When trying to explain what Kuwait is like to people back home, it’s like trying to tell somebody about a piece of art you’ve seen in a museum by painting it for them yourself, right there on the spot. I get overwhelmed trying to describe this place because it’s complex, yet formulaic. I both know that I have been to places that are far better than Kuwait and that this is where I belong for now regardless. I sealed the deal by signing an 18 month contract for wifi service yesterday. That and telling my school I would be back for the 2014-2015 school year. I highly doubt that I will stay beyond 2015; after all, by then I will have been here for three years.
What is it about this place that keeps me here? And what is it about this place that pushes people away?
I started thinking about those questions today when on a standard taxi ride back to my apartment. Generally, I do not enjoy conversing with taxi drivers. The same, innocent-enough questions they ask (“Where are you from?” “What do you do in Kuwait?”) have often lead to the more uncomfortable personal questions that I don’t believe a stranger who is driving me for ten minutes is privy to (“Are you married?” “Why do you live alone?” “What’s your religion?” “Can I have your number?”). Last year, one of my friends and I used to enjoy inventing a new story each time we were in a taxi together.
“Where are you from?”
“Are you married?”
Yes, to a Kuwaiti.
“What do you do here?”
I’m in real estate.
“Do you have kids?”
Yes, there’s Abdullah (4 years old) and Fatima (2). Boy do they keep me busy!
You get the idea. Today, however, when my taxi driver started chatting with me, I was just Tricia. Well, the fluent in bad English Tricia. (Note: living here, you get used to speaking this quasi-English. It’s a bridge for people who speak very little English. Often it comes with an Indian accent. Every now and then, when I’m speaking it, I think of how awful it would be if people back home heard me speaking it.)
“Where are you coming from?”
We enjoyed a comfortable pause. I could see that he wasn’t going to grill me with questions. Without me asking, he said, “I’m from Pakistan.” He had taught himself English. He couldn’t read or write, but had picked up the spoken language. In our fifteen minute taxi ride, I found out that my chauffeur had been living in Kuwait for twenty years and figured he would have to put in about ten more years of service before he would be able to go home and be with his wife and kids. What he made in Kuwait was sent Western Union each month to Pakistan to support his wife, two kids, and his four siblings. He had helped them buy two small houses in his twenty years here, and took pride in his ability to provide for them. He said that in ten years, when he returned, it would be another one of his brothers who came to Kuwait, or some country where he could be the breadwinner. Turn taking.
It’s sad how normal this is. In Ecuador, it was fathers migrating north and sending money home to their wives and kids who had stayed near the equator. In Kuwait, I’m not in a country lacking the fathers; I’m in a country employing them. Migrant workers make up 40% of Kuwait’s population, and labor laws here require that they make just under $200 a month, a piddly amount I could go through in one shopping trip here. They work as street sweepers, construction workers, cashiers at grocery stores, and men who carry your bags at the grocery store from the register to your car or taxi (and earn a tip of about $1.50). If you are a woman coming to Kuwait to send loot home, you will most likely work as a maid or nanny. After all, 90% of Kuwaiti households hire a nanny (or nannies), and many Westerners hire nannies here as well; there is a serious nanny demand. Generally, migrant workers come from Southeast Asian nations: India, Bangladesh, Philippines, and Sri Lanka. I’ll admit that I even have my own cleaning lady. She is Sri Lankan, and for about $90/ month, she comes once a week and cleans my apartment from doorknob to toilet bowl. She even does laundry. I am pleased that her husband lives in Kuwait with her, though their kids are in Sri Lanka with family members. The money she makes here goes to their education and has helped her buy two houses in Sri Lanka. Relatively speaking, as a migrant worker, she is doing pretty well for herself.
