Monday, 2 September 2013

New Beginnings

Toronto: It's Really Home (almost)
I can't believe I've been moved into my place in Toronto for a month now! Yesterday was September first, and after two years out of school, I'm thrilled to be returning to student life for a PhD at the University of Toronto! Once DH is back here with me--inshallah in a year or so--it will REALLY feel like home again :)
West-facing view from my balcony. 
My sister came and visited for most of last week, and we had a fun last week of summer shopping, going to the movies, Starbucks dates, baking, and enjoying the *hot* weather. Yep--Toronto feels HOT to me rather than cold like when I first moved back in the middle of a July heatwave! I guess my body has adapted to the weather here. Let's just see what fall and winter do to me though!
Cineplex Movies!

Starbucks love!

Welcome to the Department of English!
Last week, I had my first official meeting with the Associate Director of my department for course advising. I am really excited at the great selection of courses being offered in my field--early modern and restoration drama--and can't wait to hit the books!
U of T: Varsity Stadium
I spent a couple of weeks fine tuning my funding applications for next year's competition (U of T's graduate students must apply annually for prestigious external awards; these look excellent on a CV, and don't hurt the bank, either!). I am pretty content with my dissertation proposal--for now! I'm always coming up with new twists and turns on my project, and it's an exciting thing to see my ideas evolve over the years (I worked on a more condensed version of my proposed PhD dissertation during my master's degree in 2010).

I've been really and truly enjoying the freedom that comes with living in Canada, and so close to the subway / public transit. In fact, my building is literally ten steps from a subway station, and it's super easy to get around. I can walk to 98% of the places I need to go, and if I want to get anywhere really fast, transit is at my doorstep.

There's also SO much to do here, especially during the summer. I went with a friend to see The Taming of the Shrew in High Park a couple of weeks ago, and the Canadian National Exhibition was on throughout the past couple of weeks, too, culminating in this weekend's airshow with the Snowbirds--from my balcony, I could see the beautiful planes flying in perfect formation! (photo below)
The Snowbirds at the 2013 CNE!

Shakespeare in High Park
More Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew
TTC Subway: Clean and Convenient!
As much as I often tried to "argue" that Saudi Arabia wasn't necessarily limiting--especially for women--Toronto is a completely different world! As a woman, I wasn't permitted drive in Saudi Arabia, and that was a BIG deal. If a woman can't drive in Toronto, it barely has any implications--there are many, many reliable and fast options from the subway, buses, streetcars, commuter trains, etc, etc. In Saudi, though--or at least in Jeddah--there is no transit system to speak of (sure, there are random buses that take male workers from their construction sites to their lodging, but not anything a WOMAN can rely on!), and this is particularly constraining for the country's female population.

Where I lived and worked, I was constantly surrounded by a juxtaposition of people: girls and women from Jeddah / Saudi Arabia's wealthiest families who had their own BMWs (many girls did!), with drivers to boot...and, on the other hand, extreme poverty at every stoplight with women (often carrying babies) begging for money. While not every student had the luxury of her own driver, probably close to 75% of the girls in my university had their own drivers. By contrast, the Saudi / Arab women in my neighbourhood often relied on their sons, husbands and brothers to take them around. Others--whose husbands permitted it--took taxis...which, yes, I ventured out to do myself a number of times, but is not the most comfortable or pampering experience! Toronto's subways are a MUCH cleaner and fresher, not to mention more convenient, experience than a Jeddah cab!!!
Sunset in Jeddah
All of this said, I am looking forward to my trip to Jeddah in December. Of course I can't wait to see DH, but I'm also interested to see how I'll react to the very different world after having been immersed back in Toronto for, by then, six months!

