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My Experience As A Young Canadian Girl Growing Up in Saudi Arabia

“Where do you come from?” It’s been more than ten years since I left and I still don’t know how to answer.

Do I say Canada, because that’s what’s on my birth certificate and passport? Or do I admit where I feel home began for me, where my sense of self as a person originated? I am a Third Culture Kid and feel lucky to be one.

Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a term created by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s to identify children who spend their formative years in countries that are outside their parents’ homeland. For me, that country is Saudi Arabia. 

Living and growing up in Saudi, a place most people never really thought much about twenty years ago but is now increasingly in the news for many reasons, exposed me to a beautiful culture and allowed my family travel opportunities and experiences that most people could only dream of.  I have seen the pyramids of Egypt, and the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. I have walked the Great Wall of China and been on safari in the Masai Mara. It is an understatement to say that my life has been privileged and I will be the first to admit it.

I hope, through sharing my story, individuals will take the time to reconsider their interpretation of an entire region of the world based solely off of what they see in the media.

Life in the Camel Lane
When my parents got married, they made a pact that life would never be dull. Thus, in 1999, when my brother was seven, and I was five, too young to have an opinion or an argument, they decided that the best way to ring in the new millennium was to embark on a great adventure. My father took a medical job on the other side of the world; we packed up, said our goodbyes and left for Arabia.

We moved to a compound owned by Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian petroleum and natural gas giant based in Dhahran, where my Dad worked as an ER doc and later, as Chief of Emergency Medical Services. Living on the compound wasn’t all that different from growing up anywhere else. It had been built by Americans, for Americans, when oil was first discovered in a joint venture with the US in 1938. I went to school, hung out with friends, joined the choir, sat on the student council, took piano lessons and played soccer. We felt safe, played outside after school 

with all our friends, Saudi and many other nationalities and, for all intents and purposes, living ordinary lives. My parents often joked that we lived in a community straight out of a 1950s sitcom.

We lived, separated by a chain-link perimeter fence, next door to the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals and the country’s air base in the Eastern Province. We gained access to the compound through two guarded gates. Our compound had a commissary for groceries, dry cleaners, snack bars, a flower shop, library, baseball diamonds and soccer fields, an Olympic size swimming pool next to the elementary school and another one next to the middle school. We celebrated Christmas, Valentine’s and Halloween. We felt normal because it was like living in Small Town, Anywhere.

When we arrived in the Kingdom, we could leave the compound ‘as we were,’ but my parents were always mindful not to offend. Short shorts and sports bras were out, and covered arms and legs (past the knees) were not a big burden to bear. As I grew older, and the country became stricter and more observant of Islamic laws, my mother and I found it easier to wear the abaya (a modesty garment that covers the arms and legs.) At first, I thought this strange, but my parents assured me that this was the way of life and part of a culture that we should respect. Kids are kids anywhere, but as I grew older, I realized that when we ventured outside of our community I, white and blond, presented a stark contrast to the sea of sun-kissed individuals clad in thawbs, ghutrahs and hijabs.

Eventually, as local terrorism became an almost regular occurrence, the chain link separation fence around our community became a wire-topped ten-foot-high brick wall, and our gates became fortresses with machine gun turrets. But this happened gradually, and I didn’t notice or think much of it at the time.

Living in Arabia allowed our family wonderful travel opportunities and exposed my brother and me to many cultures and experiences. I will always be grateful for the broader worldview I have developed and the empathy, respect and perspective that stemmed from it. I learned that humour breaks all barriers and that everyone, regardless of ethnicity or culture, has struggles, limitations and experiences that are uniquely their own but somehow all the same. Circumstance and opportunity aside, no person is inherently ‘better’ than the next. My parents ensured that I knew the importance of appreciating what I have instead of focusing on what I lack. Perhaps the most important lesson my parents instilled in me is the responsibility that comes with the privilege of being able to live in a country where you were not born. We were provided with the tools necessary to not only seek out the best for ourselves but to help others every chance we got. Living and growing up in Saudi Arabia presented many opportunities to interact with and assist my global community; fundraising initiatives to raise money for the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2004, and clothing and food drives for Palestinian refugees and earthquake victims in Indonesia. Arab and ex-pat, we all worked for the same good. I was one of a few children selected to take part in a compound-wide disaster drill, complete with fake blood, so I had a pretty good idea of what disaster means to most people. One of the most eye-opening experiences of my life was being able to travel with a school group to Zululand and visit schools and orphanages, which has had a lasting impact on me to this day.

