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Interview with Yasmine Awais – an American living in Riyadh

Updated 14 Jun 2010

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more unique expat experience in the Saudi city of Riyadh than that of the likes of the mysterious Arab-named American multiracial vegetarian Yasmine Awais. Read on to find out just how well she's puddle-jumping between the local and expat communities.

Read more expat experiences in Saudi Arabia, and see the full Saudi Arabia expat guide

Yasmine Awais photographAbout Yasmine

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: The Bronx (by way of New Jersey)

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Q: How long have you lived in Riyadh?
A: Four months

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?
A: I moved here with my husband. Our dog and cat are being fostered separately back home.

Q: Why did you move to Riyadh; what do you do?
A: I moved here to work as the lead art therapist at a rehabilitation hospital, to experience a new culture, to have the opportunity to live in a place that very few people ever dream of visiting, and to shake up my typical routine.

About Riyadh

Q: What do you enjoy most about Riyadh, how’s the quality of life?
A: I love that the city and culture, in general, is food focused. Fresh produce is readily available for great prices, families’ picnic on any patch of grass or plot of sand imaginable, both tea and coffee are drunk in copious amounts, and the desserts are magical.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: I miss mobility – there are no public transportation options for women, and women are not permitted to drive. Additionally, the weather is getting to be unbearably hot, so walking is now out of the question. Another negative is the feeling of isolation. New Yorkers enjoy socializing, and one of my favorite pastimes is going out to eat. In Saudi Arabia, socialization is mostly kept to families. Even when one goes out to eat, families are sequestered in a “family section”. “Family sections” in Riyadh then further partition the families, so it is more like eating in your own dining room than eating in a restaurant with other people.

Q: Is Riyadh safe?

A: It is not uncommon in New York City to hear gunshots, be harassed on the street (women are common victims of this), see drug dealing and/or drug paraphernalia on the street, be robbed (or know someone who has been), get your car window smashed in, etc. From what I have experienced and seen here in Riyadh, the city is very safe in terms of crime. Road safety is another story! It is not uncommon to see young drivers speeding down the street and intentionally hitting the brakes in order to squeal out and spin their cars around. The speed bumps do not seem to slow down these drivers, it’s seen as more of a challenge. Working in a rehabilitation hospital and seeing the majority of the patients being victims of motor vehicle accidents and not being victims of violent crimes speaks to the seriousness of traffic safety issues.

About living in Riyadh

Q: What’s the cost of living in Riyadh compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: The cost of living is lower than in New York City. Bread, fruits and vegetables are quite inexpensive, that is if you buy local! If you are looking for imported items like brussels sprouts, avocados, or Pecorino Romano cheese, then you will pay a high price. If one is open to using products that the locals use and not relying on brands from “back home”, then the prices are quite reasonable. But the main reason the cost of living is so much lower is simply that there are fewer places to spend it.

Money can be easily spent at the malls or on luxury items; however, there are no bars, movie theatres, clubs, or other social places where money can go quickly. If one is disciplined, it can be quite easy to have a lower cost of living.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: As in any location, there are people that you get along with and people that you don’t. I make it a point to have a balanced group of friends based on shared values and common interests, not on nationality. The majority of my interactions with Saudis and expats are at my workplace. Keeping in mind that everyone is an individual, the Saudis are friendly and inquisitive. It is not uncommon to be asked about marital status, family size, religion, and nationality upon first meeting a Saudi. Due to cultural norms, I have been spending time outside of work mostly with other expats. As Saudi Arabia has a large community of expat workers, I am fortunate to have a diverse group of friends. I do not live in a compound, so I mix with locals in the neighbourhood, on the street, and at the local stores. My apartment complex houses mostly doctors and other medical professionals from all over the globe, including some from Saudi Arabia.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Riyadh?
A: There are a lot of barriers to meeting people and making friends – cultural norms in Saudi, especially Riyadh, enforce separation of the genders and economic classes and/or nationalities. There are also transportation issues as well as language barriers. Despite these barriers, and with the help of technology (e.g., special interest e-mail list groups), it has been possible.

About working in Riyadh

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Saudi Arabia?
A: It took about one year from the day of my first job offer to the day I arrived in Riyadh. I am unsure if it was the visa itself that took the most amount of time – there are many components that played a part. There was agreeing on the job contract, the lengthy medical exam, getting documents authenticated…

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: My clinical work as an art therapist is similar to that at home. I work with all ages and genders. Administrative needs, like human resources, take a very long time to process, requiring various stamps and signatures from important people. Unfortunately, favouritism is prevalent, with (some) Saudis being given carte blanche in terms of workload and expectations, including arriving to work late, leaving early, or not showing up at all. Another cultural difference is how some positions are seemingly relegated to certain nationalities. For example, all the housekeeping staff (called “cleaners”) are Filipino, as are most of the nurses.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: Yes, I believe I can safely say that my partner is having a difficult time adjusting. It is very hard not working, not having a car, looking Western, and not speaking the language.

Q: How would you rate healthcare in Saudi Arabia?
A: I receive healthcare through the hospital I work for. In the USA, my partner was not receiving any healthcare and was paying out of pocket. We are very fortunate to finally have accessible healthcare without having to worry about the cost.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Always remind yourself why you made the decision to move to Saudi Arabia, and keep reminding yourself if and when you are feeling out of place: culture shock is inevitable when moving to a new place and how much one acculturates is a process that is complex.

Acculturation is the process of integrating your own personal or cultural values with that of the dominant cultures. The process of moving to a new place involves many stages that one may or may not move through:

1. Honeymoon or Elation: marked by being very interested and inquisitive of local customs, language, foods, etc;
2. Conflict or Resistance: typical thoughts to one’s self may include “We would NEVER do that in my country!”;
3. Critical Stage or Transformation: this important stage is hallmarked by the expat assuming responsibilities for their own cultural development, adjustment, and sense of self;
4. Recovery or Integration: the expat has gone through the ups and downs of culture shock and is feeling well integrated and at ease in their new environment, being able to balance both home cultures and the new dominant culture.

To make things more complex, expats will be greeted with a host of questions, some of which may feel invasive. For the expat who “looks” Muslim or Arabic, the questions may come more directly from both Saudis and other expats. I am surprised that I’ve had little to no comments on being in an interracial relationship or having a partner who is not working! Most questions have been about my name, my religion, my looks, my nationality, and my family background. Favourite questions include: “Are you Saudi”, “Did you know your name is Arabic?” and “How are you American?”

~ interviewed May 2010

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