Not to Be Missed: Annual Al Ain Life Event for Newbies

While we may not be in the UAE anymore, I cannot help but advertise the annual Al Ain Life event for the new teachers, doctors, and other professionals (and families). It’s a great way to meet people, have your questions answered, find someone to take you dune-bashing, and get recommendations for the best hair-dresser in town (it’s Joanna Graville, by the way.) Please see the flyers below for more info!

Advertisements

Racism, the Rebel Flag, and the USA

Racism is front and center in the American consciousness right now, judging by the amount of media coverage that the subject has received in the last few months, as well as the current kerfuffle involving the rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol.

My perspective on the rebel flag is one colored by spending the first part of my life in the American North (Maine), and more than half in the South (Georgia). Simply put, I never witnessed racism in Maine (mind you, it’s probably there), but I sure saw a lot of it in Georgia. I saw racism from, God help us, church people more than once. As time went on, I saw it reciprocated from people white and black, crossing any type of racial divide.

We all know about the history of the southern freedman after the Civil War–a burst of great freedom and triumph followed by startling, ugly repression and the emergence of Jim Crow, and of course the struggle for meaningful freedom that followed for years afterward. As for the flag–most people in rural Georgia explain that they fly the rebel flag not out of hatred toward black people, not out of a spirit of rebellion toward the Union, but as a means of remembering the conflict that spilled so much blood on the red clay. Some might say it’s simply a symbol of the South, as well, which certainly does have a different culture from other regions. I accept those sentiments to an extent, but if we’re going to acknowledge that the confederate battle flag isn’t always flown in a spirit of malice, we must also acknowledge that the flag exists because it was spawned by a treasonous segment of the USA, a segment in open rebellion, a segment which sought to preserve its power and wealth based on the exploitation of an entire race. Given this, it isn’t even remotely appropriate to fly the confederate flag over a state capitol. Fly it over graves of Confederate soldiers. Fly it at museums and memorials to the Civil War (and incidentally, isn’t the flag in South Carolina actually at a memorial, not over the State House?); these are places where it’s appropriate. Fly it on your own private property, for whatever reason you want–you might have honest-to-goodness noble reasons, and it’s your right, anyway. The Georgia state flag that flew from the 1950s until it was replaced in 2001.

Confederate flag controversy sure isn’t new in the South. When governor Roy Barnes got rid of the Georgia state flag that prominently featured the confederate banner in 2001, that was a change for the better. Why South Carolina still flies the flag on State House grounds, God only knows. Or, actually, history tells us quite clearly. I’ve been googling. It is because people hate change.

After all, we cling to the familiar, often unreasoningly, just like an immature little child. But we must develop. We must grow, getting wiser along the way, adapting, broadening, always getting better. And change we have. Look at the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. Say it’s about time, or say it’s the end of the civilized world as we know it, say what you want about that, but change is upon us. It’s the only thing truly inevitable in life.

The world is evolving. Trade, travel, and communication are easier now than ever before, both on a local and worldwide scale. You can buy goods made in Malaysia, whip our your handy dandy iPhone that was assembled in China, and Skype family members or friends all over the globe, literally seeing what they’re up to, as long as you have an internet connection.

Speaking of the internet, the wealth of information at your fingertips also allows you to find out more about a place or culture than ever before, quick as a wink. I can chat with an Indian and find out religious views (“We compartmentalize our gods, but you have just one,” said a guy named Sharma). I can find out about the history of any nation or obscure military conflict I wish. As I read more and interact more, I discover a simple truth. There isn’t any reason for racism to continue. By now we should recognize how very much alike we all are. No matter where we’re from or what skin tone we’re endowed with, we have the same basic desires and the same basic needs; by the same means, we should understand that people and cultures are naturally different. Those differences are what make the world an interesting place. Everyone doesn’t need to be like us, and we don’t need to be like everyone else.

Earlier I said travel is easier now than ever before, and I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of that. Having touched the ground in 30 countries or so, I’ve discovered another truth. Racism isn’t an exclusively American problem. It’s worldwide, y’all.  I’ve observed Russian people look down on Indians. I’ve seen Chinese people turn up their noses at Malaysians. I’ve watched Arabs treat Pakistanis like they’re dirt. Obviously, it’s very human to view yourself as better than someone else. You might say that the fires of hatred are easily stoked. You’d be right.

Even so, racism isn’t pervasive. For every hateful, bigoted, racist person I’ve ever met, I’ve met six, eight, or twenty times as many who aren’t. I’ve encountered more kind, honest, good-natured, helpful people than I can count.

