Bubbles

My Facebook circle is pretty diverse (which is more or less an accident). I am friends with people from a variety of countries and probably half of the US states. There are engineers, IT specialists, medical professionals, ministers, human rights activists, designers, accountants, lawyers, scientists, yoga instructors, artists in a broad sense of the word, and a ton of educators. My circle includes Catholics, Russian Orthodox, all kinds of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and, I believe, at least one Pastafarian. The range of political views is just as wide. Still, I can’t pretend I’m not living in a bubble because out of my 457 FB friends there are only 27 people of color. That’s less than 6%. I am purposefully trying to diversify and look for interesting people to follow but I am not very good at this yet.

It’s funny, isn’t it? In the year 2017, the world is at our fingertips. It’s never been this easy to stay in touch with friends and family or find a long-lost childhood friend. Yet somehow, instead of becoming more and more open to the world and each other, we tend to reinforce the walls of our bubble to drain out any voices different from our own. I would like to hope that most of us don’t do it purposefully, that we simply don’t give it any thought, that we were born into this bubble and never even realized it was there.

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The presence of the bubble may not be our fault, but I believe that breaking free from it is our responsibility. It may take a lifetime; it may be something we will never truly achieve but we sure can try.

If most of the people in your circle look, talk, and think like you do, I challenge you to talk to somebody different. Listen to somebody with a different skin color, a different religious background, a different socio-economic status. Listen to a legal immigrant, listen to an illegal immigrant, listen to a refugee. Listen to a woman who went to the March for Life and to the woman who went to the Women’s March. Listen to hear, not to reply. At least once a week, read an article from a news source you don’t normally read (sometimes the headlines alone can make my blood boil or my eyes roll but I do read because I want to understand where people are coming from). Read a book about the subject you know little about (extra points if it’s written by someone whose views are not exactly the same as yours). Google. Research. Go to the source. Ask questions to learn rather than to trick or prove wrong. Keep in mind (and gosh, this is hard) that if we disagree, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other side is stupid and/or closed-minded. It usually means that at least one side (and ouch, it can be yours!) is misinformed or is seeing the issue from a different angle.

You see, I am challenging myself to do all of this, too, and I need good company.

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That Time I Was Ashamed

Several years ago, Shon & I enjoyed a short trip to Washington D.C.. I loved the National Mall, stood in awe in front of the statue of Lincoln, and wished I could spend a lifetime at the Smithsonian. It was the Holocaust Museum though that shook me to the core and left the most lasting impression. I did expect to be moved by it but I did not know that it wouldn’t be the photographs of starving children or the piles of leather shoes that would bring me to tears. What broke me down was a rather small paragraph of text close to the end of the exhibit detailing the American response to Jewish refugees. As bizarre as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve been more ashamed in my life than I was at that moment. I remember reading about a ship full of Jews being turned around and sent back to Europe (over a quarter of those on the ship ended up dying in the Holocaust) and about Dominican Republic willing to accept more Jewish refugees than any of the first world countries. Since then I have learned that even Japan, Germany’s ally in WWII, saved thousands of Jews. The US though? The self-proclaimed Christian nation? Well, both the population and the government felt that accepting refugees would be too much for the economy, the argument of “they’ll take our jobs” was rather popular, and, well, anti-semitism was no joke.

Does any of it sound familiar?

Today, many of the same people who would agree that the United States should have done more during Holocaust are those adamantly opposed to bringing in Syrian refugees. Without even realizing it, they are using the same arguments their parents and grandparents used 70-something years ago.

Friends, if you call yourself Christian, does your Bible have different footnotes from mine? Is there an asterisk next to Matthew 25:35 that clarifies that “I was a stranger and you invited me in” only refers to said strangers of the same color/nationality/religious affiliation?

I understand some of the fear, I really do. It’s hard to open your heart to someone you don’t know and don’t understand, someone who seems so different from you at a first glance. I know that the potential threat of terrorism can be debilitating. But while it’s potential for us, it is very real for the people fleeing Syria. They have lived through horrors we can barely imagine. They have taken risks we’ve never contemplated. They have made choices I pray I never have to make.

To me, the idea of a child being shot at school by his caucasian classmate is just as scary as the idea of being shot at a concert by an ISIS member. The scarier thing though? Allowing fear to rob me of compassion, humanity, and willingness to take a risk of getting to know someone different.

