A few weeks ago, a young lady contacted me after stumbling across my blog. When this happens, the person sends you some questions about your experiences, you respond with your answers, they tweek the content and then put together a feature. Ms. Hawk did a great job of putting my thoughts together. I’ve pasted the interview below for your reading enjoyment. Interesting fact: the article came out on my anniversary 11/11. What a nice gift. If you fancy, subscribe to the magazine as well. There are some very interesting reads on it. Click here for the website.
International Careers: Kennesha Bell on Teaching in Qatar
Kennesha Bell lived her entire life in Philadelphia until at the age of 39, she packed up her family and moved to Doha, Qatar to teach first grade, satisfying a longtime yearning for travel and international experience. Four years later, she has no plans to leave. We talk about getting the assignment, adjusting to another culture, the challenge of being so far from family, and why she loves life in the Middle East.
You can read more about her experience at her blog American Teacher Overseas.
Undomesticated: What led you to teaching abroad? And why Doha?
Kennesha Bell: I applied to teach abroad because I needed to get out of Philadelphia. I felt like I was suffocating. It was sort of a calling, I guess you could say. I love to travel and I wanted to experience life somewhere else.
Doha was not my first choice. In fact, the first time I applied to teach overseas I was turned down by Teachaway, the company I went through. I didn’t have enough experience at that time. Then two years later, I applied again, passed the interview with Teachaway but was denied by Abu Dhabi Education Council and never heard back from the school in Kuwait. I applied for a third time two years later, being the persistent person that I am, and received offers from Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. Qatar had the best benefits package for a family.
One of the reasons I chose the Middle East was because of the mystique of this part of the world. I only knew what I heard about it through the media, which gives a very one-sided outlook. Also I had read that Qatar was, and still is, one of the safest places in the world, and it is smack in the middle, so what a great hub to travel to the rest of the world from. How could I resist moving to a place that is safe, pays great, is a travel hub, and a mystery to me?
Undomesticated: When people think of overseas English teachers, they usually think of someone recently out of college and single. You, however, were in your late thirties and married with children. How did that affect your decision and your transition to Doha?
Bell: It was not easy, but I was determined. Honestly, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give my children. They would have something I never did, travel experience and exposure to different cultures. I figured we could go through the growing pains together. The company I work for in Qatar was extremely helpful with the transition. My director even connected me to another mother who was in Qatar with her children. We talked via Skype before I moved. She put my mind at ease and she and I are still good friends.
Undomesticated: What was the biggest surprise about your job? About living in Doha?
Bell: The biggest surprise about my job was the surplus of resources and help that was available to me.
Also, the diversity of the staff was a surprise. When you come from a place where everyone looks like you, talks like you, and has had similar experiences to you, you get locked inside a bubble. Here I felt like it was the first time I stepped outside of that bubble and saw life for how it is supposed to be: Colorful and beautiful.
Undomesticated: What would surprise people back home in Philadelphia about your life now?
Bell: I feel 100% more safe in Qatar than Philadelphia. This surprises people because Qatar is in the Middle East. That stigma about the Middle East runs deep for people who live in the West bubble and have never traveled to this part of the world. I love it here and have no desire to return to my hometown outside of being with friends and family.
Undomesticated: How do people in Qatar react to you as a Black American woman?
Bell: Some people are surprised when I tell them where I am from. One person even said, “I thought only white people were from the United States.”
Americans are looked up to here and as an African-American, I have never felt discriminated against. The population here is so diverse. There are people from everywhere here.
Women in general have preferential treatment in some ways here. There are lines just for women. Women are often allowed to go first. The commonality of separation of genders takes some getting used to though.
Undomesticated: What is the biggest reward of your job?
Bell: I feel appreciated as a teacher in this country. Most families respect you and look to you as an expert.
Of course, the money is great too. I’ve been blessed with being able to travel to many places, pay off debt, invest, and enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Undomesticated: What is the biggest challenge?
Bell: The biggest challenge for me was adjusting. Things are different here. Life is slower. I’m from a big city, where everything is rush, rush, rush. I’ve had to learn patience and humility. Things don’t happen on your timetable here; it happens when it happens.
Another big personal challenge was being without my husband for the first year because he was working and we had a house in the U.S. that someone needed to live in. And being without my kids for the following years. The issue with my kids is touchy and very emotional and I devoted an entire blog post to this. My two sons are so different. My oldest son stayed with me the entire first year. He does very well with change and is adaptable. We traveled and spent a lot of time together. He returned to the U.S. when we went home for the summer and stayed there to finish his senior year in high school.
My youngest son however, does not do well with change. I wanted us to immerse ourselves into the new culture, and I think it was too much for him. He did not want to stay, so almost three quarters of the way through the first year, he returned to the U.S. to live with his dad. Some may not agree with my decision but I truly believe that everyone deserves to be happy. Being here was not bringing him the joy I had hoped, so I let him go home.
Some may ask why I choose to stay despite it all, and my answer is this: Qatar is my home now. I am happy here. Life is more peaceful here. I have a well-paying job that has allowed me to pay off thousands of dollars worth of debt, save, travel to many places, and I’ll soon pay off my house back in the U.S. I wasn’t able to do these things while working and living in the U.S. Sure I miss my other home and my family most of all. Before the pandemic, I made it my business to travel there every year. But, simply put, I am not done here, not yet.
Undomesticated: What advice would you give someone hoping to teach abroad?
Bell: Go for it but have patience. If it is your dream, do it; but don’t expect others to be excited about your dreams.
Think of all the wonderful things that could happen, and live a life without regrets.