The USA doesn’t need to make first steps in solving the racial problem, since those were made long ago. It needs to acknowledge that there is a lingering problem, one which needs to be dealt with in a meaningful way. If removing a flag is all it takes to make a move in the right direction, then why shouldn’t that be done? If we can stop adding fuel to the fire, and instead be part of a solution to the larger issue, we’re remiss not to.

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?

“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).

Making a Life

When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here.  Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community.  It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic.  I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English.  It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country.  I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open.  Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats.  Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.

Kabs (spelling?), freshly made at the Yemeni place.  Ever so tasty.

Kabs (spelling?), bread freshly made at the Yemeni place. Ever so tasty.

For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area.  We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group.  I was invited to play with the church band.  We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.

So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove?  It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):

On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center.  There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward.  Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given).  Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.

We're now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

We’re now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that.  She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow.  It’s great.

Jenia's photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam.

Jenia’s photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam, and I like it.

I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events.  It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad.  Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before.  We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before.  We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.

Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.”  I smile.  I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now.  I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for.  I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.

Being Pregnant in the UAE

Before I begin the actual post, I would love to express our gratitude for all the views, likes, comments, and follows.  We feel lucky to be able to get exposure to different perspectives – and to be able to share our findings with others.  Also, we are thrilled to be featured on Freshly Pressed again. Thank you, Michelle!

Now, to the subject infinitely small from the World’s perspective, and paramount from ours.

I am 38 weeks pregnant today. For those blissfully unaware of what it means: our baby boy  (lovingly called the Blob and/or Шонович (son of Shon) until the name is revealed) can make his appearance any day now.  In reality, it’s more like any day within the next 4 weeks, but we’re hoping he won’t make us wait that long.

The Blob is our first child, so I cannot really compare being pregnant in the UAE to being pregnant anywhere else in the world.  Not from personal experience, anyway.  Still, I would like to share some things that struck me as unusual – all in a good way.

We might have mentioned before that children are viewed completely differently in this part of the world.  On one hand, it means that we’ve never seen such a high concentration of spoiled brats anywhere else.  On the other hand, it means being moved to the front of the line at the hospital or airport security checks if you have a child in tow.  It means that a stone-faced Emirati man who would not acknowledge you were you on your own, is going to melt down and coo at your baby or toddler.  It means that once you are at a bank,  restaurant, government office – you name it – there’s a good chance your baby will be patted on the cheek/kissed/passed around by the employees.  It’s not for the germaphobes and the faint of heart, but there is nothing perverted about it: little kids are adored here (and it’s a bonus if they are blonde and blue-eyed.)

You don’t get quite as much attention being pregnant, but you still get plenty.  I was surprised to see Shon’s students (high-school boys) express great interest in my pregnancy. All of his boys I met so far wanted to know how far along I was, the due date, the gender, the name – everything!  I saw plenty of teenage boys back home having great fun playing with older babies and toddlers, but pregnancy just doesn’t seem to be something they are comfortable with.  These teens, however, are used to someone in the family constantly being pregnant and having babies.  They get quite confused on finding out we’ve been married for over 5 years and this is our first child.  “Why?” – they ask, “you should have at least 3 by now!”

One of the perks of being pregnant here is getting free stuff, and I don’t mean some kind of Publix coupons-for-babies program, I mean small businesses, mom and pop stores.  It’s always something small, but it’s a great pleasure, anyway, when you are handing over the money, and the man or woman points and your stomach and says, “No, no! Gift for baby!”  It’s mind-blowing, really.  You are a stranger in a strange land, thousands of miles away from family, and total strangers want to share your joy and bless you in some small way.

IMG_0026

I was buying a burqa from this Omani lady, but when she saw my bulging belly, the gave the money right back to me.

Another fantastic perk is the expat community.  I could not dream of such a support network back in the US.  There is nearly a dozen families within 15 minute drive who went through the same thing no more than a year and a half ago, and who have been so generous to us in so many different ways.  Our families may be far away, but we are surely not alone here.

And I cannot write this post without mentioning the healthcare part.  Our insurance covers labor completely (they do no cover the epidural, which is 1500AED=$410.)  My doctor’s appointments cost us $8 each (I get an ultrasound nearly every time, too), and I have not paid for any lab work.  The hospital is very new and not very big.  By now, most of the receptionists and nurses at the OBGYN clinic know me.  They ask about my cross-stitching progress, comment on the size of the belly, and click their tongues at the sight of my swollen feet.  I liked all the 3 doctors I saw.  Both the midwife who teaches pre-natal classes and the director of nursing gave me their cell phone numbers and urged to call or text if I had any questions.  All of this makes it personal and much more relaxing than your general hospital experience.