At the Holocaust Museum in D.C., there is a room called “Genocide: the Threat Continues”. Its purpose is to bring attention to people at risk of mass atrocities. Right now, this room is hosting an exhibit on what the Museum calls “one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time” – the crisis in Syria. And since these people know a thing or two about genocide, it may be worth listening to what they have to say.

A Top 10 List: What’s Surprising?

Having been to Russia a few times, Ukraine once, and other Eastern European nations, I don’t always notice the things a newcomer would. I don’t even find things that once surprised me remarkable, tending to forget, instead, that anyone might actually be interested in reading about them. Yet, undoubtedly, there’s quite a few quirks one has to adjust to in this sprawling, chilly land. Here’s a selection of unusual things you might encounter on a daily basis in this neck of the woods.

  1. Trees wearing white paint. Actually, I think it’s lime. The purpose? Er, I don’t know.
  2. Toilets which you can’t flush toilet paper down, along with a little trashcan sitting nearby for your used tissue. Only problematic if there’s no waste basket nearby.
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    No basket. Problem?

    3. Shopping centers, train stations, and other large foot-traffic areas with only a few of their many doors unlocked and open. Typically requires you to zig-zag. Let the cursing ensue.

4.  Heating cranked up indoors. This is a cool weather thing, of course, not  a summer time issue. Only surprising when you realize that there’s no control over said heating in your apartment, except maybe to disable it altogether.

5. Heating cranked up in public transportation. All modes. Taxis, buses, you name it. Sweat much?

6. No lawn mowers. Who cares for the many shabby, overgrown outdoor spaces around apartment buildings and alongside secondary streets? Nobody, it appears, except for on rare special occasions.

7. Early sunrise and late sunset in summer. This is a product of latitude, of course.

8. Late sunrise and early sunset in winter. Nothing makes you want to stay in bed more than the sun staying away.

9. Price tags for ordinary goods with numbers in the thousands. Generally goods aren’t too pricey, but you’ll do a double take as you remind yourself of the exchange rate.

10. Soup, sour cream, and cabbage are ubiquitous. “I can’t imagine a day without having soup,” a guy told me a couple weeks ago. Of course, the soups here are good, so why not have ’em regularly?

The Immigrant Worker

The name of our blog is “Vantage Points,” and much of what we choose to write about is accordingly about our view of life. We write about our experiences with the ADEC odyssey, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of expat life, and the new perspectives a person gains from seeing life from a new location, station, and position in life. We write about things we learn from listening carefully to others. Remember that post about Syria a year or so ago, or the one about a conversation with Saudi parents? We find our conceptions challenged sometimes, but more often our preconceptions, the ones we never gave much thought to, are the ones that end up being altered as we encounter life on a fuller scale than we did before.

One such conception, preconception, misconception, has been running through my mind a lot lately (Shon writing, by the way). See, when I resided in Georgia (the southeastern USA, not the country in Europe), I identified a disconcerting trend that was going on particularly before the recession of 2008. There was a massive influx of migrant workers from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking nations south of the American border. More often than not, it seemed that those folks were illegal aliens, and it was changing the face of the country I was accustomed to. The axe to grind was that these immigrants were stealing jobs a good ol’ red-blooded ‘Merican could be doing.

Yes, I was familiar with the argument that my fellow Georgians weren’t interested in working the sort of jobs farmed out to immigrants—the kind requiring real labor—but that argument never held much water for me, as I personally didn’t shy away from doing whatever kind of work I could find if I was really in need of it. I’ve worked on people’s yards, in chicken houses, hayfields, mopped floors, and done other menial tasks. I’ve also had easy but mindless jobs in retail stores, and discouragingly low-wage work in schools. It’s all part of the struggle to make ends meet and rise from one pay scale to another. But my personal history doesn’t matter much other than that—I’m willing, and always have been, to do what I need to in order to pay bills and provide for myself and others. Most of us humans are willing to do the same, aren’t we?

Now how many of those seemingly illegal immigrants I encountered fleetingly on the streets did I know for sure were not supposed to be in the country? Hm. Not many. One or two.

I heard tell of the chicken plant in Habersham County being visited by the authorities and the many Mexican workers holing up in a trailer, waiting quietly until the coast was clear and then emerging and getting back to work. That’s unverified hearsay. I sold plenty of merchandise to Spanish-speakers. Mostly they paid in cash, which I gradually realized was good for business.

