landed in KSA on Christmas eve and my 12-year-old self was very confused as to why my family would move to a place where my favourite holiday was not celebrated. The journey from the airport to my new home on December 24th was not one filled with Christmas lights and Christmas carols. It was one with miles and miles of sand until we reached massive gates with an excessive amount of armed security.

There is something intimidating about seeing so much security in front of your new neighbourhood, I mean ARAMCO security does not mess around. ARAMCO is funny that way, it makes you feel safe in a very unconventional almost threating way. In fact, the moment I first entered an Aramco camp, I was no longer identified personally, I was instead my badge number. Aramco monitors their employees and their dependents with badge numbers. I know, it sounds very much like a science fiction type of world. But to me, that’s almost what it was. It was like it was all made belief. After passing the gates you enter an entirely different atmosphere than life outside. It was no longer desert, it was palm trees, a beautiful blue ocean, kids on bikes, signs of a life I was more familiar with.

Getting adjusted to Saudi Arabia is something I don’t think ever really happens. You just get used to living with unusual events constantly occurring to you. Despite living inside the gates, going out of camp was essential. Our trips out of camp consisted mostly of shopping trips or visits to restaurants. It did not take me long to realise that KSA was not just a desert, luxury is a big part of Saudi culture. Its architecture made hospitals and shopping malls look like palaces. Saudi law, however, was very strict and we had to adhere to the regulations. We had to wear abayas that covered our bodies and occasionally head scarfs. It was not uncommon to have Mutawas chasing you and screaming at you for not covering up entirely. It was a crazy culture shock.

Saudi Arabia is a place that is infamous for its lack of freedom, particularly for women. The women’s rights movement has a long way to go and a lot of the kingdom’s laws continue to jeopardize justice and liberty. Nonetheless, when inside the kingdom you start to appreciate the Saudi culture. People may not live following western values, but tradition is strongly valued. Living in Saudi made me grow fond of things far from my culture. I began to appreciate the holy month of Ramadan, of celebrating Eid, and days off school because of shamals (sandstorms). I also learnt to pair hummus with almost anything and yes I even got to do stereotypical stuff like riding camels in the desert. It was never an easy adaptation, but it certainly made me appreciate a different part of the world.

Inside the camp, my life was better than I ever thought it could be. It took me about a day and a half to make friends. Friends that 10 years later I would still be talking to. Everyone was from all different parts of the world, so beautifully diverse and yet also so astonishingly similar. Our greatest similarity was that despite living in a camp with more freedom than outside the gates, we all had very very little to do. This meant we saw A LOT of each other. You know how they say you don’t pick your family? Well, that’s how it felt. 90% of my teenage years consisted of the most common RT activity – cruising. Cruising in Saudi Arabia is pretty legendary. It is when your 13-year-old Lebanese friends steal their dad’s cars and drag all of your friends to listen to music while they drive around the same 4 streets the compound has for hours. I can still hear us jamming to Akon songs pretending we could relate to the absurdity of the lyrics. Cruising for us was liberating, it was a sense of false freedom. We could drive for hours yet reach nowhere. We were always confined by the compound walls… but because we were all together, this somehow always felt okay.

I always believed I was living a normal teenage life but thinking back that’s not quite how it was. School, for example, was a place where your teachers knew everything about you as they were also your neighbours. They could be punishing you one second (anyone remember 7ups?) and then saying “see you at the BBQ Friday” the next.  Setting personal boundaries with anyone was almost impossible which meant that gossip and drama was rampant. To say we didn’t drive each other insane from time to time would be a lie. To deny that we often didn’t wish to get out of the ‘bubble’ and into the ‘real world’ would be a lie. Yet, like all great moments sometimes you don’t realise how great they are until they are gone.=

Another vivid memory I have of living in KSA was staying up to watch the sunrises. We were all way too young to be staying up all night (some of us sneaking out, others not), yet we would sit to appreciate the sunrise at the RT beach. We would talk all night about whatever seemed important to us at the time, but when the sun would rise we would sit together in silence. Saudi sunrises are unforgettable. Something about them makes you feel like you are exactly where you need to be. They make you realise how beautiful the Persian Gulf is, they make you view everything in new light. No one would say it out loud but as the sun would rise we all were very aware that we would forever be attached to this place. It was home and that was beautifully heart-breaking. We knew we were too attached to a place that was not our own. Our routine was always the same. The sun would rise and we would find our way to the dining hall to have our big ‘family’ breakfast where the servers already knew exactly what we wanted. Sleeping was a waste of time and it seemed like no amount of time spent with our friends was ever enough. It’s like by not sleeping we would somehow hold time still.

