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.

Should I Learn Arabic? Thursday List.

ADEC has a sales pitch for prospective teachers.  It’s effective: housing is provided, insurance is good, pay is pretty high.  They’ll tell you need that you should have some experience teaching, you should perhaps (or actually definitely, emphatically) be prepared to deal with some classroom discipline issues, and you have no need to speak Arabic.  You are, of course, also tempted by the exotic location and interesting sights.  This sales pitch is all true–you’ll have a nifty life here if you sign up.  They might mention in the interview that you should be flexible, too.  That’s the truth.  Living in a different culture is exciting, but it’s taxing, too, as you try to learn what is considered normal, abnormal, and basically try to adapt to a dramatically different way of doing things.

In fact, what ADEC tells you is entirely correct.  All of the things are true.  There’s much to commend the UAE to visitors and an ADEC job to expatriate workers.  English teachers will have good pay and benefits, and if they’re adaptable, they’ll learn how to work in the classroom here. The job doesn’t require them to speak Arabic either.  But, there is a difference between being required to speak the language and whether or not you ought to.

Today I substituted for a fellow English teacher.  I decided to practice conversational English skills with his students by talking to them.  I asked one boy about his rowdy classmates, and asked them why they behaved so badly.  He told me, more or less, “With Arabic teacher, it is Arabic and Arabic.”  He gestured with his hands, putting them side by side.  “But with English, it is English and Arabic.”  He moved one hand away from the other one at an angle.  He was saying, basically, that the kids don’t understand English well enough to get much out of having a teacher who only speaks English.  And after nearly a year here, I’ve got to agree with him.  After all, many of these young men speak only the most basic English.  The idea is that this will change as the New School Model comes of age, but that day is not going to happen for years yet.

What little Arabic I know I’ve picked up from my students and a few other people.  You ought to see the expressions these kids get on their faces when I use a new Arabic word or phrase.  They’re thrilled.  Their level of interest in what I’m doing increases dramatically, and they like interacting with me.  As a result, If I could recommend any one thing to a person considering teaching in the UAE, it would be to learn as much Arabic as possible.  The more you know, the more effective you’ll be in the classroom.  When it comes to learning Arabic, you might very well be put off to learn that there are many different dialects based on location.  When I found out that Emiratis use a rather different version of the language than most other countries, I allowed it to discourage me from learning much beyond “Asalaam aleykum” before I came.  Now it’s definitely true that the kids here speak a language that incorporates a lot of slang and words from Hindi and Urdu, but they know and understand standard Arabic.

So the question is, “Should I learn Arabic?”  The answer is, “Definitely.  Yes.”  With only a month or so left of the school year, I’m now setting out to actively try to learn more words and phrases.  Next year I may just find myself a tutor and start really trying to learn how to speak conversationally.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also considered other reasons why it’s worth pursuing the acquisition of Arabic. Here’s a list:

1. It engages students.

2. It’s nice to know when students are calling you bad names or saying bad words, just so that you can respond somewhat appropriately (“What did you say?  Let’s go talk to the social worker about that, shall we?  Or do you want me to call your father?”) and scare your kids into better behavior.

3. It is a challenge–a fun one, if you feel inclined to learn a non-romance language.

3. It can only help you in situations outside of school when you interact with others, such as parents or people in important positions.

4. Learning a foreign language while you are teaching English as a second language gives you a much better measure of sympathy and understanding as to what your students are going through.

Dubai is Cool.

The line above says it all.  Dubai is infinitely cooler than its stodgy cousin Abu Dhabi and ever so much more exciting than pastoral Al Ain.

What is it that makes the city so cool?  Is it the towering skyline that looms like Manhattan on the Gulf?  Is it the proportion of cool people to uncool ones?  Is it because you can purchase a 24K gold plated iPad there?  Well, based on our experience celebrating our fifth anniversary (and the last one alone, without a curtain-climbing munchkin crawling about), Dubai is cool because it is considerably more relaxed and foreigner-friendly than the other places I mentioned.  Dubai is cool because there is always something going on, which you just might happen to luck into being part of.  Dubai is cool because if you’re looking for it, it’s probably there, somewhere.

The view from our hotel in the Bur Dubai area.

We spent the night at the reasonably-priced (at least via booking.com) 4-star Dhow Palace hotel, which we found just opulent enough to satisfy our need for feeling special, and for dinner we ventured over to the rather more opulent Rotana near the airport, and had a splendid meal at the none-too-reasonably-priced Blue Elephant Thai restaurant housed within.  We were charmed by the decor of the place, as well as the waterfall and koi fish.  The service was excellent, as was our food–a vegetarian delight, I tell you!  Of course, we did splurge on the 5-course meal, but considering the occasion and our burning desire for tasty Thai, it was well worth it.  When we were leaving, the hostess stopped us and we were given a fresh orchid to take home.  Sweet.

Now, say what you like about the Dubai Mall being the embodiment of modern consumerism (and use that tone of superiority if you must, go ahead), criticize it if you like for being just a bit phony (I mean, what about that psuedo-souk?) or over the top (’cause, yeah, it is), we like it.  So we went there.  As we strode about the densely-packed Mall, which is basically shopper heaven, bustling with people of all shapes and sizes, tastefully dressed and not, abayas and short (for here, yeah, yeah, I know) skirts side-by-side, we noticed flyers for an afternoon event: Freestyle Moto X.  Motocross in Burj Park?  Heck, yeah.  So we strolled a bit more, through the throngs and outdoors, below the Burj Khalifa, to find ourselves a place to watch the motorcycle action.  My wife was not particularly thrilled with the idea of watching some motorcycle riders, but the first time one of the riders went soaring off the large jump they had set up, she got mighty interested.  In fact, she was aghast at the stunts that the Australian team of riders pulled off.  I myself was in awe of the feats of bravado and daring that I witnessed.  We both snapped photos like crazy.

