The author, a Vietnamese refugee married to a Norwegian diplomat, lived in Kuwait and makes good use of both her theoretical training and personal experiences to write an insightful study on the condition of Kuwait's migrant workers. Tracing the current system back to its historical roots in pre-oil days, Longva shows the continuities between the indentured pearl divers of old and the domestics and chauffeurs in today's system. She deciphers the social signals of clothing and concludes that the characteristic white robe worn by Kuwaiti males (dishdasha) sends a strong signal of enfranchisement and social power, for it is almost exclusively worn by Kuwaiti men, the country's effective nobility.
Longva delineates a social structure that includes six main groups: Kuwaiti men on top, followed by Kuwaiti women, then Arab men, Arab women, Asian men, and at the bottom, Asian women. Except for the first and last, all these groups are sometimes in a "male" (or superior) position, other times in a "female" position. Symbolic of this topsy-turvy order is David, the friendly Indian who works in the lingerie department; his inferior status makes it appropriate for him to counsel black-swathed women on their underwear - something unimaginable for a Kuwaiti man to do. Middle-class Asians assert their status by parading the signs of their wealth. Longva's description of the way in which a temporary sojourn to make money "blurred and melted into a vague and widening project, the end of which was increasingly difficult to foresee," ably captures the poignancy of the migrant worker's condition caught between two cultures, two places, and two lives.