In November, I set out for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to assist Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Arts (UCCA) curatorial team in orchestrating Saudi Arabia’s first ever Biennial for contemporary art, the largest contemporary art exhibition in the country to date. I had planned on spending my Luce year in China working with UCCA, but covid travel restrictions had other plans for me.

Arriving to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) from Thailand was a dramatic cultural shift, perhaps even more than when I first arrived in Asia from New York. The difference in climate, culture, architecture and wealth were staggering—Thailand being famed for its openness and ease of tourism, and Saudi being known for its privacy and strained diplomatic relations with western nations. But having lost my debit card a week earlier in Chiang Mai, I faced my first major hurtle before I even left the airport.

I had about $1000 worth of Thai Baht in cash to exchange, but after walking up and down the entire gallery, I learned that no currency exchange counters accepted Thai Baht. Panicked, I ran outside to see if there was anywhere within walking distance that might be able to help, but my eyes were met with a vast desert expanse, the most barren I had ever laid eyes on. Dragging my oversized luggage with me, I ran back in the airport and scoured the currency exchange counters one last time. At the very end of the terminal – in a place that I can only describe as the armpit of the airport — I spotted the familiar red, white, and blue Thai flag. I lunged at the window, thrusting a thick wad of Thai Baht notes at the teller. Slowly, the teller’s eye met mine, and without missing a beat she wagged her finger to indicate that the transaction would not be possible. As we struggled to communicate without common language, I gleaned that they only accepted the crisp new 2021 notes, the likes of which I had never even seen while in Thailand. In an act of desperation I shoved the bills to her one last time, hoping for a miracle. I watched her slowly thumb through all 35 bills until she abruptly paused – extracting two, 1000 baht bills that looked slightly different than the rest. These two bills, and these alone, were up to code and I was soon handed the equivalent in Saudi Riyals.

After this initial struggle to make it out of the airport, my ability to navigate, communicate, and network in KSA grew exponentially. Working alongside my Beijing-based associates from UCCA, I helped create audioguides, trained tour guides, liaised between artists and art handlers, and wrote detailed reports on a series of insightful lectures and panels at the Biennale. I found myself clanking teacups with tea merchants on the sides of dark dusty highways with no buildings in sight for hundreds of kilometers. I shared hookah pipes with powerful families at a music festivals. I spent Thanksgiving in an underground, pork-less Chinese hotpot restaurant. I had Yemeni Masoop on Christmas eve with four middle-aged sudanese men who grabbed me off the street because they thought I looked lost and hungry. And on Christmas day, I shared a goat’s head at a Lebanese house party with hosts who kept the sitcom “Friends” playing in the background to make me feel at home on that special day.

In all of this I was hard pressed to find other Americans in KSA. This turned out to be the best possible thing, forcing me to immerse with whomever I met and build bonds despite a lack of language, culture, or custom knowledge. I left Saudi with the conviction to surround myself with locals as much as possible for the remained of my Luce year—a strategy that continues to help me put down roots abroad that I plan on nourishing for the rest of my life no matter where I am.

by William Wheeler on February 22, 2022