What we really think about living in Kuwait & the Middle East

Recently we’ve been asked by two different people about what it’s like in Kuwait. One was a potential hire and the other a friend of a friend who will be traveling here next month. I thought you might be interested in our responses since they aren’t things we talk to family & friends about as much. Some of the responses may be reiterated but it’s easiest to just copy & paste them for you.

From Jeff to potential hire:

Have you had the opportunity to travel around your area?  Outside your area? 
Working in Kuwait we have 4 major breaks per year and we travel for 3 of them, plus on our way  home to the states in June. We’ve gone to Greece, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Oman, South Africa, Germany, Iceland, Bahrain, Turkey and probably one or two more I’m forgetting. The opportunity for travel is incredible, and we take advantage of it every time we can.

How safe do you feel when traveling? 
Teaching abroad offers a different perspective on world events, untouched by American media. Working in the Middle East helps, too. Using this newfound “sense,” we only travel to places we deem safe enough to go. We’ve never felt unsafe anywhere we go, and are quite often surprised at how congenial and friendly people are of Americans. Omanis currently sit atop my list of friendliest people in the world, followed closely  by Sri Lankans. Ask me that a few years ago and I wouldn’t have been able to point either of those places out on a map. That being said, we’re never foolish enough to put yourselves in a bad position, so we’re already mindful of safety no matter what.

How safe do you feel around your school and home? Shopping, walking, ect.  Night, day..
As a white male, I feel extremely safe. The people in our community are, for the most part, very nice. They happily wave or greet me when I walk by, and I’ve developed a lot of friendly relationships with shop owners. Theft is an extreme sin in Islam, and people rarely, if ever, do it. At the grocery store I could leave my backpack and Lissa’s purse in our cart, walk away for 5 minutes to go find something, come back, and everything would still be there. There are many times I feel safer in Kuwait than I do in the US.

What are some experiences that you have had traveling in the places you have gone?  Good, bad…
We’ve only had good, and there’s almost too many to tell. I’ll share a few of my favorite and Lissa can share hers.

Our first night Kruger National Park in South Africa found us in an air conditioned hut a few hundred meters above a giant river full of talking hippos. We sat on our covered porch having drinks while dinner was cooking on the grill and the sun was going down. Although I had simple modern amenities, I felt very much in the African bush. It was amazing.

Another one of my favorite times was our last day in Greece. Our plane took off in the early afternoon, so we got up really early and hoofed it a half mile to the Acropolis. The sun was coming up and we had the place to ourselves. I’m always in awe of historical sites that were built by hand and the Acropolis was no exception.

In general, one of my favorite things to do when visiting a new place is to go on a run or walk with Lissa. We’ve found it’s one of the best ways to “see” a city for the first time. We also geocache, which is a fun game anywhere but especially when you travel 🙂

What have been some of your experiences with other cultures?
Oh man… just the other day, in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, I posted on Facebook how hard it is to reconcile the wonderful acts of the Muslims I interact with on a daily basis with those I see committing terror in the name of Islam abroad. Our experience in Kuwait has been eye opening, both good and bad. As white westerners, we’ve never felt in danger here. However, we’re in the top tier of citizens, right beneath Kuwaiti’s and other rich gulf arabs. We’ve seen some pretty atrocious attitudes towards the working class, and we can’t ignore the fact that human rights aren’t on the same level here as we’re accustomed to in the US. On a positive note, I’ve come into contact with so many unbelievably friendly people from numerous cultures that I would have never had the opportunity to before. I’ve mentioned Omanis and Sri Lankans as being some of the friendliest people on earth, but the arabs, muslims, and arab muslims I interact with every day are wonderful as well. I’ve become a culturally richer person with little to no threat to my safety.

What percent range of salary do you think you can save beyond daily expenses?
With our school’s package, we don’t pay taxes on our salary, rent, or utilities. Our expenses are food, internet and cellphones, and depending on your preferences, that can be extremely low. We are both enrolled in Master’s programs (which we pay for in cash), we are paying our undergrad student loans and and we still take (what feels like) exorbitant and luxurious vacations 3-5 times a year. We also have a maid that cleans our house once a week. It’s silly, really.

