I had a diet coke emergency tonight. When I opened my refrigerator earlier today, I realized I had only one diet coke left. I drank it quickly and decided I would run to the local bakala later in the evening. A bakala is basically a neighborhood grocery the size of a closet...there's one on every corner, and it's the place you go to pick up sodas, snacks, bottled water, etc. As the sun set and my need for caffeine increased, I decided it was time for the emergency run. And here came the eternal dilemma. You see, there is a bakala right across the street from me, and one about a block away. It seems like a no-brainer, right? Wrong. You see, women generally do not walk around the streets in Kuwait, especially foreign women. So if I want to visit the bakala a block away, I drive. It's easy...slightly ridiculous to walk a block, but easy. And I like the owners. They know me, and although they stare a bit, they're very kind. The bakala across the street is another matter. There are usually several men loitering around the front counter, they speak very little English, and they stare a LOT. And...to get there I have to walk across the street. It seems like a small matter, but it entails a lot of stares, honking horns, cars slowing down, and guys yelling out the window. It's not dangerous, but it is uncomfortable. I learned a long time ago that walking around Kuwait as a foreigner is not fun. When I first arrived, I took two walking trips from my campus to the bank one block away. By the second trip, I decided to file that particular journey away into the "not going to do that again" drawer. But tonight, I braved the street and the honking and the stares and walked to the bakala across the street, where I successfully solved the diet coke emergency.
This particular dilemma struck a chord with me tonight. Over the past few weeks, I've had several conversations with Americans who work for US entities (whether it's government or military). For them, security is always at the forefront of the list of concerns. Other Americans in Kuwait check under their cars, have high levels of security at their places of work, and even sometimes have escorts when traveling to foreign countries! For me, life in Kuwait just feels "normal." I realize that I live in the Middle East, but it doesn't feel dangerous. I don't check under my car for scary devices, I don't worry about kidnapping or being a target. I take holidays to places like Afghanistan, and do a side trip up to the Bekaa Valley (Hezbollah territory) to see some ancient ruins when I'm visiting Lebanon. Most people who have never been to Kuwait would be surprised how westernized the city is on the surface. I think there are probably more American restaurants here than in the states! TGIFridays, Hardy's, Johnny Rockets, Chili's, Crispy Creme, and of course two Starbucks on every city block. Sometimes it's easy to forget how different life is here, under the surface. I've been thinking a lot recently about these differences, and yet how normal it can feel. I'm flying out for the states next Wednesday night (yay for Christmas with my family!), and I haven't stepped foot on American soil in almost a year and a half. So I've been thinking about culture shock. I've been thinking (and dreaming!) about walking down the street in the middle of the day. I've even been thinking about how excited I am to go for a run outside (I must be crazy if I'm actually excited about running!). And that brings me back to my bakala dilemmas. Those are the moments when I remember how very different my life is here. Even though I can call Subway to deliver my 6" veggie sandwich on wheat, I can't stroll down the street when I feel like being outside. I drive like a maniac...because everyone else drives like a maniac. I spend my days making sure that I don't accidentally bump into a man...my physical space bubble has gotten about three feet deep since moving here! When I drive or am just walking around somewhere, I keep my gaze straight forward and am careful not to make eye contact with men. I am careful to wear extremely modest clothing anytime I leave my house. And the list goes on. Not all these things are bad. They're just different. And that's where culture shock comes in. The reality is that I have been living in a place that is extremely different...if you just scratch the surface. It will be interesting to see what kind of culture shock hits when I land in the states. I'll keep you posted!