Ninety-nine per cent of the information the West receives from media and news outlets about Saudi Arabia relates to terrorism and religious discrimination. It is no wonder that many believe the Middle East to be a harsh, partisan and controversial part of the world; a world that makes concessions and allowances for the area because of its significant worldwide influence on both oil and gas industries.

I would be foolish to say that my parents felt secure one-hundred percent of the time. We were living in Dhahran during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and the 2004 Oasis Compound terrorist attack, just a few kilometres from our own. What started as small, random occurrences of minor car bombings and murders of ex-pat workers in the Kingdom emboldened homegrown terrorists to carry out more attacks, so on top of fire drills, our two schools also conducted bomb and ‘unwelcome visitor’ drills. However, these occurrences make up a minuscule fraction of my experience and memories. We went to school with Saudi as well as European, Australian, American, Canadian, South African and probably fifteen or twenty more nationalities of children. We played sports together, shared our homes, attended birthdays and Halloween parties. If ever this world is to come together in unity, surely it will be achieved with the help of ‘kids’ such as myself who grew up with, appreciated, loved and laughed with all of the children who have learned how to live in harmony with each other.

Home Away From Home
I can honestly say that I never felt unsafe during the eight years I lived as a child in Saudi Arabia. But did my parents? And would I, now that I am an adult? I don’t know. When I think of my childhood, my memories are of hot sunny days spent with friends on the compound learning to ride a bike, playing soccer, going to sleepovers and attending school. I think of travel and adventure and once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I would not change for anything.

My family returned to live in Canada in 2007, and I can honestly say that the culture shock of moving back to Canada was far greater than the culture shock of moving to and living in Arabia, the Arabia where my parents learned how to make their own wine and buy local moonshine, and where we spent so many Thursday/Friday weekends shopping the souqs and eating bacon in Bahrain. Adjusting to school in Canada was one of the biggest challenges I have ever had to deal with as I had to flip from an American curriculum to a Canadian one overnight. I vividly remember a quiz in grade eight social studies where I had to label all the provinces and capital cities on a map of Canada. I received a mortifying thirty-eight per cent grade and had to explain to a very concerned teacher why I did not know something so trivial. I had to work hard to convince her that I was not stupid but had simply not been taught the material. Had I been given a map of America, I could have easily labelled all fifty states and their capitals!

I did not want to move back to Canada. Quite the contrary, I was vehemently against it. My thirteen-year-old self even went so far as to create a PowerPoint presentation for my parents (complete with animated transitions and photos) of all of the reasons why I wanted to stay. I also attempted to sabotage my private school interview in hopes that I could somehow change the inevitable. I was not ready to leave my life or my friends, and I was definitely not ready to leave my home.

Thanks for the Memories
Growing up in Saudi Arabia had a significant impact on who I am and how I view and interact with the world. I look back with love, appreciation and gratitude for the experiences I was privileged to have had and the people I knew and loved. I carry with me lessons of tolerance and compassion, as well as a thirst for adventure and a fearless desire to explore and learn. I will forever be indebted to my parents for providing me with a unique and colourful childhood and for including my brother and me in their adventure. And I will never be ashamed to say that I consider Saudi Arabia to be my childhood home. I would not trade my time there for anything.


Emily Rumball

Emily is a freelance writer, blogger, tea addict, and animal lover based out of Vancouver, BC. You can follow her at and @callherem.