Category Archives: expat life

Improv saves lives: expat edition

I haven’t had a chance to perform any improv on stage for the last two years, but I wanted to share with you how much the improv I did with the Brave New Workshop Student Union and HUGE Theater changed my life path and made things imminently more awesome.

  1. Yes, and. The basic foundation of an improv scene is that one person makes a declaration and the second person builds on it. Then the first person builds on that – and off you go. As a new improvisor, I believed this meant that I should learn to stop saying, “No, that isn’t true.” As a human being, I take it now to mean this: whenever I am flexible of mind enough to understand that the perspective of my conversation partner is a valid world view, I can affirm that position even if I think s/he is wrong.
  2. Embrace a collaborative world view. In an improv scene, the world that is created is necessarily determined by the input of everyone on the stage. Just like in real life, you don’t get a say in how the story around you develops if you don’t open up your face and add something. While practicing improv, I learned to practice fearlessness and let go of self-judgement while exercising my voice. These qualities are essential to surviving as an expat: when you don’t speak up for yourself, you get steamrolled verbally and socially and live in a world that someone else created for you.
  3. Laughter is as essential as water. During my first weeks of class, I laughed harder at myself and the silly things we did and said than I’d laughed the entire previous year. Ridiculous became reality for minutes at a time and I had the chance to look at my assumptions and prejudices in a different space. I am ridiculous: my world view is limited as are the world views of everyone around me – we are shaped by our experiences, and those experiences limit our vision. You can’t see what you don’t know exists — until someone throws it in your face and you have to respond to it somehow. And then laugh because – wow. That’s there. That’s a thing that happened. As an expat, all I can do is laugh sometimes because the constrained rules of living abroad require patience and good humor unless you want the stress to kill you with an aneurism, an ulcer, or a leap from a tall bridge.
  4. Listening is more important than speaking. In all sorts of comedy, there’s this thing called a callback that’s basically remembering a small thing someone mentioned earlier in a scene and using it as a punchline again later. Here in Abu Dhabi, I’m the punchline if I don’t remember all the little details going on around me – and information about how things get done is passed on in snippets of conversations and hints from people who’ve done them before. People want to share information, but don’t explain themselves the way I’m used to. All feelers have to be out for anything to make sense.
  5. You can be scared, but there’s nothing to be scared of. Being the center of attention during a scene for the first time was kind of terrifying. I had no idea what I was going to say. Then I opened up my face and said things, then my scene partners said things, and we just kept going – and then the audience laughed. It was magic. The first time I went shopping to buy fabric for a new dress, I realized that I had to haggle with the vendor over price and quality and I had no idea how to do it. In the US, price is price and the person at the cash register has no control over it. In Abu Dhabi, the guy behind the counter can make any deal he wants and can spot a newbie walking in the door. Arabian confidence and bluster can really rattle a girl! I was raised to be polite! And even though I’m opinionated, I didn’t want to be rude and say no! But then I realized I didn’t have to give him my money if I didn’t want what he was selling – and I opened up my face and started haggling. I got what I wanted, he got what he wanted, and the floor didn’t open up and swallow me because I was doing something I’d never done before. Then I got to haggle with a tailor and get a pretty new dress. I’d call that an all around win.

So, yeah: Improv. You should try it sometime. Today, November 15th, is Give To The Max day in Minnesota – the biggest fundraising day of the year. If you’ve got a spare 10 bucks to support the people who bring these life lessons to anyone who shows up, please go see a show at the Brave New Institute or HUGE Theater. OR: click on over to these donation pages and support the venues who keep the funny performances and life changing classes happening all year round.

HUGE Theater: IMPROVATHON – 24 hours of improv. $20,000 goal.

Brave New Institute: adult classes for school teachers (like me!)

Shoot! I forgot to have something interesting to say this weekend!

Well, my NaBloPoMo streak is broken. Got distracted over the weekend by life, fun, etc. and totally blew off my blogging. Whoops!

Things I’m digging today:

  1. The idea that Third Culture Kids – children who grow up as expats, outside of their parents’ home country/countries – are “quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view.”
  2. Cute clothes from Mark’s and Spencer – a British department store that is the closest thing to Macy’s I can find here.
  3. Eight books and a handful of handwritten letters showed up in my PO box this week. If you are looking for a penpal, I’m always game for more.
  4. The Humans of New York Hurricane Sandy relief fundraiser. Photojournalism and community activism at its best. Check it out.
  5. Knowing that there is snow falling in MN and I’m not there for it.


