by Karen Guinn, May 2015
Shayla is a woman of 29 years from the small yet wealthy country of Kuwait. She grew up in a democratic country, yet there are restrictions and laws set forth by the government that citizens have to follow, just like any other country. Some of these restrictions, especially pertaining to women, seem a little oppressive. Although Kuwaiti women are some of the most emancipated women in the Middle East, they have disadvantages such as, they are not permitted to vote, and the young local women’s dress codes are strict. Even foreign women are expected to cover their hair when in public. The desire for new experiences and change brought Shayla to three different countries before she arrived in the United States. She has lived and studied in Great Britain, Scotland, and Egypt. During Shayla’s teenage years, her mother and father supported the family together, until her father’s passing seven years ago. The responsibility of the family’s livelihood was then shifted to her mother. Shayla’s mother has taken good care of her family since then. Raising four children alone is a difficult task for any single mother. She has been employed in the hotel/motel management field, and has done well. As years pass, the relationship between Shayla and her mother grows strong. Her mother has become more understanding of her desires. She has given her permission to travel abroad to gain a higher education, when previously her father would not allow this. While living in a country with strict regulations for women, it is especially difficult for a young girl trying to discover her potential. Traveling and studying abroad in a modern, diverse world has proven to be a stimulating, and truly wonderful experience for Shayla. Coming to the United States is helping her become the strong independent woman of her dreams; it has given Shayla freedom to express herself. Her goal of obtaining a successful career is ultimately keeping her focused in the wake of her father’s death, as she maintains her dedication to her family.
Shayla’s journey abroad for higher education and the freedom to express herself has brought her to the United States from her home country of Kuwait. Her ambition to develop a successful career is keeping her focused. Upon completing high school in 2003, Shayla’s dream was to study in the States. She illustrates, “Yeah, I was planning to come to the States since I was seventeen, actually, but I didn’t have a chance. My father was totally against that.” Like most fathers with daughters, Shayla’s Dad wanted to keep her close to home so he could protect her. The man’s duty is to supervise his children and be aware of their activities. A woman in Kuwait needs the permission of her parents to study abroad. Sadly enough, Shayla’s father passed away when she was seventeen this tragic event resulted in her mother allowing her to take her studies abroad. Shayla’s journey began as she ventured to countries like Great Britain, Scotland, Egypt, and now finally to The United States. Her appetite for education and to create a solid career to support her mother is inspiring. She explains, “My job is to get my degree and take care of her.” Her plans are to settle somewhere close to Kuwait with a successful profession upon finishing her studies, and gaining at least a year of experience in her field. Shayla stipulates, “At first I was like I don’t wanna major in something that in the future I can’t get a good job back home.” Shayla’s goal to become a supportive daughter means everything to her, and the drive to succeed seems inbred. In Kuwait, a broader opportunity for women to work became available in the 1960’s, but still today women are not allowed to work in the army, government sector, or police force. Shayla’s dream is to help bring a new market to Kuwait, like pet care is also something she contemplates. As of now her studies are majoring in hotel and restaurant management, like her mother. Her mother built a successful career in this field which attracted Shayla’s attention. After being exposed to new opportunities, she sees a chance to revise her profession selection, and admits she might look into animal care.
According to Shayla’s strong cultural beliefs, her main job in life is to make her mother happy, and provide her financial support. Family and culture are very significant. She values them greatly. Shayla reveals that “Everything is about my mother, the only thing I’m sad about, if I’m here, and she’s there.” Shayla reveals that since her father’s passing her mother has been amazing. She has been taking care of the family providing unconditional love, and a stable home for her four children in a country where woman’s opportunities are limited. Her mother understands Shayla’s need to become an independent, strong woman. Shayla’s mother has allowed her to discover her identity as much as is allowed in Kuwait. They have a healthy, solid relationship, and Shayla feels her mother deserves more than she could every supply or repay. She affirms that, “Because she is spending money and taking care of me, and now it’s my job, that’s how it works.” Shayla is very firm about her responsibilities and beliefs, these feeling are ingrained in her personality. She states, “We have a belief, that if I take care of my mother, life will take care of me.” It is important for her to do right by her mother. She feels her American friends don’t share the same thoughts regarding their mothers, and doesn’t understand why. Shayla’s culture in her own country has taught her to be very dedicated, with a sense of accountability for the well-being of her mother.
