The Useful Facebook

I am yet to get used to people we meet at random places around town suddenly saying, “Waaait… Are you those folks with a blog? We read it!” And it completely blows my mind when they said they found it useful, too. I get all mushy and warm inside (Shon just feels encouraged to keep on writing.)

All this to say that during one of my most recent encounters, I mentioned the local Facebook groups I found useful, and it occurred to me I should post a list here, as well.

Now, some of these are closed/private, and you will have to ask to be added.

Buying, selling, swapping, free cycling:

Freecycle Al Ain – my personal favorite. Only free stuff.

Al Ain Swap and Shop – buy and sell everything from furniture to clothespins.

UAE Swap and Shop – same as above but on a bigger scale.

Al Ain Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – everything for the kids, buy & sell.

Abu Dhabi Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – same as above but on the Emirate level.

Lifestyle, survival, general info:

UAE Natural Family Living Network – if you have crunchy tendencies or simply want to find some organic food.

Grow Your Own (Al Ain) – if life in the desert leaves you yearning for something green.

Al Ain Book Club – duh.

Al Ain Expats Parents Group – don’t be fooled by the name. This is a good location for general questions.

Parenting, pregnancy, nursing:

Al Ain Nursing Mamas – if you need help, encouragement, or just an ear.

Breastfeeding Q&A Dubai & UAE – self-explanatory.

Al Ain Bumps and Babes – all things pregnancy and babies.

Abu Dhabi/Al Ain EMT Parents/Spouses – everything parenting-related.

Afternoon Baby & Children Music Classes – the most popular music classes in town. From 4 months and up.

Al Ain Under 6’s Crafting Group – weekly get-together to encourage the kids’ artsy side. 12 months and up.

These are only the groups I am actually a member of. There are more out there, but I can’t personally recommend them.

Besides this, many housing communities have their own groups as well (Muwaiji Village has one, Hili has one, the Village has one), but they are only open to residents.

Most of the people in these groups are happy to help, so do not hesitate to join. It is likely to make your life easier and more interesting from the very first days in this country.

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.

Advice (and a book on help) to New Teachers

Tonight Jenia and I attended a snazzy welcome party for new ADEC teachers at the Rotana hotel in Al Ain.  We met a few of the many new teachers on hand, and when a young lady named Kim asked for advice on how to make it here and survive the year to return for another, I told her this: “Go with the flow.  Relax.  Don’t worry about the pressure–it just doesn’t matter.  Don’t let them stress you out.”  Yeah, my biggest and best piece of advice is that pathetic.  I mean, the best I can say is “roll with it, baby?”  Pretty much, but I do emphasize the “it just doesn’t matter” part pretty heavily, too.  Generally, we Western teachers have a work ethic and such that will more than get us by here, and if we just apply what we already know and don’t allow administrators to stress us out, we’ll be solid additions to the workforce.  Oh, and, as one veteran teacher told me last year, “Take the tea” whenever it is offered by your Arab co-workers.  Go have a chat, ignore whatever work you might have for a few minutes, and be social.  That helps you build relationships, and those can be helpful (if not critical, in some cases) to succeeding at work.

One other thing that is an incalculably helpful resource–there is a group of expats called Al Ain Life (the ones that staged tonight’s get together) that has put together a truly splendid booklet offering insight into the whole residency process (how to get your electricity switched over to your name, for example), unraveling an extremely and unnecessarily complex part of settling in.  We picked up a hard copy tonight at the event, and it’s wonderful.   Al Ain Life (people we know personally, by the way) are more than happy to share a digital copy with you.  If you’re interested, comment below, and we will sort out a way to get it to you.

Wage Slavery

I’ve just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s turn-of-the-20th-Century book “The Jungle.”  It’s about the disgusting Chicago meatpacking industry and the poor souls in its employ.  The narrative follows a fictional family who immigrates to the US from Lithuania and the numerous trials they endure on their way to becoming cogs in the industrial machine.  Like all overused machinery, the family suffers greatly and are all driven to overwork before that finally takes its toll and things fall apart for them.  Sinclair’s book ends in an unfortunate way, for it becomes mere Socialist propaganda.  But up until about 3/4 or even 7/8 of the way through, it’s quite a good read.  Now, although I ignore the propaganda, I find one turn of phrase I stumbled across during the latter part of the book interesting and even poignant.  Sinclair calls those in the employ of the meatpacking trust “wage slaves.”  For, you see, the employees are technically free, but they’re too poor to live a life of any quality and they have no other viable options but to return to the torturous jobs they have and maintain them as long as they can.  In Sinclair’s book, this usually means until someone is injured on the job, whereupon they’re laid off and cast out.

sinclair's jungleMaybe we can make the argument, like Sinclair might if he were still kicking, that this kind of thing is alive and well in America.  But I’m not sure.  Since “The Jungle” was published, the meat industry was forced to clean up and working conditions have undoubtedly improved by leaps and bounds.  In fact, the Food and Drug Administration was formed partly as a result of the novel’s publication.  On the FDA’s website, Sinclair is credited thus: “the nauseating condition of the meat-packing industry that Upton Sinclair captured in The Jungle was the final precipitating force behind both a meat inspection law and a comprehensive food and drug law” known originally as the Wiley Act, which became law in 1906.  Ah, the power of the pen.  Although the Wiley Act and the FDA is a big deal, Sinclair was really more interested in the plight of the poor working man than food safety, as his Socialist ending makes abundantly clear.  It would take nearly four decades for a national minimum wage to be introduced in 1938, and at 25 cents it was equivalent to $4.13 hourly in 2013. It’s hard enough to live on minimum wage in the USA now, and it’s $7.25 in most states–imagine surviving on way less than 5 bucks an hour, especially when you’ve got to pay rent, buy groceries, fill up your gasoline tank, and spend money on all the necessities of life.  It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?  So does “wage slavery” still exist in the States?  I don’t know.  I’m open to comments on it.  I’ve worked for minimum wage and below, but I climbed upward since, and I couldn’t go back.

