The arm that pulls international students to Maryville reaches far and wide. They’ve come to find out about Americans, now here is a chance to find out about them. Nawaf Alfozan hails from Saudi Arabia and gives his persepective on American life.
Alfozan, 20, arrived in February and is eight months into his English as a second language program and he will begin his four year degree next fall.
He calls Mecca home, a city on the east coast of Saudi Arabia with a population of around 2 million. Mecca itself is the holiest city in Islam, as it was the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the Quran. More than 13 million Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca every year, a process known as the Hajj.
“I really like Mecca a lot. It is very friendly and is a simple, simple way of life,”Alfozan said.
Alfozan left his university in Saudi Arabia behind when he got a surprise call from one of his family members who was already studying in America.
“My cousin told me one day, ‘I have a big opportunity for you. You will learn how to speak English and get a U.S. degree.’ My uncle set it up. It was scary coming here by myself because I couldn’t speak English. There are not many Arabic people here, but it did help me learn quicker because I was forced to speak English.”
Alfozan has experienced a number of culture shocks that have really opened his eyes, since he has been in the States.
“I don’t know if I like it yet or not, but there are things I really do like about the place. The driving for one. People are safe, courteous drivers here and follow the rules on the road. At home, you tell them to go one way and they will go the other way just to see what might be hidden up there.”
One of the biggest cultural differences Alfozan has experienced so far has been the dining experience.
“When you go out to eat with a group of friends in Saudi Arabia, just one person will pay for everyone’s meal. Those eating will fight to pay, which is not normally what you see here. Here, it is separate checks. We went out to eat and I tried to buy everyone’s meal and they said, ‘Why?’ It is so different here.”
In Saudi Arabian culture, there is a huge emphasis on strong, close-knit families, and Alfozan’s is no different. He has five sisters, two step-sisters and two step-brothers. Despite being a good 7,000 miles away from his family, Alfozan still finds time to keep in touch with home, talking to his mother every day.
“I call my mother every day. When I tell this to people here, they look shocked and ask me why, but the reason is simple. She is my mother. I talk to my sisters regularly too, but not quite as often as my mother.”
It was clear from the way Alfozan talked about family that he really holds family values very dear to his heart. Family is an integral part of Saudi culture and Alfozan told a touching story that displayed just how much the family setup in Saudi Arabia differs from the American way.
Alfozan said, “I was at the hospital here with a friend. As we walked through, I couldn’t believe the number of old people by themselves. I went up to one old man, who was really struggling, and asked him where his kids and family were.”
Alfozan was shocked to hear the man’s son was with his girlfriend. He was so upset by the man’s solitude that he took it upon himself to help the old man and then sat and chatted with him for a while to offer some company.
“The old man said he wished his son was like me and I was really surprised to hear that. It was nice, but it was sad to hear Americans leave their parents at the age of 19 or 20 because, in Saudi, we always have our parents so close to us. Even if we leave home, we will do anything for our parents if they need help.”
Along with family, the concept of friendship is different here too.
“The word “friend” means a lot to me. The word here is thrown around too easy. People here will call you friend and ask how you are, but do not care. I would rather they didn’t pretend to be interested if they aren’t. People being two-faced here is something I have also never seen before to such an extent,” said Alfozan.
“I have been with two people who are friends.They are nice to each other, then one friend leaves, and they start bad-mouthing them. It’s unbelievable. Then they say, ‘Oh, I love you.’ That word should be sacred, it should be for your wife or girlfriend or family. People love others at the drop of a hat and it loses its meaning.”
Although he has had a fairly tough time fitting in, Alfozan does say that he does like a lot of the American people he has met on his travels.
“When I went to New York and also when I went to Chicago, the people were really nice. They talked to you, but here [in Maryville] the Americans think they are better than me or something just because I can’t speak fluent English.”
Alfozan went on to address quite a big issue.
“In Maryville, I have seen some situations that prove racism is still prominent. There is some problem with American people: I try to talk to them, and they are really dismissive. If someone absolutely has to talk to you they will, but otherwise, it’s like they don’t know you exist. It makes it so hard to operate here. I’m here for five years. My English will get better. and the relations will get better. I’m sure. I came here knowing no English, so it is hard.”
Alfozan stressed that he does have faith that things will improve for him with time.
“Maybe after my five years, I will get on better with the Americans and I hope to do so.”
Finally, Alfozan talked about the measure he is trying to take to strengthen relations.
“When I first came, I wasn’t a photographer. My friend in Saudi was a photographer and I used to help him with equipment and shots for about 18 months. I came here and learned that Americans are all about photos and taking photos. I thought it would be a food way to get involved with them, so I bought a camera.”
Alfozan couldn’t speak English very well and used photography and the photographing of people and life on campus in order to bridge the gap between him and the locals. Pictures can communicate without words, and Alfozan has found a great deal of joy out of it.
“I love taking pictures. My camera is my girlfriend. I really do love her. Some people try to give me money for shots, and I say no because I want them to come to me. Even those people who cannot afford professional shots can afford to pay my prices,” Alfozan said.
“I want everyone to be able to get photos. I would love it if more people used me to take their picture. I want to meet as many people as I can.”