To build a new existence far away from everything you know and believe in is the most powerful feeling in the world. People who have moved abroad are nodding their heads in agreement as they read this. They will tell you that traveling has broadened their horizons, made them more open-minded and has shown them what truly matters in life. What they won’t tell you is it’s also the loneliest, most alienating and most guilt-ridden thing they have ever done. In expat land, fairy tales don’t exist.
Welcome to part 1 in a series of posts outlining the realities of living in Kuwait. The most common questions I receive are: “What’s it like?” and also “How did you manage when you first landed?”. Through these posts I hope to address some of those and other questions. I also receive outlandish requests from people hoping I can find them a job or expecting me to buy them things and send it to them. My responses to those will most certainly be covered in upcoming posts too! I also have an earlier post covering other details about living in Kuwait from safety to dressing which can be found here.
Let’s start with question one. What will it be like when you first land? Although different companies have different policies (and I can only write from my experience and other teachers that I know), no matter what industry you are in, the worries are all pretty much the same.
So you’ve made the big leap to move to Kuwait. You’ve peered through the plane window (seen nothing noteworthy except miles of brown desert), disembarked from the plane and you don’t know what to expect.
You’ve signed a contract with a school in Kuwait and now you’re lying in bed pondering what it will be like especially when you first land. The wondering is keeping you awake at night imagining scenarios like:
-What if there is no one there to meet me at the airport?
-What if everything is in Arabic and I can’t read any signs?
-Will I faint upon feeling 50 degree heat?
– WHAT IF I AM A VICTIM OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING?
Okay so the last one may be a bit of an exaggeration. But yes, its normal to feel trepidation about the thought of leaving behind everything you know and love and relocating to a strange little country no one has heard of before. Although every teacher I know has had different experiences based on their school, a few things are common.
Will someone meet me at the airport?
YES. If the school has booked your ticket or even if they’ve asked you to book it, they need to know when you will enter the country so they can send someone to meet you. You will be met after exiting the plane NOT after passing through immigration or collecting your luggage by an agent. Your passport and NOC (Certificate of No Objection) will be taken from you by the agent and she/he will take you through the diplomatic passports queue at immigration (unless you are here on a visit visa in which case you need to ask yourself why you accepted this position). All you will need to do is follow meekly. This is a very common service offered in Kuwait (due to their absurd visa restriction laws). The agent will return your documents once your passport is stamped, wait for you to collect your luggage and will take you outside to your organised transport.
Your school should not expect you to make your own way to your accommodation unless they have specifically asked you to take a taxi prior to you departing your home country. In which case you should ask them for the address in English and Arabic as well as a contact number in case the driver gets lost. Print it and have it on hand. Make sure you have the building name, street number, block number and name of the area for e.g. Seaview Towers, Street 10, Block 5, Salmiya.
Before you get on your plane its good to have the contact numbers of some people in Kuwait at your school such as your head of department, principal, another teacher or school HR officer (or someone similar). If there is some problem, like no one coming to meet you, then someone at the airport will be able to assist you in calling them. Oh and don’t stress about the language barrier… everything is in English and most of the people working at the airport aren’t Arabic speakers anyway. You will see what I mean.
Some of the more exclusive private schools in Kuwait fly their teachers to one central airport, have a principal meet all the teachers there and then they all fly to Kuwait together. Lucky you if you are fortunate to land such a deal!
2. What happens after I leave the airport?
Typically, you will get taken to your accommodation. Again, if you are lucky, the person who takes you there will be a person who works at your school and is fluent in a language you understand. If you are unlucky (like me), it will be a Bangladeshi driver who fetches you in a bright red jeep and speaks NO English. Great. Thankfully there was air-conditioning in the vehicle because once I figured out, no there was no FIRE nearby- that’s just the weather in September, I needed it.
When you get to your apartment, you should have someone from your school waiting to welcome you to the building. Of course, I didn’t. The driver just deposited me at the building and the building manager (who happened to be walking by when I arrived and spoke very little English) took pity on me and showed me to my apartment. At least they had put some food items in the fridge for me.
A risky move but if you have no other option, you can always knock on the door of your neighbour. Chances are, they’re a teacher at your school too and can help orientate you. Worst case scenario, the school doesn’t own your building and the person who lives next door speaks no English and isn’t a teacher. In which case I recommend trying the next step.
3. I am alone in my apartment. What next?
Unless its a crazy hour of the night, I would say that this is the time to take a walk around your neighbourhood and find a cellphone store. There are small cellphone shops all over every corner of Kuwait. Don’t worry about the language barrier, you will be okay. Just try not to get lost. Take your passport along and you can easily purchase a sim card to load data and mobile credit. That way you can let your mother know that you are alive and also, using the phone number you should’ve obtained prior to arrival, call someone at your school who can assist in orientating you.
In a good situation, the school will be aware of your arrival and have someone to welcome you either at the airport or at your apartment. That person should show you where your nearest supermarket is, how to buy a sim card and tell how to get to school. But as I found out, sometimes you are left to fend for yourself and although it seems daunting, it really isn’t that difficult… just takes some courage.
Some people may hate me for saying this but first impressions do matter. In my opinion, the way the school welcomes you into the country says a lot about the quality of school you are going to teach at. A good school will prioritize a teachers’ arrival and do everything that they can to make your arrival into the country as smooth as possible. A less than great school will leave you to fend for yourself!
When I was leaving South Africa to head to South Korea, I was full of doubts and fears: ‘Was this a good idea?’, ‘What if…?’ I asked myself. A part of me wanted to turn around and go back to the safety of my parents’ home and never, ever go anywhere again.
Fast forward a few years and I was on my way to Kuwait. Before I boarded my flight I had gone through many sleepless nights. I asked myself the same questions: ‘Was this a good idea?’, ‘What if…?’ The uncertainty was killing me.
As you can see, I am fine and well. Nothing bad has happened to me! I conquered my fears and became even more resilient to change. However your first introduction to a country is, you will survive and adjust. Although you will have bouts of loneliness, the first few weeks will be busy and before you know it, you will be saying the word “home” and meaning your new country, not the one you came from!
Let me know what it was like for you when you first arrived in your host country!