I spent the teething and potty training years of my life in Oregon and Idaho. Right after my ninth birthday, we moved to Saudi Arabia. I thought that was probably in New York. Another country just didn’t compute in my kid brain.
On the never-ending plane ride, I wore my new pin-striped sailor suit, a cowboy hat, and held a giant stuffed camel in my arms. What a sight. I disembarked the plane, exiting the word of recycled, air-conditioned, slightly cigarette flavored air, and entered an oven. It was 110 degrees F (IN MAY. Little did I know that this was cool compared to August). The pavement of the landing strips emitted wiggling lines of heat. There were dark men in orange outfits approaching me from all sides (to carry my luggage). I couldn’t understand them. To me, they looked very odd. I imagine that I looked JUST as odd to them. Blonde hair. Sailor suit. Stuffed camel.
Coming from Idaho to the middle east was confusing, to say the least, but being a child I quickly adapted. I thought the fact that it was always summer was AWESOME! I loved going to the pool year round. I made new friends and rode the (Mercedes) school bus. To me, it didn’t seem that different from Idaho, other than the sand and the weather. School buses, kids, girl scouts, day camps, and religion (Muslims instead of Mormons. Equally confusing for a nine-year old).
The thing that I had never really experienced, between Idaho and Arabia, was ebonics (which I just learned is more acceptably termed ‘African-American English’). The only shows I watched with African-American stars were The Jeffersons, Benson, and Different Strokes.
All of the expats (expatriates) in Saudi Arabia combined to make a group – an oddball group of Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, etc. If you were African-American, to me you were just one of the “Americans.” I had a few African-American friends in Saudi, but they all talked the same way that I did. I don’t think anyone had coined the phrase “ebonics” yet. My bus monitor told me daily, “not to take the Lord’s name in vain” but that was not ebonics. And it never worked. Valley girls were huge in the 80’s. “Oh… My… God” was a required conversational phrase (often followed by “I… Could… Just… Die”).
While we lived overseas we had the chance to take some amazing vacations. Every year or so, you were required to leave the country, revisit McDonald’s, drink some Coca Cola, and remind yourself of other healthy American habits that you had been missing out on. This trip was called repat (or repatriation).
So the expats went on repat.
On one of these trips, we went returned to the U.S. via Singapore. I was around age eleven at that time. They had a giant ESPRIT store. ESPRIT was Mecca in my own personal preteen religion. I actually heard angels sing as I entered the store. It was heaven! After splurging on a year’s supply of clothes, we went to lunch. At the booth behind us sat an African-American couple. They spoke very normally, for African-Americans who don’t live in Saudi Arabia. I was mesmerized, practically intoxicated. I spent the entire lunch listening to the changing inflection of their voices, the words that were English but sounded so foreign to my ears.
After they left their table, I looked across at my parents. I gazed at them quite seriously. I asked them my burning question,
Was that couple jive talking?”
They could have replied appropriately in Valley Girl speak with an “Oh… My… God…” Even my bus monitor would have approved.
Instead, they just laughed.
I sat there in my confused bubble. I sang the Bee Gees in my head. J-J-J-J-ive talking… What had I missed? I didn’t realize it was just Disco, and Disco never made sense. It was about tight pants, and yellow feathers in hair and dresses cut down to there. It was about short lyrical phrases and wiggling your hips. And, again, very tight pants. Not about African-American English. oops. My bad.