  • Kuwait is extremely family friendly.
    • There’s first class medical facilities with western doctors (and it’s cheap!)
    • Nannies, maids and even cooks to an extent are unbelievably cheap, easy to hire and extremely reliable. We pay ~$90 a month for a maid that comes once a week for 2-3 hours at a time. We guess we’d pay about that much for 1-2 hours in the states.
    • Everything is deliverable in Kuwait, and they have almost every western restaurant you could want. Out of coffee? Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Tim Hortons and Caribou will happily bring a latte to you. It’s amazing and lazy 🙂
    • There’s a distinct lack of green space here, so playing outside will be much, MUCH different than in the states.
  • Food is my favorite part of living abroad. I can get sushi, thai, sri lankan, indian and turkish without traveling more than a mile or so from my apartment – and that’s if I don’t want it delivered! Bonus; it’s astoundingly cheap. I can also get 4 feet of little ceasars pizza brought to my door if I need some good ‘ole fashioned american grub. I love trying food from the countries we visit, then finding restaurants that specialize in it in Kuwait.

From Lissa to potential hire:

  • We’ve also been to Dubai, Ethiopia and Tanzania for conferences (on our own dime). Next month I’ll be going to Qatar and then back to Istanbul in March. We’re planning Sri Lanka (again) for spring break and Paris on the way home in June.
  • In general I feel extremely safe here in Kuwait and abroad. My experiences as a woman are slightly different than Jeff’s. I feel comfortable walking in our neighborhood (and to the grocery store & gym about a mile away) by myself both during the day and at night. However I am extremely aware of my surroundings. I’ve been yelled and honked at from men in cars but it hasn’t felt much different than when I’ve been running down Capital Ave and get honked at. I have never felt threatened. That, however, does not mean that all women have had that same experience. We have had harassment incidents in our neighborhood but I’m not sure it would be any different in a big city. We live in a big city and need to continually be aware of what is happening around us and who is around us.
  • I don’t wear tank tops, shorts or low-cut shirts. I dress conservatively because it makes me more comfortable. I don’t make eye contact with people when I’m walking outdoors (but didn’t do that in France either). In general I stay more to myself while being 100% aware of my surroundings.
  • Another amazing experience we had was in Oman – Jeff found an Omani guy who owns a hut on the beach. We booked to stay with him for one night with my sister (who also teaches here), my mom, dad & two siblings in high school. We loved it so much we ended up staying two. On our first night we piled in his car and he took us to a beach where turtles lay their eggs. We slept on the floor of his hut with no locking doors. He also took us fishing on his boat (with no life vests, etc), we caught barracudas and then he grilled them up that night for dinner. We all hopped on the boat quickly when he told us there were dolphins – we drove through an enormous pod of dolphins (hundreds). My mom was a little uncomfortable at first but looking back it was one of our highlights of Oman. He ended up calling my mom ‘Mommy’ and we could have stayed for much longer.
  • I am all for women’s rights but neither of us have ever felt like we need to bite our tongue. Or even had to make the choice to bite my tongue. I’ve learned a lot about Islam since moving here – although it is a patriarchal society, women are a very important part of the family. One of the biggest insults you can give a boy at our school is to say something bad about any of the women in his family. Most men seem to feel a strong need to protect the women in their family. Women make the choice to cover – it is a decision between them and God. No one else is supposed to influence or affect their decision. They usually choose to cover because they want to keep their beauty for themselves and their husband.
  • In Saudi, women’s rights are severely restricted (must wear hijab & abaya, can’t drive, etc). For these reasons we have no desire to ever live there. In Kuwait it is more about your nationality than your gender. The working class is low on the totem pole and often isn’t treated well. That has been the biggest adjustment for me. However I do my part to treat the maids, drivers, etc well. It’s all I can do. There are only about 1 million Kuwaitis in a country of over 3 million people. It is extremely difficult to get Kuwaiti citizenship. Thus life can be difficult/frustrating here for other nationalities, especially the ones deemed not as good. Jeff and I believe strongly that life is what you make of it. We choose to be happy and see the good in life/people – but not everyone here does.
  • The biggest reason that I wear what I wear is out of respect for the culture. Their culture is more conservative than in the US and I acknowledge that. Christina and I run 3 mornings a week before school (you’d be welcome to join us!). When it is hot I wear shorts & short sleeve shirts. I’ve learned that the material matters here, not necessarily how much skin I’m showing! Sometimes we get honks from cars but this happens no matter what we are wearing. I also wear tight capris & leggings to run to walk to the gym. I know that if I’m going to wear something that is extremely tight and not cover my butt, I might get some stares. We are Western women in a Middle Eastern country. Just like we have stereotypes of them, they have stereotypes of us. They have seen all the American movies where women are portrayed as ‘easy.’ So they think that if they honk and say hi maybe we’ll be easy too. It gets HOT here. But I never wear tank tops or shorts (other than bermuda). I would rather be a little warm than feel out of place. Blond women & children are going to get more attention – people aren’t used to seeing that here (same goes for Asia). There are Arabs of all countries here. In general the Lebanese women wear whatever they want without regard for who sees them. This isn’t the choice I make. But some of the things I’ve seen moms at our school wear I wouldn’t wear in the States either. I’ve never felt judged or harassed by other women.

