Ahmed Almansouri is from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He is currently a graduate student in Boston University’s international journalism program. This is the latest in our series of interviews with international students here in Boston.
Carolyn Bick: After you got out of the airport, what struck you first?
Ahmed Almansouri: Well, first thing, of course, that struck me was the yellow taxis. That’s something you always see in movies, and for me, to see it, was … I don’t know. I can’t find the words to describe it. It was so surreal. Because your whole life you’ve been exposed to American culture in movies, in songs … and just things in media. And you know these things exist, you know there are yellow cabs, you know people celebrate Halloween, you know they make a big deal out of it. But to actually live it, it’s something completely different. I don’t even know if that makes sense, but, to me, to actually live it, it was … sometimes, it was too much to handle.
CB: What do you mean?
AA: Like getting used to the accent, to be honest. I feel Americans speak too fast, sometimes. Getting used to the friendliness. Getting used to the lifestyle of always in a rush. People [don’t] really take time to sit down and talk. For example, when I was in Greece, every time after class, my friends and I would go get a cup of coffee. And we’d stay there for, like, five hours, just talking, having fun -- for one cup of coffee, five hours. Here, I’ve never seen anyone do that. Even when I ask [Americans], they would never … they’re always in a rush. Grab the coffee, run to the T, go to work. So, the speed of the lifestyle is so different.
I think [Americans] are raised to always be in a hurry, to always be there on time. You should really take time to appreciate the simple things, to be really … to really take time to enjoy your life, not always being bombarded with work, assignments. All these things, I know they might seem relevant, but, when you think about it, it’s all just a phase.
People take for granted just being alive. For me, being alive, that’s happiness. Do you know what kind of gift you have, being alive, absorbing daily activities, just being able to talk, and converse with different kinds of people, being exposed to different kinds of opinions? For me, just being alive, and, of course, being around loved ones … but you should really start trying to appreciate the essence, and not just the materialistic stuff.
Another thing is the tip policy. Everywhere I’ve lived -- I’ve lived in countries like Greece, and Kenya, and Egypt, and Tunisia, and Singapore -- the tip thing is just not serious. If you like the service, sure, tip, but, if not, don’t. But here, I had to learn it the hard way. I remember going to a Thai restaurant, once, and … it wasn’t the best service, but I just left like, a dollar or two. But then, as soon as I left the restaurant, the owner came out and she ran after me. She said, ‘Hey, either you tip us well, or you have to clean the table.’
I know that here, tips are an important thing, especially for waitresses and waiters, because that’s where most of their income comes from. The tip thing was kind of a new thing, I had to get used to it.
Another thing that was kind of hard to get used to is just the differences of … I don’t want to generalize international students and Americans, but, in general, American students are not … especially when they know you’re foreign, they don’t really approach you as much. They wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, how are you? Let’s hang out.’ They wouldn’t say that. They would just talk about class, they would just try to keep it very official. So, for me, even throughout my life, this has been a major part of how I think. So, actually, most of my life, all of my friends were foreigners, they were international students. And, actually, here, I feel [American students] are very independent, very different on a lot of views, and they just really talk about different things than I would usually talk about.
CB: Like what?
AA: Here, you know, you always talk about, ‘Hey, let’s go drinking, let’s go clubbing,’ and I wouldn’t say it’s not what I wouldn’t do, but it’s not what I want to talk about all the time. I always try to talk about … for me, I always like to talk about things that are significant. I know that’s a loose term, but I like to talk about not just, ‘Yeah, I was drunk last night, and I saw this drunk chick. It was awesome, wow!’ That’s fun, but it shouldn’t be the essence of the conversation. It shouldn’t be what it revolves around. Finding topics that we mutually want to talk about that’s not something I encountered, actually.
So, most of the people I’ve been hanging out with since I came to BU were mostly foreigners. So, it’s kind of like what I am comfortable with, what I am used to.
CB: So, can you tell me -- because that’s sort of what I was going to go into next -- how you’ve been relating to American students, and how they’ve been relating to you?
AA: The thing is, I wouldn’t say there isn’t any discrimination directly. … But I would say, a lot of times, especially, I would say, coming to class here the first semester, [American students] would always have expectations of how I would be like.
An example: I was in [a professor’s] class last week, and he was actually saying, ‘The extreme Republicans are no different from Al-Qaeda.’ So, then, one of the students was saying, ‘Oh, do they hate women?’ … I didn’t take it personally, ‘cause I know she doesn’t know that much about the Middle East, but if someone really knows, I guarantee they are not going to say that [about the Middle East]. I am just really … disappointed that even students who come to BU for journalism ... will talk about stuff they have absolutely no idea about.
Everyone was really, really friendly. It took time for them to really get to know me. The first couple, two, three weeks, it was very distant. I don’t think they knew what kind of Arab I was. So, in the beginning, it was me strictly with the foreigners. But then, you know, week after week, they started to listen to me in class, started to listen to the kind of opinions I had. I might be more open-minded than the typical Middle Eastern [man]. So, they were open, but, still, I wouldn’t want to get too close to them. I wouldn’t want to really hang out with them.
At the beginning, it was just really expectations, and then breaking the border of who I am as an Arab. But nothing really discriminatory.
CB: Aside from the things that shocked you ... was there anything in the U.S. that you didn’t expect, or that countered your expectations?
AA: When it comes to extremes … every month, you have some occasion of some kind. Like, in October, it’s Halloween, in November it’s Thanksgiving, in December, it’s Christmas. But especially with Halloween ... -- I’ve discussed this with other international students, and they agree with me -- [Americans] are too excited about it, and I don’t understand why. Of course, I’m not going to look down upon it, it’s their thing, they’ve had this culture their whole lives, they’ve been accustomed to it since they were kids. But to me, some of these things are way too much. But I guess it’s part of the culture. It’s what American culture is based on. Even in Europe, the effect of Halloween is going more into the Middle East. In Egypt, I remember, when I was studying there, people would go to class in costumes. That would never happen, let’s say, seven years ago.
I never really thought of the effect of the American culture that much, but seeing here, and actually talking back to my friends in other countries, [Americans] have such a powerful effect on other countries, and I don’t think people realize that. But it’s a huge impact.
CB: Is there anything you like here or want to do?
AA: I like that you could really … there’s a freedom of press. Not 100%, but I feel you could get your voice heard more than in other countries. It’s not perfect -- nowhere is perfect. I feel the best here, if you want to write something, you have a better chance than in most countries. I like also that people are very friendly, even though we might disagree [on some things]. People being very nice, very friendly. Even if they don’t know you that much, they would say, ‘Hey, how’s your day going?’ Even if they don’t really mean it, them just saying it is nice. Them just acknowledging you.
Also, what I really like here is public transportation, at least, in Boston. Because I know, in other cities … there is very minimum of public transportation. You have to have a car. So, public transportation, going and coming whenever I want, having the free will. I think that’s very underrated, it’s not appreciated enough. If you really think [the T] is [terrible] -- ‘Oh, the T was late today.’ -- you should go see other countries, how they don’t have anything like that. Having the freedom to really move. I think that’s very cool. Because in Saudi [Arabia], you don’t have public transportation, you just have cars. If you don’t have a car, you’re [in trouble]. So, it’s … the small things that people [here don’t appreciate]. That’s what I appreciate.