Bubbles

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

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

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

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

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

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On Loving Your Neighbors

I wrote this for Venn Magazine in March, 2015. It seems it may be worth repeating.

 

Recently, I saw an article entitled “Why You Need More Muslim Friends.” While a little saddened by the fact that such an article was even necessary, I thought it was worth sharing on my Facebook wall. The response came quicker than I expected. An acquaintance of mine wrote that I could love Muslims all I want, but he would keep hating them.

His response caught me off guard. I wondered how many others felt the same way. And that led me to ask a few questions.

When you say you hate Muslims, do you really know who it actually is you hate? Do you hate the Muslim women in Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive? Do you hate the Muslim children who are maimed or killed by the bombs sent by non- Muslims? Do you hate the Muslim laborers who move to a foreign country to work and live in very harsh conditions for $3 a day and send 90% of that money back to their family, whom they don’t see for a years at a time? Or how about those Muslims in Egypt who formed a live chain around the Christians to protect them during prayer?

Do you hate the perfect stranger who stopped when our friend’s car broke down, called a tow truck, paid for the tow truck, and offered to let the guy borrow his own car while the garage was sorting out the problem? Do you hate the Bedouin lady who gave my crying son one of the toys she was selling and insisted my husband took a seat in the shade to calm the boy down? Do you hate the man who practically ran to our car when he realized we were looking at the map, gave us directions and invited us over for tea? Do you hate my friend’s principle who gave him money to help pay his son’s hospital bill, or my other friend’s vice principal who showed up at her house a couple days after the new baby arrived with a box of beautiful baby clothes and so much food they had to invite people over to finish it? Do you hate the Saudi couple we met at a hotel breakfast and who made us laugh till we cried with the stories of their 3 boys?

These are the faces of Islam that you are not likely to see in your everyday life – or ever. I, however, live in a Muslim country. These people are my neighbors in the most literal sense of the word. They have welcomed me into their homes, and I have welcomed them into mine. We broke bread together. We laughed together. We talked about religion, and women’s rights, and travel, and education. They kissed my baby and called blessings upon him, and I kissed their babies and said they’d been willed by God. They even walked with me through my son’s birth.

It’s rather obvious that we are not Muslim. Even our visas state we are Christian. Yet, this has never been a problem. This particular Muslim country has quite a few churches, and, ironically, we have found a more vibrant, dynamic, and welcoming church community here than we ever did in the Bible Belt. We feel safer here than we ever did in southern Georgia. Around here, when it is time to go back to their home countries for the summer, expat moms worry about giving up the safety of our children running around freely and our purses being left in our unlocked cars.

Do not misunderstand me – there are some barbaric traditions carried out in parts of the Muslim world. The things ISIS does cannot be justified. Yet, judging all of Muslims by ISIS is like judging all the Christians by the Westboro Baptist Church. The man who kills his unmarried daughter because she was seen with a man represents all of Islam no more than a man who says he hates Muslims represents all of Christianity – or even all of the Southern Baptists.

I wonder if we hate people not because of who they are, but because of who we are – humans. Faulty, messy, broken humans who have such a hard time forgiving, letting go, or much less loving a group we do not understand. We can come up with dozens of excuses, but in the end hatred, like love, is always a choice. It is easier to hate and fear than to use critical thinking and do thorough research. It is easier to be enslaved by these powerful emotions than to break their bondage, but since when is easy slavery preferable to hard-earned freedom?

Maybe we break away from hatred when we know people, real life people, rather than mere headlines. In fact, maybe that article was right after all. Maybe we all need more Muslim friends.

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.

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.

Thursday List: Observations.

Abu Dhabi is an amazing place. Judging by the number of construction projects, it has managed to avoid the recession which still plagues the US.  Here are some observations from my first week here.

1. You’re as likely to run into someone who speaks Tagalog or some Hindi dialect as you are someone who speaks Arabic.  Perhaps more.

2.  It’s easy to get around.  Most everyone speaks English to some degree.

3.  Meeting people is easy.

4.  Most people are friendly.

5. Emiratis don’t have what some of us might call “real jobs;” laborers are largely from India; clerks and staff are commonly from the Philippines; those from the USA and Europe seem to represent the middle class.  Emiratis typically hold down the white-collar jobs and are the ones driving the Ferraris and Porsches.

6.  There are too many Porsches and BMWs.  They lose their elegance when you see one on every street corner.  As a result, I have determined not to buy one.