As I ponder the notion of folks who have no option but to work for whatever diddly amount they’re offered, it occurs to me that I see a certain amount of this every day here in the UAE.  It’s common to have house help here.  Most apartments or villas of any size have a miniscule maid’s quarters.  If you take a stroll through the mall, you’ll inevitably notice Emirati women shopping in Carrefour being followed around by Filipino ladies who are trying to keep the kids in line, pushing the shopping cart, and frequently being told what to take off the shelves and put in the cart.  I hate doing dishes, and I don’t really like giving up my weekend time to clean the house, so I thought, “Gee, we might be able to afford a maid.”  But Jenia is totally opposed to the idea.  “Those people are practically slaves,” she says.  Sometimes she goes even further and calls them slaves outright.  “Well,” I say, “They’re making more than they would at home.”  That doesn’t get my case any farther along, I’m afraid.  Just how much do these people make?  The pay range for maids/nannies tends to run about 1,000-2,000 AED monthly.  Divide that by 3.67 to find what they’re making in dollars.  These employees are usually expected to work 6 days a week, basically all day.  Lest you think I’m picking on Emiratis when I illustrate a point like I did above, I should say that there are quite a number of Westerners who hire help.  Also, mind you, I’m not criticizing those who take maids and the like into their employ–I’m pointing out that it’s a job with a surprisingly low wage.

The Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec's projects (completed along with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec’s projects (completed in conjunction with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

Besides house help, most other blue collar laborers are imported from eastern Asia.  The administration’s menial workers, the janitors and the like at my school, for example, are all from elsewhere.  Most of them are Bangladeshi, and they’re serving a 1-year contract.  I gave one of the guys a ride home one day, and he inquired as to what I make per month.  I didn’t tell him, but he told me what he made: 1,400 AED.  He told me that from that, he spends 500 a month on rent, 300 on food, and some on transportation.  The rest he sends home to his wife and baby.

A group of Pakistani men hang about hoping for work as movers.

A group of Pakistani men hang about in the Sanaiya area in Al Ain hoping for work as movers.

The ratio of Pakistanis and Indians living here is very high.  While they are certainly not all unskilled, there are many Pakistani men who come as unskilled laborers.  At night they fill up the parks in downtown Al Ain enjoying the relative coolness of the evening.  I’d venture to guess that most of the construction workers I’ve seen are Pakistani, but that is only a guess, and likely not representative of much.  Last month there was a big strike in Dubai as laborers refused to come to work for Arabtec, the largest construction company around.  I watched the newspaper coverage of that with great interest.  I was interested because I’ve seen workers being transported from construction sites when they take their midday break in the summer months.  It will be far above 100F and these glistening, sweaty men load up into big buses, windows wide open since there is no air conditioning in the buses.  Usually these workers live on the construction site or nearby it, in housing provided by their employers.  If you think that this means nice housing, you should probably join me in doing some research.  Is it squalor of the type these people might have to deal with in their home countries?  I don’t know.  I haven’t been to Pakistan or where have you, and I haven’t set foot in any of the housing provided by Arabtec or any other big company.  At any rate, these laborers typically work 6 days a week, and put in long hours.  The strike was news because striking is patently illegal here. In a country with no minimum wage, I was also curious to find out what these workers made.  Well, if you clicked on the link in my text, you’ve already found out: they make about $160 a month, depending.  If you’re still curious, here’s another link providing a lot of detail, including much more about working conditions, housing, wages, and the like.  Now, a month after these people boldly defied the authorities in order to try to get better treatment, they’re being dealt with. According to a 7 Days Dubai article, many of those who didn’t go to work are being deported.  7 Days is something close to a tabloid–they’re quick to report, but usually short on details and depth–but they do offer a look at what is happening in the area.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec's completed projects.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec’s completed projects.

I am not an investigative journalist, so I’m not knocking on doors and visiting all sorts of people all the time, but I do have eyes, and I do go to various areas in town, and I do interact with people.  And clearly I read, too.  So I end up wondering, in old Socialist style phrasing, what the plight of the worker is nowadays.  Do we continue to exploit and even victimize unskilled laborers?  Do we do it in the USA?  Does the UAE do it, right here around me, where I’m living?  I’m among the masses of foreigners who work in the UAE because I get more pay than I get at home.  In my case, the pay isn’t stunningly high, but I have lots of perks thrown in that end up being equivalent to a notably larger payday than I’d have in the States.  Many times I’ve debated with myself whether it’s worth being here or not, considering the difficulties at work.  But I’ve learned to cope with the challenges and I’ve adapted, more or less, to the culture here and figured out (to some extent) how to work within the environment I’ve chosen to move to.  I can’t complain about my situation, since I chose it, and since it’s always possible for me to bail out and leave if things get unbearable for some reason.  Do these unskilled laborers have the same options as I do? They certainly work much harder physically than I do.  Can they leave if they choose?  What kind of toll does this work environment take on them?  Do the pros of the jobs here outweigh the cons?

I’m not answering these questions today.  I’m just posing them because I think they’re worth exploring and seeking answers to.  If you feel you can contribute to the topic, you’re free to comment.  In keeping with the spirit of our blog, I’d ask that you keep your comments civil and respectful to all.

In parting, I’d like to leave you with the link to a post on the blog Sweden and the Middle East.  It’s worth a read as it’s thought-provoking and just might provide some insight into what life can be like for a domestic worker.  Have a gander at it.  Let the author (and me, if you get around to it) know what you think.