Lissa to visiting ‘friend’:

I feel safer here than I do in most big US or European cities. Because of the harsh penalties for stealing, murder, etc, crime is very low here. I routinely leave my purse in my shopping cart and then walk away to grab something else. Although the media has sensationalized any news about Westerners being attacked in the Middle East, I have never felt threatened or fearful for my life. Or even close.
I choose to dress conservatively out of respect for the culture. The extent to most men’s (both workers & Kuwaitis) interaction with Western women have been Hollywood movies (where women aren’t always portrayed accurately). Even when it’s hot, I don’t wear tank tops or short shorts. In general I refrain from showing my shoulders, chest, & stomach. I don’t always cover my knees (Bermuda shorts and pencil skirts). I usually try not to wear anything too tight but I’ll wear skinny jeans with a loose top or loose bottoms w/ tight tops. For men, there really are no restrictions. They’ll be comfortable in shorts and t-shirts.

Kuwait – where you seek out your own happiness

In general, Kuwait is a pretty easy place to live. We work at a good school. We can speak English pretty much everywhere. There are a ton of Western amenities (there are more American restaurants here then there are in Holland & Battle Creek combined). We make enough to travel where & when we want to. We belong to a beautiful gym. In general, our daily life isn’t too bad.

However it’s not always that simple. Kuwait is a dry country and thus there are none of the activities typically associated with alcohol. We can’t just go hang out at the bar for the evening. There aren’t professional sports. You can’t really take a weekend trip anywhere in the country. There’s only 1 geographical feature (and we’ve been there). You get the idea. What we’ve figured out is that this is a place where it is up to YOU to seek out your own happiness. It is not going to come to you. There is a lot of stuff happening in Kuwait but you just have to find it.

Here’s what I/we’ve been up to:

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This weekend is Halloween (even though we can’t celebrate it at school). Trick-or-treating for staff kids is on Friday night and then there’s an adult costume party. 7 Market is Friday and Saturday. And finally Qout Market is back on Saturday…so excited!!! There’s a lot going on…you just have to seek out what you’re passionate about and make your own happiness.

A weekend in Dubai

…2+ months later!

Way back in March, just over a week after returning from Athens, Jeff and I flew down to Dubai for a 3-day weekend. This time it wasn’t all fun and games…we attended and presented at the Google Apps for Education Summit at the American School of Dubai. Professionally it was a great experience for both of us and we’re excited to collaborate in the future with the new people we added to our PLN. Small world – one of the organizers of the Summit also graduated from Hope College. It was great to meet and hang out with Cindy 🙂

Even though the trip was short (approx 72 hours), we were able to squeeze in a little fun too! The trip started with the mandatory stop at the Duty Free store on our way out of the airport 😉 Thursday night we taxi’d from our hotel to The Walk at the Dubai Marina. We did (in fact) a little walking and took in the area. Unfortunately the views of the water weren’t too great because of the construction. We ate Mexican while sitting outside – the people watching was pretty fantastic. We were immediately struck by how many Westerners there were and by the amount of skin people were showing. We weren’t in Kuwait anymore!

After getting in quite late on Wednesday night, we had a little time change mishap on Thursday morning. We made sure to set several alarms for Thursday morning…but none of our devices switched to Dubai time (1-hour ahead of Kuwait) and there wasn’t a clock in the hotel room! We arrived a little late to the summit, but luckily we didn’t miss much! Our hotel was close enough to ASK to walk which was nice…even if it was hot and we had to brave the traffic.

After the conclusion of the Summit on Friday, we met a few other presenters for dinner at the Emirates Golf Club. We had a lovely dinner at M’s before heading downstairs to help Spike Bar close up for the night. The food was delicious but it was quite refreshing to be able to order & enjoy adult beverages at a restaurant! Since the night was still young, we stopped by the bar at a friend’s hotel. A great time was had by all!

