This weekend marks my one year anniversary of Abu Dhabi life! It went by far too quickly and my writing discipline definitely didn’t win out during my culture shock adjustment period. Goals: re-examined. New bars set. Why am I here if not to tell the story?
Here are a few things I learned this past year:
Expat life seems to operate on a circuit. People who choose to be expats move between a few hundred cities around the world, constantly gathering information from others about where they’ve lived, how they liked it, and how they learned to navigate. The UAE is just one stop on the road – many have lived in more than one place other than their home country and will move on to the next when “It’s Time.” Everything feels temporary when you’re an expat, which can be pretty unsettling.
Being a worker bee: Expat communities function on a sort of hierarchy that has a lot to with one’s chosen profession. Newsflash: There are a lot more English teachers than there are other kinds of professional expats, so we are pretty much sent to the back of the line when it comes to social networking. Am I here doing something interesting? Yes. I’m teaching English. Is that remotely impressive to anyone who is here doing business in any other industry? Not really. They’ve already met a few dozen of women just like me – to the extent that I’m a walking stereotype. That bends my precious little nose out of shape. I need to step up my game and do interesting things so I can talk about something other than work.
Letting the light shine through my thick skull: it was, at first, disorienting living in a place where the taxi drivers know more about world politics than I do. That has motivated me to really step up my game and get wise about all things not-USA. Americans – the ones who don’t travel much, anyway – tend live in an “America is the center of the universe” kind of bubble and have very little idea about . . . EVERYTHING . . . that is going on outside our borders. International news is not a two-page spread, and I have taken to reading as much as I can to catch up. I have also learned: There is no catching up. And: It’s not good to assume that someone wants to give me a history lesson. And: Being seen as ignorant is embarrassing. And: Oh, I hate admitting how selfish and myopic we Americans can be but DAYUM you guys. Read more international news. There’s all kinds of stuff going on out there.
Asking questions: Expats travel a lot, so my conversation starter tends to be: Where have you been? What did you love about it? They also love to brag about having traveled. I would brag more about where I’ve traveled, but I haven’t been doing this long enough to have much to brag about. My default setting is Wide Eyed Wonder, Lots of Questions, and Trying Not To Be Offended When People Scoff At My Inexperience Even Though I Am a Grown-Ass Woman Who At Least Bothered To Ask You A Polite Question. In other words, I’m totally asking for it. *sigh* Still learnin.
I could do without the scoffing. See previous comment about being sent to the back of the line. I’m not over the idea that my place in the social hierarchy is so modest. It’s kinda like: Say there is a big zoo with all kinds of fancy, exotic, impressive animals: Zebras, lions, giraffes, camels!, elephants, and all that. These are all animals that everyone will come to the zoo to see, to take pictures of, to draw, and to buy in the form of plush toys that will be noozled and covered with yogurt from the face of a two year old in the back seat of the car on the way home. In my experience, the social dynamic is such that many expats see themselves as an impressive, fancy, majestic, photo-and-plush-toy-worthy beast — and they see the English teachers as the prairie dogs: critters thrown into a big empty space no one else wants, digging little holes and popping up their heads every once and awhile, trying to figure out what’s going on in the Rest of the World.
But then – that’s just my surface impression, and I’ve barely scratched past it. And if I have a modest, worker bee, prairie dog kind of life: I’m still pretty happy with it. I look forward to a year of more writing and networking and making new friends. There are lots of non-scoffers out there, I just haven’t met them yet.