There are ton of blogs and advice columns telling you the best way to prepare yourself for life abroad. They tell you what to pack, the best way to find the parties and other expats, what to do in case of a language barrier, etc. What they don’t tell you, however, is that there are a lot of hidden struggles that are inevitable. While I am happy I took the leap and moved abroad I wish I had better known what to expect.
Just because you move to a Muslim country doesn’t mean being a Muslim will get any easier- Let’s be honest, I’m white, my name is Kendra, and I don’t wear a hijab to work in my female only school. No one suspects I am Muslim at all. So until they figure it out, a lot of my expat co-workers trash talk the religion to me expecting me to agree with them. “This religion is so stupid. I have to sneak alcohol isn’t that dumb? And I can’t go out with my boyfriend like who would follow such a stupid religion?”
I would follow such a religion. And when they find that out, they don’t really want to talk to me. Perfect example When I was still new here a co-worker invited me to an event under the notion that I wasn’t Muslim. As soon as she realized I was Muslim she basically gave me the ultimatum of taking my hijab off (not that eloquently though- she told me to ask my husband if I could take it off, as if its his decision) or not coming at all. Clearly I chose the latter.
I will never understand why people who hate Muslims and Islam come to Saudi Arabia.
Culture shock can work both ways– When I moved to Saudi Arabia, I KNEW I would be culture shocked. I came from a loud, fun, open society to a very quiet, conservative culture. The real culture shock came when I went back to my own country after being away for a long time.
Women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from driving, so I hadn’t driven since I moved. When I went back home and got behind the wheel of a car, I was so uncomfortable. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong, despite being a fully legal, licensed driver. After being in a very quiet, segregated culture where women wear black abayas daily I felt so overstimulated when I returned home. It really started to drive me crazy when I heard music being played everywhere, restaurants, malls, even the grocery store. After a while I got adjusted again, but the first week was rough.
It’s a lonely life- Most expats move to a foreign country knowing no one. And just because there are new people around out it doesn’t mean that you are going to hit it off with those people. These people come from all around the world and have a different set of customs and traditions than you do. And even if there is someone else from your country, it doesn’t mean that you will connect with them.
The Saudi culture is extra difficult, because it is so family based, and families spend a lot of time together. But the problem is your family is halfway across the world, so you can’t spend time with them, leaving you feeling even more isolated and alone. I had a friend in Qassim that invited me to her family events, and while I really appreciate her kindness, it’s isolating in it’s own right. I’m still an outsider, and the language barrier and cultural differences just reinforced that.
Oh, and word of advice- stay off your Facebook timeline during the holidays. It’s for your own good.
You don’t fit in anymore- You are so exited to take a long-awaited trip back home, only to realize upon returning that it isn’t what it used to be. Your friends have adapted to a life without you, and inevitably have changed. You yourself have changed- how can you not, after undertaking such an experience and seeing so any new worldviews and cultures? You aren’t the same person you were when you left, and it really impacts your place in your hometown. Even the conversation you make with your friends is likely to be different from it was before you moved, since your routines and experiences have changed so much. Not saying you need to end the friendship you have, but you need to make them grow and evolve with you.
You’ll cherish things that remind you of home- The other day I walked by a bed of flowers that were surprisingly fragrant. I had to stop for a moment to take it all in. They really made my day brighter. My own country is green and beautiful, and I never even would have been excited about something as small as flowers. But now that I am living in a desert I really appreciate every piece of green I see. Even though the parks here aren’t that nice, I really love going just because it makes me feel a bit more like home.
Another thing you really start to cherish is food from your home country, even if you weren’t particularity fond of it in your own country. I never eat at Chili’s in USA, but now I find myself suggesting to my husband that we go there all the time. Anytime I see imported American food in the supermarket, I suddenly take a craving for all of it. Anything that reminds you of home becomes comforting, even the foods that you once dreaded eating.
Don’t get me wrong, I am so glad I moved to KSA. It has been one of the best decisions of my entire life. It helped me jump-start my career. It is where I met my husband. There are so many more positives than negatives in the long run, but it doesn’t necessarily make things easier. You will never stop missing home, but you will continue to grow and see the world through a new perspective in the process.