Expat Advice: Culture Shock in
Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia
What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?
Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?
No none whatsoever! I did however try and read as many books as I could on the subject but it was rather limited to stories written by a Saudi Princess living behind the walls of the House of Saud.
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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?
I learned the language after I got to Saudi after I befriended a lot of people from Syria. So when I speak Arabic nowadays it is often from the Syrian dialect.
Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?
I had read about the Muttawa (religious police), the strict laws about wearing the Abbaya and woman covering their hair. Although this is compulsory in some parts of Saudia it is not in others like Khobar.
How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?
It was very hard at first as in New Zealand I could wear what I liked and did what I liked. In Saudia I had to be a wee bit more conservative in my dress (even though I am usually dress smart casual anyway) I still needed to be careful of how much flesh I exposed. I also had to be mindful of prayer times because whenever the call to prayer comes around, shops would all shut up pretty quickly ten or so minutes before so I had to learn to shop around the times that it wasn't prayer time and that took a bit of time to get into that routine. Usually the paper would have these times printed in there.
Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?
Yes I did, I often missed the little things from home, even things like foodstuffs and just hearing about stories from home. The only news stories I watched about NZ whilst I were there were about Shrek the sheep being shorn and a local member of parliment driving up the parliment steps in a tractor! Fortunately the Internet was avaliable but even then some pages were restricted or band or the service we had in the apartment was very very slow despite the fact it was supposed to be cable. I also got angry too (see below) as sometimes it took forever for apartment staff to do anything and that tested my patience, something that I was used to having a lot of before I left. I often got lonely because where I was, there were very few woman around.
What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.
In my apartment building there were very few woman that lived there which made it very hard for me to actually get out and about at first. I felt rather locked away because of this and in the beginning I was ready to throw it in. By after awhile I actually got to know people and realised that if I was to enjoy this place I needed to get out which I did and met another woman but she was very different to me in so many ways but because she was female I made a point of making her a friend. I also found that my level of patience wasn't as good while I was there as staff would often take forever to do things for you if you needed anything fixed in your apartment. The word 'inshallah' (if God wills it) started to grate on me over time and I used to grow tired of just waiting for things. Yet if they wanted anything done, they would expect it done immediately so that got to me a bit.
What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?
I loved the fact that these people had a lot of time for me, if I liked something they would give it to me and I was often treated like royalty a lot too as I was the only woman who worked amongst the men. I was treated with a lot of respect and also I found that these people were great hosts. The owner of my apartment building and I became good friends and he would often get his manservant to bring me up a plate of every dish he would serve down in his Ramadan tent over Ramadan just so I didn't miss out as I could not enter his enter tent because it was a male only event. But like a good host, I was given a lot of respect by the males in the Kingdom and I will never forget that. It was their kindness and appreciation for me as a westerner that made them do this and I was rather sad when I left because of this.
What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?
Juggling your life around no entertainment and prayer times. Life can be rather boring in Saudia in many respects and that is where board games and things done back in the good old days are known here. Dinner parties with other expats was often good as you could mix and mingle with others- without alcohol of course. It was a quiet life there and sometimes I went across the boarder to Bahrain just to see a movie or to not wear my abbaya, but I felt safe there too which was good.
Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!
I did but I would prefer to keep that confidental ;-)
Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?
The best thing is to go with an open mind and not expect too much. I also would read up as much as you can about the country and talk to others who have been there about it first too. Always read your contract thoroughly before you sign on the dotted line and make sure you know a little bit of the language too as it certainly helps. I also think the other thing is to enjoy yourself and remind yourself why you are there, sometimes people get too settled there and I knew one or two that would show off their latest whatever and expected I would too just because we were earning good money. I am not the type to keep up with the Jones' person but there are a few out there that just blow their income on things that they wouldn't usually back home. A ton of patience helps being out here too.
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