Reverse Culture Shock

This post probably requires a little context, so here it is, in brief. I know I have not specified exactly why I decided to return to the U.S.A. this year, so let me go ahead and lay it out there. My job in Kazan ended after I was offered a revised contract for a new position teaching in the middle school, and besides breaching my existing contract, it also reduced time off and lowered my remuneration, as well as extended things another year. Rather than accept that baloney, I decided to go somewhere else. The separation between my employer and I was generally amicable enough, but I can’t say I’d recommend working for them. Anyway, these last two months have been busy. We relocated from Kazan, Russia, to Bowman, Georgia, carrying the smallest and most manageable amount of belongings we could, and after a month or so, we loaded up a U-Haul with considerably more stuff and drove across the country. There’s all the context needed and then some.

Another day, another #highway. #Colorado

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Now, before returning home, I’d heard more than one account of reverse culture shock: the shockingly difficult readjustment to Home. Folks who have lived abroad and made the return write blog posts that make it sound like the worst thing ever. It is bound to be a stressful process, after all, fitting back into a place that has moved on without you, or, perhaps even harder to cope with, hasn’t moved on at all, and therefore hasn’t changed to keep pace with your evolving view of the world. Your Home friends haven’t traveled abroad extensively (or at all), lived as a welcome minority in a Muslim country, learned how to speak survival Russian, or discovered in a meaningful way that people are basically the same everywhere. Essentially, you and your Home friends will have a lot less in common than before you set off on your grand adventures, trotting the globe. At least that’s what the reverse culture shock fear mongers say.

What the shockers are saying is not without merit. We had little reason to doubt that it would be hard coming Home. We’d had inklings of this seismic shift between ourselves and our Home friends before, when during our return trips we’d recounted memorable tales from our travels and our friends’ eyes glazed over as they tolerated our ramblings, either unable to connect on most levels with them, or else entirely uninterested in what irrelevant strangeness we’d encountered. To be truthful, we quickly learned not to tell stories, unless someone specifically asked for one.

Not a bad view, huh?

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#Utah is #beautiful.

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However, coming home has been easy. Of course, coming home hasn’t ended up as coming Home. The reason we trucked across the country is because one of my friends who shared the wonderfully bizarre experience of living and teaching in Abu Dhabi, and who returned last year, helped me get a job working alongside him at a middle school in the Salt Lake City area. Accordingly, we’ve moved to a new state and settled into a new culture that is notably different from Georgia, with breathtaking scenery to boot, so it’s not Home home, although it is our home country. Utah is so different from Georgia, actually, that as we have been getting accustomed to the area, Jenia has more than once caught herself thinking, “This reminds me of the U.S.,” only to have to laugh and say, “This IS the U.S.!”

Georgia mountains look like this.

#Georgia #mountains are beautiful. #RabunCounty #GA

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Whereas Utah mountains look like this.

Exploring #Utah with #Triumph #RAT #riders on the weekend. The #Thruxton enjoyed itself.

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Anyhow, I am not saying that reverse culture shock doesn’t exist. I’m not saying everyone will have a smooth experience upon returning. As for these expats, though, we’ve been lucky enough that coming home hasn’t been a big jolt.

Regarding future teaching adventures and travels abroad, stay tuned. The traveling life is not over.

 

 

 

 

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A Week in Russia. Back in the USSR.

It’s bizarre to be back in Russia.

Despite what many people seem to think, I did not move “back home”. To begin with, I’ve never been to this part of Russia before, but even moving to the town I’m originally from wouldn’t have been moving home. In the past 8 years, I haven’t spent more than 2 weeks at a time in Russia. The country has changed dramatically, and so have I (life does that to you, and immigrant/expat life even more so).

Yes, I speak the language but I speak English, too, and linguistically didn’t feel out of place either in the US or in the UAE. Yes, I know the history, and the literature, and the cultural references, but I don’t know any of the recent movies, TV-stars or music (by choice, mostly). I am not used to hearing Russian anymore and I find myself having trouble understanding some of the local accents. “Sorry” slips off my tongue before I check myself and say “Простите” instead. I have no idea where to look for a nanny, how to pay a phone bill, or where to buy a measuring cup. It’s an odd place to be.

Overall, though, it’s been a good experience so far. As Shon said, the city is very clean and (overgrown lawns and notorious Russian roads aside) rather well-maintained. People are overwhelmingly friendly and helpful. That part in itself simply blows my mind. In my 24 years in Russia before I moved away, I have never seen a post office worker as friendly as the 2 that I encountered this week.

Here are a couple of things I forgot about: decor & clothes. The style of interior decorating is, should we say, unique. To put it in less flattering terms, I wouldn’t be caught dead buying these curtains and chandeliers. And the wallpaper on every single wall in the apartment but the bathroom ones? Yes, kitchen, too. Not my cup of tea. Thank God for good old IKEA with its plain stuff that allows me to tone things down a notch.