What jobs were the Mexicans doing? Backbreaking work in the summer heat, temporary day-to-day jobs in construction, seasonal jobs that couldn’t be relied on for the long term, dirty jobs in Chicken processing plants, stuff like that. The kind of jobs that a person tries to avoid, to be sure. Nonetheless, jobs a fellow Georgian could do.

I remember standing in my easy but low-paying job in an outlet store in Commerce, telling my coworker, “I have just one thing to say to people who come here to work—learn English.” In my mind it was important that we all be able to communicate. At least that’s one part of what was in my mind.

And then I became an immigrant myself. I am not at the top of the pecking order in employment or citizenship anymore, a privilege I never even considered or realized I possessed when I lived back home.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in the UAE, importing our customs to this foreign country.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in the UAE, importing our customs to this foreign country.

Yes, I became the very person who moved to another country, took a job that a local could probably do (okay, not very well, all things considered, but still, it’s within the realm of possibility), and didn’t learn the language.

“Learn English,” I once said. Well, I also once thought I’d learn Arabic when I was getting ready to move. Yet I haven’t, because I simply don’t need it very often. Perhaps if I were interacting with locals more often, I’d get to know more. I’d have a reason to, after all.

But it’s hard to relate to locals. Their culture is drastically different than mine. I know that we’re all human beings with the same basic needs and desires, but the way we live on a daily basis is pronouncedly different. Our commonalities are there, but they’re concealed beneath the layers of dissimilar day-to-day routines. My family is in bed and asleep by 9 or 10 every night. The locals are outside with their children until then, and often later. We don’t nap in the middle of the afternoon, but they do. We eat at normal Western hours. They eat at different times that make some kind of sense if you nap part of the day and stay up really late at night. We spend time together, male and female, and want to socialize that way. They don’t.

I send much of my earnings home every month, instead of spending my cash freely like the citizens here. What’s more, I’m not here for the long term and have no intention whatsoever of spending more than a few years total in the UAE. So how much energy does it even make sense for me to expend on learning Arabic, adapting to local customs, or what have you?

What I was really saying back home, when I was bitching about Mexicans speaking Spanish instead of English was, “Be acculturated.” That’s entirely reasonable if you marry into a different culture. You take it upon yourself that you’ll adapt to a new way of doing things that will span a lifetime. My wife did it. Living abroad as a worker isn’t that at all. For most, it’s a temporary station in life.

When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Fit in.” But why bother? The biggest reason I’m still in the UAE is to make some extra dough to improve life in my native country.

I said “Learn English,’ but I meant, “Why do you pile seven people into a small car?” Now I carpool as much as possible, so I can send more money home.

When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Don’t be so different.” But my deeply ingrained culture as an American is a major factor keeping me from fitting in with the locals.

I said “Learn English” while thinking “Why are you hanging out in groups of your own people instead of making friends with us Americans?” And then I discovered that I hang out with people who are like me when I have the chance. These people might be from different countries, but they speak English, and they identify with me—we undergo the same challenges in our working environments, and we have the same goals in life.

Besides celebrating our own traditions, we enjoy the local ones as well, such as National Day. Here, a Mercedes sedan flaunts a window appliqué with questionable grammar.

Besides celebrating our own traditions, we enjoy the local ones as well, such as National Day. Here, a Mercedes sedan flaunts a window appliqué with questionable grammar.

I said “Learn English” and thought smugly that was all it would take to make a Mexican more like me.

I was completely wrong.

What would have helped a Mexican be more like me? Inviting him to come have dinner or a drink. Meeting him to play a game of soccer (he’d kick my ass at it), or toss a baseball around. I could have made an effort to use my rapidly deteriorating Spanish I learned as a student. You know, I could have invited him to church. Anyway, what it amounts to is not really that he would have then been more like me, either. Maybe, though, I could have helped him feel comfortable and welcome in a foreign land.

So when I said “Learn English,” what I was really saying was, “I don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like to be an immigrant worker living in a foreign country where lots of things are different.” I was saying, “I’m totally clueless. I’m a naïve and inconsiderate young man.” I stereotyped people freely, and I didn’t know how to relate.

Here’s what I’m getting at. I may not be exactly like a Mexican working in the USA, and a Mexican may not be exactly like me, working in the UAE. But as an immigrant worker, I now understand that what we are doing, Mexican or otherwise, is trying to build a better future for ourselves and our families, doing what we must to get by, and adapting as we see necessary. My vantage point has changed. Thank God.

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?