The difficulty migrant workers have affording the cost of living in Kuwait (I honestly wonder how they are able to save anything to send home to their families) is only contrasted by the ease with which Kuwaitis live. I will now attempt to explain the cradle to coffin benefits of being a Kuwaiti citizen in Kuwait. Oh, and to clarify, being born in Kuwait does not make you a Kuwaiti citizen; you have to be Kuwaiti by blood. Technically, I could become a Kuwaiti citizen by marrying a Kuwaiti, converting to Islam, and being married for 15 years… don’t worry, Mom, I’m not planning on it. However, forget having to pay for any part of the wedding if I did marry a Kuwaiti! Any Kuwaiti couple getting married gets a sizable $7,000 gift from the government. After the marriage, the expenses that come with having a child would be eased with governmental aid of $200/ month per child. Kuwaiti parents receive that stipend until the kids are 26 years old.
I have HEARD (but am having a difficult time finding exact numbers online) that Kuwaitis earn 2,000 dinar each month regardless of their jobs (governments subsidize whatever employers cannot pay the Kuwaitis). That is $7,000 dollars per month. All employers have to have a certain percent of Kuwaiti employees, so they are basically guaranteed jobs. And because the businesses need them, their job may be just to be on the payroll, while in reality, their hours are very short and the work they do is minimal. Only Kuwaitis can own land or property here. Anyone wishing to start a business in Kuwait must have a Kuwaiti business partner. In November 2012 (while I was here), Kuwait celebrated what was then the world’s most expensive fireworks show in honor of the 50th anniversary of the constitution being written (see photo above) The Emir also gave each Kuwaiti citizen $3,500 and 14 months of free food staples (rice, bread, eggs, milk, poultry). Normally, Kuwaitis can get special discounts on foods (even without Emir decrees) and pay about 40% of what non-Kuwaitis pay. Education and health care are free for Kuwaiti citizens, and reasonable for those of us who have insurance through our jobs (like me!) As you can see, Kuwaitis have it easier than most nationals of other countries. At 30% of the population of their country, they are definitely the ruling class. Underneath them are citizens of other GCC countries (Saudi, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman), then Americans, Australians, and Europeans, then people from Arab nations who don’t have oil money (Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon), finally Asians and Africans.
I don’t like living in such a stratified country. It is my least favorite thing about Kuwait. That and the trash everywhere (which Kuwaitis feel okay with throwing on the ground because they know that a migrant worker is being paid to clean it up). I mean, if Kuwaitis have the money to attract the millions of foreign workers and the foreign workers are accepting the money they are being paid, happy to be making more than they would in their home country, it’s fine, right? I just don’t like thinking about the 40% of people living here who undeniably keep Kuwait turning and are paid diddly squat in return. I also don’t like being able to look at someone and have a feeling about how much they are worth. Being here has made me appreciate the American ideal of equality (though America doesn’t have it down yet either).
So what is it that keeps me here? Money, like the other expats. But there are many real reasons that I enjoy Kuwait. I have friends here. There’s a real community feel among the expats, and are social events galore for all of us orphans living outside of our mother countries. Kuwait is located so conveniently that I currently have trip ideas underway for Dubai, Oman, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Turkey, places I can fly to (and back to Kuwait) for under $400, prices I would never be able to pay flying from the US! I adore Arab food, and like how easy it is for me to get good Thai and Indian food as well. And then, there are lots of little things. The smell of shisha wafting through the outside air. Calls to prayer echoing five times a day. Marveling at how stylish women here can look while simultaneously being covered head to toe. Wandering through the old souk. Walking alongside the Gulf. Getting umpteen hugs from my students each day. Engaging in discussions with friends about Arab culture and Islam.
Arab culture is an acquired taste (especially in an oil-rich GCC country like Kuwait), but I have developed quite a fondness for it and enjoy finding out more about the people and their beliefs. I’m even going to start taking Arabic classes in a week! After picking up a fair amount of Arabic from my students and friends, it will be great learning in a more formal setting. All in all, Kuwait is not a perfect country by any means, but I am very happy that I accepted my teaching job about two years ago.
My taxi driver friend said, in his thick accent, “Ten years more. Twenty years was too long! This country, bad. When I can save, I will go. Probably ten years more.” I will be fine with one more school year, thank you very much!