“Living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.
What I find appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness. There would be a goal involved, and I like having goals.”
– David Sedaris, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”
Last week, amidst all of the kitten mania, I celebrated my one year anniversary as an expat here in the UAE. Things feel so vastly different now – it was such an action packed year – and reading about that first month here, I feel a disconnect.
So here, more or less, is what I’ve learned in my first year as an expat here in the Middle East. This is by no means a complete list, nor is it in any way intended to be anything other than my own lived experience. Take from it what you will.
1. No one street is named one thing in the UAE. The same street may be referred to as: Khaleej Al Arabi Street, Mussafah Road, 30th Street, or The One That’s Not Airport Road Or Eastern Ring. It’s OK if you don’t know all of the names, but it’s wise to know at least two of the three or four names it might be called.
2. Do not go to LuLu’s in Al Wahda Mall on a Friday morning. In fact: just do not go to LuLu’s in Al Wahda Mall, period. I have never seen that place when it wasn’t a complete and total madhouse, and you will end up forgetting half of the shit on your list but walking out with a Costco-sized dual economy pack of dehydrated coconut and a migraine.
3. Brunch lasts four hours, and you must have an after-brunch plan unless your after-brunch plan is to pass out in a food coma on your couch (AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT). Also, brunch costs approximately $150 per person.
4. Hoarding is perfectly acceptable. I found organic coconut-almond milk once and only bought five containers of it. When it ran out six months later, the country had ceased importing coconut-almond milk. I’ve been mourning its loss ever since.
5. I have a foul sailor’s mouth. That is all.
6. Everybody knows you are an American. I mean, everybody. I have never experienced what its like to feel so aware of being “something” (unlike about 90% of the rest of the planet, I’m sure). My Americanness walks in the door before I do, it prefaces everything I say, and I have no control over whether this is a good or bad thing. I am fortunate in that it (unlike other differences in other parts of the world) has never made me feel vulnerable or threatened, but it does frame what I say and presents a context that means different things to different people.
7. You will become more tolerant and understanding while at the same time becoming unforgivably stubborn about certain things.
8. Anything above 30C is hot. Anything below 20C is cold. Anything in between is perfectly acceptable.
9. Deserts can be humid. Horribly, terribly humid.
10. Being an expat is lonely and difficult and ultimately one of the most incredible experiences you will ever have. You will learn more in a short period of time than you ever could have otherwise, and you will never be the same, hopefully for the better. That being said, I have seen experiences like this turn people into greedy, bitter, angry individuals who hold tight to their cultural differences as the “right” way. I have seen people become turned off to change and new experiences and cling to their belief and value structure of the world to the deficit of their own character. I work hard not to be like those people. “Different” is not a binary “good” or “bad.”
11. Nearly every country has its own version of Budweiser, it’s usually named after a native animal, and they all taste, essentially, just like Budweiser.
12. Much of the rest of the world thinks that America is made of big box stores, guns, fat people, and opinions about how to run the rest of the world. Sometimes, when I scan American news sites, I can’t say I totally disagree. What gets filtered out and passed on is usually sensationalized. On the opposite side of things, I completely understand how some Americans have audacious perceptions of Muslims and the Middle East – not because they are remotely correct, but because there is so much that doesn’t filter through to American media from this side of things. What finally makes it to front pages and commentary is sensationalized and summarily not good; usually fear-inciting and anger-inducing.
13. Everything delivers here, and it’s awesome.
14. It’s OK to be a tourist in your new home city. It’s also OK to stay in, order delivery, and binge-watch Hulu. Not every second of every day has to be filled with SOMETHING EPIC. (And sometimes, a Downtown binge-session IS epic. I STAND BY IT.)
15. There are a multitude of cuisines to choose from. They are all made by chefs from the same three countries, however, so a lot of things do taste the same.
16. Veal bacon is not, has never been, and will never be remotely OK.
17. At some point, you are going to have to let go of a lot of shit you’ve been carrying around and accept that while there are things you will always miss about home, there’s a lot to be experienced here in the moment. And once you’ve accepted that, you’ll start to learn that one is not necessarily better than the other. You will learn to appreciate things that you never realized you should appreciate, and new light will be shed on some things that you used to think were awesome or benign but may not, in fact, be either awesome or benign. This goes for things both home and away. Your perspectives will shift, and change is inevitable. Ride it out. Eventually, what is unnecessary will sift away and what settles at the bottom will help to make you a more awake, more aware human being. Embrace that shit.
18. That being said, there really is no substitute in the world for Chipotle, and nothing will ever come close to its awesomeness.
19. Friends make life livable in general, and especially so when you are feeling a little out of your element. You will meet so many new people, and perhaps only one or two of them will turn out to be forever friends. That’s OK. But find your tribe. Find the people who will let you be you, but who will encourage you to be a better you. The people who will celebrate exciting things with you and mourn the sometimes shittiness of life. Learn how to be a good friend, in turn, to them.
20. At the same time – love the shit out of the friends and family you are missing. Listen to them, reach out to them, never stop communicating. Snapchat is surprisingly awesome for this. When I left Baltimore, one of my friends asked if we could communicate solely via Snapchat. In the last year, she’s moved to a new city and had a baby, and I’ve gotten to see all of these big, amazing changes through little private vignettes of her new life. You can see the best and worst of times through Snapchat – the baby-poo smears and insomnia and umbilical cords falling out. That’s the shit that doesn’t go on Instagram or Facebook (or shouldn’t) but should ABSOLUTELY be part of a good friendship. Snapchat is my effing JAM.
I can only trust I’ll have much more to add to the list at the end of our tenure here, but let this suffice for the meantime. And if you pay attention to only one of these, let it be the post about LuLu at Al Wahda on a Friday. For the love. Just avoid.