View of the parking lot

One of my former students would call this a hot mess.

This is what happens outside my bedroom window every night. It wouldn’t be so bad if everyone didn’t use their horns to express their feelings Every Five Seconds. This tangled “which way do I go” is the only visual I could think of to relate how I’m experiencing being far away from the USA during this incredibly vital Presidential election day. I am beside myself, and it’ll be hard to tear my eyes off CNN and wait for results in the morning.

If you’re a born or naturalized US citizen, please exercise your right to vote today. Your voice matters.

Things I miss: A list

A lot of my FB friends have been asking what it’s like here, and I always have a hard time coming up with a good answer – thus this month’s Abu Dhabi blog theme. However, today’s shipment of an incredible FOUR packages from the USA made me think a lot about what I’m missing about my homeland.

  1. I miss my old bookshelves full of books. I still don’t have a bookshelf here, but I sent out a missive to my list of FB friends and assorted family asking for books. I have eight more books today than I did yesterday, and now can go back to IKEA and buy a shelf for them.
  2. I miss knowing how to get things done. Like – at the post office, for example. They don’t sell stamps in Abu Dhabi. When you’re trying to mail 160 letters to 5 countries, they will say things to you in Arabic that you really hope aren’t rude, and then go get a manager who will bring you around to the back room behind the counter, through a hallway, past the loading docks, and into a cubicle that looks like it should be air conditioned but isn’t because the loading dock doors are open. He will then do something on a computer that looks very similar to what the person at the desk was doing and charge you 860 Dirhams to send your letters. He will then let you know that they only accept cash.
  3. I miss being able to have a beer with dinner and be trusted by local law enforcement to drive myself home. Because of the progressive attitude of the Sheiks here in Abu Dhabi, alcohol is available in the UAE at limited outlets (hotel restaurants, private clubs, and restricted sales liquor stores) but only with the possession of an alcohol permit – which basically states that the holder is a non-Muslim and understands that the UAE has a zero tolerance policy for driving after the consumption of ANY amount of alcohol. People who disregard this law end up either in jail or facing huge fines and possibly losing their residency visa. Good thing taxis are abundant and inexpensive.
  4. I miss my friends. Big time. I’ve had the amazing fortune to connect with a lot of compassionate, intelligent, and interesting people in Minneapolis and elsewhere: actors, writers, teachers, nurses, business people and God knows what all else. Each of the friends in my community added something to my life and I can only hope I did the same. I suspect I was on the receiving end more often than giving, and I’m grateful for their indulgences. Having only the first seeds of community here is encouraging, but challenging.
  5. I miss my students at SHS. They were funny, independent, vigorous group of heterogenous learners who always challenged my teaching skills and perceptions of the world. I enjoy my students here as well, but they are much more alike to each other than they are different. Maybe I say that now because I don’t know them well enough yet.
  6. I miss my massage therapist, my acupuncturist, and my support group meetings. Self-care in Abu Dhabi requires an incredible amount of self-advocacy. I’m used to finding immediate assistance if I need to process something or don’t feel well – haven’t worked out how to access that here yet.
  7. Nothing is easy in Abu Dhabi. An errand I think should take 15 minutes takes an hour. A drive across town could be 15 minutes one day and take an hour the next. Finding a store that’s “right across from the Abu Dhabi Mall” but on a different block than you were directed to could take four hours and two runs across town in different directions. I’ve learned to never get into the car hungry or without an extra bottle of water.
  8. I miss American accents. Most of my colleagues are British and Canadian. They talk funny. That’s code for they don’t get my sense of humor, my enthusiasm, my openness to talk about anything, my colloquialisms, or my understanding of the world. There’s also the words that come out of their mouths that I really don’t get. We’re working it out.

That’s about it for tonight. I could think of more, but I’m getting a little sad and don’t want to be a whiner. It is what it is. You take the good, you take the bad…

Tough to be far away.

I haven’t heard anyone say it better than this.

