There were so many things I knew I would have to deal with upon moving to a new country. Hassle with paperwork, feelings of being lost, the awkwardness that comes with trying to build a new social group, communicating with non- or little-English speakers…I had, naturally, done my research. I was ready.
What I didn’t foresee was the time it would take to feel even a little bit “normal” again.
I’m nearly three months into my tenure. Almost 90 days, the average length of a probationary period at a job whereupon you reassess if the employee is right for the job and vice versa. The probationary time period out here for a job is a full six months. There’s a reason for that. It takes awhile to get settled in.
As I tick boxes off – visa, local ID, driver’s license (yes, they’re two different things in the UAE), and a big one – buying a car – I slowly tick away from my previous life and into a more settled (and legal) life here. But things are still amiss. Things are still off. And, somewhere in the last couple of weeks, I realized that what is off is not anything that can be applied for, bought, or checked off with a passport photo and a legal document.
What I crave now, amidst everything, is routine. And that is the slowest thing coming.
It’s not only that I’ve moved to a different country – and, however incredibly Western the UAE is, it’s still different from anything I’m used to – it’s also that my clockwork, routine life and my proclivity for order have been turned on their heads and, as a creature of habit, this is highly disruptive.
Moving to a new place is rife with change, whether it’s one house over, or one continent (or several, in my case). Your fingers brush against phantom light switches, you have strange cravings for extremely niche items (that one barista at that one coffee shop right before her shift ends at 4pm because she has perfected your order and will throw in an almond cookie if there are any leftover as she clocks out). You make a wrong turn in your own home and forget where you left your keys everydamnday. Moving to a new city comes with its own set of challenges as you attempt to enmesh yourself into an already living-breathing entity that pulses and bleeds and sweats and existed perfectly fine without you. Traffic patterns and shopfront times are all well established things and however arbitrary they may seem to me as an outsider (AND THEY ARE. SO. SO. ARBITRARY!) they are normal here and will eventually become, somehow, my new normal.
But not yet. I’ve had an incredibly frustrating few weeks where I feel the pieces beginning to fall into place, but somehow I’m still a little lost all of the time. Everything is lining up, but nothing has quite “clicked” yet. My motions still feel clumsy and ill-timed. Even my sleep patterns are off.
The frustration bubbles up into something extreme. Any expat forum will attempt to explain this period of time, known generally as the moment immediately following that nasty burst of the honeymoon “I moved to a new country and everything is AMAZING” bubble that inevitably comes. There are parabolas and facts backing up this period of adjustment, but what they don’t tell you is that however common and inevitable it may be, it’s completely alienating and isolating and you can’t help but feel that, in general, you completely suck at this whole thing.
It’s true – I feel like a failure. As though I’m just not good enough or able enough or “something” enough to fully embrace and graciously accept every aspect of this transition as some sort of beautiful lesson to be tucked into my little museum of life lessons like a dried butterfly wing or a tiny seashell.
(Shut the) Front (door). That.
I am not embracing and I am not gracious and my life lessons here seem to be piling up like little errant dog turds that will get swept up and Not Mentioned in the future. Thus far, there have been fewer Major, Beautiful Breakthroughs and many, many more Awkward, Embarrassing Moments.
Of course you want examples. OF COURSE YOU DO. You always do, and while I know you’ll sit there and nod comfortingly, you’re secretly pressing your lips together and waiting to see if it’s appropriate to LOL. The answer is: not yet. Probably soon. But not yet.
Examples…ohh, let’s see….I have, on six separate occasions, taken the wrong stairwell at work. The one that opens out from a camouflaged panel into a huge lobby. It’s such a loud, cranking door – to be used only in emergencies – and when I trip out of the concealed staircase, everyone always turns and it becomes silent in the large, marbled lobby. Not once did I do this, but SIX TIMES. SIX EFFING TIMES.
