I lived and worked in southern China for a little less than a year. During the 2003-2004 school year, I wrote a lengthy blog post nearly every day. Posts were about funny incidents with staff or students, delicious or exotic foods I’d tried, new discoveries of self, encountering the otherness of a foreign culture, etc, etc. It was incredibly cathartic to write, but also a great way to stay connected with friends and family back home.
Fast forward twelve years, when I decided to start a new blog to chronicle my experiences in a new culture: Doha, Qatar. And yet, after three months, I was struggling to describe my every day life here. I think there are several reasons for this. The first reason is that technology has changed. At the time, my little blog in China would not be easily accessible to anyone, and I was fairly confident that none of my students or their parents would ever see my writings. It all felt incredibly anonymous. Also, there was no such thing as Facebook (or even Myspace for that matter!), so email was really my only way to connect with people back home. Now people can get (and perhaps prefer) brief clips of news from Doha in a Facebook post, rather than reading a lengthy blog post.
I find my second reason hard to explain to people who have never been to Doha. First, let me share some facts: this country has developed quickly in the past 30-40 years, partly due to the number of expats coming to work in almost every industry you could name. There are large percentages of Indian, Filipino, North African, and British or American expats, and taken together they significantly outnumber native Qatari citizens. What this looks like in reality: the expats have carved out lives that look somewhat like the ones they had “back home,” and the Qatari people keep to themselves in an attempt to hold on to their unique culture. My life here feels strangely like my life in the States, except for unexpected moments when I realize I live in a foreign culture (i.e., standing in line at Starbucks behind a man dressed in a thobe). I must behave as a guest who respects the country’s laws and customs but often times, and especially at my American school, it is easy to forget I am not in the US. I speak English all day, eat American foods in the cafeteria, and use American programs and curriculum for students.
This is not to say that I am unwilling to learn about Qatari culture; in fact, the opposite is true. I have gone to every event or cultural site I become aware of in an attempt to gain a better understanding: the Museum of Islamic Art, the Souq Waqif (the market), Fort Zubara, the Falcon Souq. I hear that you can attend events at the cultural center that I’d like to attend. Yet, I don’t know of any restaurants serving Qatari foods, I know very few Qatari people (and certainly not well), and it’s been difficult to find any books about the culture. In other words, living here doesn’t necessarily mean being immersed in the local culture.
So when you, my friends and family, ask about cultural experiences or even my typical day, I’m rather at a loss for the type of stories I used to share when I was in China. My typical day involves working at an American-style school (with admittedly a fascinating, diverse population of students and staff), going home to a spacious American-style apartment, grocery shopping for mostly American foods, and watching American TV, seeing American movies, or hanging out with my American (and some odd Canadian) friends. I can attend a Christian church freely. Most of the waiters and cleaners and taxi cab drivers are from other countries. Driving here is crazy, not because of Qatari laws, but because there are literally millions of drivers from all over the world driving the way they are used to from their old country. You must always be alert for some nutty person taking a right from the far left lane and such. Like I said, life here is not often coming into contact with the local culture, but a hybrid of many different cultures… sort of what is meant by “third culture” (See Third Culture Kids by Pollock and Van Reken).
One of the things I am grateful for is the overwhelming confrontation of my idealistic self with my selfish, privileged American self. Over and over, I have had to examine my motives and my biases, my desire to have things the way I am used to, the shocking realization that so many living around me are just struggling to survive. I find myself thankful for what I have, but also feeling guilty for the very same thing. Dynamics of wealth and power and privilege confront me daily, and I hope it will make me all the better for it… but I also don’t know exactly what that would look like. And I know that balance is necessary: I need to lighten up and have some fun every once in awhile, too.
When you ask me to describe Doha, all I can say to you is, “It’s complicated.” Feel free to ask more questions; I welcome the chance to better express what it was like to live in Doha!
In the months since I made the decision to move to Qatar as a school counselor, I have had many diverse reactions. They range from excitement to concern to complete disinterest, but there have been a few common questions that pop up repeatedly. So I thought I'd share a few of the questions I commonly receive, and an answer to each. Feel free to ask more in the comments below!
1. Where is Qatar? Is Dubai the capital city?
2. Why are you moving there?
The short answer to this is that I was offered a job at a fantastic school for expat children. The more complicated answer involves having the opportunity to work with students living overseas (I was an Army "brat" who experienced numerous transitions myself), being able to travel and live overseas again, expanding my professional knowledge by working with other wonderful counselors, and some great benefits! As I have been preparing for this move, I have also discovered a side bonus: I will have the chance to learn and understand more about Arabic and Muslim cultures and traditions… including the indulgence of delicious food and drinks!
3. Will you be teaching or counseling? With students from Qatar or other countries?
4. Is it safe? Are you worried about issues in the surrounding countries?
This might be the most common question I am asked. It is true that there are many struggles and even war in countries near Qatar; I am well aware of the current events. However, there is no reason to believe that Qatar will be involved. There is currently no evidence of political concerns in the country, even according to the US government. There is a U.S. military base and embassy in Doha. In fact, counselors and staff claim that they have felt safe living there, and very little crime is reported. Of course, all thoughts and prayers are welcome!
5. Isn't it hot there? Will you wear a burqa?
6. Where will you live? Is there a compound?
The school will provide a furnished, three bedroom apartment. It will be ready and waiting for me upon my arrival, and they have promised a starter set with needed items like dishes and sheets! All staff are provided with housing in various places around the city, but the school is currently building one place in which all staff will reside. I hear it will be ready in December 2014, and will be set up quite nicely with many amenities! We are not confined to the campus, and can travel freely around the city. I'll post pictures of my place when I get there!
7. How will you get around?
Expats can apply to obtain a driver's license before renting or purchasing a car. Driving in Doha is supposed to be quite… active… and I am frankly a little nervous about it! Public transportation, walking, and biking are limited. I plan to hire a driver if it is at all affordable, or at least until I can find my way around (after all, Doha does not have street names or building numbers. Getting directions sounds a lot like, "Take a right at the Burger King roundabout, then take a left after the National Bank."). I'm decent with directions and finding my way around, but… this will be an adventure.
8. What is daily life like? What will you eat?
My understanding from other expats is that life is quite similar to Western culture in many ways. There is a typical commute to and from school, a regular work day, shopping for food at grocery stores like Carrefour, and the every day activities of life (i.e., socializing, dinners, movies, etc). There are restaurants serving- and grocery stores offering- every type of food imaginable, and even malls with stores that are familiar to you, like Gap and Nine West. One interesting fact: weekends are different from those in the US; I will be off on Fridays and Saturdays!
9. Do you speak Arabic?
I don't speak Arabic, though I hope to learn enough to show respect to Qatari people I meet! I have flashcards that help me to practice the letters and a few basic words, but I will need a lot more practice. Most signs are in both Arabic and English, and I understand that many people speak both in common areas such as shops and restaurants. Still, it is my hope that I can speak basic phrases within the first few weeks.
10. Will you be blogging about your travels?
Of course! I have switched to a different platform, but you can still connect with it from this address. The new travel blog is called wonder.wander.write! I hope to hear feedback and comments from you all… keep it coming!
Additional questions are welcome in the comment field below.
I created a separate page on the site to gather information about Life in Doha. It is geared toward students, in case children would like to follow along and learn more about Qatar. Of course, I hope it will be informative to friends and family, as well.
So far, there are sections about:
What topics would you like to see? Please comment below!