My co-worker, Denise, recently left the US to work as a English teacher in Saudi Arabia. Naturally I was curious about how she was settling in, so I sent her a few questions on how she’s adjusting to life there and about her experiences thus far. Enjoy!
When did you first become interested in teaching English abroad?
I first became interested in teaching abroad in late January 2014. I was out to dinner with some friends and at the time I was dealing with a general dissatisfaction with life. My job no longer held my interest, I wasn’t feeling like my life was progressing toward any singular goal, and though I was knee deep in a Master’s program I didn’t feel like I was really accomplishing anything. After explaining my “dire” emotional circumstances a friend asked if I’d ever considered teaching overseas. I’m a military brat and I have always loved to travel. We talked about it for awhile and I remember walking away from the dinner with hope. Hope that I didn’t have beforehand. The next morning my friend sent me information on teaching abroad and that very day I picked a program and set up a meeting to speak to an adviser. The rest is history.
What made you choose Saudi Arabia?
Choosing Saudi Arabia was totally because I wanted to travel and see the world but I also wanted to make the most money possible. Asia and the Middle East are the most lucrative regions for this type of work. As I prayed about where to go I felt like the Middle East was the area I should concentrate my job search. Originally I was thinking Dubai or Abu Dhabi. My adviser suggested I apply to Saudi Arabia as well and so I did. Even though I was not sold on the idea at first. However, I applied all over and my prayer was for God to open the right door. The job I currently have in Saudi was the only door that opened.
How did you prepare for your trip?
Preparing for my trip was tricky. The school doesn’t tell you exactly where you are going because, depending on how long it takes for you to get a visa (and the visa process is very long and detailed) they want the freedom to place you where there is a need. So, beyond reading about the history and culture of Saudi and browsing online blogs of expats living in the Kingdom (Saudi Arabia is formally known as The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) there was really not much I could do to prepare since I didn’t know exactly where I would be in Saudi.
What was the first thing you wanted to see once you arrived in country?
Honestly, the first thing I wanted to see in Saudi was the city where the school would place me. I ended up in Ha’il, which is a beautiful, mountainous region in the north. Here during the winter months it gets down to the 30s and 40s. There was even a snow flurry a few days back!
Most interesting cultural difference between your new home and the US?
The most interesting cultural difference I have experienced so far between my new home and the United States is that here in Saudi it is nearly impossible to be an independent single woman. As a 35 year old unmarried woman living in the most conservative Muslim country on the planet it is quite an adjustment. Women can’t drive in Saudi. In the states I was able to go where I wanted when I wanted, but here I have to call a driver and make sure my errand doesn’t conflict with prayer times (five set times throughout the day where all businesses close for about 20-45 minutes for prayer). Also, there is no real dating scene here because in the Muslim culture the notion of boyfriend/girlfriend relationships is considered “haram” or a sin. If I was raised in this culture I would live at home until I got married. I would always be accompanied in public by a male of my household- father, husband, or brother, and I would never live alone as a single woman. I don’t feel like my rights are taken away, even though I can’t drive (the way men drive here is so horrible, it makes me grateful to have a driver). What I feel is that there is an extraordinary sense of community. It has been difficult to let go of my “independent woman” attitude but it’s nice to live in a different society where there’s not so much emphasis on basically being alone.
What is your favorite thing about your new home?
My favorite thing about my new home is that the days seem so much longer here. The atmosphere is very relaxed. People aren’t always in a hurry and the days feel like they are much longer than the days in the West. I get so much more accomplished here than I did back home and I’m glad of it.
Any new experiences you’d like to share?
One new experience I would like to share is my new dress code. I live on a compound. On the compound I can where what I want and walk around outside without being bothered. Outside of the compound or the school women have to be in a full abaya with a headscarf and a niquab. An abaya is a garment women where over their clothes in public. It is long with long sleeves and it is typically black. It comes with a head scarf that is to cover your hair, ears, and neck. A niquab (pronounced nick-cob) is a piece of cloth that covers your forehead and your nose and mouth. In most places in Saudi an abaya and headscarf are the typical public dress of women. In Ha’il, there is a more conservative Muslim population and the women where niquabs as well. My favorite experience was the first week I arrived, I knew I would need an abaya and a scarf so I had that but I didn’t have a niquab. I went out to the mall and everyone stared. Little kids pointed and stared and alerted their parents that a woman was bare-faced in public. It was crazy. No one was rude, they have a little more grace for expats, but the looks got a bit uncomfortable after awhile.
Have you tried any new dishes native to Saudi Arabia and if so do you a favorite you’d like to share about?
My favorite new Saudi dish is kabsa. I’m not even sure I’m spelling it right because it’s always written in Arabic and I just point at the picture to order. Kabsa is a fluffy,long grain rice with vegetables and spices and it’s usually served with about half a grilled chicken on top. You can share it with friends or have it for lunch and dinner for a week. Plus, the cost of eating out in Saudi is very cheap compared to prices in the States.
Any tips for those thinking about teaching abroad?
The only tip I would give someone thinking of teaching abroad is to have no expectations. In teaching abroad, as in life, the most difficult part of adjusting to your reality is reconciling what is really happening with what you think should happen. Just lose every expectation of what your experience should be like. Be ready and willing to go with the flow at every turn and constantly remind yourself that this is an adventure.
Where do you plan to go next?
I’m not sure where I plan to go next. Ha’il is a great city and the work and pay are very good. Here we are able to save a lot of money and because of our location travel is pretty reasonable. I may work here for a few years and travel abroad to other places during holidays. But, who knows? This is the adventure of a lifetime for me so the next step could be anything. I’m open.
Thanks so much for sharing, Denise!