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.