Eventually, as we grew older, things became more difficult. What we called ‘partying’ was someone with a great music playlist and some SID. SID is a homemade alcohol that you literally had to drink- wait 5 minutes to see if you went blind- then continue. It was not ideal (or safe) but hey, that was the Saudi experience. Drinking was illegal meaning having any form of nightlife was complicated. We couldn’t go on dates because going anywhere outside the compound was illegal (the opposite sex can’t interact unless its family) and anywhere inside the compound was pointless/awkward. Most families chose to send their kids to continue their high school years in boarding schools. As time flew by everyone began going abroad, parents began to retire and in a way, everyone was being forced to move on. We soon realised we could not live in our little bubble forever.

But here is a secret: Aramco Brats never truly move on. We always carry a part of our childhood/teenage years with us. It is what allows us to connect with the rest of the Aramco brats around the world. Its what creates that special bond. Saudi for us is the place where we made friends that we trust with our lives, where we were surrounded by people from all places, races and religions and we cared for each other unconditionally. Saudi is the place where we were raised not only by our parents but our friend’s parents. It is the place that taught us to add “wallah” “ mishwar” “ inshallah” to our vocabulary. It is where our hearts were first broken, but where we met our first loves. Where we experienced loss and grief, but also overflowing happiness. Aramco brats don’t forget Saudi Arabia because no one forgets what teaches them how to love. Saudi taught me how to love not only people, but cultures, and sunrises, and car rides. It made me fall in love with streets and routine.

I left over six years ago, and there is not one day where I don’t miss home.

 

 

Almost Home

By Maria

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Some people have a very precise concept of home. They spend their entire lives in one city, know everyone that lives there and are familiar with every little nook and corner. The comfort and sense of belonging these people have is enviable at times.

Then there are those who have a hard time making sense of where home really is. Is it the country they were born in? Brought up in? Studied in? Or the one they’re currently residing in?

Home for me is every city and country I’ve lived in, learned to love and given a part of myself to. The world is my home and this is where I belong. What’s your idea of home?

Here’s a short poem that I wrote at a very emotional time. I was about to leave Houston after having completed my undergraduate degree.

“Almost home”

They say home is where the heart is

I say home is where –

You learn, you grow

You fall, you know

You miss, you are at bliss

You fight, you give

You discover, you prevail

You differentiate the real from the fake

You resist, you give in

You hold on and let go

Home is, where you learn to live.

High Level Security

By Mehreen

Mehreen_Living In A Bubble, Behind Bars

Growing up as a third culture kid (TCK) I became fond of meeting new people everywhere I went, hearing their stories and experiencing their cultures. I felt liberated to explore endlessly, it gave me fuel and I thrived off this multi-cultural lifestyle.

By age 7 I was blessed to be conversational in three languages, to have already lived in 2 African countries and about to move to the 3rd, and none were of my parent’s origin. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to keep doing it again and again and again.

As free as I felt, much of my childhood was spent in a bubble, behind bars, in high level security homes. This might sound strange, but it was normal for me. All the houses I lived in had 10ft brick walls with electric barbed wire on top surrounding the boundaries of the property. All my friends also had similar security set ups, like I said, it was normal growing up in Africa. All the doors and windows had metal grills and gates. There were security alarm systems that would get triggered, even if a gecko crossed its path. Not to mention the 2 security guards that sat outside the house at night, taking turns walking the perimeter of the house every 30 minutes with a highly-trained German Shepard guard dog. It made me feel safe laying in my bed listening to the gravel shift and crunch beneath the security guard’s shoes as he would walk around the house. It was the “all clear” I needed that it was safe to go back to sleep. And I thought no more of it.

