My first Saudi
homestay student(s) — Part 1

Beginning of a bewilderingly large learning curve & a valuable culture shock
for a host family in New Zealand.


3 Days prior…

The problematic HTC OneMini started vibrating during work’s team lunch. I quickly grabbed the tattered phone and stepped out of the buzzing restaurant.

It’s a call from the homestay agency we’re registered with. This either means:

  1. An update/issue with the current student, or
  2. We’re getting a shiny new one.

Since our current student is moving out to be closer to the city and to stay with her relatives — all the best with improving her English — it’s a new student.

Awesome. Thank goodness my phone hasn’t turned itself off today.

A female student from Saudi Arabia — in her early 20s — is arriving this coming Friday morning. She will be dropped off at around 3pm.

The timing is not ideal.

Someone will need to welcome her and take her through the house rules. I work normal office hours and mum won’t be home that day. Which means that I’ll need to work from home that afternoon. 3 days notice during team resource shortage… Work will not be happy.

As usual, I asked for more information on the student. Making sure that she’s female and is over 16 years old. After all, we’re a female only household. Mum and I aren’t usually home till just before dinner. So we need over 16 years old students who won’t require a babysitter.

— Illustration by HKTD Research

When the call ended, I realised…

Saudi = Muslim = No dogs + Halal food & other requirements

Dog’s hardly a problem. Both mum and I are allergic to animal fur so we don’t own pets.

But strangely enough, when I asked if the student had any food requirements, the coordinator simply said no.

Weird… I’ll make sure we don’t eat Pork (see you in 1-2 months my honey smoked bacon), just in case...

Once the logistics and other practical stuff were sorted in my head, a mixture of excitement and curiosity kicked in. This will be my very first Muslim student. From the notoriously conservative Saudi Arabia to boot!

Sure I’ve traveled around Cairo and Istanbul, went to a not-so-traditional Muslim Bangladeshi wedding reception in Dakha, hung out with Muslim Malays & Singaporeans in KL, and hosted a Muslim Malay traveler for a week before. But I’ve never befriended anyone from Saudi Arabia. So I set out to do a little research on hosting Saudi students (Mistake #1 of many).

I was very disappointed.

Other than a few very generalised articles (which are only helpful when you’re hosting a student from ANY nation for the first time) and a small section on NorthTec’s homestay guide (which only talked about male Saudi students), most guides in the top 20 search results were far from helpful.

What surprised me though, was that there were a couple of actual studies on Saudi homestay hosts and students. The 2 I found remotely educational were:

Again, NONE of these studies talked about female Saudi students in detail. They all talked about male students; their party culture, servant expectations and etc. Surely, not EVERY Saudis are like that?

In the end, none of these readings prepared me for what I’m about to experience over the next few weeks.


The day before…

A text from the agency came. It looked something like this:

Hi Prae,
your homestay is arriving tomorrow with her brother, while the brother’s family, also in [insert my housing area], will be home around 4:00pm. Can he stay for a while at your place and the host will pick him up around that time?
Kindly advise if that is possible.
Many thanks

Well… This is new information.

New, later arrival time. That’s better for work I guess.

And a brother waiting for his homestay? Sure! I’ll be home anyway and the other homestay girls won’t. He’ll most likely leave before 6pm, so other girls probably won’t feel too uncomfortable. Meeting other people’s siblings are always interesting. Plus, I like meeting other host families to see what they’re like. We’ll likely be in contact often while the siblings stay with us.


Day 1-ish: The arrival

It was 2:00pm when the neighbour I hardly spoke to called to tell me that the house alarm went off. It has been half an hour with no signs of a break-in.

Great, faulty alarm during work rush (a small project due at the end of the day) and a project melt-down (only client-can-see bug) — just before I need to go home to welcome new international students and orientate them.

I proceeded to call the security company, finished what I could, pushed it up to staging, informed all of the project managers and left on a cab. (I usually catch the bus.)

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$52.50 and 18 minutes later.

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No agency car/van (though I don’t even know what it looks like). No students with large suitcases. So I went into the house, fired up the computer, gave my project manager a status update and dived back into the project.