Even with her sentiment regarding her father’s passing, Shayla remains in search of independence and the ability to redefine her individuality, Shayla has also had the courage to venture out on her own, which has enabled her to blossom into a modern woman that is being created daily by her studies, and travel abroad. She did not feel she could express her true heart in Kuwait under restrictions and somewhat oppression of women. She explains that, I just cut my hair recently, and they started calling me Tomboy, I hate it! The majority of people are very conservative, and judgmental in her country. She says, “I’m kind of used to it here, people don’t get in your business. There it’s like a cultural thing, people do get in your business.” The scrutiny and intolerance of the Kuwaiti community play a big part in the sense of her belonging and acceptance. Shayla’s determination to be an individual stands out, so she communicates that there they say something to you, because it’s a Muslim country. People just blurt out what they think about the way you choose to dress or cut your hair, it’s acceptably in Kuwait. In the United States we respect and even embrace other’s individuality. Shayla loves her country and her culture, she just wishes it was a bit more modernized. The Muslim religion in Kuwait is respected, and people do not encompass changes or even growth in that area very well. There is a fear of losing the old ways and traditions, and it scares people. Some of the younger Kuwaiti’s want to see change allowing more freedom in their country, and are hoping the respected community leaders will shift their perspectives.
Many female immigrants, who have lived in countries that have restrictions like Kuwait, find themselves desiring the chance to explore their uniqueness. Women can be presumed to be bold and daring, and are a source of gossip for their communities. A lot of Kuwait’s cultures and traditions remain the same as centuries ago, especially when it comes to religious customs pertaining to women, and how they should act or dress. The religious police can actually stop a woman who appears in public that is dressed out of accordance to these customs. Tight fitting, and revealing clothing is not only looked down on, but is restricted. Marjorie Kelly, from the University of Kuwait, author of Clothes, culture, and context: female dress in Kuwait, states that “Given the small size, great wealth, and conservative nature of Kuwaiti society, one dresses to impress in the knowledge that one will be scrutinized by one’s peers and any dress code violations will be widely noted.” Society expects their women to dress appropriately to their rules in public. The woman can wear outfits deemed unacceptable in the comfort of their homes, but are open to criticism if they proceed outdoors. According to a survey of students about purchasing clothing abroad that parents would not allow them to wear, 60% would not. The remaining 40% who said they bought clothing stated “that the garments were purchased and worn abroad but could not be worn back in Kuwait.” They also added “people would talk or get the wrong idea about me. Hence, there seems to be a consensus that the clothes themselves are less of an issue than who is present to pass judgment on the person wearing them.” A young girl wanting to express herself through clothing would definitely be suppressed in this society. The fact that people are concerned with what others are wearing is astonishing to me. It is surprising when “you” realize how different countries, and cultures really are. Here in the United States, we tend to take our civil rights for granted.
Shayla’s thirst for new experiences and education since the age of seventeen has finally resulted in her travels abroad, which has resulted in her reshaping and redefining herself constantly. Her experiences in London, and Scotland helped her discovery that these countries were not for her. Shayla has a sister who studies in Aberdeen, Scotland, and that is why she decided to go there for her studies. She lived and studied for a bit in Egypt, but the revolution broke out, and she had to evacuate the country. Shayla is currently studying in San Francisco at City College, she likes the diversity of America, and feels a sense of acceptance and belonging here. In the article “Going and Staying! Abroad,” produced by Jessica Tomer, the Director of International Programs at Linfield College, regarding the benefits of studying in another country states, “Not only do students return with a better sense of the world’s cultures and their own, by comparison, but they gain more confidence, tolerance, flexibility, and understanding of different values and lifestyles.” All the traveling, and experiences Shayla has gained contribute to the strong woman she is today. Her choice to study abroad has developed skills that are life changing and will stay with her the rest of her life. Tomer also reveals that benefits from study abroad include visiting new places and meeting new people, “They’re also largely intangible-but often life changing.” Some of these acquired skills are:
- Learn foundational skills like adaptability, problem solving, communications
- Develop networking and career connections
- Experience a global marketplace
- Gain confidence and self-awareness
- Expand comfort zone
- Explore cultural/family background
- Broaden perspective
- Earn credit, particularly in foreign culture classes
- Boost future resume
All of the benefits that expand a person’s perception and personality are listed here and they are what Shayla is searching for. She has gained confidence and self-awareness while traveling through different countries, networking and experiencing a global market all the while continuing her studies. Her experience with different cultures has made her appreciate her own family traditions and the culture in Kuwait
Shayla’s decision, along with her mother’s permission to study abroad, has given her the opportunity to travel to different countries expanding her knowledge, and perspective of the global world. Many people dwell in one country, city, or village all their lives, never wanting to see what is beyond the borders. The accumulation of knowledge and experience create a better future for all people. A Professor of International Affairs, Mary Ann Tetreault, explains in her article, “Pattern of Culture and Democratization in Kuwait” written for Business Source Premier that, “Women constitute a small but relatively high quality reserve labor army in Kuwait.” Shayla’s worldly experience and education would assist in her country’s advancement. Her country appreciates woman of high achievement to supplement their work force. Shayla’s freedom to decide whether or not she wants to become part of this remains to be seen. She has the opportunity to work where she chooses and still be the supportive daughter she dreams of becoming.