As for clothes, people just dress differently. There are quite a few stylish young people (mostly girls) around, but a lot of the choices make one wonder. I am curious whether we stand out much – it surely seems that I may be the only under-40 woman in town wearing boot-cut jeans 🙂 Turtle definitely stands out – he and the other expat kids were the only ones wearing short-sleeved shirts at the playground the other day. The local children were in fleece, or sweatshirts and sweatpants, or full-on jackets, and ALL of them wore beanie hats. The temps were in the upper 60’s. We surely got some stares and were probably considered lacking in basic child-rearing skills.

Grocery shopping is interesting. I anticipated some difficulties due to the sanctions, but things are never as you expect them to be. For example, I found Parmesan but not fresh corn or any kind of squash (fresh broccoli is elusive, too). Wholewheat flour and brown rice cannot be found even at the fanciest of the city’s supermarkets (iHerb, what would we do without you?) and vegetarian products wether soy or myco-protein based are unheard of.

Shopping in general is kind of weird – I miss being able to walk into a CVS (an American chain of pharmacies) and buy milk, pain killer, new nail polish, and a roll of scotch tape all in one place. Here, it requires going to at least 3 different stores. While it may not be a problem if you live or work downtown, it’s quite annoying when you are in the outskirts, carless, and dragging a toddler around.

I’m okay, though. Confused and exhausted, maybe, but fine overall. At the end of the day, being next to Shon & Little Turtle is all that really matters.

An Ending Continues

Our tenure in Al Ain, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has come to an end. I’m not writing from the UAE. No, I’m in a comfortable home that belongs to my relative, with green grass and leafy trees outside the airy, expansive living room. There are clouds in the beautiful blue sky, and it looks like rain is coming. This is definitely not the UAE.

As the ending continues, I’ve received my end of service payment and transferred the money home. It’s a nice nest egg that makes some of the struggles of the last few years a more pleasant memory. I had no unapproved days off, and my term of employment started almost exactly 3 years ago, so the sum was more or less what I was expecting, with the added bonus of the airfare amount being a little higher than we’d hoped for. My extremely helpful friend in Al Ain has yet to hear from ADCP about the housing deposit refund (4,000 AED, no small amount of money), but she will pick up the check and put it in the bank for me ASAP.  After that is done, our last remaining financial ties to the UAE will be cut.

#boylovesairports #dxb Turtle said "good-bye" to Dubai today.

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The last couple of days in Al Ain went like one would expect–trying to reduce possessions to the bare minimum, weeding out things we wanted to keep and things we could do without, packing the suitcases full, soaking up Al Ain life, as well as enjoying hotel’s amenities and saying goodbyes to many good people we may never see again. We flew out in the morning on Saturday, hauling more luggage than we ever have before, and hopefully more than we will again.

“I hope there’s no small child in front of me,” Jenia said, pushing her baggage cart through the airport. She could see in front of her, so I’m not sure what she was worried about. Granted, she did have to crane her neck and peer over a barely balancing toddler car seat perched atop the hulking stack of luggage, but surely she wouldn’t have actually run over any small life forms in her way.

No more #PalmTrees in a week. #AlAin #AbuDhabi #UAE

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At home in the USA for a week now, we’ve been struck by things like polite drivers, the lushness of the southeast, the ease with which we can communicate, the variety of colors and textures of buildings. As Jenia says, the houses and yards offer a sense of personal identity, which contrasts with the UAE’s impersonal but often imposing homes.

Thus, we’re nearly through with our UAE journey. It’s been trying, but rewarding, and I would judge it thoroughly worth doing. The ending continues until the last bit of money comes in…

“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).

Plugging In

This image is from http://www.aaec.com.

I’ve probably ranted and raved about what it’s like experiencing culture shock.  I (Shon) had all the symptoms–getting fed up easily with the hooligans in class, or royally pissed off at the lunatic drivers; being aggravated easily and feeling generally that every single thing about this place sucks.  There were days when I’d have happily hopped on a plane and kissed Abu Dhabi goodbye forever.

Now there are a bunch of factors involved in culture shock and the adjustment to it, don’t get me wrong.  However, there are two things in particular that have helped me and the wife to get over our culture shock.  All in all, at this point I’ve ended up quite enjoying living abroad (albeit not necessarily the job that brought me here).  So what’s the easiest way to build a sense of belonging as a foreigner in this desert land?  For us, there have been two things.

First, we kept in touch with the contacts we made when we moved here; people who I met on the airplane and at the Intercontinental. It’s great that we have friends who have been here exactly the same amount of time and who have shared the same experience all the way.