It was not until my family left Africa and moved to London that I felt like a fish out of water. I was 14 now. A little more mature. The new house had no brick walls surrounding it, no guards, no bars on the windows and no security system. I felt so exposed. My dad would walk the house every night making sure all the windows were shut and the doors were locked before he turned in for the night. He felt it too. I could tell. But he kept a tough exterior and tried not to let us catch wind of his protective instincts.

As a grown woman, I now realize how much I have been shaped by my past. I need all those security measures to feel safe, even in an affluential neighbourhood in Chicago. I had my husband install a security system in our home that had sensors on the doors and windows. It was almost unnecessary precaution. But without it I couldn’t sleep at night. I have recently moved again and all the insecurities are flourishing again. New house, new city, new everything and no security system.

Today my eyes and ears popped open when I heard the squeaking of the front door open at 5:30am. My kids asleep in their rooms and my husband out of town unexpectedly. I don’t own a baseball bat, or a gun and I didn’t have a knife by my bedside. What now? I listened for footsteps but didn’t hear any. My instincts kicked in and I turned my flashlight on my phone, typed in 911, kept my finger hovering over the green dial button and started my search. Kids still asleep. Check. Bathrooms clear. Check. Front door locked. Check. No one in the living room. No one in the play room. No one in the kitchen. No one in the laundry room. Phew! All the other entry points were locked. I left the lights on and went back to my room.

I missed those security guards so much today.

As a TCK we grow up in unique environments that not everyone can relate to. These environments shape us and make us who we are. They make us multilingual. They make us tolerant. They make us cautious. They make us vigilant. They may also give us anxieties no one else can relate to but other TCKs. However, we should not have to be apologetic for being who we are. Always be true to yourself. Love always.

 

The Day I Decided to Compromise

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When you’re a TCK, it feels like you’ll always have this feeling of restlessness. There’s so much to see and do in this world and yet, whatever you do, it feels like there’s so much more to do.

Your Facebook newsfeed is filled with photos from fellow TCK who you’ve met or gone to school with and now barely talked to. But they seem to have it covered. Perhaps they’ve settled in a country or perhaps they’re going to university somewhere and travel. The kind that make you wonder if there’s more you could add to your (already hectic) life.

Some have settled down and built a family. That can trigger a sense of envy because they’ve finally started growing roots somewhere, with someone.

I’ve reached a strange place where I’m not where I thought I’d be two years ago, but then again, do you ever really know? Yet, I’ve got this feeling I’ve found a place where I seen myself staying for at least another five years.

And the thought is less scary to me now then it used to be.

When I contemplate a situation and try to think long term, I feel like it’s not me thinking, it’s one of the different cultures I’m made up of, that takes the lead. To put it simply, with different cultures, I feel like there’s different futures available.

But I’ve learned to compromise. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be scared and it’s okay to think long term. It’s okay to not have a clear idea of where you’ll be or what you actually want to do.

They say that being a TCK means you’re more able to take a job in any culture, and fit in but the truth is, you’re also more hesitant about what you want to do. Because when it comes to what you actually like doing, it depends on the different countries, the different people you have grown up with.

I’ve learned to compromise. Some activities will remain hobbies, others will become a part of your everyday life. It’s okay to not be able to do everything, see everyone, travel everywhere.

It’s not an obligation that comes with being a TCK. And while that may be obvious for some, I feel like it isn’t for others.

Settling down and compromising is not a TCK failure. It’s a fear but never see it as a failure.

That One Thing We Don’t Talk About.

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The whole of a sum.

Whether you’re a TCK, multicultural or biracial, you must have felt it. Having no real sense of belonging. Or, maybe, not the same sense of belonging as some of your peers which live where they were born. And they’re probably going to be get married, have kids and retire in the same place.

There’s no good or bad. They say the grass is always greener on the other side and this is exactly why I wanted to write a blog post today. I want to talk about that feeling of envy I get when I see people who are a single number. Not a sum of cultures, various heritage and traditions. Just people who are a single number.