While in the end, Shayla’s opportunity to experience education, and diversity has enabled her to become an intelligent, understanding, and unique woman. Her ability to live and thrive in different countries has given her a different view of opportunities available. Some people thirst for enlightenment, and need more complexity in their lives to build their spirit. Although, Shayla’s father wanted to keep her close and protect her, she has grown tremendously, due to her travels to other countries, she has grown tremendously. Shayla’s father might be proud of the woman she is becoming. Living in another country close to Kuwait, will inevitably help her to create the self-supporting and independent woman she wants to be. Immigrants balance original culture and family along with their new found freedoms on a daily basis. Their thirst for enlightenment and more complexity in their live helps to build their spirits so that they may become unique individuals. Living in the global community continues to develop Shayla’s charisma, style, and potential for a bright future.
Kelly, Marjorie. “Clothes, culture, and context: female dress in Kuwait.” Fashion Theory 14.2 (2010): 215+. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Apr. 2015
Tomer, Jessica. “Going And Staying! Abroad.” Collegexpress Magazine (2013): 10. MasterFILE. Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2015
Tetreault, Mary Ann. “Patterns Of Culture And Decocratization In Kuwait.” Studies In Comparative International Development 30.2 (1995): Business Source Premier. Web. 4 May 2015.
Shayla: My name is Shay I’ve been here for almost three years.
Karen Guinn: How is it in your country?
Shayla: It’s uh completely different. Like we uh…the learning experience is completely different. It’s like over there um it’s kinda a little bit hard for us because they are so strict about everything. They don’t give you a second chance. You only have one chance. Like for example let’s say if you did like really bad on your test. That’s it. No extra credit. No help. There are some professors that will give you a chance but it’s like rare. It’s very rare. Umm
Karen: So you’re like allowed to go to school? There’s no restrictions?
Shayla: Yeah, I go to school. I graduated from high school on 2003. And then I went to study aboard uh I went to London, I went to Egypt for three years. Uh I had to go back to my country because of the revolution. The Egyptian revolution. Yeah, I was planning to come to the states since I was seventeen, actually but I didn’t have a chance. My father was totally against that. Uh, but I made it uh the age of twenty five.
Karen: Can I ask you how old you are?
Shayla: I’m 29.
Karen: Oh, you’re my daughter’s age!
Shayla: So, yaeh it’s a different experience. Oh! I like it here to be honest it’s. . . life is much easier here than over there.
Karen: So you decided at 17 you wanted to come here? So how was it? Was it easy to like. . . your paperwork?
Shayla: Not that easy because they were asking a lot of stuff like bank statements and stuff like that at that time. I had money but I didn’t have like a bank like a statement that show I have all the money right now. You know what I mean?
Karen: So what’s the money for?
Shayla: Uh tuition, like rent, they money to come here to be a student here.
Shayla: Like a plan to have the money to be a student here. It was not that east at first, but after I got accepted it was nothing. Everything was like easy and fine actually yeh!
Karen: When you got here? What was your impression? How was it when you got here?