Second, we got involved in a small group that Al Ain Evangelical Church sponsors. The few times we went to church we met some nice people, but then we didn’t see them again.  We had no reason to, after all. Eventually we decided to check out a small group for young marrieds because we got invited to it several times by people that Jenia photographed (she’s good–shameless plug here).  It ended up that the group made us feel comfortable right off the bat, and before long, we felt it becoming a staple of our week.

At this point, the small group is really important to us as a source of spiritual growth, support, and friendship. Within the group we’ve met some really neat people from all over the world who share similar interests.  We’ve had encouragement at timely moments from within the group, too.  Once, when I was in the doldrums, trying to cope with the craziness of my work environment and the nuttiness of culture shock, I was offered this nugget of wisdom about looking for other employment here: “the grass is not greener on the other side: there’s just more sand.  It may be combed and raked more neatly, but it’s just sand.”  That helped me revise my viewpoint on work and tough it out until the shock receded.

If you’re here and you’re in a similarly culture-shocked (entirely normal, by the way) state, I’d suggest getting yourself plugged in somewhere.  Socializing with only the people you know from the trip over can easily turn into a gripe fest, doing nobody any good.  It’s a good idea to expand your circle and try to meet other people who’ve been here a bit longer.  Maybe you’re not interested in church, but if you are, swing on by (if you can find the church–it’s a challenge, with the poor signage) and see about a small group.  You may find it to be just what you need.

Nuts.

That’s how life is here. Completely, totally nuts.

A few brief examples: today, the day before Eid al Adha, there were probably 25 kids who showed up at school. The holiday starts tomorrow. Because there were so few of them, no classes were held. The two-day holiday is implicitly at least a three day one.

That said, the principal made no announcement to the faculty. In fact, I’m not sure he was even at work.

As a result, this was the most productive work day I’ve had in some time. I got some grading done, and planning, and I had time to get organized and get to know my fellow English teachers, too.

In other words, it was the best day at school of the year so far, other than the first couple of honeymoon weeks, before all the bad kids started coming to school.

In the course of talking with my fellow teachers, I found out that I’m not alone in having some difficulty explaining to others back home what life and work here is like. We agreed that this place is just bizarre. It almost has to be experienced in order to be understood. It’s simultaneously wonderful and horrible, beautiful and ugly, amazing and exasperating. I sometimes think of it as a third-world country in first-world clothes.

The example of how the school schedule works is just one of many that indicate how ridiculous some things are here. It is taken for granted that schools will ignore the actual schedule and allow everyone an extra day off (except us teachers, who they tried to get to stay until 2:50pm. When my coworkers and I left, it was not 2:00 yet, and there was not a single administrator or Arabic teacher on the grounds). It seems that the schools themselves are reflections of how society here works and doesn’t work.

Yesterday it was decided, without ever informing the faculty, that students would be allowed to leave early. Here are some stragglers heading for the exits.

We can look around at the unchanging weather and the desert, and we can say, “Oh, yeah, I see how it’s possible for a people to care very little about time schedules, because the land itself never changes. What’s it matter if you’re a day late, or a couple days late, or if you never get around to doing whatever it is anyway? Nothing really changes.” But that mindset doesn’t exactly foster a work ethic, a competitive spirit, or a forward-thinking culture.

On Thursday afternoons (remember, the weekend here is Friday and Saturday), ADEC’s local offices close early. That is, they unofficially do, because everyone clears out as soon as they can possibly manage. It’s pretty aggravating when you’ve driven across town and then discover the people you need to see aren’t around.

ADEC has a wonderful curriculum in place for the public schools in Abu Dhabi. I mean it. It’s really very solid. But implementing a challenging curriculum in a place which is much more about looking good than working hard is well nigh impossible.

What makes it that way? Let me tell a story to present you with what I’ve observed. An exceptionally gifted student hung around the English office today, chatting with us. He asked me what I think of the UAE. I hesitated. “It’s okay,” he said. “Really.” So, I told him what I told you, my dear reader, in my opening paragraph. He smiled and nodded.

“What do you think of the schools here?” He asked. “Are the ones in the USA better?”

I didn’t try to hide my chuckle. “They are much better,” I told him. And I worked at a school that was one of the worst in the state of Georgia.

This student wasn’t surprised by my response.  “What do you think is the problem?” he said. “Is it the school system?” He seemed to think that’s what I would blame for the educational situation.

“No,” I said, “I think the educational system is excellent. Now, you’ve been here a lot longer than I have,” I said, “So tell me if you agree. This is what I think the problem is: lack of discipline. There’s no discipline in the schools, and there’s no discipline anywhere else. Furthermore, nobody takes responsibility for anything. So that’s what I think: lack of discipline and responsibility. What do you think?”