One of my college friends, Sarah Becan, has a comic called I Think You’re Sauceome that’s all about food, how delicious it is, and how food and body image issues dance around each other in sometimes self-destructive ways.

Thankfully, she’s let me share today’s comic about the very real effect of Hurricane Sandy on the daily life of people in the affected communities. I’m heartbroken over all the photos of flooding, fire, and destruction.  I am incredibly grateful for the emergency first responders who have been saving lives and also to the Red Cross and other community organizations for always being there with blankets, food, clean water, and emergency shelters. Please consider donating if you’ve got electricity in your home and food in the fridge. Love up your countrymen, you guys. They deserve it.

NaBloPoMo: Expat Edition – Masdar City

Today, I decided to spend the month with my blogging friends over at Yeah, Write and sign up for National Blogging Post Month. There is so much blogworthy stuff here in Abu Dhabi! Now that I’m approaching my 3 month anniversary, it’s time that I start documenting some of it.

In Abu Dhabi, the tap water is desalinated sea water and it’s chemically treated to make it safe to drink, and very little of the food available is anything local – so I’ve had digestive issues since I arrived. Even with water filters and bottled water, I’m still out of it. I have been hoping that cleaning up my diet and getting more organic things in my body would help me adjust, and I was excited to find that Organic Foods and Cafe has couple of locations here in the UAE.

Today, I took an excursion out to a place called Masdar City – which on the map, looks quite close to Abu Dhabi – to find the only organic store this side of Dubai. I didn’t feel like going to Dubai. It takes an hour and a half to get there from here, and the grocery itself is located in the Dubai Mall – the largest shopping center in the world. And they’re doing construction on the parking lot. Ish, traffic. Ish, three hours in the car. Ish.

I got excited when my GPS device had Masdar City already programmed into it. Then I started driving. And driving. And driving. Into the middle of what looked like a construction zone in a residential area that wasn’t anywhere near where I wanted to be. And I learned something very important: Don’t trust the GPS. It took me to a lone office building in the middle of a developing commercial/residential area. There were three Japanese guys smoking outside, and fortunately one of them spoke English. When I asked if there was an organic grocery inside, he said – No. There is one by the airport, in Masdar City. About 30 minutes away. Do you have a navigation? Yes, I told him. It brought me here. Oh oh! he said.

Natch. I got back in the car and realized that not having a highway map and being averse to looking things up ahead of time was probably not a good idea. Did I mention I had skipped breakfast in the hopes of tasty things available at the cafe in the store? I tried not to get hangry, and programmed in the airport and looked closely at the little location map I’d printed off the store website. Onward!

I learned another thing: the UAE is under constant construction. The locations of roads are changing faster than my GPS can keep up with them. Of course when I bought it, the salesman insisted it had a 2012 map! With no updates even available yet!

BUT: I did find Masdar City. It’s a really cool place:

Aspiring to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world, approximately 6km2 Masdar City is an emerging global clean-technology cluster that places its resident companies in the heart of the global renewable energy and cleantech industry. Situated 17km from downtown Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is a high-density, pedestrian-friendly development where current and future renewable energy and clean technologies are showcased, marketed, researched, developed, tested and implemented.

I parked in the lot and got into a little electric tram that brought me into the city itself. Then, through a few hallways, up some stairs, and into the tiny little organic grocery. Then I found my coconut oil and Yogi tea and looked at the prices of fancy juicing machines and felt like I was in the middle of a Whole Foods back in Mpls again.

Funny the things you miss when you move away, huh? This store is primarily stocked with dry goods – there was no fresh meat available, but I could have purchased a frozen duck or chicken or any number of Amy’s frozen pizzas! The produce section was minimal. And there was no café area that could serve me a chicken salad sandwich to relieve my hangry. But I have organic risotto rice! And coconut oil! And tea! And New Zealand honey! Yay! These things make me happy.

I only got a little disoriented on the way back. I decided to add an IKEA trip to my return home, and my GPS decided that stroll down a military-looking frontage road surrounded by barbed wire running parallel to the highway was a great alternative route back to Abu Dhabi. Thankfully, I had a very starchy and non-organic chicken schwarma at IKEA before I got back in the car again, and collapsed into bed for an Oh My Gahd I really hate driving around here nap once I got home. That is today’s story.