The door bell rang at 4:10pm and broke my concentration. Is that them?

I opened the mind-numbingly slow electronic gate. A middle-aged caucasian lady with an adorable little girl skipped down the drive way — the brother’s host family clearly haven’t heard from the agency either.

After a speedy introduction, we’ve decided that I should just call her when the siblings has arrived and is ready to be picked up. She gave me her contact details and left.

It’s now 4:30pm. No signs of the siblings with zero communication from the agency. I texted the agency to tell them that I’m home and waiting. All I got back was a simple:

Thanks Prae

And that was all the communication I got for the next 2 days. Nice.

I was starting to feel worried.

  • Did they run into trouble at the airport?
  • What if they tried to bring in some fresh Saudi snacks? — NZ Customs is infamous for its biohazard control.
  • Did they get lost and didn’t meet up with the driver?
  • Was there an accident?

I was starting to feel like some paranoid mother. So I decided to wait patiently and was starting to forget about making dinner — and potentially the students. I was furiously slamming the keys on my keyboard to create the very last few lines of code when the door bell rang at 7pm.

3 hours late. Dammit I could have stayed at work.

I opened the gate. Our driveway was pitch black and all I saw were 3 dark figures slowly descending down the shared driveway, clearly confused as to which house they should go into.

I ran out to greet them. I shook hands with a tall strongly built Arabic dude — who was clearly the brother (later I found out that would have given him his first culture shock) and turned to my right.

A floating olive rectangular box
— blocked by a pair of vintage 70s gradated Ray-ban styled sunglasses —
was all I could see.
The first impression said it all.
Oh. She’s the REALLY religious
ninja-style-even-when-out-of-the-country type.

Having recovered after 2.35 seconds, I gave her a super rushed and awkward hug over one of her rather large suitcases. (Worst first impression ever.) It was around 8 degrees outside. I thanked the driver who seemed to be dying to leave (his wife and kids are probably waiting to have dinner with him), then hauled the pair inside.

I guided them to our largest single bedroom. Made them drop their bags then dragged them out to show them around the house. The usual pre-orientation tour really; here’s the bathroom, kitchen, living room, laundry and etc.

The brother came in jandals and both of them were too lightly clothed. I told them to change into warmer cloths because it’s a cold night.

Having informed them that the brother’s homestay is coming soon, I went back up stairs to call his host family. Soon after I got dinner started, the host mother came and he was gone.

I finished cooking and our other boarder helped me set the table. Dinner tonight was looking pretty good — stir-fry Japanese egg tofu with lots of vegetables, the Thai style. Light, healthy, vegetarian and most importantly, completely Halal.

I came back down to call our new girl up for dinner. Her Abaya was switched to a relatively warm looking jumper and track pants. Her long wavy hair was a slightly tangled mess. Turned out she didn’t want dinner. I glanced at the clock — 7:40pm. Is it prayer time? I need to find out when these prayers are so I won't disturb her again.

After we finished dinner, I saved some food for her just in case she feels hungry in the middle of the night. Then I suddenly recalled her face: Hang on, were those tear stains on her cheeks?

I've welcomed a lot of students over the past 1.5 year. But none has ever cried during their first night, or stayed in their room with the lights off so immediately after arriving. We usually spend the first evening getting to know each other and go through the rule book.

Dammit I don't know how to deal with this.

Lost and confused, I placed a bar of Cadbury Milk Chocolate, a little bottle of flowers from the backyard, and a "Welcome to New Zealand" card in front of her door. Paced around the house a bit and decided that I need to talk to someone.

Having decided to consult a liberal Muslim friend from another side of the world about this — I jumped onto WhastApp, and prayed that he was online. While I was waiting for his response, I thought:

I'll find out what's wrong and go over the house rules with her tomorrow. It'll be Saturday. I'll have all day to orientate her.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Note: For my convenience, I will start refering to my Saudi student as Jameel or جميل , which apparently means beautiful in Arabic — just because she is. [Insert embarrassed smiley face]


Coming up…

Part 2: Rapidly learning and adjusting to the Saudi ways

Part 3: Teaching and conflict of interest

Part 4: Key takeaways and tips other hosts