It takes all sorts of people to make the world go round. This I know. I also know which kinds of people I have to avoid to keep my sanity intact and which kinds I like to hang out with. I also know that every country has different kinds of people with different outlooks on life. Especially if you move to a country in the Gulf whereby 80% of the populations are made of expats.
But there are a few kinds of people I have met along my travels and expat stints that seem to be common. Although they may look, sound and act differently, essentially they have the same characteristics. With variety at its very core, Kuwait has a curious mix of expats, and there are certain types that stand out. Let’s have a not-so-serious look at them with the help of some Lego characters:
James has been living in Kuwait for the past 5-6 years. Therefore, you assume that James really enjoys the place because he has put down roots for a few years in this country. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
When you mention that you’d like to see Kuwait Towers, he proclaims it as rubbish. When you ask which beaches are for swimming, he says there aren’t any worthwhile beaches in Kuwait. Later you find out, he’s never been to a beach in Kuwait or Kuwait Towers.
James complains about every aspect of living in this country; from the poor parking skills of locals to the sun shining too brightly for his pale skin. When you mention anything positive like the amazing food you tried, he counteracts with a negative statement about how you can’t have a beer with your meal. Nothing is good enough in Kuwait for James and he frequently uses words like uncivilised, pathetic and stupid to describe the country he has called home for the past few years.
If you aren’t American or British, it’s not all too common to meet people from your country never mind from the same city as you. Which is why you’re so thrilled when you meet Helen. She arrived at the same time as you, lives near you and is from your hometown! With the ingredients for a perfect friendship in place, you are ready to be her bestie.
Until you start interacting with Helen and you realise that 90% of her conversations are about the country you both left behind. She speaks of it as a paradise and seems not to notice when you mention the high crime rate and paltry salaries. Her favourite topics are her family/boyfriend/friends back home and she doesn’t seem to be interested in meeting any other new people who aren’t from that same place.
When you invite her to go out, she usually declines saying she has to Skype with someone back home. If she does come, she is sulky and quiet thinking about the Skype she could’ve been having if she were at home. She has no interest in learning about a new culture or language because “What is the point? I just can’t wait to go back!” She can’t understand why you’ve booked a holiday to India when you could be flying home for Christmas.
Patricia loves meeting new people. She is friendly and warmly welcomes you to Kuwait. As you hang out with her, you realize that she is heaps of fun. But its hard to get hold of Patricia. She can’t hang out tonight because she’s attending the launch of a new beauty product, having a midnight barbecue with some people she just met yesterday and then playing Wii Sports with 15 of your other friends. You should go, but it’s 5 degrees outside and there’s a new episode of Scandal you want to download and you’re generally too lazy to do anything that involves more than 5 people outside of work.
Patricia is also the person to go to for contraband. Due to her wide circle of friends she knows people everywhere and can get you pork, alcohol and whatever else your heart desires. Patricia is single and living life to the max. She works hard and parties hard and, for her, life abroad is all about one thing; pleasure. She is most likely to be found at private parties, drinking copious amounts of alcohol out of a coke can and sharing stories of drunken debauchery. The only elements of the local language that she bothered to learn involves rude words and insults she throws at fellow expat party animals. Patricia certainly does enjoy life but there’s an inherent risk that she won’t remember much of her experiences overseas when she does eventually return home.
When you first met Trisha, your initial thought was, “How did this person even make it on to the plane?” She has no idea about any local customs or basic understanding of being an expat. When she asks you where you are from, she replies with, “Where is that?”.
Trisha is sweet but seems helpless. She hasn’t a clue how to buy a sim card, cook a meal or light a cigarette. This will inevitably lead her to finding a boyfriend within the first few weeks of her landing in the country. She will of course then proceed to proclaim him as the love of her life (until the next one comes along). You stopped inviting her out because she is always busy with said boyfriend or alternatively, always late. Trisha might use an Islamic prayer rug as a welcome mat by the front door and wears prayer beads, as decorative necklaces. She loves Kuwait (and Arabs) and enjoys having a variety of new experiences but doesn’t attempt to integrate.
Somehow, even early in the morning, she always looks like she has had a rough day. Trisha is the poster child for why you shouldn’t move abroad, purely for fear of turning into her.
Vincent is your go-to person. Where to get the cheapest classroom supplies? Ask Vincent. How to lease a car? Ask Vincent. He has been in Kuwait since before the Gulf War and knows exactly how the health care system works, can hold a conversation in Arabic and never needs Google Maps to guide him. He knows the city he is living in like the back of his hand, and he is a go-to source of information on the best places to eat, drink, and smoke shisha. Vincent has lived in various other countries before coming to Kuwait and considers being a foreigner his status quo. As a result he is very easy-going and nothing can really shock them – not high prices, not crazy travel stories. He has heard, seen and done it all before.
Vincent is usually the person who takes you under his wing for the first few weeks after you arrival, taking you to buy a sim card, showing you where the supermarket is and helping you exchange money. Although you guys may not become BFFs, you will always be grateful to him for sharing his wealth of knowledge with you.
You’ve been at work for a week or two. The initial excitement and general feeling of exhaustion is finally dissipating and you’re settling into your new job smoothly. One day you go to the cafeteria to buy a sandwich and someone bumps into you. Thinking its a student, you turn around to give them a mouthful on manners only to discover Leo…
For a second you’re confused; you stop breathing and you just stand there with your mouth open because Leo looks exactly like the husband you left back home! As he apologizes politely with a sublime accent, you stop staring at his defined cheekbones and finally close your open mouth. You manage to utter something that sounds distinctly Hungarian (a language you don’t speak) and scuttle off timidly, preparing to starve or borrow food from a colleague who takes pity on you. You also vow to avoid Leo for the foreseeable future but as the weeks roll on, you see him more than any other colleague at your school.
By now you are asking what kind of expat is Expat Panda? Well:
This is where I find myself. Sometimes I wear a bikini and sometimes I cover my hair. Sometimes I spend a lot of time in my apartment, blogging or skyping with Fox back home. I try to speak Arabic and use local hand gestures to insult bad drivers. So I’m a blend in.
Lonely yet eager to experience the personal growth of living in a new place. Embracing local culture yet unable to entirely shrug off my own. Eating as much fatayer as possible while also craving burgers. Watching Bollywood movies by day and listening to Arabic music at night.
The Chameleon loves where she came from and loves where she is now. But she realizes that for all the gains in embracing a new culture, she has also lost an intimate belonging in her home culture. For the chameleon, that’s okay, it’s all part of the adventure!
When you move abroad, keep your expectations real. Don’t imagine for a moment that because you’re there, and other expats are there, you’re all like-minded. Chances are, you’re not and you will gravitate toward those who don’t bring you down with negativity and homesickness. Although you may have to be civil to everyone, you don’t have to be everyone’s friend!