Shayla: Ok, when I came here it was my first day here. So in the states you know. So, I always had that idea about America. Before I came here, how it was, beautiful and I was like in my head, I’m gonna go to America! I’m gonna see a lots of Americans and stuff like that. When I came here I was like so chugged because it’s so diverse here. People from different countries live in the same city. Amazing because you can just come here and learn about other cultures and everything. You don’t have to go travel the world. So it is fun, it was actually fun. That’s the thing, another thing I was kinda scared about the hills in San Francisco. And then I was walking the other day down the hill and then I was like am I going to fall? How do people walk like this. So my country was like super flat, flat, flat, flat. So when I came here I was scared I heard a lot of things about earthquakes and stuff like that. I was scared the first year. I was so scared. I was like I don’t wanna stay here and you know during an earthquake.
Me: Have you experienced any earthquake!
Shayla: Yeah, but it was nothing. Not here in the states. I felt it, but in Kuwait I felt it. The earthquake happened in Dubai and Iran but we felt it in Kuwait. Because they are so close together. Like California and Nevada let’s say something like that. So I would say the weather actually. I was confused about the weather. Like one day I would wear everything in my closet and then in two hours, I would have to take off my clothes and stuff. One hour it would be super-cold then the next hour it would be super-hot. Am I going to like this weather? I’m going to live here at least 4 or 5 years, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Then later, like last summer I went back to Kuwait, and I couldn’t handle the heat. I was like I kinda like San Francisco weather. (laughs) Even though I used to complain a lot about the weather here. I feel in love with the city, the people, the weather, everything. Actually the weather has a major role in me succeeding in my life. The weather plays a big role in my life, not just mine but everybody’s, I am a much happier person here, I would say.
Me: So what are your plans? Are you going back home?
Shayla: No, I want experience here like a year or two, then I might go somewhere else. Dubai or something like that.
Me: What about your family? Is your family all still in Kuwait?
Shayla: Yes, they all live in Kuwait, two of my sisters are outside actually. One is in London, and the other in Aberdeen, Scotland. I tried to go and study over there but it was too much for me. It’s just when you live somewhere where everybody’s nice you just wanna stay there. When I went to London it was like everybody was like…people are not like here. So, I couldn’t live there it was so boring. It was not easy to make friends, but here people just want to make friends. That’s why I love San Francisco. I’ve been to Sacramento and it’s super-hot over there.
Me: No boyfriend?
Shayla: No! Just study! A couple years ago I just stopped being interested in education for I don’t know how many years, and then at 26 like 2011, I decided fun time was over. I need to finish my education. I need to focus and finish my degree.
Me: Is English your first language?
Shayla: We have to study English it’s not optional in school back home. I practice my language with my friends, because when I was hanging out we had a lot of American people. People who were in the army. So I used to hand out a lot with them, and I came here I hung out with Native Americans, English speakers. That’s what helped me understand. I was good at understanding, but I didn’t speak very well.
Me: What are you studying? What kinda work do you want to do?
Shayla: At first, I was interested in hotel management, but at the same time I realized, it’s not for me. I’m a real sensitive person and this job requires a lot of people interaction. I’m not good at that. But, living here I realized I’m always passionate about dogs. About animal control. Here in this state people take care of animals a lot. In Kuwait they are just not doing that. So, I want to bring my experience back. Now they just started that, someone already started that and I was like NO! I wanted to do that! So now that like taking care of that. At first I was like I don’t wanna major in something that in the future I can’t get a good job back home. So I didn’t want to get into something that I can’t get a good job. Maybe now there’s a possibility I can start back n Kuwait and help people with dogs, but I wanted to get experience here or in another country first, and then maybe go back home.
Me: What do you do in your free time?
Shayla: I used to go out a lot with my friends, but I don’t do that anymore. Even though I’m kinda interested in video games. Well I’m just gonna play this stupid game, they don’t have video games in Kuwait. Now after two years it’s kinda helped me, they way my brain works and the way I think. Let’s say I play a game that I’m adding numbers, using numbers, memorization those type of things, now I’m better because of video games. So, I thought about it even if people are arguing about it and getting in fights about it, I’m gonna take the best from it and learn. I’m like, now I can go out or I can play video games and stay with my dog, and that’s what I do I stay inside my home actually instead of going out. I just wanna stay home and stay with my dog, I never want to leave my dog. I like that.
