Saudi student embraces new home in alien land

By ALEX KOMSTHOEFT/Montana State News

Hussain Abdalmonem Alshaikh enjoys a chess game. Alshaikh is an international student at Montana State University.
Hussain Abdalmonem Alshaikh enjoys a chess game. Alshaikh is an international student at Montana State University.

Hussain Abdalmonem Alshaikh is one of 140 Saudi Arabian students enrolled at Montana State University where he is not only learning mechanical engineering, but also a culture outside of his own.

While speaking a foreign language, adjusting to a cold new climate and surrounded by a city full of strangers, Alshaikh has experienced his fair share of culture shock, but he continues to love every day in Bozeman, accepting and even embracing his new home.

In spite of missing his family in the Middle East where he is one of eight children, Hussian said he is “happy to be living in Montana,” and wouldn’t want to be studying anywhere else. He has grown to know and love Bozeman for all the same reasons many other Bozemanites choose to live here. Coming from a smaller town back in Saudi Arabia, he appreciates the community and slower-paced lifestyle Bozeman holds.

“The people in Bozeman are very friendly and honest,” said Alshaikh. It’s important to feel safe in the town you are living in, and Alshaikh loves how he can, “go anywhere at any time of day,” and not have to worry about his safety.

Alshaikh was surprised to come to Bozeman and not see chain restaurants that he says are typical back home in Saudi Arabia.

“We have Starbucks, Applebees, Chilis and Hardees – some things we don’t even have here in Bozeman. It’s crazy.” But he enjoys living in a smaller town.

Prior to moving to Montana in 2010, Alshaikh only knew his older cousin who was also studying at MSU. Since then, he has made many friends from the “States,” but also other Saudi Arabian students he did not yet know from home. It wasn’t until he came to Montana when he met his friend, Aziz Alsaleh, where they were both studying English at the A.C.E. language institute.

“We usually studied and ate together,” said Alsaleh. “Last summer we went back to Saudi Arabia at the same time and I went to his house.”  It was comforting for him to have friends he could relate to that were also experiencing the same changes he was going through.

“I was lucky to have my English-speaking cousin here who could teach me about the culture,” said Alshaikh.

Alshaikh and his new friends have taken full advantage of their time off of school to explore other parts of the country. He has a spirit for traveling and experiencing new people and places.

“I like staying in one town, but if I have vacation time I travel. I want to travel all over the world,” said Alshaikh. Over Christmas break, Alshaikh, Alsaleh and their friends took a cross-country road trip where they drove through and explored 13 different states. “It was the longest trip of my life,” said Alshaikh. In spite of spending a crowded and long 40 hours in the car with his friends, they had the time of their lives.

On their road trip, the boys spent significant time in Florida, including Orlando and Miami, where they ventured to all of the amusement parks and beaches they could.

“My favorite park was Universal Studios,” said Alshaikh, having thought Disney World was slightly overrated. “I think Disney World is meant more for smaller kids, but we still had fun.”  The boys even got the opportunity to try parasailing.

“It was an amazing view from up there,” claims Alsaleh. “I was a little nervous because it was my first experience in a parachute.”

Alshaikh claims California was his favorite of all the 13 states he visited. He indulged in the beaches and the warm sunshine while taking the opportunity to escape the Montana winter. He also loved visiting the San Diego Zoo and Sea World during his time there, but he promises Montana is still the place for him.

While Hussian is self-disciplined in his studies and came to MSU on a full scholarship, he makes plenty of time for play as well. “My favorite place around Bozeman to go to is Hyalite.” His friends spend a significant amount of time hiking around Hyalite, and especially love having BBQ’s up there in the summer time. He also loves swimming around Hyalite, but says the water is “very, very cold.” He says he had a ton of fun floating the Madison River last summer and is anxious to do it again.

Having come from a warmer climate and not even having seen snow prior to moving here, Hussian is foreign to Montana winter sports. With slight hesitation, he said he wants to try ice fishing and skiing before he leaves Montana.

“My friend went skiing and hit a tree three times, but I will try it.” He spends most of his weekends swimming or playing soccer in the school gym. During the weekdays you can find him studying at his favorite coffee shop, International Coffee Traders. “International Coffee is my second house,” said Alshaikh. “I come here every day. Well, except for the weekends.”

Alshaikh and his fellow Saudi Arabian students have befriended the staff of baristas at the coffee shop. This has been a rewarding experience for both parties, providing greater knowledge and understanding for each other’s culture.

Katie Boyce, an International Coffee Traders barista, appreciates getting to know Alshaikh on a level that goes deeper than just knowing his usual coffee order, a vanilla mocha. “Hussain has been able to adapt very well to the American culture while still holding true to his own beliefs,” said Boyce. “He does not drink, does not eat pork and only eats other meats that have been blessed.”

Alshaikh and Boyce have embraced this unlikely friendship, but continue to respect each other’s cultural differences.

Alshaikh is welcoming to any person he encounters and has invited Katie over for dinner with his friends on numerous occasions.

“I have in return invited him and his friend to my house and they recently accepted,” said Boyce. “This is something that would not usually occur in Hussain’s culture. Our friendship has been a great learning experience for us both. I gain greater insight into the Muslim culture, and Hussain gains greater perspective into ours.”

As much as Alshaikh has grown to know and love Bozeman, he plans to move back home to Saudi Arabia after graduation in a few years. The most important thing in his life is his family, and it is important that he lives close to them.

“If my family would move here, I would stay here,” said Alshaikh. He comes from what most Americans would call a large family, but it is relatively average-sized back East. He already has many nephews and nieces that he doesn’t like living far from. “I have my niece; she is one year. I met her at 2 months. I think if I go back home she will cry, because she doesn’t know me. I told my sister to show her a picture of me.”

Alshaikh is looking forward to going home for two months this coming summer and reuniting with his family, and also celebrating his 24th birthday in June. He will be back before fall semester starts in August. He plans to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2015.

– Edited by Matt Parsons

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