Reverse Culture Shock?
When I was at U of T last week, I stopped in to say hello to the director of my graduate program, Dr. "M". I'd spoken to her over the phone a few times with questions about funding, courses, and the program when I was still in Jeddah, and she was interested to see how I've been settling back in here. I hadn't thought much about "reverse culture shock," but I suppose I've experienced--and am still going through--a bit of it.
Don't forget your abaya!!
Most notably, I often feel "naked" leaving my house without my abaya! Two years of wearing one and a head scarf definitely make covering almost second nature! When my sister was visiting, we went to Toni and Guy for haircuts. In Saudi, hair salons are, of course, segregated, so when you enter, there's an attendant who takes your abaya and gives you a number before she helps you into the salon coat. Needless to say, upon leaving Toni and Guy the other day, I was a bit kerfuffled when I paid, and then started looking around for my abaya! I felt I was missing something important without my covering! I quickly realized that, yes, my sweater and pants were all that I'd entered the salon wearing, and I wasn't missing anything (apart from an umbrella!) upon leaving.
I mentioned to Dr. "M" that surprisingly the most intense culture shock I've experienced was when I went to Kuwait in March 2012 to visit a friend. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I was completely taken aback by all the WOMEN driving by!!! I suppose that since Kuwait is only an hour and a half flight from Jeddah that I hadn't braced myself for ANY difference. But Kuwait and Saudi are most definitely different (as someone told me before I decided to move to Saudi, warning me that I couldn't visit Kuwait and assume Saudi would be the same...or even similar).

When I arrived with my friend to her apartment, I was even more taken aback when, upon entering the elevator, she struck up conversation with a male neighbour! I literally (silently) panicked, wondering what would come of such mixed-gendered communication--and in public to boot! Again, I suppose that since Kuwait is in such close proximity to Saudi, I hadn't been expecting that this more "Western" girl / guy communication would be tolerated there.
Elevator talk?
Men, men, men!
After two weeks in Toronto, I had an experience where I was suddenly hit with how far I'd been kept from the opposite sex all that time abroad (apart from DH, of course!). I worked with all women, socialized with only women, volunteered with women, taught women in the university all day, and covered and kept a distance from everyone else.

When my friend L's boyfriend texted me a couple of weeks ago, I was accordingly surprised. A guy texting me?? What was he up to? (In Saudi, if a GUY texts or calls a woman and it's not business related, something is DEFINITELY up. It could only end in TROUBLE!) Well, it ended up that L's boyfriend, who works for the University of Toronto, was calling with an awesome opportunity for me to be involved with the "Boundless" campaign. U of T has been running this movement to raise $2 billion for the university's expansion and better graduate and research funding. "J," I'll call him, was asking whether I'd be free to be interviewed on camera for the campaign. What a neat opportunity! I said yes, and gave him more information about my program and the university's generous funding, and his boss okay-ed my participation.
The U of T "Boundless" Campaign
Filming on campus!
It was a great afternoon being filmed, and I felt like a celebrity in front of the camera, although afterwards, after only one hour of filming, I vowed that I never EVER want to be an actress! I have a new-found respect for the hard and tedious work that celebrity actors and actresses do all day filming. (NB: Another interesting thing? Feeling REALLY shy about taking pictures with PEOPLE in them! In Saudi, it's a big no-no if you don't want to offend people--especially women! So, my apologies for no "action" shots of the filming.)

The point of this story--which has kind of turned into a tangent--is that that afternoon, I was working with all men. It felt so incredibly odd! The cameraman was a guy, as were the directors, the lighting crew, the sound technician, and the others on set. I grew up with four brothers before my sister was born, and it kind of reminded me of that. But still, I couldn't escape the thought that in Saudi Arabia, this probably wouldn't fly! There, there would likely be women trained in most of these positions, setting the cameras and lighting up, etc, etc... Or else the women involved (definitely not just ONE woman alone with all these men!) would be covered in their abayas and hijabs. Again, I felt a bit naked wearing "only" my blazer and pants.
Settling Back In
Despite all these differences, I feel more or less settled back into my old life here in Toronto. My cat, Oreo, is now back with me; he stayed with my mom's aunt for a year. It's nice to have my little fur ball around again, especially in DH's absence.
Oreo--could you grab me that book, please?
I'm looking forward to orientation meetings this week, and to meeting my new PhD colleagues in my department. It should be a whirlwind week coming up, and before I know it, I'll be back to the usual work, work, work! Though this week has been nice and quiet--I definitely needed the down time after TWO big, stressful moves--from Saudi to my parents' and then the suburbs to Toronto--working hard is what I love, especially when it's academics!

Here's to a new beginning, which is what the wonderful autumn is all about!

PS: I just noticed that the blog now has over 10, 000 hits!!! THANK YOU to all my family, friends and loyal readers for your support for and interest in my adventures! :)
The University of Toronto: Convocation Hall & the CN Tower


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  2. Of course! I just clicked "follow" :) Glad you're enjoying my blog! Are you in Jeddah?

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