Me: So where do you live?
Shayla: Daly City, it’s foggy all the time, so it’s gotten normal.
Me: So do you take public transportation?
Shayla: Public transportation is terrible, OMG. It was bad, I just got a car, but the thing about being late and late to my class even though I left in time. You don’t know what’s gonna happen, the bus might stop and someone might have a problem with the bus driver and it’s always crowded.
Me: How is it compared to Kuwait’s public transportation?
Shayla: You have a car, you mostly have a car because you can’t walk in Kuwait. It’s impossible to walk around. Only immigrants use public transportation there. Citizens never use public transportation. Let’s say the government take care of the people so you don’t have to use public transportation.
Me: How does the government take care of you?
Shayla: Let’s say for example you are a man and you get married. The government is gonna take help you support your wife and your family. They give you money every month to take care of your family. Money to build your house, but you have to pay them back. So let’s say you need a car the government well not the government. The government work with the bank even if you have bad credit they will fix it for you.
Me: What if you don’t pay them back? Do you go to jail?
Shayla: If you don’t pay them back they’ll sue you they give you like 1,2,3,4,5 chances then you’re gonna go to jail. They will give you like a year to come up with the money.
Me: Anything else you wann talk about that’s different?
Shayla: Just the learning experience. So, I wanna support my mother. It’s a cultural thing, my Mom takes care of all of us and there is four of us. My job is to get my degree and take care of her. Because she’s spending money and taking care of me, and now it’s my job, that’s how it works. So it’s my turn. I also wanna say being independent, for the first time now it’s a good experience, but I still wanna raise my kids the way my mother raised me. I want them to make their decision and even if they want to be independent, I’m going to still support them.
Me: What does your mother do?
Shayla: My mother used to be a manager of hotels. She used to be working at a couple of hotels, then she started her own company. Just a small company, she made herself. Mostly, I get help from the government, not from her.
Me: Did your parents separate? Or where is your Dad?
Shayla: No, my Dad passed away when I was seventeen about twelve years ago?
Me: Oh I’m sorry!
Shayla: So after that my Mom is amazing, so now my goal is to help her. I wanna help her. I still feel this is not enough for my mother. She’s done a lot for me. She’s so amazing, and she never asks anything in return. I love my mother!
Me: Aww, so it’s unconditional love?
Shayla: Yes, I wish a lot of people see that here. It’s just a really different experience here. The girls that I know here, they don’t have the same thing. I always ask why. We have a belief that is I take care of my mother, life will take care of me. If I’m going to be happy my mother should be happy. Everything is about my mother. The only thing I’m sad about, if I’m here and she’s there. She completely understands me, I don’t feel like I fit in there, and even though I’m attached to my culture. I just do it in a modern way. I don’t know how to explain that. People ask me if I’m muslin, I say yes. They say you don’t look muslin. Then I say ok. It’s just like we act the way we like to act. I do what I want to do and this is what I’m doing. My relationship is between me and Ala! People were like making fun, and I was like they see stuff from the media and think things. I meet a lot of people who are educated, they know a lot of things about the world and people have different opinions. So racism in the United States is big, we don’t have that back home. Even though we have racism, it’s more about class. So either you have money, and some people don’t have money. That’s it color or where you’re from no, NO! I’m a really honest person, so I want you to tell me about it. Instead of behind my back, because I’m gonna know who you are! So even if a person has something against me, I would rather be friends, just make friends of your enemies. I believe people are good. So when you have good and bad, good always wins.
Me: So how was your trip here?
Shayla: It was hard at first, it can be easier. Now I love it, I’ve been living here three years now I can’t imagine going back and living there the rest of my life. I’m kind of used to it here, people don’t get in your business. There it’s like a cultural thing. People do get in your business, let’s say I’m wearing shorts. They’re gonna be like “She’s wearing short!” I just cut my hair recently and they started calling me Tomboy! I hate it! Don’t give me names! Here they are like respect it. They leave you alone. There they say something to you because it’s a muslin country. At the same time it’s democratic, and I don’t think that works. It’s weird, so that’s why most of the time I don’t care.