Soon I will be entering my third month here in Kuwait (I know, it feels I have been here FOREVER). It’s been an interesting journey so far but it has had its fair share of um… challenges. Last month I was SO honoured to have been asked to become a contributing writer for the popular website, expatwoman.com. My first article was entitled, 5 things I wish I knew before I came to Kuwait. It was a positive and upbeat article which sparked a lot of debate and controversy on social media. This post is going to be a bit… different.
Now, this is not going to be one of those complaining posts (Hopefully!). I love my life and am so grateful for the many opportunities that my life in Kuwait affords me. I would not change a thing that I have done and I certainly do not regret moving here. I’m also a positive person by nature. Some say I am overly optimistic… So writing about the downsides of anything feels like I’m being a Debbie Downer. Not the effect I was going for!
People always think of the Middle East as some sort of oasis-away-from-reality where people make heaps of money and live happily ever after as they watch the sun set over the desert. Well, I admittedly do sometimes watch the sunset and life is generally worry-free… (Told you I’d find this hard to write!) but it isn’t always true. Living as an expat in any country has its challenges and it’s all about what you can handle and how you can adapt. As I approach my third month here, I have written about three of my experiences that help me understand why Kuwait is on the “Worst country for expats” list as published in April 2016.
The bureaucracy and paperwork
Back in Africa, I never really expected much in terms of efficiency when dealing with government departments. From the barely understandable office workers who chewed bubblegum loudly while they adjusted their fake hair, it was a miracle that I ever received a passport or a salary when I worked for the state. But then I came to Kuwait.
Things take absolute ages here and no one thinks to inform you why. For example, I have been without my passport for THREE MONTHS as the school needs them to process our ID cards and work visas. The Human Resources manager at my school always seems surprised when one of the new teachers asks for an update on the situation…
Her: But habibti, why are you worried? This is how things are in Kuwait.
Me: Um… it’s my passport habibti! Of course I am worried!
Hand in hand with that is the bank account situation. I have received three salaries as cheques. Which mean I have had to go to the bank and cash them and keep all of the cash. The first month was a novelty and I sent pictures of my cash spread out on the coffee table to envious family members. However, I soon grew weary when I realized that I couldn’t send money back to SA or buy anything online. When asked when I could open a bank account, the HR lady said not to worry and that the school would do it for us. Fair enough, after a month and a half of work, the bank came to school and we signed a heap of papers. They assured us we would have our bank accounts soon, INSHALLAH. I’m still waiting.
With no decent public transportation system available, I want to be able to drive in Kuwait but of course I can’t. Kuwait requires expats to apply for and do a Kuwaiti driver’s test. Seems annoying but ok, no problem. However, can I start the process without an ID card? Nope.
My husband and I were trying to arrange for him to visit me in December… until we learnt that for a South African to get a Kuwaiti visitor’s visa, the traveler needed to be sponsored by someone residing in Kuwait. Great- no problem- he is my husband and I will happily sponsor him. But can I do that without a passport and ID card? Nope. The hardest thing was telling him that I couldn’t do anything about it and that he couldn’t come in December.
Between the Ministries, the administration department of the school and the general effort of getting anything done, it’s a real struggle to feel at home here with no ID number, passport, driver’s license or even medical insurance.
Us and them.
When I lived in South Korea, Koreans were the warmest people and tried everything to make sure that we had a great time in their country. From the people I worked with at school to random Koreans who would stop me in the street to touch my hair (!!), I always felt a bit like royalty there. I didn’t expect the same treatment in the Middle East but I wasn’t prepared for the clear division in society between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis. Sure they are polite to their child’s teacher but beyond civilities, there is nothing friendly. Kuwait actually goes out of its way to keep people out of the country with its stringent visa requirements, lack of tourist attractions and general unfriendliness. For example, a Kuwaiti woman decided she would just slip in front of me in the queue at the till when I was shopping at Zara. Uh… hello? I’ve been standing here for ten minutes. Retail staff are usually good at handling these situations and the guys at the counter speedily opened a new till to serve me. But it’s the principle of it you know?
There is a whole further hierarchy in Kuwait that dictates how expats are treated based on where you are from but I won’t go into that in too much detail since I am still figuring it out. It’s just weird to have very little contact with the local people in a country that I am staying in other than the attitude of ‘you work for us’.
From hot to cold
When I arrived, it was a scorching 45 degrees Celsius. Now it’s around 14 degrees Celsius. Yes the temperature fluctuates drastically and I was naive to expect heat all year round. December temperatures look set to drop way below ten degrees and I am so NOT looking forward to that. I am sure I am not the only person who gets sad during winter, especially since I am used to tropical heat. Kuwait in general isn’t the most exciting place to be. However, Kuwait in winter, without the endless opportunities for dining outside, pool parties, beach visits and barbecues, seems downright depressing.
On the plus side, now that the sun set is early, I am home to catch these some gorgeous views from my building as we approach winter:
When I first arrived in Kuwait, I was able to bond well with some like-minded coworkers, which made it extremely easy to make friends. My weekends were busy with activities and my phone was always full of messages from friends back home eagerly asking about my new adventure. Sounds perfect, right? And it is. However, after awhile, the initial buzz of my new home began to slowly fade and things that were once exotic and foreign became commonplace.
Living abroad again is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but no blog or guide book could have prepared me for some of the irritations that come with a move to the Middle East. While being an expat is as romantic and exciting as one can imagine, it can often be filled with bouts of frustration. No matter how long you have studied a foreign language or prepared for a life abroad, you’ll have at least some difficulties adjusting to the culture of a new country. Part of the experience is overcoming these challenges and surrounding yourself with new ideas and new ways of life.