Golf club lamp @ Emirates Golf Club

Saturday we hopped on the metro (with all our bags!) and stopped by the Dubai Mall on our way to the airport. As one of the world’s biggest malls, it was quite overwhelming. We ate lunch while gazing up at the world’s tallest building, had a quick encounter with a shark at the aquarium and wished we had time for ice skating!

ASD was gorgeous and Dubai was definitely a new take on the Middle East. It did seem a little sterile though…it was hard to find any culture because everything was so shiny and new. Our only regret of the whirlwind trip was that we didn’t buy Peter, our dads and Uncle Jim (& all the rest of you who play) golf paraphernalia from the Emirates Golf Club. Hopefully you guys can forgive us!

ASD campus from our hotel room

REAL grass!

To see all our photos from the trip, check out our camera and iPhone albums.

A couple of MEds

Jeff and I started our masters on Monday! We are currently going through the COETAIL program. This program consists of 5 courses that we will complete over the next 1.5 years. In May of next year, we will have a Certificate and be half-way done with our masters degrees! COETAIL is tailored specifically for international educators and partners with Buffalo State – SUNY. We will choose 5 other courses during the next few years and eventually have our Masters in Multidisciplinary Studies 🙂 We’re pretty excited to have found a program that is reputable and tailored to our needs as educators. It’ll be some work, but we’re excited to LEARN!

Getting sick abroad

(Not to be confused with “getting sick of abroad.” Sorry mom.)

Private school certainly has its perks.

For one, money gets spent on little stuff that makes life as a teacher that much easier; there’s always coffee brewing in multiple places around the campus, we have no limit on copying (color or black/white) and when you visit the nurse’s office she can shove all sorts of medication your way without any sort of payment.

As to who passed this particularly annoying ailment my way, I do not know. Several family members have apologized, but it’s more than likely the inordinate amount of time I spent outside geocaching when the temperature was single digits than some sort of airborne transmission by a loved one. Who knows.

Anyway, I’m on the way to feeling better thanks to a healthy dose of antihistamines,  cold & flu relief, cough syrup, and nasal spray – all provided by the school nurse. For free.

Perks, man. Perks.

Sports at an international school

**Warning: I don’t have the luxury of coherent thought today. The following is what I call a braindump; when I just turn over the bin in my head all of these thoughts are in and they come tumbling out in whatever order they please.**

I had never really thought about what school sports might be like for international schools. Having been in public school for grades K-12 and then again as a teacher/coach afterwards, it just never really crossed my mind.

It’s super cool.

Our school is hosting an ISAC (International Schools Activities Conference) volleyball tournament this weekend. Teams from all over the region have flown(!) here to compete. We have schools from Jordan, UAE, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The halls are full of students that don’t go here and it’s great.

Once they get here (more on that later), students from our school host athletes from other schools and teachers host coaches. Just think about that. Would it ever happen that way in the states? I have a hard time imagining it would, but that’s part of what makes our time here so amazing – we’re experiencing things we never would have in the US.

We’re hosting a coach from AIS Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). He’s Canadian, has keys to our apartment, and will sleep in the room next to us the next few nights. We met him last night around 9pm. We are required to provide breakfast for him every morning, a clean bed to sleep in and a bathroom/shower for him to use. When it comes time for his school to host a tournament, he’ll do the same thing for someone else. Did I mention that he brought us chocolate from Bahrain?

At the risk of sounding sappy and melodramatic, it’s fun to continue experiencing humanity here. The trust and kinship you acquire abroad seems more potent than back home. I’ve got several theories for this, the simplest of which is “we’re all in the same boat.” In the same way that hostages and shipwrecked sailors bond due to their circumstance, it seems so do international teachers.

Now that we’ve got the philosophical meanderings out of the way, I can get back to fascinating details.

When you try out for a school sport, you assume the responsibility of covering travel costs to various tournaments. The girls volleyball team for example, is expected to pay 135KD per person for their trip to Amman, Jordan later this month. The girls know ahead of time that if they can’t travel, they likely won’t be put on the team. This may strike Americans as “unfair,” but it’s the truth of being somewhat isolated when it comes to competition. We are spoiled in the states to have so many schools geographically close by. It makes scheduling incredibly cheap and easy. This cost makes the expectation of hosting somewhat understandable. When our students travel for tournaments, they will be hosted by families at those schools. If they’re forking over close to $500 USD to travel, it’s nice to know you’ve got free accommodations when you get there.

