Looking Through Expatriate Lenses

Take a look at a Salvador Dali painting. Step up close, and scrutinize the details. Words like “weird” come to mind. In some cases, though, if you take a step back, or maybe two, or ten, thereby altering your perspective, “weird” is no longer the best adjective. Distance offers clarity. You find yourself looking at the same thing in a much different way.

It’s no secret that as you get older your perspectives on things change. Now that word, “things,” is the kind of word that us English teachers despise. It’s nebulous, and could refer to just about anything. But it’s precisely the kind of word I need here. Because what is it that has changed? Which thing is it that I look at differently? Well, lots of things, you see. But I’ll focus on two for the sake of time and at least a modicum of precision.

Politics and religion. You know, the heavy and polarizing stuff. Stuff that makes enemies of friends and friends of enemies. Stuff which we often look at through extremely biased and partial lenses.

Points of view on these matters change naturally. This is the ebb and flow of life, of course, but it’s also more. It’s also the shifting of perspective that comes from not just age and experience, but the impact of life abroad in different cultures and different types of governance.

So what has changed about my political views, anyway? As an American, dear friend, I was a Republican with pronounced leanings toward Libertarian ideology. Now, I’m not. I don’t identify with any party these days. Paint me an independent. Why the shift? Because neither party has it right. The Republicans stand in the way of sensible legislation such as Net Neutrality, and they seem to be preventing the best aspects of Obama’s Affordable Care Act from helping the state of American taxpayers as it ought to. By the same means, it seems like Democrats object to everything that Republicans do. As a result of these political shenanigans, there are preposterous events like government shutdowns.

I’m not saying that another system in the world is better, and I’m not saying that the American one is doomed. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any system in particular. But I can see more clearly now that the American one needs improvement. Let me dwell on Obamacare for a minute. In the UAE, I’ve got great health insurance, thanks to my employer and the country’s laws. The best and most notable effect of it: living stress-free when it comes to health care. And let me tell you, it’s vastly superior to putting off trips to the doctor because you can’t figure out how the hell you’re going to pay for them. I’ve been there, and it’s not good. I’m on the opposite side now, able to go easily for medical care when the need arises and not think twice about it. There’s no reason why the excellent American healthcare system can’t be this accessible, too.

In essence, having some distance from ingrained ideas about political parties and about what the government should or shouldn’t do (such as stipulate insurance for individuals) has made a big difference in my viewpoint on the matter. Another area that my point of view has changed, thanks to travel, thanks to the expatriate experience, is religion. Now don’t misinterpret my remarks as anti-religious, or anti-anything. That’s the wrong way to take them. As a rule of thumb, I’ve always approached my religion from a fairly critical standpoint. If it defies reason, I have to question it. I could ramble on with a story or two, or perhaps offer a way that I’ve personally done this or that, but suffice it to say I think logic should be applied to everything in equal measure, and since religion shapes our perception of each other and the world, it’s especially important to consider in this way.

Salvador Dali’s “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean” becomes a picture of Abraham Lincoln when viewed from a distance. Try it–step back a few feet from your screen and have a look.

Besides mere logic, I can now see travel informing my beliefs. As I stood in front of the Buddhist shrine next to our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where the morning’s drink offerings stood, unconsumed by any sort of god except perhaps a touch of evaporation, I thought to myself, “This is absolutely ridiculous.” And then I wondered how ridiculous my church’s proceedings might look to uninformed Thai visitors. I’d say it’s pretty likely they’d shake their heads in bewilderment, just like I was doing, as I was pondering their religious customs. As I drove past throngs of Muslims descending upon the local mosque, all summoned by the loudspeaker-broadcast call, I thought that the crowds were like mindless worker bees swarming the hive. And, in all fairness, I wondered if my Christian brethren looked any different from this to the average non-Christian passerby as they gathered for services on a Sunday back home. On another occasion, I watched Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer and I contemplated the act. Muslim prayers are more about submission than anything else, as the word Islam suggests, whereas Christian ones can take on any number of forms–petitions, supplications, arguments, requests for forgiveness. In my life, some prayers seem to have been answered, but others vanished unheeded into the great abyss. What is the role of God in our day-to-day lives, I wondered, and what really draws us closer to Him?