On a side note – I don’t think no one is ever truly a “single number” or made up of a single culture. Watch this beautiful piece to see what I mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7FhU-G1_Q

I guess I’m referring to people who feel, act and believe with one culture. Sure, they’ve perhaps traveled a few times  here and there but they know where their comfort zone lies. Well, I’m going to be honest, I’m jealous. I wish I had that kind of stability. That sense of belonging you must feel. Your everyday of a lifetime. You’ll grow, experiences a lot, disappointment like the simple joys of life but you’ll always be anchored to a single place.

I wish I had that friend that has been there from the start. The friend I grew up with. Not a friend who I see once every 5 years for an hour. Not a friend that is becoming someone else, simply going along with whatever environment they are now. Like a chameleon.

I wish my family was next door, in the same town or even the same country. I wish I would be able to have dinner with them every Sunday night or maybe every two weeks. Give them a simple call to catch up. Now it’s all likes and comments, some private messages and perhaps pokes to spark up a conversation that should have happened three weeks ago.

Everyone thinks you’re just strolling through life, achieving whatever and being totally independent. Truth? Sometimes, you feel so lonely and wish I had a constant in life.

What hurts the most is people who have had that group of friends since they were kids. I wish I had that too.

But you know what? Like written earlier, the grass will always be greener on the other side. Perhaps people with that stability seek that wanderlust you think we portray, or maybe they’d like to experience something different. Another language, another culture, another country.

There will always be pros and cons to everything. 

Third Culture Kids Are The Best Chameleons

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I’m done pretending I’m on a single side.

Truth is, I’m in-between and I’ve always been. On the surface, it seems like we connect and don’t get me wrong, we do connect on several points. Yet, there are moments where it’s like a cold shower, I realise how far apart we are on some points.

And it’s scary, in a way. It’s scary to feel so disconnected all the sudden. Worrying even. Being in-between, you’ll never fit in. If you’re in between cultures, you’ll never truly escape one or truly follow one.

There will always be this part of you, slowly creeping in when you least expect it. You remember that you’re kind of lying to yourself, all over again. You will never “totally fit in” one culture or escape another.

Multiple cultures are exactly what’s making you, you. And it’s not easy when you’re surrounded by people who might not get it. They speak one language, have a certain way of life they’ve had since the start, a country they’ve been in their whole life and feel truly attached to. Yet, you sometimes feel obligated to duplicate yourself just so a part of you can feel truly apart of whatever culture you’re surrounded with.

That sense of belonging you’re looking for? You will never get it by trying to mould yourself into a certain person. They say TCKs are the real chameleons, and they are. If you’re constantly looking to blend into whatever environment you are in by denying parts of you, you’re simply lying to yourself.

We’re all constantly trying to build our identity but the trouble for third culture kids is that we’re juggling with multiple identities, all with the potential to grow. How do you make the perfect blend of these identities without feeling like you are a total outlier?

A Different Kind of Christmas

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Spending your Christmas far away from your family is not unusual for TCKs, although it does remain surprising to others who have never spent a Christmas away from their loved ones. I still remember the look on my college’s face when she asked where I was spending Christmas. It’s during these kinds of times where you might end up questioning your choices. Although I’ve spent a total of 3 Christmas days away from family in the past 23 years, the most painful one was this year.

I feel that it’s because, as you grow older, you tend to realise how important family is and that feeling echoes in everyone’s hearts whether they are a TCK or not. Especially if you have a religious background, Christmas is a time where you are bound to reunite with the family, no questions asked. The first two Christmas days I spent apart from the family seemed like no big deal.I was used to this whole moving around thing. However, as a TCK, it feels like the more I’ve grown older and have had the possibility to make my own choices as to where I want to live, the more I’ve realised that I could define home as wherever my family was.

This year, I’m about 7,364 kilometres away from home. In a country where it doesn’t snow and where they don’t actually celebrate Christmas. My family got together and had a nice home cooked Christmas dinner. Any regrets? None. It’s painful only because I simply miss them and because, well, I’ve realised how important family is.

When you move around and change cities, countries or school, family is the only constant you’ll have which is why, they’re pretty much your “home”. And you realise that even more when you spend Christmas with a loving family who is extremely close with one another.