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!