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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

A woman from New Zealand accepted a job in a hospital in Riyadh. Although the hospital and job was English-speaking, she enrolled in Arabic classes at a university. She found the culture and treatment of women extremely challenge at times, but knew what she was getting into when she accepted the job.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Riyadh

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

The hospital I was employed with gives a session during orientation. This includes an overview of the religion and a brief look at the forbidden practices for women.

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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 do not speak Arabic however the language of the hospital is English. As an educator my 'clients' are all English speakers so my need for Arabic is minimal. I did however go to a women's university to learn Arabic for one semester. Unfortunately I had very little need to use it so my Arabic is very rudimentary and limited to greetings and directions.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

I held the belief that I had lived in many countries and therefore I would find a way to live in Saudi. This proved to be the truth. Once one knows the limitation for women it is an amazing experience although very confronting to my christian upbringing in many ways.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

No too bad. Some of the customs are surprising and I found out about them in challenging situations. But that makes for the overall excitiment of learning to live in a very different culture.

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?

I certainly went through culture shock stages - but none of it was enough to overwhelm me.

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.

I did not like being told what to wear by some random bossy male. On a couple of occasions I have refused to comply with the mutawa yelling at me to cover my hair and I just got angry. But usually I just comply knowing it is their culture and I knew this before I took the job.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The differences between the NZ culture and the Saudi culture could hardly be more extreme. I liked the ability to see around the country and learn more about how women live and learn.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Not being able to drive and having to rely on a husband or pay for taxis the whole time. This has the result of completely removing any sponteneity from your day.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Perhaps the funniest episode was when I heard prayer call for the first time. I seriously thought I was listening to the loud speaker from horse races in the distance and I foolishly stated that out loud. Those around me doubled up with laughter. I felt very foolish!

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Hang in there and go with the flow. Eventually it becomes your new norm and a new life can be built.

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