"I had heard that America was a paradise, all green and covered with flowers."
"I thought everybody was rich and had cars six meters long."
"I heard Americans used technology for everything and so I saw them in their kitchens just pushing buttons to get their dinner."
"I expected America to be all big cities with high buildings and streets filled with cars."
Such images, it seems, are common to the young Arab students now pouring into American colleges and universities and seeing the United States for the first time. They quickly learn, of course, that their impressions are false - and sometimes that comes as a surprise.
Khadija Harery discovered in Syracuse that American flowers bloom only in season, and that the ground was usually covered with snow - pretty, but not a paradise.
Mohammed-Amin Gashgari, now writing his dissertation on polymer engineering at Stanford University, found that a good many Americans can't afford big cars, that students on his Palo Alto campus own more bicycles than automobiles and that some even take the bus.
In Chicago, Abdullah Zaid, a candidate for his doctorate in history, discovered that he could get coffee, Coke and candy by pushing buttons, but not meals.
And Adnan Khodary studying public administration at the University of Southern California, discovered that the country had slums as well as skyscrapers - but also that America's scenic grandeur is incomparable. An ardent traveler, like many Saudis, he has explored inner cities, high-rise apartments and the glories of the Grand Canyon.
Adnan is not unusual. Many Arab students are tireless travelers and the Saudi students in particular are always ready to hop on planes to Hawaii or Florida or to pack themselves and a few friends into a car and drive off to see Disneyland or Niagara Falls. Most can rattle off the names of the states they have driven through and one at least traveled by train from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco "just to see the country."
Outside the classroom, some students also ski, swim, play tennis or ride. Unlike Americans, however, they do not regard sports as a serious enterprise. Though some of the large universities have Saudi students on their soccer teams, or even unofficial all-Saudi teams, sports are loosely organized and purely for fun.
Like all students, Arab students in the States also spend a lot of time listening to music - but not, they add, the high-volume hard rock so popular with their American brethren. Although many like American pop and country music - and some understand and enjoy Western classical music - few like what they call "crazy music." Instead they play tapes of Arab music, brought with them or mailed to them by their friends. They much prefer the calmer statements of the 'ud and rebaba or, during Ramadan, the recorded voice of a muqri chanting the Koran.
Each student, of course, responds differently to the challenge and strangeness of life in the United States. Some hug their traditional ways, spending most of the time outside the classrooms with their families or with Arab friends at home, while others adapt easily to life in dormitories or shared graduate housing and claim to have had, while in the United States, more American friends than Arab.
But even students who have little contact with American students usually develop ties to at least one American family, often one they meet through a foreign students' club or similar organization. And invariably, they say, they find themselves at ease. In the family atmosphere of a traditional American Thanksgiving or Christmas, or on holiday visits to American families in their summer homes, they find at least a semblance of what nearly all Arab students miss most: the closeness and warmth of their families.
To Arabs, family ties are stronger and more important than time, money or work. Students in the States, therefore, frequently run up enormous telephone bills talking to their families halfway around the world. At three dollars a minute, they talk to everyone at home at the time they ring, maybe once a week or once a month.
For that reason they are puzzled by the offhand attitudes of American students who "only send a postcard when somebody in the family is sick," and are openly shocked by American youths who criticize their parents and seem to leave home either casually or eagerly.
It is not, however, the only shock. By and large Arab students like America and Americans. They like America's openness, its great variety - of landscapes, cities, people, food and music - and its efficiency: public service systems that work and universities that offer a wide selection of courses and provide well-equipped libraries and laboratories. They also remark on the number of people who take evident pride in their work, and on the speed with which things get done. But adjustment, nevertheless, is difficult.
This is especially true for Saudi students, according to one Saudi Arab graduate student's dissertation on cross-cultural education. Saudi students, he wrote, "come from a traditional society with a restricted culture to study in a modern, highly technological society with nearly unrestricted cultural diversity."
That observation is certainly true. But what does it mean? It means laying aside their national dress, the flowing white thobe and ghutra, and substituting western clothes. It means facing a wide range of unknown dishes at every meal - and learning to identify forbidden pork in its various disguises. It means learning to eat hamburgers, pizza and artichokes with their fingers but lamb and rice with a knife and fork It means awakening to church bells on their new day of rest instead of rising to the call of the muezzin to prayer. It means coping, for the first time, with standards of dress and behavior that would be utterly unacceptable at home-and with the realization that few in the States are shocked at them.
It is not an easy adjustment, says Saleh al-Hathloul, an MIT doctoral candidate in architecture, art and environmental studies. "When you first come, you see the cultural differences, but you are not sure how you are supposed to react Our culture has taught us dearly what is right and what is wrong, but here we are bewildered by a lot of new ideas and new ways of doing things. Often we must decide instantly - with only an occasional cue - how to behave."
