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.

Balance

When I moved here almost two years ago, I couldn’t help but compare everything to home. I had traveled quite a lot, and spent plenty of time in foreign countries, but I found the UAE a difficult place to live. The bureaucracy was frustrating, and the sheer ineptitude that became obvious in some quarters was aggravating. The driving was terrifying. The heat almost unbearable at times. The job–wow. I found myself very easily caught up in the spiral of frustration and negativity that causes many newcomers to leave the area, walking away from their employment contracts.

The comparison game is a part of moving abroad for the first time, and I don’t think it can be helped. But keeping in mind that all the frustrating and aggravating things are actually part of the reason you move, that is, to experience a new place, pitfalls and all, improves your mindset some.

And it also helps to remember that life at home is filled with trials and tribulations, too. They’re familiar ones, but not necessarily less irritating.

If you’re an expat reading this blog, what kinds of frustrations do you face, or did you face when you first relocated? I would like to see a list of things–balanced by a list of similar ordeals back home.

I’ll start: I still find the sluggish pace that many citizens here stroll when they’re in the mall or other places an annoyance. They’re usually in gaggles, and I have to slow down, wait or say “excuse me,” or try to dodge the obstacles wasting and intruding into my spare time.

To balance that, the numbers of inconsiderately loud mall rat teenagers in the USA is plenty irksome. They intrude into my consciousness and bother me in a whole different way, their petty conversations, punctuated by an excess of “like” and “whatever” and “oh my god,” my personal least favorite Americanism, and etcetera lowering my IQ with every passing second, making my eyes cross and compelling me to duck into whatever unappealing but quiet shop lies nearest.

I can learn a lesson from the slow-moving locals in the malls here. Take it easy. Enjoy the moment. Relax a little. But it’s true that I can shop more speedily at home.

Your turn. What is a peeve you face or faced, and what is something comparable from home? It can be big or small.

Last week Jenia wrote a post querying readers, seeking comments. There were a fair few responses. I need your help to make this post worthwhile, too. Let the comments roll.

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.

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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.