I finished my third year in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia a few years ago and it was quite a trip. I started out at a very stressful vocational school and finished at a much nicer, well-established university. I had a lot of preconceived ideas about what my time in Saudi Arabia would be like, and I have to tell you, it’s nothing like what I thought it would be. Here are just a few of my personal experiences:
Expectation #1: I’m only going to do one year.
This is something I heard a lot from others and also believed about myself. But once I arrived there and started making good friends (and good money), it became harder and harder to leave! I have friends who said they’d do one year and are now on their 5th!
Expectation #2: I’m going to be very uncomfortable the whole time.
I thought I would be living in tough conditions under strict Shariah law, but it wasn’t like that at all. On the contrary, I was quite comfortable and ended up being more social and active than I was in the United States. Sure I couldn’t drive and I had to wear an abaaya everywhere I went, but it was pretty easy to get used to those minor inconveniences when it came to all the perks that come with working in Saudi (healthcare, salary, vacation). The expat community is so embracing, and it was very easy to find people who wanted to have a good time. I also befriended a wonderful Saudi family (a former student’s family who I had taught in the U.S.) who frequently treated me to lavish dinners and fun excursions.
Expectation #3: I’m going to feel like I’m in constant danger.
Everybody goes on and on about how dangerous the Middle East is, and I can understand why. We’re constantly bombarded with frightening images in the media, but my experience was quite different. I actually felt a lot safer there than I ever did here in the States. Now, of course, there are real risks anywhere you go, and it’s important to do your research ahead of time and take necessary precautions. But after living in Saudi Arabia and visiting several other Middle Eastern countries, I can tell you from personal experience, the world isn’t nearly as frightening as the news makes it out to be. It just goes to show, you can’t believe everything you see on TV.
Expectation #4: I’m totally going to get fluent in Arabic.
I’m passionate about language, not only teaching, but also learning. I studied Spanish for years and I thought in the time I spent in Saudi Arabia I would surely be fluent in Arabic by the time I came home. I was sadly mistaken. Even with the numerous books, Rosetta Stone, online resources, and Arabic tutor, I’m still only a mid-intermediate level (though my Arab friends tell me I’m higher). Part of the problem is the expats are not immersed in the culture. We’re completely separated out. And I couldn’t practice speaking Arabic with my students in the classroom. But I did my best and I’m continuing my studies even now here in the States.
Expectation #5: I’m going to be miserable as a woman in the Middle East
The question I get the most from friends here in the States is, “Weren’t you scared being a woman over there?” I can understand why they’d think this. Saudi Arabia is not exactly a picture for women’s rights. However, being a Western woman in Saudi Arabia has its perks. For instance, I rarely encountered disrespect, catcalling, or other forms of harassment while I was in Saudi (things I have to deal with frequently in the United States.) I actually got pretty comfortable with the “princess treatment” as well; not having to drive, having doors held open for me, and always being welcomed and treated like a lady. Now, it’s important to note that my experience as a western woman might be different from women from other countries. And don’t get me wrong, I would choose my freedom over the “princess treatment” any day, but was I uncomfortable being a woman in Saudi Arabia? Not at all. In fact, I hope someday to go back and visit all the wonderful people I left behind.