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Memoirs of a Saudi Ph.D. student: Registration day

Every time I remember my first day at the University of Sheffield — UK, I burst out laughing, that kind of laughter that makes you have to smile embarrassingly to people around you so they don’t think you are insane! What made it really funny was that I made so much effort to show how lady-like and sophisticated I was, and readers please, always aim low to achieve the highest, for fate tends to be really harsh on people who try to be showy.
At the time, I was still living in a hotel and my mother and two children who accompanied me. I had put on the best outfit I could extract from the piles of clothes thrown all over the place, (just imagine two weeks in a hotel with two children,) I borrowed my mother’s designer handbag and I slipped on my best shoes. After all, I was a cool Ph.D. student: Arrogant, elegant and sophisticated.
I asked the hotel reception about directions to the university, they described how to get there and they told me that it’s within walking distance from the hotel. I walked out but all streets looked the same to me. Also, I was a cool, smartly dressed Ph.D. student so why would I ruin my look and prestige by walking and asking passers-by for directions? It didn’t make sense. “Come on Hatoon, go on and take a taxi,” I said to myself. But an inner voice was scolding me, “hey you! you are a student and living in a hotel expensive enough to make you think twice about taxi fares, walk or take a bus!”. Of course I completely ignored the voice and I went and hailed a taxi and said in a snobby professor-like tone: “the University of Sheffield please”. The cabby looked at me and asked “where about?” I repeated my request with an even deeper and measured voice. He still looked at me and said rather sarcastically: “lady please, the university is all over the place in the city center, where do you want to go exactly?”
Needless to say, the accent in Sheffield is quite strange to us Saudis and hard to understand, and of course because I was speaking English, the cabby thought I could also speak with a Sheffield accent. I asked him what did he mean and I could tell he was getting fed up with me but explained to me once again.
I was really embarrassed but tried to keep my spirits up and looked at my borrowed designer bag and felt reassured.
Finally, I decided to go to the student union and asked them about where to go to complete my registration. The lady at the reception desk handed me a map and started explaining. At that moment, I started to panic; for giving me a map is like throwing me in the middle of an ocean. I feel that people who give me maps hate me and want me to get lost — literally. Once again, I said to myself: ” I am a sophisticated Ph.D. student”, so I nodded and said, “mmmm yes, aha.. so I go from there.. I see, thank you”. I went outside the building and opened the map, and I was trying to figure out how we are supposed to stand when we are reading a map: should we assume that the designer of the map thought that we will be facing south and read it, or should we face north? And where is north anyway? I can’t even distinguish right from left! It was a hopeless case, I was panicking and had no clue where to go. I tried to read the map and started walking, I was so utterly and completely focused on the map to the extent that I did not see a step in front of me! And yes, yes, yes, the sophisticated, cool, arrogant PhD student with the smart outfit and designer bag fell and clumsily landed on the sidewalk.
The fall was quite harsh and one of my shoes landed on the other side of the street, but thankfully, there happened to be an old man passing by, he helped me get up and brought my shoe back. Well, my ‘prestige’ was now non-existent and I was mortified with embarrassment, alothough of course, no one was even looking at me. And here is an interesting fact about the British people: they are the least curious nation I’ve ever dealt with.
Anyway, I tried to regain my composure and luckily the old man knew the area and guided me to the admonitions office, which happened to be next door to the previous building. I bought myself a much-needed cup of coffee and went in. They handed me some paperwork and guided me to a cozy area where I could sit and fill in the forms.
I took my designer bag, my papers and my coffee and was aiming for a seat. I put my stuff on the table and beside me was a guy with a big wide-open bag, filing in forms as well. But with all the stuff I was handling, I forget about the coffee and accidently struck the coffee cup and yes, yes, yes, I spilled the coffee all over the guy’s big bag of stuff!
Well as you can gather, after all that, I am still alive and well. I am now in my second year working on my Ph.D. and still alive to tell the tale because the guy was really cool and did not kill me for ruining all his stuff.
However, since that embarrassing first day, I killed my ideas about prestige, forgot about sophistication and decided to live simply while in the UK, because those matters are really not important at all.

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