This leads me to the conclusion, rather obvious, I know, that the larger things matter more than the small ones. What I do matters more than what I say, and what I say only matters if what I do supports it. Why do we quibble over so many little things, when the broader strokes make the most difference? I can apply this question to politics, and I can apply it to religion. Little things matter, it’s true, because they’re part of big things. But the big things should be the focus. Instead of dwelling on differences, we should seek similarities. We have much more in common than we have to fight over most of the time.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

One of my buddies here in the UAE, Randy, talks about traveling to the greener pastures of life when one leaves the complacency of home behind, taking on the expat life. He hits on something important there, I think, because it takes distance to help us see some things clearly. Not unlike staring at one of Dali’s bizarre paintings up close, then stepping back to a distance and taking in the larger picture, experiencing other places and systems alters our perspective on things. It helps us see that there’s more to a thing than we first thought, and recognizing the greatness–the size and complexity–of things, as well as considering alternative ways of dealing with them, well, that’s worthwhile, isn’t it?

Drop Everything and Go.

Maybe you don’t know the names Ted Simon or Charley Boorman. That’s okay. I’ll tell you who the two men are. Simon rode his Triumph around the world on an incredible 4-year journey, and Boorman rode a BMW around the globe in 2004 in less than 4 months. They’re dyed in the wool motorcyclists and dedicated adventurers. They love to explore the world and both authors have made livings based on their travels.

I must admit my only exposure to Ted Simon was through the TV mini-series “The Long Way Round,” which chronicled Boorman’s trip from London to New York City with his friend Ewan McGregor. The show is, by the way, worth your time–it’s fun, funny, and will appeal to the adventurer in you, even if you don’t ride a motorcycle or understand why some of us do. Take a minute and look it up, then set some time aside to enjoy a fascinating look at the world from the point of view of a couple of motorcyclists. That said, Simon is, as it turns out, the very model of adventurousness.

But I get ahead of myself. See, I attended the Emirates Literature Festival today in Dubai, and went to a session called “Around the Globe with Charley and Ted,” during which the authors discussed some of their commonalities: how wanderlust struck, how they started their travels, managed to fund them, and so forth. Held in a ballroom at the Intercontinental hotel in Festival City, the event was pretty full. I found an open seat at the front, and enjoyed an hour of the men’s musings.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

Simon’s big journey included run-ins with the law (arrested as a suspected spy, for example), romance, and the momentous discovery that people all over the world are generally nice, welcoming, and helpful. Boorman didn’t get arrested, but found much the same thing–people everywhere, and I mean everywhere, are kind and helpful.

Speaking of countries that are deemed dangerous, Boorman said, “When anything bad happens, the news makes a big deal out of it.” He mentioned 24 hour news networks and the need for them to fill up space and time. “You never see a news reporter saying, ‘I’m here, and there’s nothing happening.'” To illustrate the point, Boorman mentioned looking over rice paddies in northern Iran, in a scene that might have been Thailand, with people working and wonderful agriculture everywhere. This seems a far cry from the image that Fox and the other news networks paint of Iran, doesn’t it?

Many of us don’t realize how much what we see and hear on the news shapes our perceptions. Simon elaborated on the idea, to much the same effect. Don’t forget there are millions of people living absolutely normal lives in most of the countries that are deemed “dangerous” by those selling newspapers. In essence, the world is a safer place than it is made out to be.

Indeed, there were plenty of people who advised me against moving to the UAE–it could be unsafe, it would be hard on Jenia as a woman, and so forth–but most of these people, though meaning well, hadn’t lived here, or even been here. They were all wrong; it’s been a great place for us to live.

Simon said that many people approach him and tell him they’d love to go on a similar adventure, but they can’t, because they have a mortgage, a job, etc. His response was profound: “Drop it all and leave it because you’ll be a much more valuable person when you come back.”

In 2003, I was talking to a friend named Gwen, a woman who was practically a surrogate mom for a while there. “I’d love to go to England,” I told her. “Well, why don’t you go?” She said. I blinked my eyes a few times, processing that. It really was that simple. I could save up some money, quit my meager little job, and go see more of the world. A moment before I hadn’t considered it that clearly. It had seemed like I had shackles holding me back–commitments and stuff–but they didn’t make an ounce of difference. That was more or less the beginning of my serious international explorations.

You’ve seen my posts on here about how living and teaching abroad have changed Jenia and me for the better. At this point, I couldn’t agree more with Simon’s advice. I may not travel the world in as extreme a manner as Simon did, and I may not host a TV show or manage to ride my bike as much as Boorman does his, but in the same manner as these two men, I’ve found a way to fund my globe trotting, to indulge the travel bug and discover that the basic desires of every person on the planet are the same.

If you want to explore, you should. Don’t worry about your place in the pecking order, don’t fret over what you’ll leave behind, just go, because it will change you fundamentally. Fear of leaving the familiar behind and exchanging it for the unfamiliar, fear of dangerous countries, or fear of talking to new people may prevent us leaving our comfort zones. Don’t be afraid. Go.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today's book signing.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today’s book signing.