Other teams travel to various places and locales including Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Lebanon, Holland, and Qatar. They’ll play teams from all over the world at these tournaments and they’ll make connections with other kids and families half a world away. They have activities planned for them while they are here and are kept busy with the hospitality of the host school. On our side, students are largely responsible for organizing most of the logistics as part of an IB programme project. What a great learning experience.



Update: We attended a couple volleyball games during the last day of competition. We were completely blown away at how much school spirit the students had! We are used to large public schools with varying levels of school spirit. We expected the atmosphere here to be much calmer (students don’t live as close to school here as they do in the US and many don’t drive themselves). Quite the contrary! TONS of AIS students showed up to support the AIS girls in the finals (we had to leave before the boys’ final game). The students organized cheers and even brought a drum set! It was a great atmosphere and we were completely impressed with how many students showed up to support!

How did you get the job?

We’ve been asked this a hundred times if we’ve been asked this once. After the initial shock wears off and people realize we aren’t joking when we say we’re moving to Kuwait, they always want to know how we got the job. Well, here’s a (rather lengthy) excerpt from an e-mail I sent to a former co-worker that’s also interested in doing what we’re doing.

Lissa and I used a 3rd party service called  Search Associates that specializes in matching International school openings with credible candidates. We had a fantastic experience and would recommend them to anybody interested in going abroad. You sign up individually and that gives you access to their database and also grants you entry to one job fair. You set up a profile that is pretty specific and every day Search Associates will alert you to any new jobs that have been posted in your field. Additionally, schools that have signed up through Search Associates will be able to see your profile and resume so they could potentially contact you without a job being open. I can’t remember if you pay by the year or not (as opposed to a 1-time fee), but the longer ahead of time you sign up the more you’ll get for your money.
Lissa and I signed up in late November-ish. In retrospect, that was pretty late. Based on our late entry into the game, we were limited in which job fair we could go to. We quickly decided on San Francisco (which took place in February) because the only other option was Toronto. If given the choice between SF and Toronto in February, it’s a no brainer 🙂 Once we had decided that, we spent our time combing through the jobs that came to us via the daily emails. With 2 weeks before the job fair, the American International School of Morocco contacted me and eventually offered me a job before the fair even started. Had we not bought tickets already, we’d be headed to Africa this August instead of the Middle East. This goes to show that you don’t NEED to go to a job fair to get a job, though I would say that our situation was not normal.
We went to San Francisco with little idea what to expect and were pretty surprised. Having never done it, I would compare it to speed dating. The job fair takes place over 3 days (fri-sun). You show up Friday morning and sign in. You go through some “training” in how the fair will run, etiquette, rules and some other housekeeping type stuff. In one of the conference rooms there are jobs posted all over the walls with butcher paper. It will have the country name, school name and the opening. You can go in that room whenever you want and check to see what’s open, what’s been filled, etc. The rest of the day Friday is spent going to 30 minute presentations on schools you’re interested in. It’s nice to have two of you because you can split up and cover more info. Friday night you go to a giant ballroom and sign up for interviews on Saturday/Sunday with the individual schools. It’s pretty intense, but hopefully by that time you have an idea on who you want to talk to so you can go straight to them. While all of this is going on, you have a “mailbox,” as does each school. Schools can contact you via your mailbox and ask to interview with them. You can reply to them via mailbox and also send them thank you’s after you interview. It’s oldschool but I can’t begin to explain the excitement when you open up your mailbox and see a letter waiting for you 🙂
Saturday you start your interviews. If you don’t have any you can spend your time researching schools, writing thank you’s, checking your mailbox, networking, etc. If you get a job offer, you have 24-48hrs to respond. It’s a very pressured situation and will require you to have your stuff figured out beforehand. If you’re lucky enough to get multiple job offers, it’s even harder. Saturday night you have a social. There is food, drinks and lots of networking opportuinities. People get job offers at the social. Don’t miss it.
A few insights and tips:
– Any IB experience will help you immensely. LOTS of PYP and MYP coordinator positions were open when we went.
– Kids can be hit or miss. Some really enjoy the family atmosphere. Others see it as an unneccessary expense.
– Work on your resumes. We re-designed ours so they would stand out and had multiple people identify us as “that couple with the resumes.” I’m positive it gave us a leg up on getting noticed.
– Do your research, do your research, do your research. It will prove to be invaluable.

In a nutshell, that’s what we went through while we were there. It was a maddening but worthwhile time, one I will gladly go through again should the need arise. I’ve probably left a good bit out that I can’t remember off-hand, so if you’ve got questions, please let us know 🙂