So here we are, waiting for our world to change forever.  The time is right, and, as strange as it may seem to some, the place is right as well.

P.S. Won’t it make a good photo one day – the three of us holding our respective birth certificates from 3 different countries?

 

Thursday List: You Know You’ve Been to the UAE Long Enough when…

1)   A daytrip to Dubai is just a part of the routine.

2)   So is a trip to Abu Dhabi.

3)   You no longer notice that everyone around you is wearing kandoras or abayas.

4)   You shorten your sentences and speak each word very distinctly so that the non-native English speaker you’re communicating with will (maybe) understand you.  Optionally, you leave out linking verbs and articles.

5)   You say “petrol” instead of “gasoline”, “mark” instead of “grade” and tell people your flat is on the ground floor. Oh, and “inshallah” becomes a household word.

6)   Somebody else pumps your gas, er, petrol, and you think that’s normal.

7)   You haven’t washed your car in six months because you can get someone else to do it for five bucks.

8)   You stop noticing that there’s no sales tax.

9)   When the temperature drops below 70 you think it’s really cold out.

10) Every time you go outside you meet somebody who’s neither American nor Emirati, and you’re not the least surprised.

11) You’re no longer terrified by the crazy drivers or the confusing roundabouts.

12) You see so many Porsches and fancy Mercedes that you don’t even notice them any more.

13) However, when you see a girl in shorts/skirt/dress that do not cover her knees or in a sleeveless top, you wonder what in the world she is thinking.

14) You no longer try to snap a photo of every camel truck passing by.

15) When you hear the word “date,” you think of a fruit, not an event.  You even have a favorite kind of date.

16) Truly clear, blue skies are exciting.

17) Seeing a dog is equally exciting.

18) You remember to not take or give anything with your left hand.

19) Last time you had so many friends living in the same town as you, you were in high school.

20) You are ready to pay $10 for a box of White Cheddar Cheez-Its.

An Escape

Chapel Detail For Rhiannon

I’m learning to enjoy life in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, even though I find some aspects of the local culture more than a little off-putting.  I’ve discovered that if I keep myself busy with things other than work, which isn’t quite what I expected, I can have a good time.  But, both Jenia and I have been ready to escape for a while.  Where to go?  We toyed with an affordable trip to Thailand, courtesy of Cobone or Groupon.  But we ended up going where we’d planned all along–Russia.

And what an escape it is.  We’ve swapped heat for cold (it was about 80F during the day in Al Ain, and here it’s mostly been around 0F, although we had one day of icy -17).  Instead of wearing sunglasses and shorts, we wear furry hats and thermal underwear.  We’ve swapped the minarets of mosques for the onion domes of Orthodox Churches.  And of course, we’re experiencing another culture, one which neither of us have spent time in for quite a while, even though this is where Jenia’s from.

Russian culture, like the country itself, has an outward coldness that is shocking to the first-time visitor.  Most passersby on the sidewalk aren’t friendly at all, and make no effort to be.  Store clerks don’t give you the time of day, unless you seek them out and ask them something.  Their idea of customer service is a bit different from what we’re used to in the West, and certainly differs drastically from the fawning attention you get as a customer in the UAE.  Compound these things with sidewalks and parking lots which are hardly ever cleared of slippery and dangerous ice and snow, and you have a place that’s not very welcoming.  At least, that’s how it seems until you are invited into someone’s home–then things are entirely different.  Apartments are snug and warm, and rarely will you find more gracious hosts.  You’ll be fed delicious home-cooked meals and tea–which is an excuse to eat still more food, in the form of sweets.

Of course the best part of being here is spending time with family, which is something we haven’t done since moving to the UAE months ago.  We’ve enjoyed a white Christmas (although, interestingly, the Russians don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25, but rather on January 7, which is when the holiday falls according to the Russian Orthodox calendar) and we’re sure enjoying this change from the desert.  It’s a nice escape.

Church

It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the  time we had the photo taken.

It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the time we had the photo taken.

Stereotypes: Broken.

Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.

A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.

Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites.  We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.

The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.

Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.

Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses.  Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt.  We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.

They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother.  “Even the Always,” Bedad said.

I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”

“You know Always?”  The maxi pads.  Yes.

“He put on his leg,” Medina said.

We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.

At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.

“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.

“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”

“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.

Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”

We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal.  As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”

“Shattered,” I added.

P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.

P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.