He agreed wholeheartedly without a moment’s pause, and even offered examples of what he thought would happen if students from the UAE were to go to other countries.

Now, you’re saying to yourself, Shon, that’s all that’s nuts? You say the whole place is nuts because students don’t go to school sometimes, and because there’s a lack of discipline and responsibility?

Well. Mumpkin (that means “maybe” in Arabic). The thing is, the lack of discipline and responsibility is pervasive here.

Not at the top–obviously there has been quite a vision and stunning execution of that vision from those who are in power. In 1964 (I think that’s the right year, the early ’60s anyway), there were only 1,800 people in Al Ain. Now there are 300,000. And the place is well-laid out with great roads and such. There are wonderful homes and lovely parks. There are many shopping malls and other entirely first-class accommodations in various spheres.

But, at the same time as there are these great roads, there are crazy drivers who make driving anywhere a stressful experience. The worst ones seem to be Emirati. They’re aggressive, rude, and downright belligerent behind the wheel. Which, you must understand, is a contradiction in itself, because Emiratis are typically rather ordinary and nice people, courteous and helpful. I’m not saying that just because I live here–it’s because it’s true. The youth are, although irresponsible and immature (think 5th graders in 12th grader bodies), actually likable and amusing. They’re happy to share about their culture and such, and entirely tolerant of divergent beliefs and so forth.

Anyway, it seems like the vision and the motivation that comes from above breaks down along the line. Somewhere somebody shirks responsibility, and things don’t function precisely. What we’d probably designate “common sense” often gets thrown out the window. So you have a place where the technological infrastructure is so good that I can purchase automobile insurance and 30 seconds after I’ve paid for it, I receive a text message on my phone from the bank notifying me of the use of my debit card. In the space of a minute, I received another text, this one from the insurance company itself, thanking me for choosing them. And yet, this same place is where there is a crew of Pakistani men out sweeping the streets–with brooms–in the morning as I go to work. Perhaps the Pakistanis work cheaper than an actual street-sweeper vehicle. I don’t know.

I’m told it’s illegal for people to grow crops on non-commercial property, such as the yard of this villa, where you see a crop of alfalfa in the foreground. But it’s done anyway, and evidently there is no fear whatsoever of repercussions, as there are actually hired hands harvesting away while I was there.

To return to my school as an example, this is a place where I punch a code and have my fingerprint scanned every day when I arrive to work and leave. Yet classes are overloaded with 30+ students of all ability levels, and there are computers so old they’re barely able to run the Toshiba smart projectors that are in the classrooms.

It’s a place where the legal driving age is 18, but my 10th graders who are 15 years old are driving, unaccompanied, in Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols and nobody bats an eye. It’s a place where yesterday I saw a bright blue Lamborghini Murcielago–that’s one of the world’s most expensive and desirable supercars, in case you didn’t know–piloted by a man in a kandora, with a woman wearing her abaya in the passenger seat. And a child standing over the shifter in the middle of the console.  And yeah, there are seat belt laws.

Where is the common sense, discipline, or responsibility in any of this? Why create laws and not enforce them?

Because of the reflection in the windows, it’s hard to discern who is where in the 2-seat sports car next to mine. But there’s a little kid in there in the middle.

The Lambo and the kid riding so unsafely in it brings to mind another thing that I find irreconcilable. Family. Here it is incredibly important. Families are large. It helps that men can marry up to four women simultaneously, so he can really spread his seed around in a hurry. The family structure is important–the men do their macho things in the desert with camels (see my earlier post), the women do their things in the towns with the kids. And the maids. But that’s another story. Children are valued, and by looking at a person’s name, it’s easy to track a good part of their family history. I gather that family history is much more important to these people than it is to my countrymen back home. Here it’s taken for granted that you know a lot of genealogy. Anyway, to make my point: how does it make sense that you value your family so much, yet you simultaneously value your children so little that you’re zooming through town without even making your kid sit down (never mind putting him in a child seat or even a seat belt)?  And, if you’re saying, well, Shon, that’s an isolated incident, I can tell you more about the times that I’ve seen 7 and 8 year-olds riding around gleefully in their parents Mercedes, torsos protruding from the open sunroofs. It happens so frequently that I don’t even give it more than passing notice anymore.

I still can’t wrap my head around the way things are here. I’m starting to adjust to it being the way it is, though, and that’s making it easier to reside where I am.  Anyway, it’s nuts.

_____________________________________

Addendum: don’t take me to be biting the hand that feeds me.  I don’t have anything against ADEC.  In fact, I admire what they’re trying to do, and I’m cerebrally quite pleased to be part of it.  I’m simply still struggling to understand how things work here.