"When I first came, I stayed with a family. About two days after my arrival, a young woman from next door came in to show off a new dress. I passed her in the hall and instinctively turned my head to look away. That was insulting to her. Today I would say, 'What a nice dress.'
"Feeling your way, you learn how society operates, but it takes longer to find out that there is not just one right way to behave. I really began to change when I moved from engineering - where one plus one is two - into architectural design, where there are so many variables, so many points of view, so many ways to handle a problem. Now I see that there is not just a Saudi way and an American way and I have learned to appreciate all kinds of opinions even if I don't agree with them."
Arab students in the States are also confused by apparent gaps and dichotomies in American thinking. Television, for example, which offers some Arab students their first view of American values - both in the Arab world, where American programs are widely shown, and in the U.S. - seems to consider violence as entertainment. Yet Americans constantly warn the new students about unsafe streets. This, to many Arabs - and especially to those from Saudi Arabia, where street-crime is rare - is difficult to comprehend.
Some students are also dismayed by television's wildly inaccurate or outdated portrayals of the Arab world: the exclusive emphasis on dunes, tents, camels and belly dancers. "Because of TV," one student said, "Americans are sophisticated but not really knowledgeable."
Arabs are disturbed too by light-hearted questions such as: "Do you live in a tent? Do you ride camels?" Even Arabs who understand American humor - and know that no insult is intended - find such comments difficult to dismiss and would agree with anthropologist Saad Sowayan of Berkeley, who found many Americans "not really unkind, but insensitive."
Arab students are also troubled by the differences in personal relationships. Although they enjoy the ease of casual American friendliness, they find that most Americans are "too busy" for real friendship. Neighbors who merely nod a perfunctory "good morning" and go their own way, or acquaintances who never respond to a casual invitation, but need a definite date and time, puzzle the inexperienced Arab student.
With a background of extended family, clan and community, he is accustomed to close interlocking relationships which take precedence over immediate individual concerns. To him, therefore, Americans seem always to be in a rush, "even on weekends," their lives ruled by a clock which determines where they should be from moment to moment. Few Saudis' lives, for example, have been tightly scheduled - with this time exclusively for work, that for play and that for family obligations - so they tend to live more flexibly.
Student social life is often difficult too. "At first I didn't know how to refuse a drink," said one Saudi student. "I was torn between the tenets of my religion and my desire to participate in American life - so I used to pretend I had an allergy to alcohol that kept me from drinking. Then I learned to say, 'I'm a Muslim and I don't drink' and I found that Americans respect this more than they respect allergies."
American life, nevertheless, does intrude. University schedules, the pressure of academic studies and the distractions of college life mean that it is difficult for devout Muslims to practise Islam to the letter: praying five times a day, or fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Some students, consequently, do not meet all their obligations.
On the other hand, some students report that their experience in America has strengthened their attachment to Islam. "At home I prayed because someone reminded me to do it," one said. "Now it is my responsibility and I pray because I want to thank God for what I have. You do not always have your family with you, or your friends, but you do have God with you all the time."
For some Arab male students in the United States, the most difficult adjustment is sharing their everyday world with women. Arab students from the conservative countries, for example, are accustomed to family participation in arrangements for marriage; thus they find the easy permissive friendships between young men and women difficult to accept.
Student responses to this vary. Some conservative students - often the most religious, and active in the Muslim Students Association - say that they have never initiated a conversation with a female student, even though they work beside and with women in the classroom or the laboratory. Others have broken the hearts of, and had their own hearts broken by young American women. The majority, however, have taken a reasonable and cautious course. While they are friendly, and occasionally do date, they prefer socializing in groups, men and women together but with the sexes often apart in the same room. Marriages, therefore, are rare.
Some Arab students, of course, do marry in the States, but Saudi students almost invariably marry a Saudi girl in Saudi Arabia, often because they are lonely, but also because they want to share their American experience. As one graduate student said, "I had become different during my years here and I wanted a wife who would understand me. And I thought it would be good for both of us to start life away from our families and get to know one another." Another, who has written home to his family and asked them to consider a wife for him, said, 'Just as America has opened my eyes to many things, I want to bring back a wife and open her eyes and say: 'Look at all this.'"
America, then, surprises, upsets, delights, challenges and - to some extent - changes Arab students. Most, nonetheless, remain Arab to the core. Virtually no Saudi students, for example, elect to remain in the United States when their degree is won. Instead they return to Saudi Arabia - proud of it, confident of its cultural values and ready to work for its future.
Rehab Massoud, an undergraduate at USC, is a good example. He believes he is there to find out how America works and how its citizens think and act. He has, therefore, visited a variety of churches and temples, attended weddings and funerals and "asked a lot of questions about religious belief." He emerged, he said, "satisfied with my own."
Saudi Arabs, Massoud went on, want to take the good things from America and avoid the mistakes. "We will take the technology the scientific things, but not the customs or the culture. To put it in another way, I want to be able to put myself in other people's shoes, but I am not going to lose my own."