I tried to rent a car at one point. An exercise in disaster because I had just gotten my residency visa but had not yet gotten my local ID or driver’s license. But because I had my visa, my US driver’s license was declared null and void because now I was just another unlicensed resident. Even though – moments before – my US license was perfectly acceptable. I found myself devolving into the worst toddler-tantrum while the poor Basic Name Rental Car employee (for whom English was not a first – or possibly even second or third – language) tried to explain over and over again that it was not his personal policy. I tried to tell him that I was late for a meeting, which I was, but apparently this was not reason enough to shirk the rules. I have no idea, in retrospect, what I expected him to do. I felt impotent in my rage and completely ignorant and I took it out on him because he happened to be, at that moment, the physical entity standing between me and a gray 2013 Chevy Aveo. It was my own fault, my own stupidity.
And that’s the thing – I am not used to feeling stupid. Ignorant is a better word for it, because it’s not that I am incapable, it’s that I simply don’t know so many things. Every single day, I trip over some other aspect of my own ignorance, and that has been the hardest thing to deal with. I am not used to being in the wrong or being the one who clearly didn’t follow directions.
Much of the time, my difficulty with cultural transition has been a direct result of my own ignorance. That is the hardest thing to wrap my head around and deal with.
I read every book, I consulted everyone I know out here on so many things, and still there are many things that you just don’t find out until you do it the wrong way first. This trial-and-error process is common with first-time expats, and even with those who have been abroad longer but generally learn to accept that even the most simple of things will most likely require multiple attempts.
My frustration after almost three months of shaky trial-and-error reached an apex with the car-buying process. Even in the States, car-buying from a private individual is a pain in the ass. I would know, having just gone through the sale of my beloved Mazda back in January. There are so many certificates and pieces of paper and steps to go through (notarized at every turn) and things are no different out here. Except you throw in the fact that, as I said above, even the simplest things require multiple attempts which makes an already convoluted process that much harder. Buying my car turned into over two weeks of back and forth messaging and paperwork and trying to get everything together. It was exhausting and anxiety-ridden and annoying and ate away at me at every turn.
I’m sure for others, this process can be much smoother. Ours was complicated by some paperwork issues on behalf of the previous owner and by the fact that I have devolved over the past month into my very worst and most whiny self. I HATE this version of myself. She crawls out when things get too difficult and, like an exhausted child in a shopping market, all she wants to do is sit on the floor and scream and cry until she gets her way. Logic and intuition go out the window and what enters is the most base and annoying of all of my instincts.
The morning after we finally bought my new car – a cherry red 2010 Jeep Patriot that I actually really like – I felt something break like a fever. The tears came then, disguised by homesickness but really a mesh of relief and overwhem that something so simple could have caused me SO much distress. There was more than a little bit of shame in those tears; of having to admit that packing up my life in Baltimore and moving here was much, much harder than I had thought it would be and that I still have a long way to go before this new place will feel anything close to normal.
And that’s the hardest part of transitioning – admitting that you’re still in it, that there’s no foreseeable end in sight, and that you must accept this and deal with it and still try to be a halfway decent person to everyone around you. Especially your fiance who puts up with your shit.
He surprised me with flowers yesterday. The fever break of tension that I’d been spinning around in warranted a cheering surprise, and in that moment I remembered the primary reason for all of this major change – I’m here because I love him, and because he can watch me be the very worst person in the world and not only put up with it but also understand and then bring me flowers – not to reward my hellacious behavior – but to remind me that even in the midst of me being this horrible person, I still deserve the biggest, showiest, most aromatic bunch of lilies he could find on a random Monday evening in Abu Dhabi. He’s the best.
It hasn’t all been breakdowns and breakthoughs over here though, my friend – there have been exciting little adventures as well. Musn’t discount the good for the sake of bitching about the bad.
One day at a time here with the knowledge that – someday – this will all be my “new normal,” as my family likes to say. I have wheels now, and all of my paperwork FINALLY finished, and I found a grocery store that sells instant Quaker Oats in maple syrup flavor so these are little steps towards getting back into my (incredibly anal-retentive and borderline obsession with order and) routine. But there are beautiful little moments to be celebrated, and I try not to overlook them because, ultimately, this entire endeavor is overwhelmingly worth it and exciting and happy. I just needed to bitch for a minute, but you know how that goes.
Much love for now and more later, Insh’Allah,
The New Glitterati
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