“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).

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