Trials rider Jack demonstrates some of his capabilities.

I think this is called a “double grab” or something. Jenia calls it scary.

Triple threat! Would you do this?

If you believe Emaar’s (that’d be the company that owns and evidently operates the whole development area) hype, then Downtown Dubai is smack-dab “in the center of now,” and I have to admit, it does feel pretty hip.  Is it a bit artificial?  Yeah, maybe.  But it’s also cool.  And that seems to describe the city as a whole.  There’s always something interesting happening, and it’s pretty fun to blunder into nifty stuff.  The city in general is just oozing coolness.  There’s coolness dripping from the futuristic Metro stations, from the spire of the Burj Khalifa and into the over-hyped fountains below, from the overpasses of the unnecessarily confusing highways, and from the neon lights which are spread about accenting the, uh, coolness of the place.  You get the idea.  Dubai is cool, especially this time of year, when you can go outside and enjoy walking around, instead of dissolving into a big nasty pile of sweat.

Just when you thought I was joking. Look, 24kt gold-plated iPads. Yup.

One last chestnut: here’s a video I shot with my trusty iPhone whilst we were taking in the motocross action.  Enjoy:)

Money Monday II: The Dollar Strikes Back

I’ve been sitting here trying to think of something funny to write–something having a little kinship with my allusion (above, in the title, if you somehow missed it) to George Lucas’s brilliantly conceived Star Wars sequel (wow, it’s been a while since those words have been said, huh?)–but I’m coming up with nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  Punch it Chewie, I’m done.

What I set out to blog about today is obvious: money.  Jenia and I have been discussing finances a bit today.  Always depressing.  At least it is for me–maybe you come from better circumstances or the Lord has been kinder to you in that regard.  Anyhow, regardless of how far down the road to financial failure any of us maybe, the wife and I are managing to squirrel away a decent amount of savings.  That would be because at heart, we’re both cheap, penny-pinching Scrooges (sorry, honey, but you know it’s true).  It would also be because when I arrive in Abu Dhabi, I’m supposed to have a couple grand to make it through the month, to last me until my first pay period.

Now, different people advise you to take different amounts of money.  So I’m sure that with my miserly ways, I could probably survive on about ten bucks, but we want to be safe.  In all seriousness, folks have said that a thousand dollars can get you by until your first pay check.  We’re playing it safe and trying to put back about twice that, so that in case there are any unexpected financial burdens that rear their freakishly ugly heads, we can tame them without any undue stress.

We do not want this to happen!

Let’s shift gears a little bit from actual money in the bank, to the sort of spending device which causes many people to have virtually no money in the bank, and which can easily lead to a complete lack of financial security: a credit card. We all have them, we all know they’re great if handled wisely.  In a way, a credit card is kind of like a pen in George Lucas’s fingers: it can be responsible for some great material, but if the individual wielding the thing gets stupid with it, the outcome can be pretty disastrous.  Oh, boy, look at me tossing Star Wars references around like The Phantom Menace just came out a couple months ago.  Hm.  Actually they did re-release it in 3-D round about March, didn’t they?

Jenia and I, anyway, are Discover card people.  Not because of any particular preference, but it’s just ended up that way.  I’ve been really happy with my Discover experience, but Discover is an unknown quantity in many countries abroad.  When we went to London over Christmas, the card was useless.  Nobody in England takes Discover.  And I do mean nobody.  It appears that England and the Emirates have something in common (besides trying to teach their young English with varying degrees of success): Discover is, well, undiscovered.  So since we’ll be unable to use our credit card there, we spent some time digging around on the internet for a good card which works abroad (Visa or Mastercard is fine in that respect).  If you watch more TV than I do (which is likely, because, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the only thing I’ve ever watched is obviously Star Wars), you may have seen Alec Baldwin hocking Capitol One’s Venture Visa card.  Turns out that Capitol One’s Venture cards have no overseas use fees, which is wonderful.  And they’re Visa cards, too, so they’ll work most everywhere.  Partly because the card will simply work overseas, and partly because they have a pretty stinkin’ good rewards program, we decided to apply for one.  Look what came in the mail the other day:

New Venture Card–no, you cannot have my card numbers. Get your own.

Not only did Capitol One approve me for a card, they set my credit limit at fifteen thousand dollars.  Yikes!  I can just imagine how much they’d like for me to spend a sum that large–they’d be making big bucks off me, as I struggled to pay off my balance.  That’s right, even in Abu Dhabi, I will not be paid well enough to pay of a fifteen thousand dollar credit card bill overnight.  Fortunately for me, the folks at Capitol One didn’t know what a ridiculous tightwad I am.  Please don’t go and tell them.  They might revoke my card when they realize they’ll never make a penny off me.  I know how to work a rewards card, baby.  Or so I say.  Those sound like famous last words, don’t they?  I wouldn’t want to be cocky.  But used right, a rewards card can really work for you, and that’s how we intend to use this one.  We’ll not make any silly purchases with it.  We’ll pay it off every month, and the little buys we make will add to the rewards balance, and in a while, we’ll have free airfare to somewhere interesting.

Anyway, with the savings account growing and a credit card that will work overseas, I think we’re going to be financially prepared for our upcoming adventure.  I think that should do it for this entry.  May the force be with…never mind.