“Lose Your Shoe?” or “What’s Really Good to Know?”

“Don’t cross your leg and aim your shoe at a guy you’re sitting in a waiting room with,” said the ADEC guy from the stage. “You might as well take it off and hit him across the face with it.”

Thus went the orientation. Oh, that and avoid talking about the politically debated UAE or maybe Iran-owned islands which the Persian Gulf gets its name from–that’s right, because those islands should belong to the UAE, it’s known as the Arabian Gulf in these parts. And don’t use books featuring pigs.

There was more, but the gist of that orientation was that culture is important, and newcomers should be sensitive and respectful. Great advice. If you’re considering a move to the UAE, I can offer a bit of additional insight, though.

What they didn’t cover at that orientation, and what might have been nice to know, is the way the less formal interpersonal, inter-office relationships and politics tend to work.

The best advice I got about that was from a fellow teacher who’d been here longer than I. “Always take the tea,” she said. It’s wise to sit down and have a drink of tea, or coffee, or whatever, to build relationships. “You may think you’ve got too much to do, but people won’t understand that.” She was right. Not least because they, that is the Arabic Medium Teachers, teach a maximum of 20 contact hours per week, when English Medium Teachers do 30. That rather pronounced difference in hours would have been nice to know about ahead of time, because then I could understand why the AMTs were always upbeat and relaxing in the office with the ubiquitous tea or coffee, but I had to wait until I started working to gather that tidbit.

Another bit of knowledge that I have gleaned from experience is that every time you see someone for the first time that day, you’re expected to shake hands. And maybe when you see them the second time, and possibly the third. Besides that, you should also stand whenever you shake hands with your colleagues. My take on shaking hands has always been the first time you meet someone, you rise, shake hands, be kind of formal about things, and then afterward, well, if you’re in the middle of something and someone comes by and reaches for your hand, no problem, shake it, but standing up–not necessary. If my time here, working with guys from Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and so on is any indicator, in the Arab world the expectation is that you show respect for each other by standing whenever you shake hands–first time, etc., ad infinitum. It’s not a hard custom to adjust to, but it’s something I’d love to have known about ahead of time, before I probably made some guys wonder why I was being disrespectful toward them.

Maybe taking the tea was enough to counterbalance that. There is hope.

Let’s return to shoes. Since I’ve dwelled in the UAE, I’ve never inadvertently aimed the sole of my shoe at anyone here. I’ve been really conscious to cross my legs in a discreet fashion. I feel somewhat proud of that.

Now, as I write, there’s a shoe on the ledge just outside my living room window. It came flying upward an hour ago, struck the window gently, and came to a rest behind the wrought iron bars that protect the lower pane of glass from…from, well, maybe soaring shoes? There’s no reason for the bars, as far as I can tell. But bars aside, the flying flip flop strikes me as funny. No matter how much the sole of the shoe is considered horrible and dirty, and hitting someone with a shoe is deemed an astonishing insult (remember the time George W. ducked a shoe tossed at him in Iraq?), the kids in these parts sure take joy in stealing each other’s footwear. I assume one of the many noisy children playing outdoors in the yard stole this one from another child and tossed it in the air as a joke. So far nobody’s shown up to ring the doorbell, so we’ll see what happens with that. Looks like a cheapie, so it might be there until I get tired of looking at it and shove it off the ledge.

In class, my 10th graders run off with each other’s leather sandals. Someone inevitably takes his feet out of his shoes, only to have one of his classmates swipe one and stick it out of sight, under a bag, or, once in a while, in the trash can (there’s also, in my experience, a near-pathological aversion to getting things out of the waste basket). This brings me to another point about teaching ’round here: it would have been nice to know that the maturity of the young people may not be quite to the level I’d been accustomed to in the States.

What’s really good to keep in mind when you’re exploring your international options is that the culture wherever you go will not be the same as home. Compare it and contrast it for a while when you move, because that’s normal, but try to adapt so that you’re comfortable being with people and they’re comfortable with you around. Let the idea that your culture is better, even when you’re right and it is actually better, fall by the wayside–what you’re doing abroad is finding out how others live, and garnering amazing experiences. Temper your expectations about a great teaching and/or living environment with the reality that all places have issues, and you’ll encounter plenty of them. If you have equipped yourself by doing some research, poring over blogs, etc., you’ll have an easier time adjusting. Hopefully my reflections will help you have an easier transition (or, alternatively, provide you a little amusement).