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Expats & Drinking Culture - What is the deal? Why is it such a thing?

Jul 26, 2020

Drinking culture was big and bad when I was growing up in Canada. It was part of every family occasion, from weddings to funerals. When I was in high school and university, it was part of every party. And you had to drink to be cool.

But when I became an expat and moved abroad, it hit a WHOLE 'nother level. When I moved to Kuwait, I remember drinking was a huge thing there. Alcohol was illegal, but not unobtainable - and it was a constant topic of conversation. I don't want to speak for everyone - but definitely amongst the people I hung around with, we felt trapped and deprived living in a country without alcohol. I quickly learned how to make my own wine and also connected with someone who made much better wine than I did (I often call myself the artist and him the scientist - he had the science of winemaking down to an art and had the perfectly sterilized space and recipe. I was more of the sprinkle of this, sprinkle of that, scrape off the mould type of wine maker. LOL.)

I also was constantly networking with people who had access to real alcohol. It could be drunk on embassy properties and people who had connections could get me into embassy events. Also, without naming names, I networked with people who had it in their homes.

I posted on Instagram yesterday about how my partner and I were constantly planning our escape of Kuwait to Abu Dhabi, where alcohol was legal. And when I finally moved here, I thought my problems would all be solved - but they actually got bigger and worse. Brunches where it was normal every weekend to start drinking at 11am or noon. Ladies nights where women could drink for free every night of the week. All you can drink Christmas parties and end of year parties I would behave like it was St Patricks day or Frosh Week at university.

So what is with expat culture and alcohol abuse? Why is drinking so huge as part of expat life?

First of all, I want to say that I definitely had drinking issues before I moved abroad - being an expat didn't create them - they just amplified them! But after reflecting on it a lot, I think there are many factors, and these are the factors of expat life that affected me and my drinking.

  1. Culture Shock. I know when I first moved to Kuwait, it was a massive culture shock to my system. At age 23, I moved from one of the safest neighbourhoods in Toronto with neatly manicured hedges and blue skies, to a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kuwait, a country in between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I lived across the street from a Mosque which played the call to prayer loudly at 3am, something I had never heard before. (I grew to absolutely love the call to prayer, but at the time it was just different for me.) Kuwait is a beautiful country, but my particular neighborhood in Kuwait was a very hard place to be - outside the windows I saw dumpsters with garbage. It was around 50 degrees celsius, and the smell of garbage wafted up every time I went outside. My neighborhood was full of workers who lived 12 men in a 1 bedroom apartment, and it was extremely traumatic, sad and intense to go every day from working for the richest families in the country as a grade three teacher, to then living in a neighbourhood amongst the poorest people in the country. For the first time in my life, I didn't feel safe as a woman walking alone in my neighbourhood (one time in my first month of living there, I did walk with another female friend in the neighbourhood and someone exposed their penis to us). The only sense of normalcy I had was hanging out at the Hilton Resort (which I'm aware is not normal. That's very abnormal.) So I was in extreme culture shock. And had no support. And this led me to reach for a drink to help cope.

  2. Separation from Friends & Family - & Alcohol as a Social Lubricant. When we move abroad, we've lost our complete social circle. And we have to make friends quickly. Alcohol is a social lubricant - it helps us reduce our anxiety, feel comfortable in social settings, and make friends quickly. I've noticed that most social gatherings in expat settings, especially during the orientation weeks, revolve around alcohol. I think it is to help us make friends quickly, because we are alone.

  3. We're from all over the world and we're all different. Alcohol can be one thing we share in common. This was a point made by one participant in my #sobercurious club this weekend which I thought was super interesting. It's true. As expats, we might not have much in common with our colleagues as we come from such different places all over the world. The one commonality we might share is drinking alcohol. Alcohol then becomes the key factor in our relationship.

  4. Disruption of Routines. When people ask me what the hardest part of moving to the Middle East was, I always say, it was the disruption of routines. Prior to moving to the Middle East, I had spent many years building a wellbeing routine for my mental health that involved a lot of yoga. In Canada, I was in walking distance to a yoga studio that I also worked at, as a cleaner, at the reception desk and then later as a yoga teacher. This was the key factor in my wellbeing. When I moved to Kuwait, the nearest yoga studio was over an hour drive away, and I no longer had that daily stress release that I did before. I replaced it with alcohol.

  5. Stress. Being a teacher in Kuwait was EXTREMELY stressful for me. In Abu Dhabi, things have been much better - I work in an extremely supportive school where my bosses are constantly reminding me that mental health is health, and that if I need to take a day off for mental wellbeing that it's okay (THANK YOU!! YALL ARE THE BEST!) When I quit alcohol, there was actually a counsellor on campus for teachers specifically who supported me (she was completing her practicum to become a certified counsellor, so she is no longer working at the school. But the point is, I had access to that resource when I needed it.) But in Kuwait, I didn't have any of those resources, and I couldn't cope with the levels of stress related to my job. Alcohol was my coping mechanism.

  6. Higher Salaries & More Luxurious Living. In a lot of countries for expat teachers, like South East Asia and South America, the salaries are pretty high relative to cost of living, and alcohol is pretty cheap. In the Middle East I would say the issue is not exactly the same - alcohol isn't super cheap - but you can gain access to all you can drink scenarios very affordably. For example, if you do your research, there is a Ladies Night in Abu Dhabi and Dubai every night of the week at a different hotel where women can drink for free. You just need to know where to go. This is not the case in Canada.

  7. Living Permanently in a Vacation Destination. Okay, so Kuwait is definitely not a vacation destination. LOL. But during my time there, I was constantly travelling to nearby vacation destinations - much more frequently than I did when I was in North America. And Abu Dhabi/Dubai definitely is a vacation destination. Same with places like Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico. etc, where a lot of expat teachers live. When you live somewhere that is a vacation destination, you sometimes start behaving like you might while on Vacation. Think all inclusives in the Caribbean - that's how I started behaving when I moved to Abu Dhabi, the land of the all you can drink brunches and ladies nights.

So there you go - this is my run down of why I think drinking is such an issue in Expat culture.

I do think that my experience as an expat helped me hit my rock bottom faster than I would have had I lived in Canada all my life. And I'm grateful for it, because here I am 16 months later - very happy and healthy alcohol free. My teacher Rolf says there is "Clarity in Contrast" and the contrast of my life in Canada, versus my life in Kuwait (where alcohol was illegal), versus my life in Abu Dhabi (the land of the ladies night) helped me see my gray area drinking for what it was, and help others (especially expats) see their drinking for what it is, too.

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